When the pandemic began I worked fiercely on finishing a novel I had started but dropped a few years ago—because that’s what I do under stress: I buckle down and write. It’s how I cope. Work is my pleasure and my lifeline. So mostly what I read at the beginning of the year were odd books on the first years of American occupation of the Philippines, 1899 to 1905 or so—one of the time-spans in my novel. I read a book called Not by Might about the 1903 group of pensionados, Filipinos sent on scholarship to the States before the Philippine-American War was even over. This early education of Filipinos who became collaborators with the American regime was part of U.S. war strategy against the country. Sadly, my mother’s favorite relative, her Lolo Paco, was one of those 1903 pensionados, a fact I learned through research. But you know, since Gun Dealers’ Daughter, bourgeois complicity with horror has been one of my work’s themes. I also read a book about the Lopez sisters of Balayan, early activists who organized the Association of Filipino Feminists in 1905. I read the entire catalog of Filipino agrarian goods, telescopic machines, animals, and displayed humans in The Report of Philippine Exhibits of the Louisiana Purchase World’s Fair in St Louis in 1904.
Otherwise, my pleasure books in between novel writing were those crazy history-based nutcake older ficciones, as I call them, by Ishmael Reed—Flight to Canada, Reckless Eyeballing. Reed’s sheer inability to be held to conventional modes of narration, time, or ideology makes me happy. I think the sense of freedom in writers like Reed helps free me as well, as a writer. One of the stupid questions I ask myself as a reader is—is the writer good enough to be sexist or whatever? I say “stupid” because that question makes my good law-abiding friends groan. I mean, there are racist moments in Down and Out in Paris and London—but I will still read Orwell. I have nice friends who won’t read Reed—but for me, he’s a huge pleasure, one of America’s fabulous greats. But then you know, the first novel I ever wrote, coming out in the U.S. this January, is called Bibliolepsy—which, among other things, is about the complex ethos of being true to the books of your attachments. This year I also read books by novelist friends—Sabina Murray’s Human Zoo, Eugene Lim’s Search History, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Committed. I looked forward to these books because I believe Viet, Eugene, and Sabina, no matter what they end up doing—they are all quite different writers—are thinking through problems of the novel that constantly absorb me, e.g., the link between politics and art, or the conceptual work that goes behind one’s necessary attention to readers’ pleasures linked to one’s necessary attention to the world’s concerns. Also, I read their books because I can talk about novel writing only to very few novelist friends, like Sabina and Eugene, since most of my friends, for some reason, are gay poets. I also reread the great Filipino writer Wilfrido Nolledo’s 1970s novel But for the Lovers to write a foreword on a forthcoming Philippine reissue. Every decade, I end up rereading that book and always find something new: but that’s the way of reading classics and books one loves, isn’t it? For me, But for the Lovers is both. On a surreal trip to Venice after vaccination and before the Delta variant, my early-summer travel books oddly touched on the same topic—a clash between ancient Americas and monarchal Europe. But I do love books about world collisions. My partner told me to read Laurent Binet’s Civilizations, in which Viking genes among the Incans make them immune to smallpox, Columbus is killed before he can go back to Europe, and Atahualpa the Incan takes over the Holy Roman Empire. Then I also had Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death, which features a great Mayan headdress and a tennis match involving Caravaggio, the poet Quevedo, and Anne Boleyn’s hair. I still think a lot about both books—but maybe because I miss Venice. I also read Paisley Rekdal’s Appropriate in Venice: appropriate also for the books I had with me. It’s a great primer, kind of Lacanian without using jargon at all, for the complex ways of reading and writing cultures and art that our times require.
My current reading, for my next novel, set among anarchists and radicals in late-19th-century Paris, is Karl Marx: I needed something to absolutely absorb me when my last novel was done—my mind during my second pandemic summer needed to be occupied. As a Filipino kid in activist martial-law Manila, our leftist reading was Maoist. So being M-L, as it was called—Marxist-Leninist—among my friends was kind of retrograde, and I was a kid and just accepted the bias. So I never read Capital. It’s like a lightning bolt. My brain—or maybe the world—just seems more lucid, reading Capital. But I guess we do not need to read Capital actually—we live it. Marx calls capitalists “thieves of time”—there seems no huge difference between the news now on Amazon’s diabolical theft of their workers’ life, their time, from the struggle in 1840s England about the workday. Too many lives are in that state of immiseration Marx predicts simply by meticulously describing the logic of capital.
Lastly, I’d like to say that the most compelling contemporary writer’s book published this year, for my money, is Anthony Veasno So’s Afterparties—though today I just cadged Percival Everett’s The Trees from my partner, who always loves the right books—and I am now divided. The Trees just kicks America’s white ass in all the right places. I think a close semblable of So’s book might be Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint: where the fund of huge communal tragedy, a holocaust (in So’s case Cambodian), a parade of a monstrous history’s ghosts, is told with such capacious love for that community and with that erotic humor and energy that sustains the best texts. I realized, after reading So, that Roth’s Portnoy, which I read as a teenager in Manila, and other Jewish books—I.B. Singer, et al—were maybe the first “identitarian” books that I’ve read—except they were just called novels. I loved those Jewish American books. Fortunately, I don’t have to ask my stupid reader’s question about So: his range of empathy is so much broader than Roth’s. I think So’s Afterparties is an American masterpiece, and I feel privileged to have read it this year. In the meantime, right now I’m cackling over The Trees, with its excellent murders and Southern-gothic fun aimed at the proper targets. This should be Everett’s Pulitzer year. In fact, I dare the Pulitzer to give him the prize.
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