July 26, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Gina Apostol's Gun Dealers' Daughter is a striking novel that crisply examines the Philippines of the late '80s and '90s from both personal and political angles. Complex, challenging, and poetically told, Apostol has given us one of the year's most thought-provoking novels.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Apostol (Bibliolepsy) offers an intriguing and significant view of Marcos-era Philippines in this complex and feverish novel."
I had a hard time thinking of a playlist for Gun Dealers' Daughter because the novel was music-deaf: the novel was about words, books, graffiti. Sol, the heroine, is in love with words, using language to get hold of her elusive past. But I had forgotten a primal scene, the image that had sparked the novel—the mourning of the death of John Lennon in 1980 by young radicals in Manila. I ended up burying that scene in revision—it was too didactic. But musical trauma was, in fact, central to the novel. December 7, 1980, to be exact (December 8 in New York). When Denise, my editor, asked me to create a dateline, I realize I had framed the novel's tragedy around the date of John Lennon's death.
In a way, I wanted to capture that odd confluence of commercial veneration and commie heartache that was the weird detritus of the death of John Lennon in 1980 in Manila—that weird moment of genuine heartbreak among the commies was an emblem to me of the implausible idealism of our times.
In Manila John Lennon's death seemed inexpressibly heartbreaking: we had no words. As I noted in my novel, even the commies cried. It was Christmas season and we, the street marchers, were back to being just middle-class kids, packing to go home for break. This girl, a rich family's daughter and random contributor to the commie cause, had a record player and played the Beatles nonstop, mourning while her maid packed her bags. Then this singing trio came to the dorm to help organize the freshmen for another of those interminable street marches, a last hurrah before break. This so-called Maoist trio, a bunch of business or econ majors, I think, sang with their single guitar, You say you want a revolution, we-ell, you know—we all want to change the world. And they were singing the song like a dirge, in tune with the singing of "Imagine" at Central Park. It was a form of grief. As if with the death of John Lennon some of their radical hopes were killed, too. And it was an odd thing for a bunch of Maoists to sing, since John Lennon, in their bible, would be a basic bourgeois vacillator and not a revolutionary. I was actually horrified by the song: don't sing that, I thought, it is asking students not to join the movement. But then, as one of my friends would say, maybe econ majors were not the type to read a song's lyrics closely. Haha. But it's precisely this fuzziness of meanings—this interplay of middle-class pop and commie fervor, business majors busking for revolt, radical idealism and youthful bourgeois attachments, scorn for materialism and love for record players—this weird panoply of desire so potent among university teenagers that I was trying to capture, too, in the novel. Or at least one of the things I was trying to capture. So the playlist for Gun Dealers' Daughter would have to be an homage to the Filipino idealists of 1980. Therefore it must include Freddie Mercury and Blondie, and Michael Jackson and John Lennon.
The Beatles, "Revolution" (1968)
I would choose the earlier version, the one that begins with chaotic drums and screaming, rather than the later slower version on the White Album. In concert, John Lennon sings "count me out, in"—perfect for the ambiguity resident in Gun Dealers' Daughter. The hit line among the young commies was: "But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao/You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow." The words chairman Mao always got a lot of applause, although again, the sentiment did not exactly fit the cause. Very funny, to me. I was always struck by that—the song's ambivalence, and yet it was a hit among the radicals. "Everything's gonna be all right" was not exactly the sentiment during street marches, either. But I do like the pun—"You say you got a real solution"—the pun on the name Sol.
Queen, "Another One Bites the Dust" (1980)
Filipinos love Freddie Mercury. He's exactly the kind of bombastic singer with outsize talent and (secret, at the time) happy gayness that we love. Turns out Freddie was not just gay but also a secret Asian—a Zoroastrian Indian who grew up in Zanzibar and Bombay to become, according to Wikipedia, number 58 in a BBC poll of 100 Greatest Britons. Take that, P.G. Wodehouse. Of course, I had no idea about this at the time, but I've always loved Freddie Mercury. Now I see him as the poster boy of great postcolonial gayness—postcoloniality being, in essence, another form of gayness, I think: we're all in post-hetero times, and Freddie the Zoroastrian circus master is the precursor of what should be the postmodern world's epiphany—that all along, we are all postcolonial. But we have yet to come to that recognition. Freddie (we'd just call him Freddie) has this catch in his voice when he reaches high notes—I loved his operatic cheesiness, so Filipino. My favorite is "Radio Gaga," to which a bunch of Filipino prisoners have also choreographed a touching, insane 4-minute dance tribute. It's on youtube; google, right now, Filipino prisoners & Queen. "Another One Bites the Dust" was a hit in 1980—it was playing on all the diesel-clad jeepneys. It may well have been playing at any point in the meetings between the heroine Sol and her nemesis, Colonel Grier, the nefarious coin collector and American counterinsurgency expert in Gun Dealers' Daughter.
Blondie, "Call Me" (1980)
Again, a radio hit. We listened to Casey Kasem every Saturday or something on Filipino radio, when he did the countdown on America's Top 40. This song was everywhere. I imagine "Call Me" blaring in the moments Sol is waiting for the call from Jed, her red freak lover, about when to bomb the Colonel or something. The following Top 40 songs would have been on the radio at the time: "Babe" (Styx), "Ships" (Barry Manilow), "You May Be Right" (Billy Joel), "Broken-Hearted Me" (Anne Murray). This is another reason, maybe, why the novel is music-deaf—I don't really want to remember the eighties. But I have always liked Debbie Harry. Especially when she reappeared in those John Waters films of the 90s: she and Patty Hearst—contrasting icons for Gun Dealers' Daughter. Patty Hearst was also an heiress, taken over by the Symbionese Liberation Army—I often thought of her when I was making up Sol, the heiress of the mansion going over to the other side. The Hearsts, if you think about it, are also a despicable front, of a sort. Between the Hearsts and the SLA, what was Patty supposed to choose? Sol's choice, you know, may as well have been called Patty's Choice. At the MoMA right now is an exhibit on eighties political art—and an image of Patty Hearst is the opening gargoyle of the gallery. Makes sense to me.
Pink Floyd, "Another Brick in the Wall" (1980)
One of those anthems. I never really knew who sang it, like the actual anthem of the revolution, the Tagalog "Bayan Ko."
Multiple singers, "Bayan Ko" (circa 1920s)
Originally a protest song against the American occupation, "Bayan Ko" became the theme of the rebellion of 1986 that threw out the Marcoses, in which not only radicals but also office workers and corn sellers joined. But in 1980 it was sung as a folk tune in gatherings among students, very militant, and very hard to sing. It was always sung out of tune. "Bayan Ko" means "My Country." If Filipinos ever made it to the soccer World Cup, my favorite pageant, I'd want them to sing this song with a raised fist—my kind of pipe dream, of course. It's about some bird trying to fly, crying in its prison, etc. Very mournful and sung with clenched hands and gritted teeth. It's kitsch, but very moving kitsch, especially when the bazookas are right in front of you.
Michael Jackson, "Wanna Be Startin' Something" (1982)
No Filipino playlist of the eighties would be complete without Michael Jackson. I remember being relieved when he was acquitted of pedophilia sometime in the 90s. My response was Neanderthal and primal: a loyal Filipino of the eighties, I simply did not want to imagine Michael Jackson in jail. True story. And though this song came later, the anachronism of a Thriller song in Gun Dealers' Daughter is on par with Sol's amnesiac warp. This is the song that starts the album Thriller, when the actual sequence on a playlist mattered. I love the final lines of this song in particular—mamasi mamasa mamasecosa—repeated over and over in danceable hysteria. I like those lines because they mean nothing, but they make the song. Perfect for the end of the novel when the heroine's acts have caught up with her memory—and the song is still saying, wanna be startin' something—as if she could start all over again, reboot her life.
Multiple singers, "Internationale" (1871)
I learned to sing "The Internationale" in Tagalog when I was sixteen. Bangon, sa pagkakabusabos! Bangon, alipin ng gutom! Rise from your poverty, rise from the serfhood of your hunger! Katarunga'y bulkang sasabog! Justice is an exploding volcano! Etc. Of course, I was not a busabos, one of the abject impoverished; I was just an English major. I guess I thought in revolt I was speaking for the busabos, though who knows what I was doing? I loved this song, l'internationale—for some reason to me it is glamorous. I love it when it is sung in those great Italian and French movies about complex individual choices in times of war—I love those movies—Bertolucci's The Conformist, for instance—a style of art, a filmic theme, that my novel, in some way, attempts to emulate, perhaps—that discreet idiocy of the bourgeoisie—a Buñuel glamor, but in a novel. I love it when the lesbian socialite in The Conformist passes by the beggarwoman singing "The Internationale," so sadly by that fancy decadent restaurant. I recognized the song instantly, of course, since I had memorized the strains when I was a kid. It's that mix of impossible idealism and absurd decadence that I love in Bertolucci's early films—the way he used songs for political counterpoint was perfect, too. I think Sol, my heroine, could have been in early Bertolucci, the one who gets caught in revolution but has no clue even at the end what has happened to her—she does not get to know the moral of her own story. Instead, you, the reader, have to figure it out for her, with Sol's words as your damaged mirror, your fractured image of contrition.
Gina Apostol and Gun Dealers' Daughter links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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