Chaos Will Set You Free

Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto is a novel that embraces its own instability to narrate the palimpsests of violence that bind the U.S. and the Philippines

We’re caught in a trap
I can’t walk out
Because I love you too much, baby
Why can’t you see
What you’re doing to me
When you don’t believe a word I say?
We can’t go on together
With suspicious minds (with suspicious minds)
And we can’t build our dreams
On suspicious minds

—Elvis, “Suspicious Minds” (1969)

Credits roll. Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto—a novel about two women who make a film about the 1901 Balangiga Massacre, grappling with the uneven legacy of the Philippine-American War—ends on the note of an infernal karaoke. At the stroke of midnight, we find the protagonists, Magsalin and Chiara, looking on as Magsalin’s three uncles warble over a melodramatic backing track, their voices sweetened by the microphone reverb. The tune is by Elvis, whose baduy hip swinging, macho tremolo, and matchless popularity across the archipelago have made him an honorary Filipino if there ever was one. Only this time, the uncles have swerved the obvious belters like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock,” picking instead the baroque-country anomaly “Suspicious Minds.” The song’s lyrics—We’re caught in a trap / I can’t walk out / because I love you too much, baby—become Insurrecto’s own refrain, capturing the deranging, recursive relationship between colonized and colonizer.

Just when Magsalin thinks the song has drawn to a merciful close, its strange machinery lurches to a start again—“Why can’t you see / What you’re doing to me / When you don’t believe a word I say?” Inserted at the eleventh hour by Felton Jarvis—Elvis’s primary producer, who hadn’t otherwise been involved in the process—a fake-out fade gives the song a maddening conclusion, catching listeners in an endless loop. “He messed it up,” said Chips Moman, who had produced “Suspicious Minds.” “It was like a scar.”

Insurrecto is an inherently suspicious novel, one that sets and triggers its own traps in an effort to show us, its readers, how tenuous our understanding of self- and nationhood can be. It weaves together the lives of two Filipinas—fictional Magsalin and real-life revolutionary Casiana Nacionales—and three invented American women—Chiara Brasi; her mother, Virginie Brasi; and wartime photographer Cassandra Chase—showing where their perspectives diverge and where they compete. As the book’s only historical character, Nacionales is the story’s source and key, plucked out of Apostol’s ongoing deep dive into the Philippine-American War. At the time, Apostol was conducting research for a different, parallel novel titled William McKinley’s World, but she was struck by the sight of Nacionales’s name on the Balangiga memorial. “The only woman’s name. And what a name for a revolutionary! Nacionales. You cannot make it up,” she recalls, in conversation with the Los Angeles Review of Books.

“That novel was a man’s world,” she says, of William McKinley’s World. “But Insurrecto is a woman’s world. Those are the voices I wished to do.” More than once, Apostol has mentioned how Insurrecto was written as a “recess” from the hard-knock McKinley project, inducing Insurrecto’s tragicomic chorus to process what couldn’t be contained by the other novel’s political framework.

Popular understanding of Philippine history has long been shaped by patchworked interests, the result of a series of colonial wars and revolutions that saw each successive victor influence the nature of collective memory. Some background for the uninitiated: In 1898, the Philippine Revolution ended with a double cross, as Spain handed their former colony over to new occupiers rather than granting the revolutionaries their independence. The Philippine Islands became victory spoils of the Spanish-American War, bundled together, three for one, with Puerto Rico and Guam. Rather than enter a second round of colonization, the Philippines declared war against the United States in 1899. “We were not just victims. . . . We resisted. . . . That’s something I recognized in my reading of the historical documents. We don’t understand how amazing it was for [our revolutionaries], without shoes even, fighting [the United States’] well-funded army,” said Apostol in an interview with Town and Country, of the revisionist attitude that drove the writing of Insurrecto. Over the next three years, the U.S. military would implement concentration camps and administer inventive methods of torture, including the infamous “water cure.” The Philippines’ defeat—which cemented the archipelago as an American colony, postponing independence until 1946—saw a final death toll numbering somewhere between 200,000 and 1 million. Roughly 50,000 of those casualties resulted from the Balangiga Massacre alone—the traumatic event that forms the disarticulated spine of Insurrecto.

“The Balangiga Massacre” refers, in fact, to two incidents that took place on the island of Samar. American records refer to the attack that took place in 1901, where residents of Balangiga rose up against the garrison that had occupied their town, killing 43 U.S. soldiers. To Philippine historians, the real massacre was the vicious American retaliation, overseen by General Jacob H. Smith, who infamously instructed his troops: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and burn, the better it will please me” and “the interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness.” As a title, Insurrecto is well chosen—encompassing the brutal incongruity between the first and second Balangiga incidents, the historical double vision that blurs how we see them, and the rhetorical manipulation that compels acts of state violence. By defining the Philippine resistance as an insurrection and its participants as insurrectos, the Americans were able to define their use of force as an act of counterinsurgency, defending their supposedly rightful governance. (Such justification has echoed down the line of American foreign policy to the present day.) But to the Filipinx population, the American occupation only extended the already protracted revolution, presenting one more barrier to decolonization. “She is no insurrecto. She is a revolutionary,” declares Cassandra Chase, testifying before the U.S. Senate in a last-ditch effort to defend Casiana Nacionales and her kin from the Americans’ revenge.

The book begins with Magsalin, a mystery writer and translator whose nom de plume means “translation” in Tagalog. Magsalin is commissioned by Chiara Brasi, a filmmaker and spoiled American, to be the fixer for their pilgrimage to Samar, and to translate the script that Chiara has written about her late father, Ludo Brasi. A fictional director whose legacy has more than a slight whiff of Francis Ford Coppola—who filmed much of Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, not the Vietnam of its setting—Ludo Brasi’s last work was The Unintended, a Vietnam War fiction directly inspired by the Balangiga events. Shot on location during the peak of the Marcos dictatorship, The Unintended is the reason why Chiara—back then just a child blessed by her resemblance to the Santo Niño—feels entitled to use Balangiga as the backdrop of her own screenplay, a project that helps her exorcise her daddy issues. Magsalin distrusts this doe-eyed expatriate and has even less faith in her story, taking it upon herself to rewrite Chiara’s script in secret. Through the eyes of Casiana Nacionales, who masterminded the rebellion, and Cassandra Chase, who documented it, Magsalin tries to truthfully represent the incident that begat the massacre.

If this seems slightly hard to follow, consider that each of the book’s three sections—Magsalin’s script, Chiara’s script, and their journey to Samar together—is cut up and rearranged, the chapters a wild jumble of sly references, double meanings, and wordplay, all nonsensically numbered. (A cheat sheet listing the chapters in order appears on, the address cryptically dropped early on in Insurrecto.) Together, they form a rich heteroglossia, a cascade of concurrent and opposing perspectives. In an interview with Fiction Advocate, Apostol considers how her “novel’s project maybe was to exhume ‘truths’ hard to see because the victor’s power-lens hid it.” We would be forgiven for expecting her to “examine, uncover, unmask, expose, reveal, [and] reflect [on]” reanimated evidence to send a message that was clear as day. But the desire for complete transparency—flooding one’s research with the bright light of the autopsy table, attempting to solve the mystery once and for all—can drive politically minded artists to narrow the horizons of their work. As Ulrich Loock writes in Frieze, the impulse can pigeonhole a sprawling creative practice into one that can be swiftly instrumentalized to deliver a clear takeaway. To dodge this pitfall, Apostol has opted for opacity, selecting her novel’s form for its very ability to create chaos.

As the book’s sole Filipina-American character, Magsalin acts as a conduit between the two fatally entwined cultures. Her side of the story becomes metafictional by necessity. She plays character, creator, and critic of her own storyline in a way that might feel familiar to many first-generation immigrants, always testing absorbed truths that feel diametrically opposed. She is also her own worst editor, excruciatingly aware of her narrative’s pacing and continuity, its gaps and contradictions, and the fact that she doesn’t quite know who she’s writing for. “Why should readers be spooked about not knowing all the details in a book about the Philippines yet surge forward with resolve in stories about France?” she grouses, bringing to mind the late Toni Morrison’s exhortations about Black literature’s self-sufficiency—both, of course, rejoinders to the anticipated white reader. The fact that she’s drawing her story out of the historical margins and into the spotlight gives her an uncomfortable sense of responsibility—and for that reason, she draws our attention to the instances where she’s chosen inaccuracy over factualness to spruce up her retelling, whether it’s to convince us of her conviction or as an embellishment to hook our interest.

Against the intense chaos of Manila, Magsalin’s life in New York feels distant, her past reconnective efforts corny and misguided. She remembers the diasporic rituals enacted with her friends, heading to Flushing to eat kamayan but ordering all the wrong, sloppy things. It wasn’t like her family ate rice off of banana leaves with their fingers, but the self-exoticizing symbolism felt important, even politically urgent, at the time. The idea that she could return to a precolonial self by excising the American tumor is revealed for what it is: a fantasy. Elvis, she thinks, is Filipino. So are Michael Jackson and Muhammad Ali, and the chorus of “Sweet Caroline.” But “Manila is necrotized in America, too,” she reflects. Like the strange gap in Elvis’s song, it forms “scar tissue so deeply hidden and traumatized no one needs to know it.”

Throughout the thick weave of storyline and self-reflection, Insurrecto declares its own metaphors, imposing a symbolic superstructure to guide its interpretation. The stereoscope: a pair of two-dimensional images that form a three-dimensional whole only when seen simultaneously, slotted into their viewing device. The abaca weave: a patterned textile, formed on the loom by braiding together tough, tricolored strands; its fibers are derived from the indigenous banana plant, a strategically important crop that drew the Americans to Samar in the first place, and the source of Manila hemp and Manila paper. The dueling scripts sitting in Chiara’s and Magsalin’s identical aubergine-and-olive duffles: the nation of the Philippines, as it exists in history. Translation: the nation of the Philippines, as it exists in language. And language: the heart of the problem.

“A series of textual meditations must be unraveled in order to reveal who or what [the Philippines] is,” writes Apostol in her contribution to the essay collection Thirdest World. “More precisely: it exists in the suspension of its myriad translations—it is alive in the void of its borrowed speeches.” She illustrates her point with Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tángere (1887). Though it directly catalyzed the Philippine Revolution, Rizal’s novel was written in the colonizer’s tongue. The fact that Spanish is no longer read at schools—an enduring consequence of Rizal’s efforts—means that this essential artifact of independence is always introduced in translation, taught either in English, which it is difficult not to see as the victorious tongue, or Tagalog. While the latter is an indigenous language, its dominance over the archipelago’s other 120 dialects is also an artifice, as it was selected for development as an “official language” by the occupying government in 1937.

To really get into the head of the Filipina, Apostol posits, a text needs to invoke her polyglot and polyvocal form. And when it comes to communicating a history that’s a palimpsest, the postmodern novel—with all its sleights, tricks, and divergences—feels well suited to the task. Writing that embraces its own instability is “a potent way to fathom and portray the unfinished reality of such a nation,” Apostol writes. She tests why we’ve come to overvalue stories that cleanly represent the “narrow constraints of an individual’s refined perceptions,” which have the effect of replicating “the colonial master’s private agonies.” In other words, single-mindedness can be a false, imperial idol. The oblique way is a political choice.

Over the past three decades, literary writers have adopted the core ideas of postcolonial theory as a formal constraint. The question of how to represent a subject whose identity has been split, erased, or otherwise traumatized inflects the grand, gossipy style of books like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) and Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado (2008), and roots the diffuse, multiplied beauty of poetry collections like Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (2001) and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds (2016). An ecstatic yet distrustful relationship to language gives these texts their dizzying density, their atmosphere of urbane cacophony. In reading them, our attention is tuned to how a person’s speech, or the syntax of their inner monologue, codifies their motivations, desires, and origins—something that, in everyday life, is easy to take for granted.

After we moved from Manila to Canada, my brother and I began to see the language we spoke at home as distinct from the Canadian English of our merciless preteen indoctrination. We took shithead glee in making fun of our parents’ diction. Their English wasn’t broken — they were perfectly fluent—but shaped by a lifetime of outdated U.S. slang, pidgin, and embedded mistranslation. Our cruelty, not affection, extended to the officials commenting on whatever disaster back home had captured Western press attention at the time, confidently employing the same erroneous expressions. Why don’t they just speak Tagalog and let themselves be translated? my mom sighed, switching the channel, secondhand embarrassed by the public foolishness of our hybrid tongue.

My brother and I weren’t the only ones whose ears pricked up around the perceived “wrongness” of “Taglish,” or Philippine English. Even though figures like Édouard Glissant have rehabilitated the creative power of creole language, using it to allegorize how we can achieve cultural exchange without extractive politics, Taglish—or its equivalent in other ex-colonies—is often derided because of its adjacency to the lower classes. Its inherent creativity is still seen as a deviation; its official appearance resoundly mocked. Both Rushdie and Syjuco have liberally peppered their stories with dialect in order to evoke local color and express class divides with comedic effect. Such a hierarchical approach to language is soon to be outdated. As our collective relationship to our various “home countries” continues to evolve, the inclusion of italicized words in one’s mother tongue, followed by a pithy English translation, is now a cliché of diasporic writing to be avoided. In her book Sour Heart (2017), Jenny Zhang included smatterings of untranslated Chinese dialogue, declaring: “If the mere presence of untranslated Chinese puts a reader off, that’s their problem not mine.”

By setting Philippine English against a literary tone, Apostol falls into one trap she doesn’t seem to anticipate, by replicating class structures that her text might otherwise critique. While the women’s stories are told in high, ornate English, Taglish is uttered only by the lower-class servants of the state—the diabetic military men and gout-ridden police of the authoritarian pseudodemocracy, once dubbed “the Sick Man of Asia,” who are all too symbolic of its ills. The bodyguards Edward and Gogoboy, hired by Magsalin’s uncles to accompany the two women on their trip to Samar, provide more comic relief than protection, ribbing each other in speech as cloying and exclamation-pointed as my outbox. In one of the book’s most viscerally shocking scenes, a policeman guns down a father he suspects of dealing drugs, killing his child in the process. Picking up on the women’s distress, he tries to explain the reason for their deaths, inadvertently playing the jester in order to dilute trauma’s ferrous tang: “Meth crystal. Also known as cracks.”

On, under the heading “Insurrecto as Wikipedia Novel,” readers can find an archive of the stereoscopic cards that documented the Balangiga Massacres. The bodies of dead men, dumped in ditches or in fields, are underscored by captions like “The necessary Result of War.” In some, American soldiers crouch sternly over their kills. The cards are arranged in a carousel alongside another set of macabre photographs. President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called war on drugs becomes Insurrecto’s third massacre, and its victims are shown here dramatically lit, their faces bound with brown packing tape, their bodies twisted over their own pooling blood. Since Duterte’s inauguration in 2016, over 6,600 “drug personalities”—that is, alleged dealers and users—have been killed by police, often on their own doorsteps, though human-rights organizations have pegged the drug war’s death toll as closer to 27,000. The operation is officially known as Oplan Tokhang, after the Visayan words toktok (to knock) and hangyo (to plead), and is supported by the American government, which provides funds for arms sales and law-enforcement training.

History rhymes until it feels nonsensical. Apostol’s juxtaposition of the Balangiga Massacre, Duterte’s reign, and the long shadow of the Marcos dictatorship reveals how American involvement has systemically crippled the Philippines. “American rule was first set up as essentially militarist, counterinsurgency-oriented, in my view terrorist,” writes Apostol, following up a talk given at the Philippine Readers and Writers Festival. “The Phil-Am war explains the executive-policing structure of Philippine governance-by-counterinsurgency, which Marcos exploited and Duterte does now, too.” The militarization and corruption of the police force—ruthlessly deployed to stamp out dissent, eliminate political opposition, and otherwise uphold the ruling party’s ideology by force—can be traced back to the American occupation, when it was used to surveil and punish insurrectos. Its outsize powers helped Ferdinand Marcos to enforce his dictatorship, playing a role in the execution of upwards of 3,000 people, with a further 70,000 imprisoned and 34,000 tortured in actions that were backed by the American government, who saw Marcos as a shield against rising communism in Southeast Asia. The creation of a “theater state of terror,” through dumping dissenters’ mangled bodies in plain view, is echoed in the tokhang tactic of arranging a cardboard placard over each corpse left in situ, their alleged crime written in black marker. Though Duterte was democratically elected, his time in office has been marked by an authoritarian flavor that continues to boost his popularity, which had risen to 66 percent as of April 2019. As counterintuitive as this may seem, a substantial proportion of Filipinx continue to see the Marcos era as a “‘golden age’ of peace and prosperity,” conveniently forgetting its atrocities and threatening to lock the country in an accursed loop once again.

A cursed loop of history; a common linguistic tic (“Ro-Ro, ma’am,” says Edward, explaining the name of the car ferry they take across the ocean, “means Roll-on, Roll-off.”); the imperfect doubling of translation; the book’s recursive phrases and themes. Repetition is also a post-traumatic symptom. It isn’t only America’s pop songs that have wormed their way into Magsalin’s inner monologue: The stubborn fact of violence irradiates her sense of self, displacing her emotions into the external vessel of “her country,” that problem that she has no hope of solving. Magsalin, it’s revealed, has suffered the deaths of her mother and husband in succession, and we can read her willingness to be consumed by Chiara’s project as a form of workaholic repression. Her oceanic grief is only really broken open by a tragedy she can’t look away from. As if swept under by the “enveloping sea of blood [that] has contaminated even the sunlight’s rays, a dark glistening that overflows her vision,” her intricate web of reflection collapses. The narrative shudders to a stop. One of the novel’s many subplots is a side-by-side comparison of mourning, as Chiara simultaneously grieves her father. But where Chiara thinks nothing of mobilizing others to plumb the depths of her life story, Magsalin relegates her own processing to the background, smuggling it into the broader themes of postcolonial loss and dismemberment until it’s all concentrated in the punctum of a gunshot. “She is so tired,” she self-narrates. “It is never gone. This untold grief.”

A last metaphor frames Insurrecto: the lens. There are times when the novel reads like the screenplay that drives its plot—its lineal filmmakers make sure of it. The roaming nature of the camera justifies the book’s scattered perspectives, living between and apart from individual heads. “Films, after all, have a sociality not even the most narcissistic can subvert. They require the possibility of observers,” remarks Chiara (or is it Magsalin?). Stitching together what’s left on the cutting-room floor, Apostol shows how subtle perspective shifts can reveal the capriciousness of seemingly uncontestable views. “You need an observer,” says Cassandra Chase when the American soldiers protest her arrival in Balangiga. In Magsalin’s retelling, it was her lens that captured the double massacres twice over, and her stereo cards that are eventually used as testimony during the U.S. congressional hearings that eventually bring the Philippine-American War to an end. In their archive, the existing photographs are unattributed, but Apostol anticipates our sleuthing. It’s Chase’s womanhood that sees her scrubbed from the record, her activism deemed indecent by the powers that be. (As for the decision to center a white savior in her rewrite, Magsalin tells Chiara: “I did it for you. It’s the only way you could have read the story”—Apostol’s disclosure, too, to her anticipated anglophone readership.)

A Brownie camera, a Zeiss lens, a translator’s dictionary: Casiana Nacionales is the only protagonist without a mediating device. The baskets that she weaves out of braided abaca only accrue significance after the fact. A real historical figure who is nonetheless scantly documented, her preexisting story is already inconstant, shrouded in mystery. Apostol brings her to life as the hidden orchestrator of the Balangiga uprising, charging her up with wit, wiliness, sexual agency, and persuasive power. Against a dull backdrop of violent, aimless men, the singularity of her vision gleams like a knife. The events that unfold under her direction are nothing short of a theatrical masterpiece, if only witnessed once in its entirety, where “the actors, the people of Balangiga, used forms of Shakespearean comedy (transvestism, fiesta-gambit, fake-romance, false identity, coded script, et cetera) to lure Americans successfully to their deaths,” says Apostol. The strength of Nacionales’s character complicates the complicated script. Lucidity crystallizes her intentions; direct action necessarily deviates from the project of cultivating multiplicities. And though the scene is gruesomely, deliciously retributive, Nacionales’s startling contrast with the comparatively self-absorbed Chiara and avoidant Magsalin layers in one last, pessimistic reading—situating the time for revolution as irreconcilably distant from our own.