Who Has a Claim on History

Before the Philippines obtained its long-awaited independence, it had a long history of colonization. From the mid-16th century to the late 19th century, the country was a part of the Spanish Overseas Empire. Following Spain’s resounding loss during the Spanish-American War, it ceded its former territory, including Guam and Puerto Rico, to the United States. Not recognizing the First Philippine Republic established by General Emilio Aguinaldo, the United States suppressed the dissent and established its own civilian government. During the Second World War, the American forces were driven away by the Japanese invaders who established their own puppet government. General MacArthur’s I shall return is an iconic line in Philippine history. General MacArthur would fulfill his promise, and the road to the Philippines’ full independence commenced.

The Philippines’ history is also riddled with the deep scars of bloodshed and violence. One of these deep scars happened in 1901. The Americans were still establishing their control all over the Philippine archipelago. In the Visayas is the island of Samar, the third largest island in the archipelago. It was also a major center for the production of Manila hemp, a valuable trade that helped finance the Philippine forces on the other island. It was imperative that the Americans take control of the island, which they were eventually able to do. They established command in the municipality of Balangiga, on the southern part of the island. The relationship between the locals and the American forces was cordial, at first. The ensuing events were captured by Gina Apostol’s fourth novel, Insurrecto.

For the mystery writer, it is not enough to mourn the dead. One must also study the exit wounds, invite the coroner to tea, cloud the mind with ulterior motives.”

Thus commenced Insurrecto. In contemporary Metro Manila, we meet Magsalin. By profession, Magsalin is a translator and a mystery writer who stayed in the United States for several years. She recently arrived from New York, hoping to spend a vacation in her birthplace. Her plans, unfortunately, were derailed after she received a script from an American filmmaker, Chiara Brasi. Like Magsalin, Brasi recently arrived in the Philippines, but not for vacation. Chiara, who spent part of her childhood in the Philippines, was planning to shoot a movie based on her father’s personal experiences. Her father, Ludo Brasi, rose to fame in the 1970s for his movie, The Unintended, which was filmed in the Philippines.

“The sea is a memory. It is mesmerising. Its beauty is intolerable. What it buries is vaster than what it reveals. Every so often you get a glimpse of what you forget, or you wade in and something snags you, a broken shell or a sea urchin the fishermen missed…No waves speak with the same voice, though they share the same elements and motion, the regular beating of the surf, their rippling heaves.”

~ Gina Apostol, Insurrecto

By traveling to the Philippines, Chiara was also hoping to learn more about her father who was on the cusp of filming a new movie before his death. He left behind an unfinished script, together with note cards, a sketchy map, and the plans for a trip. To help her complete the project, Chiara was looking to engage a local as her translator and guide; Magsalin fit the bill. Magsalin, the Tagalog term for translate, reluctantly agreed to be Chiara’s proposition. However, after reading the script, Magsalin was appalled by the historical inaccuracies that abounded the story. She was also troubled by the primary point-of-view that the script has adopted. Magsalin then took it upon herself to deconstruct Chiara’s script and rewrite the story from her perspective.

At the heart of the two scripts is a historical event that Ludo referred to as “a crime of history that no single vision can redeem”. The crime pertained to started with a surprise attack on American soldiers orchestrated by the locals on September 28, 1901. Led by police chief Valeriano Abanador, the locals of Balangiga attacked Company C of the 9th Infantry Regiment, resulting in the death of 44 Americans. It seems that the friendliness shown by the locals at first was a form of deception. In reprisal, General Jacob H. Smiths waged a “kill and burn” policy that would turn Samar into a “howling wilderness”. Any male above ten years of age was ordered to be shot en masse. The bloodbath saw thousands, tens of thousands perish. The number of casualties was never final. This blemish in the relationship between the Philippines and the United States earned the notorious name of the Balangiga Massacre.

To complete their scripts, Magsalin and Chiara embarked on a road journey to the site of the crime. Details of these two opposing scripts started to unspool alongside the main storyline. Chiara’s script centered on Cassandra Chase, an American photographer who witnessed the initial attacks and was able to document the atrocities of the incident: “Cassandra Chase’s presence in Samar is a quandary for the military officers.” Figuring prominently in Magsalin’s version was Casiana Nacionales, one of the local rebels, or insurrectos, as they were irreverently referred to. Chiara’s referring to the incident as an act of insurrection, rather than as a catalyst for liberation, was one of Magsalin’s contentions in Chiara’s account of the events.

These two starkly opposing scripts bring to the fore a seminal question vis-a-vis how we view historical events. Who gets to do the narrating? Sir Winston Churchill was once quoted, “History is written by the victors.” Chiara’s version of the events vividly echoed this, hence, her portrayal of the local rebels as insurrectionists rather than freedom fighters. The narrative of the victor, thus, turns into the prevailing and, at times, only acceptable narrative. As their war trophy, the American soldiers took the three bells at the Church of San Lorenzo de Martir. The bells were prominently displayed at Fort Warren in Cheyenne. It would take over a century and several diplomatic exchanges between the two governments before the bells were returned to the Philippines on December 11, 2018.

“It is terrible how grief is a glutton – it swallows everything in its path. History, revolution, bloodshed. I wanted to write in a voice strange and distant and foreign – I wanted to get outside of myself. A different lens. And I wanted to write about this unfinished thing – this revolution. A story of war and loss so repressed and so untold. But all I did was dwell on trauma that only causes recurrence of pain.”

~ Gina Apostol, Insurrecto

In her deconstruction of Chiara’s story, it slowly dawned on Magsalin that in taking the victor’s narrative as the primary voice, the voices of the colonized, of the proverbial “losers” are inevitably muted. In depicting the story of Casiana Nacionales, Magsalin was reclaiming the essence of being an insurrecto. While Cassandra Chase was a figment of imagination, Casiana was an actual historical figure. Casiana was the only woman who took part in the surprise attack against the American soldiers. She also organized the local women and facilitated the release of men who were imprisoned due to forced labor. However, her name was buried in obscurity and her role in the uprising was generally overlooked until recently.

The Philippines has its fair share of women who were lauded for their heroic acts during the revolutions that riddled the country’s history. However, there are those who fade into inconspicuousness. In a way, the story of Casiana was a reflection of how heroines are portrayed in history. Their voices and roles are often overshadowed by male narratives, both in published and oral history. At times, they are forgotten. She was visibly missing in Napoleon Abueva’s Balangiga Memorial sculpture in the center of the town. Some movies about the movie have also excluded her.

Insurrecto underlined how we easily forget history and how we inaccurately remember it. And for the United States, this has become a habit. Their attitude towards Vietnam War, which was explicitly echoed in the novel, reflected their selective memory. This makes retelling of history imperative, hence, literary works such as Insurrecto. By challenging the main narrative, different versions diverge from the main narrative. The rise of opposing versions inevitably makes historical revisionism prevalent. However, the impact of adopting any version on our lives remains to be seen. The novel also subtly underlined the issue of historical appropriation. It was one of the concerns that made Magsalin wary of Chiara’s work.

Insurrecto was no mere didactic retelling of an important but almost forgotten historical event. History aside, the novel grappled with loss, freedom, and healing. Both Chiara and Magsalin are dealing with personal grief. The locals of Balangiga also had to deal with personal losses, including the loss of the bells that have become symbols of the struggles between the Philippines and the United States. Freedom, another leitmotif, took on different forms, the most prevalent of which was the freedom from colonizers. Freedom from ignorance of history was another instance. Another form of freedom was being the unshackling from the pangs of memory and losses. Chiara’s movie project took the form of an escape. Memories of her father and her parent’s messy marriage haunted the fringes of the novel. Magsalin leaving the Philipines for the United States was also an act of freedom.

“The story Magsalin wishes to tell is about loss. Any emblem will do: a French-Tunisian with an unfinished manuscript, an American obsessed with a Filipino war, a filmmaker’s possible murder, a wife’s sadness. An abaca weave, a warp and weft of numbers, is measured but invisible in the plot. Chapter numbers double up. Puzzle pieces scramble. Points of view will multiply. Allusions ditto.”

~ Gina Apostol, Insurrecto

The lenses of history are never one-sided. The other side of the conflict was also captured by Apostol. It depicted the human side of the American soldiers. Their convivial interactions with the locals contrasted the novel’s darker shades. Details of Filipino culture and contemporary history were also woven into the lush narrative. Muhammad Ali’s Thrilla in Manila and Elvis Presley, two prominent figures in Filipino popular culture, were briefly mentioned. The country’s karaoke culture and the balikbayan boxes were also referred to.

History is convoluted. This complexity was mirrored by the novel’s equally complex structure. Literary norms were dismantled and reconstructed by Apostol’s astute writing. The narrative assumed different forms. It was a novel but it took on the form of a movie script. The characters were listed at the start of the novel. Film history and film theory were also briefly discussed. The novel also took on the form of a mystery, and of an adventure. The novel Apostol’s challenge to the paradigms of storytelling, particularly of historical fiction. Insurrecto was a form of insurrection from literary conventions. The result was a disorienting mixture of interlocking narratives with jumbled chapters. As new layers are unpeeled, reality keeps flipping into fiction and fiction into reality.

Insurrecto is the story of a sore and controversial spot in history. It was no local story for the tragedy in Balangiga foreshadowed similar incidents in other parts of the world. The grander narrative places emphasis on the relevance of retelling history, lest we forget them. Insurrecto raised relevant discourses on history and on who gets to tell it. It is also the story of Chiara and Magsalin. It is a story that integrated elements of grief, loss, freedom, uprootedness, and film theories. It is multilayered and multifaceted. But at its heart, Insurrecto is the story of Casiana Nacionales. At once breathtaking and mind-boggling, Insurrecto is an homage to women like Casiana who has been left out of historical records.

Ratings

82%

Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 
23%
Writing (25%) – 
21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

If my memory serves me right, it was during my university days that I first came across the Balangiga massacre and the Balangiga bells. It was never discussed during my high school history classes. I was appalled by the extent of inhumanity exhibited. The massacre was already left a deep wound but by stealing the bells as war trophies, they have added more salt to the wound. But like many, this memory gets buried in the depths of my mind until 2018, when the Philippine government was demanding the return of the Balangiga bells. I would encounter this part of history again in Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto, which was part of my April 2021 Asian Literature Month. The first element that stood out for me was the book’s unusual structure. It was unconventional, something that I am a fan of. Despite its unconventional structure and overlapping stories, I was left in awe of the novel. The historical context provided me a deeper insight into the Balangiga massacre and the deep wounds it has left behind. Insurrecto, both the story and the storytelling, left a deep impression on me and I now look forward to reading more of Apostol’s works.

Book Specs

Author: Gina Apostol
Publisher: Soho Press
Publishing Date: 2018
Number of Pages: 314
Genre: Historical, Literary

Synopsis

Two women embark on a road trip in Duterte’s Philippines, collaborating and clashing on a film script about a forgotten massacre during the Philippine-American War.

An ambitious American filmmaker seeks help from Magsalin, a Filipina translator, in producing a film about an incident in Balangiga, Samar: In 1901, Filipino revolutionaries attacked an American garrison, and in retaliation, American soldiers obliterated the countryside. Magsalin reads the filmmaker’s screenplay and begins her own competing version.

Startlingly innovative in its kaleidoscopic structure, Insurrecto tells the stories of women – artists, lovers, revolutionaries, daughters – finding their way to their own truths and histories, and leads us to the dark heart of a war that would shape the next century of Philippine and American history.

About the Author

Gina Apostol was born in Manila and grew up in Tacloban, Leyte. She studied at the Divine Word College and earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of the Philippines Diliman. She received her master’s degree in creative writing from John Hopkins University.

In 1997, her debut novel, Biolepsy, was published. It was critically received by both critics and readers alike. It won the Juan Laya Prize for the Novel (Philippine National Book Award). Her second novel, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata (2010), also won the Juan Laya Prize for the Novel. It also won the biannual Gintong Aklat Award. Her first two novels were republished in the United States in 2022 and 2021, respectively. She made her American debut in 2013 with Gun Dealers’ Daughter. It won the 2013 PEN/Open Book award. It was also shortlisted for the 2014 Saroyan International Prize. Her latest novel, Insurrecto, published in 2018, earned Apostol more recognition. The book was listed by Publishers Weekly as one of the Ten Best Books of 2018. It was selected as an Editor’s Choice of the New York Times and was shortlisted for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

Apostol’s essays and short stories have appeared in prominent publications such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Foreign Policy, Gettysburg Review, and Massachusetts Review. She was also a fellow at Civitella Ranieri in Umbria, Italy, and Emily Harvey Foundation. She currently teaches at Fieldston School in New York City, where she also currently resides.