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  • Stories of the State:Literary Form and Authoritarianism in Ninotchka Rosca's State of War
  • Jini Kim Watson (bio)

In 1979, Filipino novelist and publisher F. Sionil José wrote a letter to an American friend, translator and scholar Sam E. Solberg, to ask for help publishing his novel Mass. Completed in 1976, and the fourth novel in the quintet known as the Rosales Saga, Mass is a tale of revolutionary commitment in the early Marcos period. In José's estimation, given his prior experience as a publisher under Ferdinand Marcos's regime, this was a manuscript "which is unpublishable here" ("Letter"). As he later put it, "In the first days of Martial Law [of 1972], many writers, particularly journalists, who had displeased Marcos and his wife were imprisoned" ("Marcos Years" 329). Ninotchka Rosca was one of those writers, imprisoned by the regime in 1973 for her antigovernment journalism. In 1988, shortly after the overturn of the regime, she published her scathing novel of the Marcos dictatorship, State of War, while in exile in the United States. Her 1983 short story collection, The Monsoon Collection―which includes character sketches for some of the later novel's characters―was conceived during her imprisonment in the Philippines. Her author's note stated that "the collection itself, as a whole, was conceptualized in the Camp Crame Detention Centre in 1973" (xi); a New York Times review concurred that "the nine stories seem fringed by barbed wire" (Domini). Meanwhile, José eventually had Mass published in 1983 and remained an active [End Page 262] and activist publisher with his Manila bookshop and press, Solidaridad.1 I invoke these two writers' experiences with censorship and literature under Marcos because they succinctly evoke several typical tropes of writing and dictatorship, namely, state censorship, imprisonment, and freedom of expression. They confirm prevalent ways of thinking about authoritarian political forms, in which a repressive, unchecked (usually third-world) dictatorial state is conceived of in inherent opposition to the freedom and free speech of committed writers.

In this essay, I revisit these common stories of the state by examining Rosca's novel State of War. I lay out the conceptual problems in the first section. Then I explore two literary modes, which I call "writing liberty" and "writing resistance," illustrated by the international literary organization PEN, on one hand, and a tradition of anticolonial political writing, on the other. Although these modes are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, I argue that both naturalize a certain relationship between state tyranny and literature especially as it obtains in the postcolonial world or global South. Such an understanding, I argue, is complicit with a broader conception of postcolonial authoritarianism that arises with the emerging Cold War discourse of human rights, itself largely conceived as the natural corrective to the abuses of "too much state" in the non-West.2 Finally, I take up a close reading of State of War to argue for a different kind of relationship between literature and the state, one that builds on recent literary scholarship on the topic (Peter Hitchcock, Neil Lazarus, John Marx) and the interdisciplinary study of the state (Akhil Gupta, David Scott, George Steinmetz, and others). In contrast to the tradition of thinking of literary expression and autocratic states in mutually exclusive terms―a legacy of the Cold War liberal imagination―this essay asks what space for new analysis opens up if we move beyond such a binary. How [End Page 263] might we think about postcolonial state formation and literary form together? Can we determine a relationship between them that goes beyond that of simple opposition?

Literature and the Boundaries of the State

With these questions in mind, I read Rosca's State of War, a novel that seems at first glance to be an exemplary account of the resistance movement opposing the Marcos state (though he is never named other than as "The Commander"). A brief overview: the main story is set on an unnamed island during a religious festival and eventually culminates in an attempted armed uprising against the regime. The festival―modeled on the Ati-Atihan Festival held in the province of Aklan―is the background for a dizzying, three...


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