THE WRITING LIFE ... Miguel SYJUCO
AN ILLUSTRIOUS DÉBUT
2008 Man Asian Literary Prize-winner MIGUEL SYJUCO talks to ERIC FORBES about his unconventional début novel 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.
Tell me something about yourself. What do you work as? Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Manila and lived most of my life there, but I ran away to become a writer. My father is a politician, and it was hoped that I would follow in his footsteps, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to stomach the compromises or hypocrisies necessary to succeed in politics there. I’ve always hoped my role was as a writer, as an interpreter of different truths. And I’ve lived my life to be able to pursue that goal, residing in New York, Adelaide and Montreal, and working some very odd jobs (bartender, Ebay powerseller of overrun ladies’ handbags, assistant to a bookie, medical guinea pig, door bitch). Thankfully, I didn’t have to do those jobs for too many years, and I was able to make some sort of life as a freelance writer, journalist and copy editor. Now, I’m very pleased that I can focus on my fiction full time, and I quit my job at the Montreal Gazette in February 2008 so that I could focus on writing full time.
What was it like growing up in the Philippines? Where do you live now? Which is/are your favourite place/s and why? What is it like living in Montreal?
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. If one grows up comfortable, as I was fortunate to, you see friends and classmates (and yourself) engaged in daily justifications and rationalisations for why we’re not doing more than we’re doing. All too often the attitude is: things are the way they are, and we can’t do much to change them. And yet, we can’t leave our houses and 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. So we scratch our heads and wonder: this is our reality that cannot be changed? It’s so heinous that we can’t fathom it as a constant, and yet progress is so slow, and two steps forward are usually met with three steps back. So growing up in Manila is complicated—and frustrating. (Metro Manila traffic is the perfect metaphor.) On the other hand, you see a country that is so naturally paradisiacal and bountiful, and you meet a people who are friendly, smart, hardworking, who love to sing and dance, who have learned how to cope in a society that wears on them every day. So frustration lives alongside hope, anger stands beside joy, and good and bad are blurred out by the realities of trying to survive. 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. But I constantly wonder if I should be returning home to do more. I do want to be an international writer, or a post-nationalist writer, because I believe more in the potentialities of a general humanity than I do in the limitations of nationalism, and therefore I like just selling everything I own to wash up in an entirely foreign city. Every city I’ve lived in has been a favourite of mine, especially in retrospect. Nostalgia is a very powerful force.
When did you know you were going to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
In college, I flunked out of my economics major. I didn’t know what new major to pursue, but I knew I liked reading and couldn’t do maths, so I chose English literature. It was then that I started writing short stories and very bad poetry. After I graduated, during the dot-com boom, I started a city guide and lifestyle website with some classmates. As the editor, I had to teach myself how to be a reporter and reviewer, and my only teachers were newspapers, books and magazines. That was a great experience: I learned with the rigorous trial and error of the self-taught; and I also started the very intimate relationship I have with Manila as a city, and also changed the way I engage with any of the cities I find myself in. I left Manila in 2001 to do a master’s degree in creative writing at Columbia University. Aside from the odd jobs I did, I 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. In 2005, sick of hustling, I went with my girlfriend to start a life in Australia. There, I worked as a reporter, copy editor and then online editor at The Independent Weekly newspaper in Adelaide. That was one of the best working experiences I’ve had. We were an upstart start-up trying to fight the good fight in what had been a one-newspaper town, whose daily rag was The Advertiser, Rupert Murdoch’s home paper. During my stay in Adelaide, I was given a full scholarship to do my PhD in English literature, with a focus on creative writing, and I jumped on that chance. It would allow me to write full time. So I quit my jobs and put all my eggs in one basket, and started writing Ilustrado.
What do you enjoy most about your life as a writer? What do you fear most as a writer?
There are many things I enjoy about my life as a writer. Like any life, it’s filled with profundities and superficialities: I love never, ever having to wake up to the shriek of an alarm clock ever again; I love the fact that the constant reading of good books is a required exercise for the betterment of my craft; I love being able to take a week off whenever I want, while I’m ostensibly “thinking,” and that the act of living is research for what I will one day write. More than anything, I love being able to see how things connect and work out, and seeing my skills grow before my eyes. But like anything, there’s the flip side—I wake up and have to have a tremendous amount of discipline to work and not just watch TV or think of titles for great works I dream of one day writing; I have a hard time reading books for pure enjoyment because I’m either reviewing them or unavoidably studying them for my craft; and I have to work long stretches—weekdays, holidays and weekends—to meet deadlines, or get bits of my work right. As a writer, I have 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? I write to better understand myself and my place in the world, and my writing is an articulation of what I’m working through. Those can’t help but be very private thoughts and ideas, but we write and publish because we have faith that what we’re writing has some value worth sharing. But there’s always that fear that I’m wrong, that I’m just like that guy at a party who is drunk and coked up and insists on telling everyone his great ideas. The search for self-knowledge can’t help but come with self-doubt. The quest for constant improvement can’t help but include growing pains.
What was it like winning the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize? How scary was it when the literary world turned its attention on you and your novel?
Winning the prize was an incredulous experience. It still is. I’m still stupefied that they gave me the prize because I was up against some very strong and seasoned competition: Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, Kaveri Nambisan, Yu Hua and Alfred A. Yuson. 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. 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. I’ve been blessed with getting fantastic agents in the US and UK, and with amazing publishers. If anyone told me my novel would be published in 15 countries and 11 languages, I would have laughed so hard at them I’d have cried. 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. Ultimately, the real test will be whether readers like it. If the book can make them think, feel and laugh, then I’m happy.
I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their formative years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary heroes and influences?
I read everything I could get my hands on. The Hardy Boys series, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and The Bible, were all wonderful works that had a profound effect on me when I was young. So did comics—Marvel, DC, and later the work of Neil Gaiman. Fantasy and sci-fi were my gateway drugs into the addictions of literature. In high school and college, I read a lot of American writers, because the Philippines always seems to be influenced by America. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, etc. Now, I’m interested in any good writing. 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. 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.
What kinds of books do you read now? Any particular genre, and why?
Personally, I’m partial to imperfect books, because the good imperfect ones are the result of a writer who reached further than he or she was comfortable with. A sublime failure is more interesting to me than an easily perfect book. And those books doomed to fail because of their ambition are the books that I look for. More prosaically, I do read almost anything, and I try to finish even those I don’t like, out of respect. I host a weekly radio slot called The Biblio-File on CBC’s Radio Canada International where I discuss a book a week and I try to do two Canadian books and two international books a month. So now I’m discovering Canadian literature, which is wonderfully rich. As for genres, I read everything, but mostly fiction, because fiction is what I do. 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. Though, I must admit, Patrick O’Brian’s work is like crack to me.
Could you suggest a couple of good reads that haven’t got as much attention as they deserve in the press? Which novel, in your opinion, should never ever be out of stock, and why?
That’s a tough question. I’m at the moment absolutely in love with the work of two Canadian literary writers: Joseph Boyden (Through Black Spruce, Three Day Road) and Colin McAdam (Fall, Some Great Thing). They are fantastic writers and I will read anything they come up with. They are getting good attention in Canada, but I think they are absolutely world class. My favourite novel, which I always come back to, is Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It’s got everything—deep and shallow—to keep a pseudo-intellect like mine interested. But in terms of inspiration, I go to the books of Ryszard Kapuściński.
What is the current state of literature in the Philippines today?
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. I believe to have a national literature, that literature has to be read. And it’s just not happening as much as it should be. You wouldn’t know it by going to a bookshop in Makati, though, because they are bustling, with people snatching 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. So Philippine literature 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. I think the best way to answer your question is with this 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 it 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 the prize, and hope it will help shine a light on Philippine literature.
Who are some of your favourite Filipino authors—both contemporary and in the past?
My favourites 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. Jose “Butch” Dalisay’s Soledad’s Sister was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007, and he’s 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. We have Jessica Hagedorn (Dogeaters), Han Ong (The Disinherited), Bino A. Realuyo (The Umbrella Country), and so many others. 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.
Was it difficult getting your first novel published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher? When will it be out?
I spent years querying agents while I worked on it. And the constant flow of rejection slips served to keep me rethinking my approach and goals. But the rejections also spurred me to try writing other things, because I figured a shotgun approach might get me somewhere. So I wrote a second novel, a short-story collection, and was halfway through a third novel when Ilustrado was picked up. All the while, I had a colleague from my Columbia writing programme, a brilliant writer named John C. Evans, helping me revise and develop almost every draft, and he both encouraged and guided me all throughout. I’m really lucky to have a friend like him, or I think I’d have given up a long time ago. Now, thankfully, people have deemed Ilustrado worthwhile. Luck has always been on my side, and I now also have a wonderful editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Eric Chinski, who is helping me revise the manuscript to completion. His guidance has been so valuable to me. It’s been kismet, in a way, as Eric believes in my work, plus his wife is Filipina! So it does seem like the stars have been aligned for me. Ilustrado will be out in late spring of 2010.
Could you tell me a bit about Ilustrado? What are some of the themes you deal with in it? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the story?
I’d much rather let my work stand for itself, but since people are curious and since the publication date is a year away, I’m happy to talk about it this time. I did indeed have a pretty solid idea of what I wanted to address when I started the book. 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. He had been living in exile, after his literary career rose then fell. 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 me to expand the novel’s scope to include Philippine history, without coming off as didactic (a problem with a lot of Philippine literature in English, which is often weighed down by self-conscious explanation to Western readers, or self-exoticisation to sell books to the West). Crispin’s work was itself weighed down by those problems, and therefore I was allowed to address and parody such issues. I was also able to go back in time, to touch on the Spanish settlers, to touch on the revolution of the late 1800s, the Spanish-American War, the American Occupation, World War II, the post-war communist threat, the Marcos regime, and the post-Marcos problems. Of course, as a début novelist, I had to work within restraints (few publishers would risk publishing a 400,000-word history of a far-flung country). I also had to keep in mind that I wanted to be read by both Filipinos and international readers. So I tried a light touch, sort of a teaser into Philippine history as a way to delve deep into current Philippine culture and show that the problems are recurring and endemic, just as the hope and the idealism is recurring and constant. I also had to include my own experiences a bit, too, since I’ve had my perspective of Philippine society, and also because my work is my own way of working out my own questions and understanding them myself. So what resulted (I hope) is a somewhat personal, but also universal, and also historical, story. The term “ilustrado” refers to a group of young Filipinos in the late 1800s who left their country and studied abroad, leaning all they could to later return to the Philippines and contribute to our revolution against the Spanish colonisers. In my book, I tried to expand the idea of an “ilustrado” to include every Filipino abroad now who has the potential to contribute to a new social revolution for our troubled home. In a sense, the book is a call to remembering that we are Filipinos, no matter how long we’ve lived abroad, and that hope is not dead even if the country’s problems all seem so hopeless. The literal translation of “ilustrado” is “enlightened.” The enlightened Filipinos can be the nurse, the student, the maid, the construction worker, the whore, the diplomat, the professional, as long as we don’t forget who we are. As long as we don’t pull up our roots, or bury them with indifference.
How would you describe your second novel which you are still working on? How different is it from your first, Ilustrado?
My second novel, “I Was the President’s Mistress” is the biography of the Philippine starlet Vita Nova, as told to her ghostwriter 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, and I’m really looking forward to working on it with them.
I read in an interview that you write short stories. Do you have a favourite short story or short-story collection?
I do indeed write short stories, but I’ve come to prefer the novel form. My favourite short-story writers are Cheever, Borges, Updike and Bolaño. I recently finished The Boat, by the wonderful writer Nam Le, and was blown away by how good it is. The book works on so many levels and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
Do you think short stories are gaining more popularity? Publishers find story collections a hard sell. Do you think it is harder to publish story collections than novels? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people read more of such collections?
I think that compared to novels, short stories are much easier to write in the creative writing workshop setting. Therefore we have so many writers now writing them. I can’t help but think that will lead to higher-quality writers, and I’d like to have faith that readers will therefore read more short stories. I’m told that publishers have a hard time selling story collections, and that agents therefore discourage their clients or potential clients from writing them. But it makes sense to me that because of the proliferation of creative writing programs, there will be a proliferation of story writers, stories written, and story readers. What can we do to make people read more short stories? I don’t know. One of the reasons I’ve grown a bit cold on short-story collections is because many of them are so conventional—they deal with the microcosm of domestic drama, or offer a slice of life of some sort of ethnic experience, or simply chart the same sort of narrative trajectory we’ve seen all too many times. I don’t know why short stories can’t reach for more. I certainly think they can and should. That being said, I try with my own short stories, but they don’t turn out very good. Yet.
Do you think there are differences between writing short stories and full-length novels? Which form do you prefer working on?
Yes, there is of course a huge difference. Novels give you far more space to develop your story and its characters. You can go off on digressions, develop ideas, and simply take your time. I much prefer the novel form, perhaps because I don’t have maybe either the skill or the discipline to pull off short stories.
Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
I think that anything that gets people reading more and writing more will increase the number of good writers and good writing. Perhaps this is even more important now because it may offset the fact that people are reading newspapers far less, and those newspapers they are reading have become so abbreviated and anaemic they now only convey news. I don’t believe you can teach someone how 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. I enjoyed my creative writing programs, because they gave me a community of people as lost and as dreamy and as ambitious and as curious as I was. Much of writing is very solitary, though creative writing programs show new writers that it doesn’t always have to be completely lonesome, and that it can be collaborative in many ways. They are also good training grounds for teaching us not to be precious with our work, to have thick skin, to value editing and revision, and to treat writing like a job and not something contingent on inspiration.
What do you think of the suggestion that writing short stories is a training ground for novelists?
Like I said, writing anything will prepare you for writing other things. Short stories are good training for novels, but I also think that journalism is equally, if not more, important. At least to me it was. I hope to be able to try my hand at scriptwriting one day, because I’m sure it will also teach me new skills for my novels, my short stories, my journalism, and my life.
In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction?
There are so many links to that chain. 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. When I read a book, I think of the work of Ryszard Kapuściński, whom I mentioned earlier. I once read an interview he had with Bill Buford. Kapuściński was asked about his work and he replied: “Ah, you have just touched upon an important point in my thinking. Twenty years ago, I was in Africa, and this is what I saw: I went from revolution to coup d’ètat, from one war to another; I witnessed, in effect, history in the making, real history, contemporary history, our history. But I was also surprised: I never saw a writer. I never met a poet or a philosopher—even a sociologist. Where were they? Such important events, and not a single writer anywhere? Then I would return to Europe and I would find them. They would be at home, writing their little domestic stories: the boy, the girl, the laughing, the intimacy, the marriage, the divorce—in short, the same story we’ve been reading over and over again for a thousand years.” I’ve been lucky that I had the palette of Philippine experience to paint from. But once my two books on the Philippines are done, then I’ve got to get out there and follow Kapuściński’s path. Against the standard work like his has set is how I’ve developed my idea of what makes good fiction good.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am revising Ilustrado for the last half-dozen times before the end of July 2009. The finish line is in sight, and I hope I’ve run with all my heart. At the very least, I think I’ve grown as a writer, which is all I can really ever ask for.
What do you look forward to experiencing at the Singapore Writers Festival in October 2009?
I’m really looking forward to learning more about my fellow writers and their work. I am ashamed that I am not as Asian-centric as I ought to be, and I hope that the Singapore Writers Festival in October 2009 will be another important step towards remedying that tilt. Alas, the Philippines has historically had an affinity with the United States, our former colonisers, and because I later studied in New York and am now living in Montreal, I tend to miss out on a lot of the exciting literary happenings in Asia. I’ll be attending the festival not only as a writer, but as a voracious reader as well, so I’ll be able to see both sides of what the festival is famous for doing so well. Also, I can’t wait to have a Singapore Sling at the world-famous Raffles Hotel, and eat a lot of stingray. I know I’ll leave Singapore several kilos heavier, with my notebook filled with ideas, and lugging overweight luggage brimming with books from the writers I’ll meet there. That sounds to me like the definition of a successful festival!
Ilustrado will be published in late spring 2010 in Canada by Penguin Canada’s Hamish Hamilton, in the US by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (April 27, 2010), in the UK by Picador, in Australia and New Zealand by Random House, and in the Philippines by the University of Philippines Press
The interview was conducted in June and July 2009 in conjunction with Miguel Syjuco’s appearance at the Singapore Writers Festival on October 24 to November 1, 2009