‘Memory is deception’
‘Gun Dealers’ Daughter’ author draws on her own experiences as student protester
“Memory is deception,” Sol, the young narrator of Gina Apostol’s new novel “Gun Dealers’ Daughter,” muses. “There’s a pall under which intentions lie, gross as an astrologer’s ball.”
To figure out how memory works is not just a passing fancy for Sol, the daughter of wealthy Filipino gun dealers. She needs memory to jog her out of a deep amnesia brought on by traumatic events she helped to instigate in Manila during the 1980s when Maoist insurgents were fighting to bring down dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Apostol, who, like her character, attended the University of the Philippines during the 1980s, drew from newspaper accounts of the time as well as her own experiences as a student protester to write her novel. She described the period of unrest the book is set within as “terrifying but at the same time, it was very exhilarating.” Apostol joined the Maoist street demonstrations because, in the face of the oppression of the Marcos dictatorship, she felt compelled to act.
“What are you going to do?” Apostol asked. “Are you just going to sit there? … If there is constant violence against the farmers, against the students, if people are being killed, it’s not enough to just sit there and read your books!”
Some of her friends ridiculed her for taking part in the demonstrations, telling her that she didn’t look the part of a radical. “It’s like you have to be a particular kind of person (to be politically involved),” she said. “You have to look like riff-raff to be thoughtful. You have to go and dress in hemp or something … So I would always have arguments. I’d also have arguments with the Maoists. I’d say, ‘Just because you believe in these kinds of things doesn’t mean you can’t read Virginia Woolf.’”
A literature instructor at the Fieldston School in the Bronx, Apostol taught previously at Deerfield Academy and still returns to Hadley on weekends and during vacations to write. She believes strongly in getting students to think more deeply about the choices they make in their lives through reading. To Apostol, fiction is “not a separate and rarified, pretty thing; it’s political action.”
“The way I think about the world is I need to figure out how to speak it and I feel language is very dangerous,” Apostol said. “Language is very slippery. And there’s a way to speak things that lasts longer.”
That way is not reportage or the essay but fiction, Apostol believes. “What’s very interesting about fiction is you have to get involved. You might end up thinking in terms of a person who, as a person going around in the world, you wouldn’t agree with. You wouldn’t want to be with that person, you wouldn’t want that person as your friend.” In this way, fiction pushes readers to encounter what Apostol called “The Other,” and then to examine their own assumptions and beliefs.
Her wealthy character, Sol, finds herself in this position as she plunges into an affiliation with a Maoist cell known as the Urban Sparrows. At first Sol is driven more by longing than political conviction. She longs for Jed, a wealthy neighbor whose involvement in the cell draws her to it, but she also longs for a life more “real” than her parents’ life of fancy balls and luncheons in which she rubs elbows with the wealthy matrons, influential businessmen, expats, ambassadors and American colonels at the highest strata of Manila’s society.
Sol’s tasks for the Sparrows begin with procuring banned books on Filipino history through her Uncle Gianni’s black market networks, spray-painting revolutionary slogans on city walls and collecting copper coins to be smelted into bullets. Soon enough, her involvement escalates into a more dangerous one. Even as she wonders whether her comrades are just exploiting her social position to gain access to their enemies, and even as she feels the stakes rising, Sol cannot resist the double tug of Jed and Soli.
Sol finds Soli “riveting,” her skin, “a deep sheen: the color of rare Philippine mahogany. For some reason she smelled of butterscotch.” And Soli possesses a political surety and conviction Sol envies. “She came across, let me put it this way, like an ember. I have always wondered if it were my own need to burn that made her seem, at this remove, incandescent.”
As the novel progresses, Sol works her way through the labyrinth of memory, finally unearthing the horror of the forgotten events and confronting her own culpability.
Sol’s perspective gave Apostol a way to write about material that had troubled her for years, she said. “I was really trying to figure out how to speak about something that was very disturbing to me about those social conditions in the Philippines. And, as I keep saying, they’re not that separate from the issues that confront America.”
Apostol wanted to address issues of class, in particular the huge gap between “those who have something” and those who don’t. The fact that some people have more “actually does have something very material to do with the misery of others,” she insisted. “And in the Philippines it’s very stark.”
“I didn’t really like her,” Apostol said of Sol. But starting from Sol’s privileged position and then placing her among the Maoist rebels at the university gave Apostol the opportunity to create conflicts: “A conflict of values, a conflict of identity, a sense of the Other, a sense of people who are not like her, these allowed me to create the novel,” she said. “Her situation was a way to get into the things I wanted to talk about.”
Her next novel, “sort of a spiral of nested stories,” is also set in the Phillipines, Apostol said. The stories are based on Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War movie “Apocalypse Now,” which was filmed in the Philippines. The main character is a female film-maker “based on Sofia Coppola as if her father had died in the Philippines.”
“Apocalypse Now” was, itself, a reframing of Joseph Conrad’s novel about Africa, “The Heart of Darkness,” so the dense historical layering that Apostol favors has already begun even before her stories begin.
“There’s a particular massacre that occurred close to where I grew up, so I’m kind of using that frame of ‘Apocalypse Now’ to talk about this other war that’s very similar to the Vietnam War,” Apostol said.
Filipino history is where Apostol’s heart lies. “I keep coming back to it,” she said. “I just think it’s fascinating, the way it reverberates.”
Apostol will be taking part in a panel discussion on The Novel as a Marathon: How to Stay the Course during the 27th WriteAngles Conference held at the Willits-Hollowell Center at Mount Holyoke College on Saturday, Oct. 20. The all-day conference, with continental breakfast and buffet lunch, is $100 in advance and $110 at the door, while full-time students and those aged 65 and up pay only $80 in advance and $90 at the door. For more information visit:
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She has a studio in Greenfield. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org