"What a weird world we’re in,” Gina Apostol says via Zoom on the day news broke of President Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis. She’s at her partner’s house in Western Massachusetts, where she usually spends summers.
As a teacher at the New York City prep school Fieldston, Apostol is able to work remotely. This semester, she’s teaching James Baldwin to freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. “It’s all Baldwin, all the time,” she says. “I was just texting my friends and my co-teachers saying that the freshmen call Baldwin ‘James.’ They’re the cutest.”
Apostol, 57, is the author of 2013’s Gun Dealer’s Daughter, a PEN Open Book Award–winning novel and her American debut, as well as 2018’s Insurrecto, named one of PW’s 10 best books that year. Her first two novels, 1997’s Bibliolepsy and 2009’s The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, both won the Philippine National Book Award for fiction and have only been available in her native Philippines. But in January, a revised edition of Raymundo Mata will be released by Soho Press. The timing might be ideal, given the subject matter and its relationship to the weird world we’re in.
Raymundo Mata is a concoction of voices, languages (Cebuano, Tagalog, Waray, and English), and stories within stories. It’s based on the recovered diary of the eponymous Mata, a fictional night-blind, somewhat accidental revolutionary and fervent reader during the Philippines’ war against colonizers Spain and America at the end of the 19th century. Mata is obsessed with the writing of actual Filipino revolutionary hero, author, and ophthalmologist José Rizal.
Apostol says it was hard to use Rizal as a character. “Filipinos love this guy,” she notes. “He more or less created the country. And his novels—more or less, that’s how the country knows itself. That’s how the country articulates itself. It was hard because it was so disrespectful. But like Mata’s diary, I just put weird sock puppets in there. I don’t know. It is a scandal. It’s not what you do with Rizal. So that was fun.”
Just as important as Mata’s memoir and its connection to Rizal are the three female voices in the novel—translator Mimi C. Magsalin, psychotherapist Diwata Drake, and kooky nationalistic editor Estrella Espejo—who weigh in on the text of Mata’s diary in less-than-objective footnotes. (The characters of Magsalin and Espejo also appear in Insurrecto, which Apostol describes as “Raymundo Mata without footnotes.”)
“I was saying to my agent, ‘I’d like to actually go back to Raymundo Mata and look at it again, because of the fake news shit that’s going on right now—to reflect on what this metatextuality means,” Apostol says. “Because in our current space, it is weirdly damaging in the sense that people are making up all of these things. The novel is about the instability of textuality that we all seem to be victims of right now.”
Raymundo Mata is also about being a reader and about the reader’s experience, which, Apostol points out, is something we’re missing in the conversation about fake news. In the last third of the book, Mata writes in his diary, “A reader has as much to say about a book as an author, if not more.” By weaving together the voices and opinions of the three women weighing in on Mata’s diary, Apostol makes the book about the readers, not the writer. And, as she sees it, there are five readers in play: the three women, Mata, and the reader of the novel itself. In this sense, the book questions the necessity of recognizing the inherent multiplicities of thought, opinion, interpretation, and reality that must coexist in any society.
As the saying goes, two things can be true at the same time. “We keep wanting the unifying thing, which is really problematic and unhealthy,” Apostol says. What we should seek instead, she adds, is to be ethical—to consider the effects of our actions and consider multiple ways of looking at something, choosing the one that brings about the better result.
None of this means that Raymundo Mata isn’t fun. It is—especially once you let yourself fall into it. Writing it was clearly a romp for Apostol. “I was just laughing every day,” she says. When revising the U.S. version, she let herself do it all over again. “In the spirit of the novel, whatever I wanted to change, I changed. One of the ways I envisioned that novel is that you could put it online and people could just keep adding footnotes, forever.” She also “punned away,” she says. “It is true, Filipinos just... I mean, if you look at even just their Twitter handles or whatever, they’re full of puns. Because they have 60 languages. And it’s a form of power. If you’re going after President Duterte, you use a pun. You pun-ish him. As I’ve always said, it’s not an efficient form of revolution, but it has its uses.”
Like her other novels, Apostol says, Raymundo Mata is about “figuring out truth given the ways we’re always so blinded to it.” Understanding and accepting what the translator, the psychotherapist, and the editor each want lets readers interrogate their own desires—what they hope for in their relationship with a book, and even with history. It also highlights their power and responsibility in crafting stories, no matter how they come to them.
“What’s our place in the stories that are being told?” Apostol asks. “It’s not just being a Filipino or these identifiers that we have. There are multiple pulse points. And that might allow us to be more aware of being manipulated, aware of the authorship that others are doing to us. It’s so important now, because we have to be so much smarter about how we read, how we take in information.”
The act of writing itself turns out to be yet another story—”a way to block off all the noise and do something that might be more meaningful,” Apostol says. “Writing really is what pulls me. It’s what drives me. But I will say this about teaching, and especially teaching younger people: it’s an everyday kind of meaningful activity. It is grounding, I think, to have a job that takes you out of yourself. And to be honest, here’s the self-interest part: I get a lot from them, too.”
Jen Doll is the author of the YA novel Unclaimed Baggage (FSG) and the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest (Riverhead).