Awaiting Trespass, State of War, and Gun Dealers’ Daughter: Stories of fear and resistance in the Marcos era

Awaiting Trespass, Linda Ty-Casper, 1985

State of War, Ninotchka Rosca, 1988

Gun Dealers’ Daughter, Gina Apostel, 2010

I would be hard-pressed to say which of these books I like the best, though in some ways they couldn’t be more different. Awaiting Trespass is a closely observed, understated account of a wealthy family in mourning; State of War is a sprawling allegorical epic spanning generations; Gun Dealers’ Daughter an intensely subjective first-person narrative with a jumbled timeline that mirrors its narrator’s confused state of mind. And yet all three of these are takes on the same subject matter—the era of martial law during Ferdinand Marcos’s presidency, with its mysterious disappearances and rampant corruption, and the various ways in which the people of the Philippines did or did not resist the regime. Awaiting Trespass and State of War were published during and immediately after Marcos’s rule, respectively, while Gun Dealers’ Daughter was published twenty-five years after his demise; State of War and Gun Dealers’ Daughter are each about a triad of young people embroiled in resistance plots that they do not fully understand (the ways in which Gun Dealers’ Daughter echoes State of War are, in fact, so explicit that I think it must be a conscious homage on Apostel’s part; these echoes arise again in Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart, which will get its own post later).

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San Francisco, 2017

Awaiting Trespass finds a prominent upper-crust family in Manila coping with the unexpected death and funeral of its oldest member, Don Severino Gil. There is a divide between the older generation, represented by Don Severino’s three sisters, who are old-fashioned, formal, and very conscious of appearances, and the younger generation, represented by his divorced, occasionally suicidal niece Telly, a poet, and his estranged son Sevi, a priest, who are less comfortable supporting a regime that they know to be unjust. Don Severino’s coffin is closed and there is much speculation and hinting about what might have happened to him and whether it ought to be kept quiet (as, it is implied, the powers that be require) or made public, an act of rebellion that might attract reprisals. Also the pope is about to visit and everyone’s kind of getting ready for that. The prose is precise and lovely, full of devastating little insights like: “Her aunts pat her hands and order her a cup of chocolate with finger-length biscuits. Hunger is all they know how to feed.”

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San Francisco, 2017

State of War is more ungainly; it is divided into three sections, the first and third of which take place at a festival on small island in the Philippine archipelago in the 1980s and concerns a failed plot to assassinate president Marcos, while the middle section is set over the course of a century or so in Malolos and Manila following the intertwined lives of the three protagonists’ ancestors. This middle section was by far my favorite part, because I love this sort of magical family history, full of sly winks and coincidences. The whole thing is, I gather, meant to be an allegory for the history of the Philippines and involves a prodigal mixing of races, religions, and social classes, and the language is that of a parable. A sample sentence: “Thus, inadvertently, the priest’s whore invented the penitents’ practice which more than a century later would become the standard spectacle during Lent and which her great-granddaughter Anna Villaverde would witness at a festival confused by time and history.”

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Los Angeles, 2005

Gun Dealers’ Daughter similarly hinges around a failed radical plot, but instead of an allegorical epic we are given a deeply personal view of Marcos-era politics and rebellion through the fractured memory of the narrator, the titular gun dealers’ daughter, Soledad Soliman. At university the sheltered Sol becomes fascinated by Solidaridad Soledad, a revolutionary student who seems to embody all the characteristics that Sol herself lacks, and finds herself drawn into an underground resistance movement. Sol soon finds herself out of her depth and attempting to win her fellow rebels’ respect in a way that leaves her deeply damaged—despite the economic and political privilege that allows her parents to whisk her away first to Europe and then to a private Westchester mansion when things start to go awry. The language is clever and dizzying, mirroring both Sol’s bookish intelligence and her psychological breakdown: “Sol and Soli. Soli and Sol. In the dorm, we were twinned in people’s eyes. Solidaridad Soledad. Soledad Soliman. Our chiasmic names were some cosmic joke, or perhaps a sloppy choice in a careless novel.”

These three aren’t the only books from the list that center on the Marcos regime and its effects; in fact, if I were going to recommend just one novel about that time it would be Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters. But there is something complementary about these three disparate volumes, all of them focusing—at least in part—on the difficulty, for upper-class Filipinos, of resisting a regime that, in its injustice, directly benefits them and their families. Together they draw a picture of a reign of fear and distrust, and question the types of roles that people with privilege can take in dismantling systems of oppression—a topic that is, of course, as relevant in the era of Donald Trump as it was in that of Ferdinand Marcos.

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San Francisco, 2017

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