The Fractured Politics of Naming

Image: Penguin Random House
Shelf LifeShelf LifeA monthly books column that considers works of fiction and nonfiction that speak past their publication dates—because good books don’t go bad.

Film is a trickster’s medium, an illusion of an illusion. Though it purports to capture objective fact—as if holding it for ransom—there are few things as subjective as a frame. “It is said that the camera cannot lie,” wrote James Baldwin in The Devil Finds Work, “but rarely do we allow it to do anything else, since the camera sees what you point it at: the camera sees what you want it to see.”

Gina Apostol’s novel Insurrecto is a tale of dual visions and dueling scripts, one written by an American filmmaker, Chiara Brasi, and the other by a Filipino writer and translator, Magsalin. Magsalin isn’t given a last name, and this reader suspects that her first is a fake one: magsalin, we are told, means to translate in Tagalog. She is what she does in the eyes of the white foreigner, what she does for her. Translation is a precarious occupation, a profession historically populated by people in slavery or servitude who, defeated by enemy armies, were forced to interpret their native language for the benefit of their captors. These translators’ relationships—to language, to nation, to family—were uneasy ones, and conquerors tended to view these natives-made-other, these double-tongued strangers, with suspicion. This mistrust lingers, still, in the Italian idiom: traduttore, traditore. Translator, traitor.

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Keep that in mind when I tell you that the central set piece of Insurrecto involves a revolution. Their respective scripts in hand, Chiara and Magsalin embark on a road trip from Manila to the island of Samar, where a massacre took place during the Philippine-American War. Whether the Balangiga Massacre of 1901 refers to the killing of dozens of American soldiers in an uprising by the townspeople or to the American army razing villages, burning crops, and killing thousands of Filipinos in retaliation—well, that depends on your point of view.

The movie Chiara wants to make takes place during the days surrounding this bloody occasion and focuses on two women: the Filipino organizer of the uprising and the white photographer who documents its horrific aftermath. The photographer’s lens—yet another frame—is the opening through which Americans will see the bloody consequences of their distant, oft-forgotten war. But Chiara’s interest in Balangiga—the cause of her “unearned case of white guilt,” as Magsalin puts it—is familial. She is the daughter of filmmaker Ludo Brasi, the creator of The Unintended, an iconic movie of the Vietnam War. Ludo died shortly after the movie was made, and it’s this personal tragedy, not the larger political one, that brings Chiara to the Philippines: though set in Vietnam, The Unintended was filmed in Balangiga.

One country stands in for another, like a stunt double; the war in the Philippines is overlaid with the later war in Vietnam. This brutal elision turns the camera back on the viewer, parsing those who know the difference from those who can’t be bothered to. When Chiara asks Magsalin to meet her, for the first time, at Muhammad Ali Mall, Magsalin is skeptical: “No one in Manila calls the mall by that name.” Chiara’s words brand her a foreigner. Apostol makes tremendous use of the doubled nature of her homeland, invaded and occupied many times over: like secret agents, the streets and buildings and bodies of water all have more than one moniker.

“Choosing names is the first act of creating,” Apostol writes. Her puzzle-box of a book is filled with names both invented and historical: Casiana Nacionales, the real-life revolutionary; Jacob “Howling Wilderness” Smith, the American general whose epithet refers to the order he gave his troops after the Filipino uprising: “The more you kill and burn, the better it will please me. The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness.” Even the pop-cultural touchstones threaded through the book’s competing narratives jab and wink at the politics of naming: Muhammad Ali is a name chosen by its wearer, self-created; Elvis Aaron Presley is shadowed by the unused name of his stillborn twin.

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Such twins and shadows abound in Insurrecto. Bodies, as well as names, seem to shift and sub in: American tourist and Filipino translator, photographer and revolutionary, wife and mistress, writer and filmmaker, actor and character. The book, like the films within it, takes place on “a stage set of interchangeable performers with identical names, or maybe doubles or understudies as they enter and exit the stage; an unexplained switch of characters’ names in one section; and the problem of lapsed time—in which simultaneous acts of writing are the illusions that sustain a story.”

This isn’t mere metafictional play. In an essay about the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, Apostol writes: “Anyone who has grown up in a country where history has been created by the words of its occupiers understands this existential condition—the sense that who you are is a fiction, the result of texts constructed by others.” Insurrecto both enacts and reacts to this fictionalization: Casiana Nacionales is written (or rewritten) by the American outsider Chiara, while Magsalin inserts her own characters into the more recent history surrounding Chiara’s father. The doubled strands of the novel read like an exaggeration, a satire of postcolonial literary theory, of our multicultural studies: we know the story we learned as children was wrong, but what is the right one?

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The problem lies in the question: one. The tidier narrative, in our postcolonial reckoning—that there is a single right story buried under decades of telling the wrong one—is teased apart in Apostol’s work. “Anti-colonial critics at one point suggested that one must isolate ‘Filipino-ness’ or ‘Argentine-ness’ and find some pure, untrammeled state beyond history, when the ‘native’ was pristine and untouched by the foreign,” Apostol writes in that essay. “But the Filipino or Argentine or Kenyan or Indian is necessarily hybrid, condemned to deal with the past: history makes our identities irreducibly multiple.”

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Our identities, all of them: Chiara is no simple villain, and Magsalin no forthright hero. The relationship between filmmaker and translator—as, perhaps, between colonizer and colonized—is a mutually influential one, its borders shifting and yet sustained. Who gets to define the other? Who gets to realize her script? In Insurrecto these questions thrive, unanswered. “Her protagonist, what do you know, is female,” we are told, upon meeting Magsalin in the novel’s opening pages. “The woman’s name has an arbitrary Italian flavor—Chiara or Lucia… Magsalin has yet to decide.” The tidier narrative—white outsider, appropriated culture—is upended at this moment, the balance of power flipped. Are we meant to believe or to doubt this particular meta-moment? Who is telling this story? And who is being told?

“An identity is questioned only when it is menaced,” says Baldwin, “when the stranger enters the gates, never, thereafter, to be a stranger: the stranger’s presence making you the stranger, less to the stranger than to yourself.” We happily admit the influence of others when it suits us: the genetic traits and learned habits inherited from our parents, the acclimations we make to live with lovers or friends. Less easily acknowledged, perhaps, is how we are molded by Baldwin’s menacing strangers—how, as Apostol says of Borges’s stories, “through our enemies we conceive ourselves.”

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Chiara and Magsalin are not enemies—not exactly. But Apostol plumbs the ways in which they see themselves reflected or refracted by each other’s lenses: personal, political, artistic. Both characters are familiar with such shaping. The translator Magsalin, living in America as an adult, finds her personal signifiers indicate differently in this distant country—“‘Sweet Caroline’ was the Boston Red Sox song, not Tio Exequiel’s signature karaoke anthem”—and the traits she would claim make her appear other than she knows herself to be: a mistranslation, or a misunderstanding. As a child visiting her father’s distant film set, Chiara plays with the Filipino orphans brought on as extras for a filmed massacre: “They let Chiara play the villain, while they play dead.” Daughter of the director, daughter of colonizers, Chiara knows her role.

They are not exactly enemies, these descendants of the occupiers and the occupied, but neither are they friends. Apostol offers no sugary solution to centuries-old enmity, even as Chiara and Magsalin discover overlapping motives behind their ostensibly professional missions: the men they have loved—a father, a husband—are dead, each (probably) by his own hand. Each woman travels to Samar because it is the last place he was seen or the place he was known or the place from which she will, finally, be able to move forward. “For the survivor of suicide, everything is possible and nothing is true,” writes Apostol. “A locked-room puzzle.” What Chiara and Magsalin find in each other is an intellectual equal, a sparring partner, someone holding another possible key to that locked room. “To encounter oneself is to encounter the other,” writes Baldwin, and vice-versa, perhaps. No treacly sisterhood is required, no burying of hatchets, just the other’s knowledge, the other’s otherness. “Difference produces perspective,” Apostol writes.

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The endpapers of Insurrecto are covered with the doubled photographs of a stereoscope, a neat metaphor for the twinned visions competing and collaborating in these pages. “Is it wishful thinking that the enemy might be a reliable witness?” Apostol asks, of the white photographer documenting the Balangiga massacre. “The troubling, doubling quality of her Tru-Vision prints goes out of fashion, and the world moves on to other fare—praxinoscopes, Brownie cameras, moving pictures—in her world’s search for a way to view itself whole, given the limits of human stereopsis.” The question of wholeness is an impossible one, for persons and nations alike; we are made of innumerable parts. “She does not quite know how to put it, this fragmenting sense of herself,” Magsalin thinks, “except that it is the only way she can get at who she is.”

To deny that fragmentation, to insist on a clear, singular, and irrefutable self or purpose or story or country, is not merely false but reeking of bad faith. Throughout her work, Apostol lays out the sinister underpinnings of such an insistence; she asks, in her essay on Borges, “What is it about the writer in the First World that wants the Third World writer to be nakedly political, a blunt instrument bludgeoning his world’s ills?” Insurrecto is a potent rebuttal to such bluntness, parsing the intersections of politics and art with the finer tools of humor, skepticism, and playful misdirection—the camera sees what you want it to see, after all. “[It is] an act that must occur without the reader’s noticing,” Apostol writes of Magsalin naming Chiara—and so we think we notice everything, while the good stuff gets the drop on us. Apostol’s novel is so whip-smart and winking that when the great pain came, it grabbed me by the throat.

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And there is great pain here, beneath the play of language. “The story Magsalin wishes to tell is about loss,” Apostol writes. “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.” The possibilities splay like translations, each with its merits and difficulties. There is no single right answer here, either, where the question is how to give grief a form that might be grasped and carried, able to be endured.

“[D]on’t worry about it,” Magsalin tells Chiara, when the American tries to sing a tune she learned in Tagalog as a child. “No one ever gets that song right.” We might say the same of any attempt to translate or assimilate, to speak another’s language: the fissures remain visible, the choices endless and fraught. Set on those very fault lines, Insurrecto makes a powerful argument for the value of the attempt, nonetheless. It is easier, yes, to tell a single story, to stick to one language or country or culture, to elide the many people you are into a unified and definable self. It is easier, but it is a lie, and great fiction tells the multiplicitous truth. “I did not revise the manuscript,” Magsalin tells Chiara, having read and added to the American’s screenplay. “I presented the possibilities of translation. A version, one might say.”

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“How do you know that your perspective does not distort the story?” asks Chiara, and Magsalin replies: “How do you know that yours has not?” We should demand such distortion of our stories, not merely tolerate it: how else to show the camera along with what it wants us to see? Magsalin is a translator; she knows that the act of translation is never unbiased, never impartial, never a clear and unblemished screen through which we might glimpse some untarnished fact. Neither is the act of writing. This is its motive—its traitorous center—and its strength.

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About the author

Mairead Small Staid

Mairead Small Staid is an essayist living in Minnesota. More of her work can be found at https://maireadsmallstaid.com/.