Tuesday, October 27, 2009


2008 Man Asian Literary Prize-winner MIGUEL SYJUCO talks to ERIC FORBES about his unconventional début novel, Ilustrado, which begins as a murder mystery and evolves into a meditation on Philippine history and society

MIGUEL SYJUCO (pronounced as ‘see-hoo-co’) was born in Manila in 1976, and has lived in New York, Paris and Adelaide. In 2008, the manuscript of his début novel, Ilustrado, won the US$10,000 Man Asian Literary Prize and was awarded the Grand Prize at the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, a significant literary award in the Philippines. He lives in Montreal, Canada. Ilustrado will be out in the late spring of 2010.

Syjuco was born in Manila and lived most of his life there, but left the Philippines to become a writer. “I now live and write in Montreal, which is a wonderful city, because it is a place where I can make a living as a writer, and I can also be free to write what I like,” he says, although he constantly wonders if he should return to the Philippines to do more. He quit working as a copy editor for the Montreal Gazette in February 2008 to focus on writing full time. He also hosts a weekly radio slot called The Biblio-File on CBC’s Radio Canada International where he discusses a book a week, and he tries to do two Canadian books and two international books a month.

Syjuco’s comfortable background as the son of a politician led him and his classmates to engage in “justifications and rationalisations for why we’re not doing more than we’re doing.”

Growing up in Manila was both complicating and frustrating. “I found living in the Philippines to be very confusing. I think that we as a people are constantly beset by collective puzzlement because the country’s problems are so complex, the solutions so elusive, and the morality so skewed.” The Metro Manila traffic is the perfect metaphor for this state of confusion and he points out that one cannot “drive down the street without seeing beggars, street children, environmental rape, and the guarded and gleaming convoys of the rich and powerful parting traffic on their way to congress, or the golf club, or the mall, or home.”

He did not want to follow in his father’s footsteps although it was expected of him. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to stomach the compromises or hypocrisies necessary to succeed in Philippine politics.

Syjuco failed his economics major in college, which led him to pursue English literature instead and he started writing short stories and some “very bad poetry.”

After graduating, during the dot-com boom, he started a city guide and lifestyle website with some classmates, which helped him learn with the rigorous trial and error of the self-taught. “As the editor, I had to teach myself how to be a reporter and reviewer, and my only teachers were newspapers, books and magazines.”

To him, a writer is “an interpreter of different truths.” He later left Manila in 2001 to do a master’s degree in creative writing at Columbia University, an experience he enjoyed tremendously “because they gave me a community of people as lost and as dreamy and as ambitious and as curious as I was.”

On formal creative-writing training, he doesn’t believe someone can be taught to write, “and that’s a good thing, because it proves that writing is still an art and craft. But you can indeed teach people the skills they need to learn how to work their material into something formidable.”

He then stayed overseas and worked some very odd jobs, which include being a bartender, Ebay powerseller of overrun ladies’ handbags and medical guinea pig. He also interned in the fiction department of The New Yorker, worked as a research assistant at Esquire, and served as a fiction reader for The Paris Review and managed to “make some sort of life” as a writer.

In 2005, “sick of hustling,” he went with his girlfriend to start a life in Adelaide, Australia. There, he worked as a reporter, copy editor, and then online editor at The Independent Weekly newspaper. He later obtained a full scholarship to do his PhD in English literature with a focus on creative writing. “So I quit my jobs and put all my eggs in one basket, and started writing Ilustrado.”

Syjuco, though familiar with the constant flow of rejection slips, nevertheless carried on writing. “So I wrote a second novel, a short-story collection, and was halfway through a third novel when Ilustrado was picked up,” he recalls.

His first novel, Ilustrado, starts out with the death of Crispin Salvador, a former lion of Philippine literature who is found dead in the Hudson River in New York. Suicide is ruled as the cause of death. His young acolyte, Miguel, is suspicious, because missing from Salvador’s apartment is a long-awaited manuscript that was to have been an exposé of the corruption of the Philippine ruling elite. So Miguel returns to Manila to investigate, but discovers that the story is as much his as it is his mentor’s.

“That’s the summary of the book, but the murder-mystery construct allowed me to pull the reader in so that I could attempt a broader meditation on Philippine society. The book collects the fictional Salvador’s oeuvre, and I therefore created his work: excerpts of a memoir, short stories, poetry, interviews, jokes, notes, biography, etc.” This allowed him to expand the novel’s scope to include Philippine history, without coming off as didactic, as he believes that the problem with a lot of Philippine literature in English is that they are often weighed down by self-conscious explanation to Western readers, or self-exoticisation to sell books to the West.

Syjuco’s criteria for good fiction is complex. “For fiction to be more than mere entertainment, it needs to have some weight to it. For it to have weight, it needs to tackle important quiddities. For it to approach quiddities, it has to have its grievances, because a world with grievances is just reality. But for it to be good and be read, it needs to be carefully written and beautiful and entertaining. To me, it needs to be all those things. The best fiction teeters on the fine line between being too simple and being too obscure—it has to challenge the readers, but it also has to reward them. And to understand that relationship with the reader, the writer needs to be engaged with the world.”

Like any life, writers are filled with “profundities and superficialities.” Syjuco enjoys “never, ever having to wake up to the shriek of an alarm clock ever again” amongst other things, such as reading good books being a required exercise to improve his craft. His flexible schedule allows him to take a week off whenever he wants to think about his work, and everyday life is potential material. “More than anything, I love being able to see how things connect and work out, and seeing my skills grow before my eyes,” he says.

“But like anything, there’s the flip side,” he warns. It takes tremendous amount of discipline to abstain from watching TV or simply dreaming of great novels, not to mention working long hours to meet deadlines. Books are either for review or study because there is no time to read books for pure enjoyment. Despite being an acclaimed writer, he has many issues: “Am I hamfisted? Am I relevant? Is my work worth reading? Have I lost touch with the world while I was at home sequestered at my desk? Am I pigeonholing myself into an ethnicity? Am I misguided in my experiments and theories about how my fiction works? Should I just quit and do something else?”

After working on Ilustrado, which will be published in 2010, Syjuco will work on his second novel, “I Was the President’s Mistress,” the biography of the Philippine starlet Vita Nova, as told to her ghostwriter, ironically named Miguel Syjuco. “It is a collection of her interviews as she talks about her rise from a very simple country girl as she slept her way through Philippine society to ultimately become the mistress of the president.” It has already been sold to Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US and Penguin Canada’s Hamish Hamilton.

It was and still is an “incredulous experience” for Syjuco, a début novelist who was up against such published writers as Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, Kaveri Nambisan, Yu Hua and Alfred A. Yuson. “I’m still stupefied that they gave me the prize, because I was up against some very strong and seasoned competition. This is my first novel. I’ve never even tried to write a novel in my life, so I was shocked that anyone finished reading it, much less liked it.”

Having struggled for years in getting agents and publishers to pick up his manuscript, he welcomed the big break. “I spent years sending my stories to competitions, my novel excerpts to agents and publishers, but nobody bit. It was many years of constant return to the proverbial drawing board, to rethink, revise, redo my work. Winning the prize was also reassuring that perhaps my ideas of how fiction can work—how the novel can function differently from usual—weren’t entirely daft. It’s still a very scary thing to have the literary world looking at me and my work.”

Syjuco’s novel will be published in 15 countries and 11 languages. “But now I deal with the fear that I only have that because I won the prize, and not because the prize got the book into the hands of the right people who would appreciate it,” he says. “Ultimately, the real test will be whether readers like it. If the book can make them think, feel and laugh, then I’m happy.”

Like most writers, Syjuco’s literary diet was insatiable since a young age. He read almost anything he could get his hands on. He read the Hardy Boys series, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and The Bible, which all had a profound effect on him when he was young. So did comics—Marvel, DC, and later the works of Neil Gaiman. Fantasy and science fiction were his “gateway drugs into the addictions of literature.” In high school and college, he read a lot of American writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and John Cheever.

“Roberto Bolaño has been very important to me because I discovered him after I wrote Ilustrado and saw that here was someone also trying something unconventional and getting away with it,” he says on the literature he reads today. “I love Jorge Luis Borges, Donald Barthelme and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Sadly, I’m very Western-centric in my reading, though I’m changing that more and more.” He says that Patrick O’Brian’s work “is like crack to me” and his favourite novel is still Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. “It’s got everything—deep and shallow—to keep a pseudo-intellect like mine interested.” For inspiration, he goes to the books of Ryszard Kapuscinski. He tries to finish even those books he doesn’t like out of respect.

As for genres, he reads everything, but mostly fiction, because fiction is what he does. “I’m trying to read romance novels and crime writing, because I know there are many things—like plot development, sustaining readers’ suspense, etc.—that I need to learn for my own craft. But I’m finding it hard because I learn from their structures but I can’t get past the uninspired writing.”

The state of Philippine literature has always been complicated and therefore very interesting. “We’ve had a very rich literary tradition, in English and in our native languages and dialects, but we’re not a country of readers.” However, bookshops in Makati still bustle with business, where people snatch up Harry Potter, The Alchemist and The Secret.

But then the Filipiniana sections of bookshops are usually overlooked. “If a Filipino writer publishes abroad, then usually that book will be displayed prominently in the bookshop, no matter how badly written it may be compared to those languishing in the section of local books.”

“Philippine literature,” Syjuco continues, “is freighted with so many issues. We ask: why doesn’t the world read us? I think the honest answer is that not all that comes out is of a high quality, and those that are of a high quality don’t have access to the agents and publishers that can get the book out into the world. I think we Filipinos need to work together to help each other refine our work and to push that work to a global audience. But sometimes—not always—we suffer from a crab mentality, pulling each other down.”

Syjuco provides an anecdote: “I’ve been working on my novel for nearly four years now, and after it received attention I had many from the Philippine literati asking to see it, saying they wanted to help me edit and revise it so that we could have a good showing internationally. Naive as I am, I sent out my manuscript to about a dozen fellow writers. Either they hated it, or something else deeper is going on, because I haven’t received a single bit of help from any of my countrymen. As I revised over the years, I’ve had Western editors, writing programme colleagues, and literary friends go line by line, poring over my work through multiple versions. But not a single Filipino has helped me. And yet, they are so proud of the book having won, and hope it will help shine a light on Philippine literature.”

His favourite Filipino writers “have always been Carlos Bulosan, Bienvenido Santos, Nick Joaquin and Gregorio Brillantes.” Of the more contemporary authors, there’s Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, Antonio Hidalgo and Lourd de Veyra. “One fantastic writer is Clinton Palanca, whose prose is probably the most beautiful in the country, though he is between books right now and I do hope he’ll be coming out with something new soon.” He also names Jose “Butch” Dalisay, whose Solidad’s Sister was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007, a “wonderful stylist.”

“And we can’t forget the Filipino-American writers, who are an integral part of our national literature as chroniclers of the Filipino experience.” Names that instantly come to mind include Jessica Hagedorn (Dogeaters), Han Ong (The Disinherited) and Bino A. Realuyo (The Umbrella Country), amongst others.

“And if we’re talking about poets, there are just too many to mention. We’re a culture of poets, though not enough people read poetry.”

Illustrado will be published in 2010 in Canada by Penguin Canada’s Hamish Hamilton, in the US by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, in the UK by Picador, in Australia and New Zealand by Random House, and in the Philippines by the University of Philippines Press

Reproduced from the Singapore Writers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine


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