Eric Gamalinda: On Writing The Descartes Highlands
Unlike my previous novels, which all began with a plot, or an idea for a plot, The Descartes Highlands began with a feeling, or a whirlwind of feelings. It was 2002, and I wanted to convey the frustration and helplessness I felt at that time, when I thought America was imploding, maddened by paranoia and xenophobia. The Descartes Highlands springs from that period of questioning and uncertainty. I wanted to write a story set at a time when it was every man for himself, despite the empty rhetoric of healing and strength; a story in which technology was starting to get people more connected not just in space but in time, yet people were increasingly isolated in their loneliness.
I have always imagined novels coming to life the way galaxies do: ideas, emotions, themes, characters, and episodes swirl in a cloud of cosmic dust, coalesce, and form their own planets, in a slow, tumultuous, and inevitable dance. At that time I read a news story about a group of men in Italy who had been arrested for selling babies they had fathered. I also read a story about an abortion clinic bombed in Dobbs Ferry, New York. Birth and death; love and rage, both disfigured and perverted. I thought the baby traffic story could easily happen in the Philippines, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, when there were so many Amerasian kids abandoned by their GI fathers. The abortion bombing, on the other hand, was a totally American phenomenon; I was curious who these people were and how they managed to create bombs so deadly. (I learned, from one of Abbie Hoffman’s books, that it was quite easy). I wondered what those babies would grow up to be, and if one of them happened to be in Dobbs Ferry, how he would process such a bizarre contradiction as a Christian terrorist. I was reading a lot of philosophy, watching a lot of Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Sokurov, Béla Tarr—they made me feel less off-kilter, less perplexed by what was going on around me.
Still fixated on the juxtaposition of technology/alienation, I “published” the first draft as anonymous blogs written by the two sons in the novel. At the same time I wrote the father’s journal in private, if only to make sure I was clear about the back story. I wanted the father’s story to happen during the early years of martial law in the Philippines, a time that I felt was eerily mirrored in post-9/11 America. I wanted the novel to explore the idea of karmic consequences, both immediate and across generations, across space and time—the karma of political and socioeconomic systems, and the karma of personal decisions.
It took me more than ten years to finish the novel. It is the most difficult book I have ever written, not because of the jigsaw structure (which I found enjoyable) but because the characters were so unhappy, and I, immersed in the same Zeitgeist, had a hard time finding them a way out. Perhaps there is no way out. For the writer, of course, writing can be a form of exorcism, but for people caught in the existential prison I saw them in, how does one find an exit? That is the question that I hope the reader will ask, and perhaps answer, when they read my book.
ERIC GAMALINDA has previously published, in the Philippines, a collection of short stories, three poetry collections, and four novels, including My Sad Republic, winner of the Philippine Centennial Prize in 1998. Born and raised in Manila, where he worked as a journalist covering everything from politics to rock music, Gamalinda currently lives in New York City and teaches at the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Columbia University. The Descartes Highlands is his latest novel.
Posted: Dec 3, 2014
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