Author Q&A: Eric Gamalinda
The Descartes Highlands is an area of the moon where the Apollo 16 expedition landed in 1972 and scooped up rocks and soil, leaving dark tracks that can be glimpsed through a telescope to this day. Manila-born, New York-based author Eric Gamalinda chose that region as the title of his fifth novel partly because 1972 was also the year in which the Philippines began its descent into political chaos after Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law. The Descartes Highlands begins with a young American who gets embroiled in Philippine politics and is jailed. Desperate, he sells his two sons, both born in the Philippines. The brothers are adopted by different families from New York and France, and the novel weaves together their stories and their father's. Shortlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize, The Descartes Highlands is Gamalinda's first work to be published in the US. He has also written three books of poetry and two short-story collections. Gamalinda spoke with Ajay Singh about his latest novel and his formative years under Marcos' repressive rule.
What was the genesis of ?
After my last novel, My Sad Republic, won the Philippines' Centennial Literary Prize in 1998 [the novel was later published in 2000], I wanted to do something different … but every time I came up with an idea, somebody else was already writing it. Then [the] 9/11 [terrorist attacks] happened and I went through a difficult period of reassessment about everything I was doing, even in my writing. There was so much paranoia and xenophobia that I felt a sense of alienation, even in New York, where people are supposed to be more connected. So I wanted to convey my sense of alienation, but I didn't want to write a 9/11 story - I knew everybody was writing one. I wanted to begin the novel in 1972 because I felt that what was going on in the US post-9/11 was much the same as what I experienced in the 1970s during martial law in the Philippines. There was this atmosphere of fear in both countries - for a couple of years you couldn't say anything negative about George W. Bush without being interpreted as anti-American.
What was it like to live under Marcos' martial law?
I was in high school in 1972 - young and naïve - and didn't care much about politics. My first experience was censorship. I was the editor of our school paper in Manila and also the director of our English club. I was about to stage a production of the Arthur Miller play The Crucible. My school directors told me as soon as martial law was declared that they were cancelling the production because it was too close to home. They also stopped the school paper because all publications were banned in the first year of martial law. And then my mother, who was working for The Manila Times, lost her job when Marcos took over the newspaper and jailed most of its editors and reporters. Eventually, against the advice of my parents, I became a journalist, which was one way for me to find out what was going on under Marcos. His regime was very violent. There were a lot of killings, a lot of torture. And of course, Marcos and his cronies stole a lot of money. There was a lot of [economic] inequality. The whole psyche of the Philippines changed.
What's your view of the US support for Marcos and its historically brutal relationship with the Philippines?
When I was in the Philippines, I was anti-American because I knew what the US had been doing to the Philippines. But like most Filipinos, I was also curious about America. People who had migrated to the US had this mystique about them, as if they lived on the edge of paradise. So one of the main reasons why I decided to immigrate here 20 years ago was that I wanted to see what the "master's" house looked like - to dispel the mystique of America I grew up with. On my first or second day in New York, a homeless person asked me for change. I was shocked. I couldn't understand why a white person would be asking me for money. One of the first things I noticed here was that there was a lot of poverty, inequality and discontent. The mystique of America as a perfect paradise was untrue. On the other hand, the reality about the US shouldn't have been such a surprise because I have seen almost exactly the same situation in the Philippines.
Why do you think Marcos' successor, Corazon Aquino, was able to accomplish so little in terms of helping the poor in the Philippines?
Even though I think Cory Aquino sincerely believed she could help the poor, as soon as she became president the reality of social politics hit her. She realised she had to accommodate her own people and her own class. Most farmers in the Philippines are virtually slaves of landlords, and one of the things Aquino had been promising was land reform. But she couldn't do that because her own class - she's a landowner herself - refused to help her pass land reform. She wound up trying to fend off attempts by the political extremes - both the right and the left - from taking over her government. Interestingly, it was the same situation with [US President Barack] Obama. When he was campaigning, I sensed that he was beginning to sound like Aquino. I offended a lot of people by saying they ought to listen closely to what he was saying: Obama was saying he could make a few promises but couldn't deliver on everything, but people thought he was going to overhaul the entire society.