Gina Apostol

3 Dec 2018
ByJulia Sonenshein, Assistant Director of Communications, Marketing

“We were always trying to overthrow the government. We were always fighting against fascism. So it's very ingrained in me that the work that you do has to relate to the world around you,” Gina Apostol says, sitting on a stool outside the English department offices. It’s the end of the day and students are milling around, catching up on the day’s events before heading home. It’s loud, and she has just come off of two back-to-back classes. But whereas one person might be just the tiniest bit worn out, Apostol is utterly vibrant.

Apostol is an English and humanities teacher in the Upper School, in her sixth year at ECFS, and in the classroom, she is committed to an education in literature that goes far beyond the page. “I think literature is a relationship to one’s sense of being — to being an ethical person. So, for me, literature is not just art. When I’m teaching it, I think it’s about creating a better citizen. I think literature helps citizens do better,” she says.

It’s a rainy day — pouring, really. Hair is frizzy, and shoes are making squishing noises in Apostol’s ninth-grade English class. One boy unearths a red plastic sled from who knows where and places it in the front of the classroom.

“It’s supposed to be a coffin,” he says to Apostol.

The students are about to perform the scene from Antigone in which King Creon has a moment of clarity and laments his tragedy. The students start out self-consciously, but as the drama of the scene grows, so does their enthusiasm.

Performing these scenes is a prime example of the work Apostol does to make the texts real to her students. It gives them a space to connect to the work. “Education’s not just an object. It’s a living thing. They’re embodying this education,” she says.

“The text is not separate from us. The larger world is not separate from us. You’re not divorced from the text. You’re not divorced from your society.”

Apostol builds her curricula to surface connections across a wide range of periods, styles, and genres. Next week, this class will begin studying the Harlem Renaissance, starting with the movement’s history, listening to music and poetry, and finally reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

In her Women in Literature elective later that day, the class of ten or so juniors and seniors tries to make sense of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, name-checking Freud’s psychoanalysis, which they studied when reading Han Kang’s novella The Vegetarian earlier this semester. Their discussion covers the recognition of different types of femininities, as well as the relationships between women and how they change when men are part of the equation.

These connections are reinforced by the interdisciplinary approach Apostol uses in all of her teaching; her instruction goes beyond literature as she draws from history, philosophy, and ethics. This method is perhaps best shown in her Humanities, History, and Ethics class that meets earlier that day. The students are making their way through the American Revolution using multiple lenses: an analysis of the diction and syntax in the Declaration of Independence, a historical discussion of the writing of the Constitution, and an examination of how the documents’ arguments are set up — disassembling them and putting them back together. Overlaying different subjects fits with how Apostol’s students see the world, she says. “I think the kids’ minds are like that. They tend to be more open. They’re not going to say: ‘But this is not English.’”

Born in the Philippines, Apostol had a traditional and conventional education. She attended a Catholic school where the top student in class sat in the first seat, the second-best student sat to their right, and so on. You always knew how you — and those around you — stacked up. Students memorized, diagrammed sentences, and studied Latin and Spanish. At the University of the Philippines in Manila, Apostol studied Creative Writing in the school’s “very, very conservative” English Department. “We studied basically Beowulf through T.S. Eliot,” she says.

In her early 20s, Apostol would join in marches against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and every time she passed the American Consulate library, she would take a break from protesting to read, planning to catch up with protesters once they circled back. It was in that library that Apostol read “Teacher,” an article by the author John Barth, who taught writing at Johns Hopkins University. A huge fan of his novels Chimera and Sot-Weed Factor, she was surprised to learn such a genius novelist taught — so she wrote him a personal letter and sent him her novel. “It’s so crazy,” she says, but he miraculously wrote back, urging her to apply for the program and even including an application form. She filled it out and sent it back. Soon after, she was headed to Baltimore.

Johns Hopkins is a notoriously competitive program, and Apostol was markedly different from the other nine students in her cohort: “I was the only foreigner, I was the only person of color, and I was one of three women.” Nonetheless, she loved the program and got to work directly with Barth. Nine years later, she published the novel she had first sent to Barth, Bibliolepsy, which won the 1997 Philippine National Book Award.

Gina Apostol with one of her upper school English classes

“My stories have all been related to revolution, to rebellion,” she says — understandable given her experience as an activist in the Philippines, and perhaps why she insists that her students draw deeper connections between literature and life. “Or the basic radical question: What is to be done? If this is our situation, if we’re in crisis, if this our government, what is to be done?”

Apostol’s fourth novel, Insurrecto, follows a Filipino translator and an American filmmaker on a road trip through the Philippines as they work together on a project about the Philippine-American War, interlocking their stories as they collaborate and struggle with each other. The book is full of sweeping visuals and jumps effortlessly from multiple points of view, grappling with identity, imperialism, and a multi-faceted history with which an American reader must reckon.

Insurrecto is barely out and already receiving rave reviews. Publisher’s Weekly calls it a “complex and aptly vertiginous novel that deconstructs how humans tell stories and decide which versions of events are remembered… a profound and unforgettable journey into the past and present of the Philippines.”

The book is full of sweeping visuals and jumps effortlessly from multiple points of view, grappling with identity, imperialism, and a multi-faceted history with which an American reader must reckon.

Being a writer and being a teacher are both full-time commitments, and Apostol carves out the time with a strict system. The school years are for researching and doing revisions, while first drafts get written over summers spent in Western Massachusetts (the exception being last summer, when Apostol took a 10-week residency in Venice, Italy, awarded by the Emily Harvey Foundation).

Teaching gives her the ability to perform a unique kind of market research. How readers react to literature is a “huge gift for a writer,” she says, and the students make for perfect test subjects. Plus, she has a front row seat to a narrative arc: “You have a sense of character in flux. You can see a whole kind of narrative line with [each of] these kids.”

Which brings us back to that connection between author and reader — student and text, literature and life — that is so critical to Apostol’s approach. It’s why she demands a level of self-awareness from her students, a kind of reflexivity, so they can connect each work they read to their own experiences. With that greater context, she believes, literature becomes a map to chart a course through the world around us.

“The text is not separate from us. The larger world is not separate from us. You’re not divorced from the text. You’re not divorced from your society.”