Meet Filipino American literary star Gina Apostol | Inquirer

Meet Fil-Am literary star Gina Apostol

The author of 'La Tercera,' 'Insurrecto' and 'Bibliolepsy' has been longlisted for the 2024 Joyce Carol Oates Prize by New Literary Project
/ 10:52 PM February 21, 2024

La Tercera book cover

Gina Apostol’s latest novel, “La Tercera,” tells the story of Rosario Delgado, a Filipino novelist living in New York City. CONTRIBUTED

OXFORD, OH – Gina Apostol studied at the University of the Philippines (AB) and The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University (MFA Creative Writing), where she was mentored by John Barth, author of “The Sot-Weed Factor” and “Giles Goat Boy.” She also took fellowships at Johns Hopkins, Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, Philips Exeter Academy and a host of others, which gave her time to write her now-acclaimed novels.

Her first novel, “Bibliolepsy,” was published by UP Press in 1997. It won the National Book Award, sold out and went out of print. Apostol has since published four other novels, and the time is ripe for an American edition of her first novel, courtesy of Soho Press.

What does the author-coined word “bibliolepsy” mean? It is “a mawkishness derived from habitual aloneness and congenital desire. Manifestations: a quickening between the thighs and the points of the breast, a broad aching V, when addressed by writers, books, bibliographies, dictionaries, Xerox machines, a sympathy for typists of manuscripts. Etymologically related to Humbert Humbert’s gross tenderness, though rarely possessing its callous tragedy; occasionally accompanied by a liking for rock and roll.”

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Rock and roll, by the way, is a motif that will also run in Apostol’s novel, “Insurrecto,” a tour de force about the Philippine-American war.

The narrator and her sister, Anna, are pampered by their rich and eccentric grandmother, who looks down on the girls’ poor father. She buys them the strangest things, offered to her by her smuggler friends: readers’ edition of books from Indonesia, written in a language close to Waray; the book “Abraham Lincoln’s World” and, yes, the “Kama Sutra,” which the grandmother describes wryly as “a book of fairy tales from India. The most expensive book among the smuggler’s goods.”

The first part is good, but the second part is even better. The novel satirizes literary life in the Philippines, which is like other literary lives overseas, filled with the talented and the noisy ones who aren’t. Other people write tomes that would be better off as doorstops. In this slim but marvelous novel, Gina Apostol serves up Manila in the 1980s: swift, Swiftian, sexy and sad.


The sadness of Samar

Sadness lies at the core of ”Insurrecto,” Apostol’s novel about the Balangiga massacre in 1901 and its multi-layered echoes down history. Chiara is the daughter of Ludo Brasi, an American filmmaker who wanted to make a film about the massacre. The film was unfinished, and Ludo later kills himself.

Chiara writes a script about the massacre, and the job of approving the script falls on the lap of Mimi Magsalin, who corrects the “white savior” point of view of Chiara. Magsalin has lived in New York for almost two decades and has not gone home; she also carries a story of loss.


In the middle of the novel, Magsalin said that the script that Chiara crafted “creates that vexing sense of vertigo in stories within stories within stories that begin too abruptly, in medias res.” This also describes Apostol’s novel that is shaped like Chinese boxes, or Russian dolls, or nests within nests. It is a perpetual puzzle and feat of storytelling.

Early in the book, we have Chapter 21 entitled “Everything in the World is Doubled.” It sums up the double-ness found throughout the novel: Chiara Brasi and Mimi Magsalin; Cassandra Chase, the fictional American photographer and Casiana Nacionales, the female insurrecto.

Moving forward, we have Chapter 7 called “There is Always an Alternate Story.” This is a story of alternate stories and alternative histories outside the official story of events. Casiana Nacionales is the only recognized female rebel, but she also stands for the thousands of anonymous women who resisted the American, and earlier, the Spanish colonizers.

But the playful tone and the postmodernist narration belie the seriousness of the topic: the massacre of 48 American soldiers in Samar and the retaliation by the imperial forces that cost 30,000 Filipino lives. It’s a story of venereal disease and insanity among the Americans, hunger among the Filipinos and the snares of guerrilla war. Repeated twice in the novel are descriptions of the photographs taken by the fictional Cassandra Chase, a Manhattan heiress who goes to Samar in 1901.

Part 2 starts with a chapter called “Tristesses,” and alludes to Stephane Real, a French-Tunisian writer of opaque novels. It is also an excellent summary of the growth of an intellectual in a developing country.

Internal migration from the provinces to the city, and then from the city to the world, is also shown in this novel. Some of the best parts deal with Magsalin’s three uncles who live in Punta, Santa Ana, and are avid fans of Elvis Presley. They make her stay mostly at home during her visit, “not because they are afraid for her safety…but because they believe she is stupid, an alien, having been abroad for too long, though they have nothing against that… [But she is not] a witless tourist who cannot speak [the country’s] languages, though in fact she code-switches in three of them, puns in five, makes money in two and dreams in one.”

Chiara and Mimi go on a road trip down to Samar, which is also a road trip down one of the harshest chapters of American colonization and a road trip into their own hearts of darkness. Feisty and fun, written with fluidity and grace, this novel is not to be missed.

‘Most personal novel’

Apostol’s latest novel, “La Tercera,” tells the story of Rosario Delgado, a Filipino novelist living in New York City. Her mother’s death leads her to delve into the multi-layered memories, both personal and national.

Writing for ABC Australia, Declan Fry said that the novel “is about the inseparability of the self from one’s family, and from one’s country: it takes in American neo-colonialism; the polyphonic overlay of languages used in the Philippines; and the 1986 People Power Revolution.

“Of the five novels Apostol has published, ‘La Tercera’ struck me as especially personal. There is so much finely observed detail throughout this intelligent, generous, idiosyncratic, playful work. Its winding, evocative voice, and the book’s multilingual and polycultural reference points, recall Japanese author Minae Mizumura’s seminal 1995 classic ‘An I-Novel.’”

Like her earlier novels, a sense of humor is also found in this novel: “My mother, on the other hand, was a bigot. Remember, inday, she told me on my first day of school in America, we invented adobo. The Philippines is special. We are loved most of all by the Virgin Mary. Our mangoes are the best. No one else cooks rice in the right way, without measuring, with just the finger in the water. We are the only people in America who understand the mystery of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, carried on her lap all the way from Los Angeles to Honolulu to Manila to Tacloban.”

And the bellwether “The New York Times” gave it an excellent review, through novelist Hari Kunzru: “La Tercera is profoundly rewarding, opening up a glorious new understanding of a country and a culture that ought to mean more to Americans than a twinge of guilty conscience. For a Filipino, I suspect reading it might just feel like coming home.

But she’s not done yet. Apostol is the Dan and Maggie Inouye Chair for the spring 2024 semester at the University of Hawaii. She has also been longlisted for the 2024 Joyce Carol Oates Prize by New Literary Project. The annual $50,000 award honors a mid-career author of fiction in the midst of a burgeoning career, a distinguished writer who has emerged and is still emerging. The Prize celebrates past achievement and supports forthcoming work.

The literary star of Gina Apostol continues to shine, bringing pride to her homeland.

Danton Remoto has published “Riverrun, A Novel” and” The Heart of Summer: Stories and Tales” with Penguin Random House Southeast Asia.

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TAGS: books, Filipino American books, Filipino American literature
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