How does a daughter of the Irish diaspora end up writing about revolution in the Philippines?

Reine Arcache Melvin on her novel, The Betrayed, about the Marcos regime and its aftermath

How does a daughter of the Irish diaspora end up writing about revolution and dictatorship in the Philippines? My novel The Betrayed covers the violent Marcos regime and its aftermath, but I grew up with the story of being part Irish. My father, a first-generation Irish-American, met my Filipina mother in graduate school in Illinois, followed her to Manila, married into and suffered from Philippine high society the rest of his life.

The son of immigrants from Cork, raised in a poor Irish neighborhood in Chicago, he felt most at home with the Irish and sought them out – in the Philippines, they were mostly priests, young men in a strange country who became his closest friends and brought back stories from their parishes in the Philippine provinces, tales of repression, rebellion, deaths. Some of these stories made their way into the novel.

My mother’s family, more from kinship and friendship ties than political awareness, campaigned against Marcos when elections were still possible. My father, a foreigner who therefore risked deportation, had to be carefully apolitical in public. Both parents feared for their future, and ours.

The family, like the rest of the country, suffered during those turbulent years. Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown by a revolution in 1986, but the Philippines remains scarred by his dictatorship, with its human rights abuses, massive corruption, and the torture, imprisonment and assassination of political opponents. Last year, to the outrage of many who lived under the Marcos regime, the Philippines elected his son, Bongbong, to the presidency.


Much of what I wrote about in the novel is happening again today. Not because I could foresee the return of the Marcoses, but because so little has changed. In the novel as in the Philippines, the revolution that toppled Marcos was a revolution in name only: power changed hands, but remained within the same class. In The Betrayed, the daughters of the dictator’s assassinated opponent fall in love with the same man - the dictator’s godson. In their circle, everyone knows each other. The country’s social and economic elite cajole, befriend, marry and betray each other to hold on to power, as they have for generations.

The characters live through dictatorship, revolution and its aftermath, in a largely feudal society shaped by centuries of Spanish and US colonialism, energized by its contradictions: devout Catholicism and indigenous mysticism, modesty and open sensuality, profound kindness and violence.

In times of political repression, stories matter. During the Marcos dictatorship, everything else was censored or punished. No one trusted the official news. The underground radio worked quickly, if not always accurately. Like my characters, we relied on rumours, whispered conversations, visits in the evening or 3 a.m. phone calls with warnings about possible attacks, raids, arrests.

We heard stories about the Marcoses’ extravagances, the betrayals and shifts in loyalties. When we talked to friends on the phone, we turned on a radio near the receiver to block wire-tapping. We heard of people imprisoned, tortured, killed, their bodies turning up days or weeks later in a state that served as a warning to all who saw them. We were taught to keep quiet. In convent school, a nun admonished us not to resist should rebels or army soldiers enter our houses at night. We should let them do what they wanted with us. God will understand, the nun said. It won’t be a sin. I was 13. It took me a long time to understand what she meant. In the novel, one of the sisters understands immediately: survival trumps virtue, even for the nuns.

Later, in high school, we took to the streets in protest, with more zeal than understanding. We didn’t realize how sheltered we were, nor how vulnerable, nor how much a part of the problem. Parents who could send their reckless teen-agers abroad, did so. My mother and her friends frightened themselves with stories of young women who had broken ranks, left the guarded enclaves of the capital and taken to the hills with guerillas and rebels.

Some readers ask if I based Arturo – the dictator’s godson – on Bongbong Marcos. I didn’t need to. There are many Bongbongs and Arturos in the world I grew up in. Charming and privileged, he is at first reluctant to accept the role he has been born into – heir to a political family that finds itself tainted by its association with the ousted dictator. His mother, not unlike Imelda Marcos, orchestrates and plots her son’s future. Arturo will change, of course, over the course of the novel, as will the sisters who love him. Fiction has some advantages over life.

The Betrayed is a political novel, but it is also, perhaps essentially, a novel about how we try and too often fail to love. How we may long for one person, against all reason. Pilar, the honest, upright sister, falls in love with her sister Lali’s husband. And Lali, more experienced in matters of the flesh and more desperate, offers Pilar to her husband to save her marriage. Let them go through it to the end, Lali thinks. Let their passion burn itself out. She finds out that the course and consequences of desire are never predictable.

In the novel, as elsewhere, nothing is black and white. Torn by conflicting passions, characters betray themselves and others. The two sisters and the man they love want to do good, or at least to do no harm, but they live in a damaged, violent world. Their craving for safety, power or an end to loneliness brings them close to destroying those they love most and the best parts of themselves.

I grew up in a world where the centre of power was never far away. And yet I was always on the margins. In the Philippines, I felt Filipina but was white – but there was a category for that in my world, mestiza. My mother was a Filipina of mixed heritage: Filipina, Chinese, Lebanese, Spanish (the heritage was invented and reinvented). My father’s background was simpler and therefore, to me, stranger. He was proud of his Irish roots, as was my mother: she said the Irish and Filipinos were really so much alike – the Catholicism, the family ties, the black humor, the awareness of supernatural beings – even as she added fish sauce and ginger to her rare attempts at Irish food.

In the tropical heat and humidity of Manila, I grew up with a myth of Ireland, but when I finally visited the country, I felt like a foreigner. I had the nationality, the stories, the father and grandparents, but I didn’t sound Irish at all, and I didn’t have the lived experience nor that sense of loss and longing that made the Philippines so present after I left it. Eventually I settled in Paris, in an exile more of romanticism and rootlessness than of political necessity. There the real work of writing the novel began, far from a homeland and the myths of a possible home.

The Betrayed is published by Europa Editions