Q&A With Writer Gina Apostol
Photo by Ken Byrne
Gina Apostol’s fascinating novel Gun Dealer’s Daughter has just been published in an American edition. This incredible book traces the seduction of Sol, a young privileged girl, by a romantics in a revolutionary group during the heady Marcos era in The Philippines. The first-person narrative is colored with defective memories and unreliable (but sympathetic) narratives. The reader will fall apart with Sol when she realizes too late that she’s sealed the cruel fate of the one person who truly cared about her.
I recently had the pleasure to read Gun Dealer’s Daughter and Gina agreed to a few questions and answers for Giant Robot readers. For those in New York City, Gina will be reading with Sabina Murray at The Asian American Writers’ Workshop on Thursday Sept. 6.
Congratulations on writing such a stunner of a book. Has anything changed editorially from its original 2010 publication on Anvil in the Philippines and the American W.W. Norton edition earlier this year?
I cut some sections of the opening, mainly. I had always thought the beginning was too slow. But I was also attached and wanted to keep everything. I did keep most of it, like the carousel ride, etc., minutiae the reader would not remember but I thought were crucial to my design—the book was designed with a circle in mind. My editor helped me cut. It was great to work with an editor who was, to my mind, always on the same page with me, but had a sharp eye for killing, killing, killing all the lice—Flaubert’s term for the incidents and words you can get rid of, but don’t want to, because they have already sucked your blood.
I was once at this coffee shop in Baltimore listening to this incredibly stunning kid go on and on about Salinger and why she loved Catcher in the Rye. She turned out to be Winona Ryder talking to her boyfriend at the time, Johnny Depp
I couldn’t help but feel a certain vibe similar to the film Heathers. The feeling of play-revolutionaries mixed in with adolescent infatuation careening into something horribly real. How far would the teenage-girl narrator go in her zeal to impress Jed? On a different day would Sol (the girl) and Soli have changed places?
I just found the novel’s old Mac disks (those cute, colored squares that slide into the 1990s Macintoshes—I still keep that computer in my closet, like a sad robot of things past) and they were labeled Fil CITR —Filipino Catcher in the Rye. Oh, snap. It was only when I had finished the book that I thought—the bookend of carousels is a secret nod—of course!—to Catcher in the Rye. Heathers is a very good reference. All those films and books about adolescent stupor among the beautiful who become the damned. Now if Winona Ryder could also sing the Internationale as well as epater le bourgeois girls, she’d be Sol’s sister. I was once at this coffee shop in Baltimore listening to this incredibly stunning kid go on and on about Salinger and why she loved Catcher in the Rye. She turned out to be Winona Ryder talking to her boyfriend at the time, Johnny Depp. He was in town doing the movie Crybaby. He had a huge pimple on his face because John Waters kept making him eat Cheez Doodles or something during the shoot. What one learns from such models is that it is not good to take your teenage angst seriously. You might come to a bad end. In Winona’s case, she shoplifted; if only Sol had done the same. I always thought if Holden in Catcher had grown up in the Third World, he’d have turned into a good Maoist instead of just wandering drunk on Fifth Avenue and wiping off graffiti from the Egyptians at the Met. For me, of course, the difference between Heathers and Holden and Sol—and Winona—is that in Gun Dealer, adolescent angst is diagnosed as a political matter—even our malaise has consequences beyond the small pool of our local disenchantments. As for Sol’s thing with Jed—it is, I think, a cover for other lusts—above all the lust to be “real.” She has the Velveteen Bunny around her, after all, toys, the illusory world her parents bought, but like the bunny she wants to be real. Jed is a screen for that hunger, but I think even Sol knows she’s fooling herself. If you asked me, I’d have told her to get rid of Jed, from day one. Guy’s a dope. But I am not Sol. The thing about Sol and Soli is that they are meant to be somehow interchangeable, I think, but I am not sure. That Sol has, perhaps, a desire to be that other one, Soli, her ethical self, maybe, but she’s locked in her own merry-go-round of security, her carousel of comfort.
I fucking don’t care if Mitt Romney has ever felt alienated in his life
People tend to think kids who grow up in rich families have it so easy. But as we see through Sol, it can be an isolating and detached experience, and inbreeds the need to feel something “real.” Does Sol hang out with these revolutionaries in order to find “family” as opposed to the handlers that her parents seem to function as?
Kids in rich families have it easy. Period. Wealth makes a huge practical difference; it’s just not nice to be poor. I don’t believe, really, that one is ennobled by poverty or deprivation. Nor is a poor little rich girl actually pathetic—she’s rich. My book is not sobbing over the sadness of rich people; I fucking don’t care if Mitt Romney has ever felt alienated in his life (though I hope he has, and much good that will do us). And I believe this country, the United States, should be ashamed to have poverty in its midst—absolutely. I guess my book uses Sol’s angst to get us to recognize that everyone, rich and poor, is part of the iniquity of inequity, the way we think it is okay for some to be rich and powerful and some to be poor and helpless. As if it is a rule—there must be First World and Third World. Which is what we do every day in the world in which we live. We condone poverty and despair everyday. In a sense, I’m trick my reader to side with Sol: because, you know, we always side with money. It’s very obvious in Manhattan. We are always sidestepping it, maybe feeling guilty, giving one dollar here and there to people on the subway. We must be paying for our guilt somehow in anxiety and depression, but maybe I am being optimistic. On our good days, we are all, in some way, like Sol—when we agonize over our role in the world. On the other days, we just buy another pair of shoes (at least I do). The novel is asking why we have such disparity of economic and social chances. In many ways, the causes are simple—corruption and greed among the powerful, who collude and are criminals, period—in this type of world they just get away with everything. That’s the tragedy my novel is getting at. It’s a problem to live in an unjust world. I’m glad when readers empathize with Sol’s lack of “reality” and family, because I worked hard to make the reader feel for her somehow, recognize her pathos. But to be honest, really, who cares about someone like Sol? And yet she is lonely, and like everyone else she seeks friendship (revolution isn’t her friend, you know—it is her salvation). But that is the novel’s point—it requires the reader to be both humane—and ruthless—about Sol. Her narration demands a complex response. The real tragedy is that those who have the means escape—justice does not come to them. Justice never came to the bankers on Wall Street in 2008. Justice did not come to the real criminals in Gun Dealers’ Daughter. The book is asking—why not? Why is justice not served? The novel is like a secret caped crusader, Captain Third World, demanding liberty and justice for all.
Amnesia and the inability to recall events properly is a running theme. Do you think a certain forgetfulness of past political events is necessary for the Philippines to move forward? Or does it need to be talked about in the open and dealt with? In the present day, Sol could benefit from that, right?
Amnesia is an ethical issue in the novel, and it is tied to language. In my mind, the expense of spirit in a waste of shame is tied to language. Shakespeare knew it, too—and note that he wrote mostly about rich people. Forgetfulness is not a good thing, and words are its hopeless prop. So to forget with words is to be doubly doomed. Sol’s amnesiac confession is a symptom of an illness—a social illness, perhaps—an inability to confront truth. True, it’s hard to come to terms with the history of the Philippines—I know that is why I keep writing about it. It’s a tragic history—especially, it is a history of loss. I dwell on the revolution, for instance, as if it had just happened yesterday—as if the katipuneros who trusted in the Americans in 1898, before Dewey’s dumb Battle of Manila, were still waiting to reclaim their city—only for America to betray them and invade instead. I see these things like a novelist, I guess—I see the arc of horror. But in Gun Dealers’ Daughter, the deliverer of this message of political tragedy is complicit in its horror—and she does not have the way out of being a novelist—so she is falling apart, which is, at the same time, key to the novel’s language, the novel’s artistry, if you will. I wrote the novel with that double bind in mind: that to speak of the past, to dig at the truth of our past, is to speak horror: but my problem as a writer was—what is the language of horror? Oddly enough, for Sol the language of horror is literary. It is poetic. Poetry is a mode of amnesia, wordplay is a matter of dementia. As she says, even alliteration might be a crime. Every day as I wrote this novel, I kept thinking—wow, the beauty and play of language is a pox—a criminal may use it as well as a poet. In fact, a criminal might use it better, because a criminal needs beauty to keep his soul going. The English language, to my mind, is also indicted in this novel: the language of T.S Eliot, the language of Coleridge. It’s the way, after the war, speaking German seemed abominable to Paul Celan. Everything Sol touches, you know, is not gold—her home’s gilded leaves are tainted, and so are her literary, erudite words. And yet, you know, it should be fun, too. The book should be a fun read. We’d be philistines if we didn’t enjoy the fun of words. So I would say amnesia lies in the layer upon layer of words used in this novel—and yet candor is never wasted on this speaker. She in fact sidesteps the truth, until the end. And this is how I created a novel: it’s what art is. A pox, a niggling at the truth. Art is an illness, but it will have to serve. So no, absolutely not, I do not think the inability to recall events is a way to move forward. That is Sol’s problem, not her solution. I think we must always be trying to nudge the truth into being—unfortunately, like Sol, words are all I have. I claim a good reader as my solution.
Duality is another theme in the book. Did you ever feel like you were twins with somebody, such as Olivia Newton John? What was/is your relationship like?
I am always a twin with the characters I am working with, the ones I am creating. I’m in love with doubleness as a form, as a transparent part of my work, because I know very well I am doing that every day as a writer—I am always being duplicitous, duplicating, and for some reason that gives me a weird thrill: I am lying at the same time that I am trying to convince people I am telling the truth. There is something really thrilling in doing that every day. I am a joyful liar and happy double-crosser. Maybe because, if I believe in anything, I believe the world is an illusion. (Only my daughter is real: Hi, Nastasia!) On the other hand, I don’t like being twins with real people, because their reality can be a drag on my independence.
In a previous interview, you’ve said that finishing this book took a decade. What advice would you have for other writers struggling to finish their novels?
I’m with Scarlett O’Hara: tomorrow is another day. I write shit the whole afternoon, and I think, oh well, Clark Gable will still love me. One day. Or he’ll be sorry. You’ve got to accept the fact of the shit that you do and come back and do it tomorrow. Tomorrow is another revision. One day, it works out, because you are a secret caped crusader. Of Art. The novel has to happen, because it must. You also have to give it time—it has taken each of my novels a decade or so. I see nothing wrong in that—I mean, I still like them. That said, you also have to make time. Sit! None of this saying—but I have to do laundry, I have to make a baby. Sit! One trick—find the thing about your novel that most makes you happy—find the part that is pleasurable and work your novel around that. Once I figured out that Sol, in this novel, is a word-freak, that her madness was word-bound, it was much easier to write—I enjoyed finding word games I could use in the novel—it gave me a handle every time I sat to write. Another trick I have is to imagine a structure: a visual form. As I said, I thought of this novel as a circle—but the real problem a novelist has with form is time. How do you structure time? Time is your clay, the thing you’re shaping. I structured this novel chronologically as a V, that is, the plot goes backward at first in time, then at one point (I know which point this is in the novel), it starts to go forward. I kept the V-form in mind as I revised, especially, and having that fake format in mind (it’s kind of arbitrary, but arbitrariness, in my opinion, creates), I finished the novel. The reader does not need to know anything about these things, by the way; the novel must still work even if no one knows—and of course, because you made up the rules, you can cheat. Readers want character, plot, emotion, and you should give that to them. In some books, there’s a hierarchy—if the trick ruins emotion, the reader’s relationship with the character, you can break your rule. In other books, the trick is paramount (like the great OULIPO books of Georges Perec, which I currently love). But you, the writer—your job is just to finish your novel. So you can keep your tricks to yourself, the ways you trick yourself to keep going—and let your own humanity do the rest.
What’s the strangest email you’ve gotten since publication?
Well, some guy named Giant Robot just sent me a note…