Interview with Miguel Syjuco

by Anna Georgia Mackay

BORN IN 1976, Miguel Syjuco is a freelance writer from Metro Manila in the Philippines. Since finishing a Bachelor of English literature in Manila, Miguel has lived in Adelaide, where he completed his PhD in literature; in New York City, where he completed a Master of Fine Arts at Columbia University; in Paris, where he studied photography; and in Montreal, where he worked at a newspaper before writing full-time. Most recently, Miguel was a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University (2013–14) and a writer-in-residence at NTU in Singapore (2014–15), where he completed his imminent second novel, I Was The President’s Mistress!! A Celebrity Tell-All Memoir. He currently lives in northern Italy.

In 2008, Syjuco’s debut novel Ilustrado (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) won the Palanca Grand Prize – the Philippines’ top literary prize, given only every three years – and the Man Asian Literary Prize. In Ilustrado, Syjuco delves into the psyche of the Filipino wealthy, following a self-inspired character named ‘Miguel’ on his return to Manila to investigate the death of one Crispin Salvador, ‘the great lion of Filipino letters’. Salvador’s life is animated by Syjuco with an aesthetic he has dubbed ‘récollage’: using a bricolage of realistic reference material, Salvador’s own preoccupation with Filipino society becomes a window for readers into Philippine political history and its tradition of literature in English. In his essay, ‘Beating Dickheads’, Miguel shows that democracy remains a distant vision for contemporary Filipinos while political power stays fixed in the hands of a ruling elite. Strict curtailments on freedom of speech, coupled with the ridiculous excesses perpetrated by the rich and powerful, have pushed political critique into the genres of humour, rumour and satire – and into the forums of internet media and breakfast table banter. Miguel would like to see fiction writing become another space for Filipinos to practice peaceful, meaningful dissent.

After the publication of 'Beating Dickheads' in Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now, Miguel's father announced on 10 September 2015 his intentions to run in the 2016 Phillipine presidential elections. Miguel responded to the news on his personal Facebook page with this statement:

This is my father. He and my mother raised me into the man I’ve become. In matters personal and public, as a son I’ve learned positive things from both a father’s veritable good examples and inevitable bad examples. I love him, just as all sons and daughters love their dads, however complicated it gets, however violently they may disagree.

Ever since I was a little boy, my dad encouraged me to be president of the country we all love. Ever since then, I’ve used what art and skill and effort I have to do my small part in participating in our democracy, as a citizen superior to none and only equal to all. In that spirit, I’m lucky to have been able to respectfully reject my dad’s political views while he has respectfully accepted mine.

Similarly, one thing I’ve learned from interacting with people via social and traditional media is that while we differ on what route to take, most of us agree on the same dream of where our country should be. In other words, we all believe in different paths, but they’re all paths yearning for the same direction: forward and up. I think this realisation germinated from my rocky but loving relationship with my father.

Today’s news about his candidacy surprised me most of all. My dad and I don’t speak often; I've moved far away and almost two decades ago I started from scratch my own shaky writerly subsistence – but I know my dad wants the best for me, as I of course want for him. When I read this article below, I selfishly thought: 'Lecheng yawa [damn]! Now I can no longer criticise, as we writers do, those powerful few who vye to lead us unempowered many.' I felt suddenly silenced. I feared that if I criticised the other candidates, but not him, I would be viewed as biased. I feared that if I criticised him the way I do other candidates, it would hurt my family and the mother and father who have loved me unconditionally.

But you’ve all seen me stand for three big ideals: equality, honesty, and freedom of speech. I can be unbearably earnest and often wrong, terribly preachy and contradictory as a blatant sinner, but I’m committed to those three ideals. It’s why I advocate for gender equality. Why I’m honest about my weaknesses and faults. And why I speak out constantly and always invite others to do similarly.

This is because my father raised me to believe we all can and should have a say in the workings of our democracy. This election is vital for our country – it often seems make-or-break, doesn’t it? Therefore, none of us should be silenced. Not me, not you. Discussion (civic, if not always civil) is vital for any free and fair society. And dissent (as a wise historian said) is the highest form of patriotism. So let’s all please do our part in holding our leaders (each and every one of them) to the highest of standards – using our courts, media, and our constitutional right to a voice and a vote. There are some things I can say that you cannot, and there are some things you can say that I cannot; that’s sadly the way the world is. But if we each do what we can, together we can please, please, demand the kind of leaders and country that every single citizen deserves.


You have reflected that the Philippines is a country ‘most of us have forgotten’ – ‘it’s not a trendy country like Afghanistan.’ Why do you think that is? Has it always been that way?

MIGUEL SYJUCO: The Philippines, like many countries in the geopolitical margins, is a fascinating place: colonised by the Spanish and Americans, maritime gateway to Asia, historically shaped by trade and immigration from Indonesia, China, Malaysia, Christians and Muslims – it’s the region’s ultimate melting pot. As our tourism slogan says, ‘It’s more fun in the Philippines!’ But we humans are fickle and faddish, especially as readers – oo-ing over Latin America’s magical realism, then aah-ing over writers from the South Asian subcontinent, then Scandinavian crime, then heralding autofiction as the next big thing, and so on and so forth. There was once great interest in the Philippines, from newspapers and international publishers, both when we were a US colony before the Second World War and during the 1980s, when the dictator and US puppet Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in the relatively bloodless People Power Revolution. But attentions, with the news cycle, have since moved on – the end of the Cold War, turmoil in the Middle East, terrorism and Islamic extremism. I think that’s naturally reflected by what people are reading – though the publishing industry, like Saturn devouring his son, has a lot to answer for. That said, I’d like to remain optimistic and instead view reading fads as speaking to our (very beautiful and hopeful) desire to find the humanity beneath the surface of those stories only superficially plumbed by newspaper articles, political punditry and social media. We humans rightly want to read the books that best explain what’s happening to our complicated world.

You have prefaced the publication of your new novel, I Was The President’s Mistress!! A Celebrity Tell-All Memoir, by describing it as the second in a trilogy that begins with Ilustrado. What will unite these novels? What do you have in mind for the final instalment?

In order to better understand the country where I’m from, I want to write about its past, present, and future. Ilustrado looked at the past: one hundred and fifty years of Philippine history, particularly the role of the elite in getting the country to the shitty situation we’re now in. President’s Mistress looks at the present, in an attempt to understand the justifications we all make for our inertia in addressing our society’s problems. My third novel, Lichtenberg, which I’m excited to have started, will look at the future –two things in particular: the political obstacles that hinder forward progress, and the increasing consequences of climate change, which I believe are already the imminent future’s defining problem (especially in developing countries not known for prescient planning). What will unite these three books is both the engagement with my home country and my obsession with the dynamic between socio-political institutions and all-too-human individuals. I’m fascinated by politics precisely because of its visible and invisible effects on the individual, just as I’m interested in the individual’s ability to engage with and influence politics and society. Fiction, to my mind, out of all the arts, has the greatest potential in examining the very visceral, quotidian human experience of our more abstract, incomprehensible and often dehumanising society. In my trilogy, to paraphrase the poet, I want to see, in a grain of sand, the world.

 

Is there a relationship between the historical figure of José Rizal and your protagonist in Ilustrado, Crispin Salvador? They each feature as models of Philippine literary achievement in your writing. Can you tell us about your interest in the Philippines’ English literary tradition and the nineteenth-century ‘Ilustrados’?

Yes, there is certainly a relationship. José Rizal was a pioneer in the art of the Philippine novel, which has not evolved as much as it should have, due to a still maturing reading culture among Filipinos and our emphasis on writing short stories. Which is where my protagonist Crispin Salvador comes in, as someone who brashly attempted to continue the progress of the novel as a Filipino art form. Where Rizal was the germination, Crispin was the cultivator dealing with specific issues in our literature that have frustrated me both as a reader and a writer – exoticisation, didacticism, identity politics, colonial mentality, class war, provincial attempts at exclusion and so on. Ilustrado, and Crispin’s life, are very much a questioning of these weaknesses of Filipino literature. To those questions I have no answers – yet. But my novel, like many books, was an attempt to underline those questions so that we could begin, finally, to answer them together, both as readers and as writers. Literature, after all, is a conversation.

As for the Ilustrados, this tradition of questioning arguably started with them. If a country’s literature is both its story and its soul, then that would explain my interest in their work, since they were among the first Filipinos to engage with the wider world and return, with what they saw and learned abroad, to shape our country. Many were writers who believed in activism, and many were activists who believed greatly in the role literature plays in society.

The Filipino experience is very much a global one – more so than many countries. And despite some who insist (in order to selfishly guard their monopoly of the conversation) that ours is a homogeneous culture obliterated by colonialism, the truth is the Filipino experience is wonderfully varied, mixed, local and global. This is something Rizal embodied one hundred and twenty years ago, and Crispin pursued in his fictional life, and in which I believe wholeheartedly today.

You have described the structure in Ilustrado as ‘récollage,’ though you initially drafted the novel using a linear narrative. Can you tell us about re-working the manuscript? How did the concept for the novel’s form develop?

Necessity is the mother of invention, and I took on a narrative structure that both challenged me as a writer and served very practical purposes. Yes, I do think many of the books I admire from Philippine literature suffer from the very practical necessity to explain our little-known culture to readers outside our shores – a necessity I also found myself compelled to address. Filipinos, you see, don’t enjoy the soft power (Hollywood films, French chansons, Crocodile Dundee, widely read novels, etc) that make known to the world the characteristics of other dominant cultures. So when I sat down to write my book, hoping that it would be read at home and abroad, I found myself bumping up against the need to provide potted histories, explications of our cultural nuances or translations of vernacular words. This is what necessitated Ilustrado’s invention: by using various texts (fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, news items, emails, jokes, etc), I exploited among them forms that are inherently didactic. I drew on the various tools in a writer’s toolbox, rather than just sticking to the typical, linear, straightforward narrative usually seen in fiction. From that starting point of a fragmentary narrative, I began to work through this idea of advancing the story thematically across textual forms and historical periods in order to play with resonance, parallels and contrasts, which I was pleased to discover allowed me to examine a wide swathe of Philippine history within a relatively short novel. Like an accordion folder that expands to fit a surprising amount of stuff, function, to me, dictates form.

You have also justified your fragmentary approach as a deliberate move away from the ‘didacticism’ that you think characterises much Filipino English literature. Do you see that tendency towards transparency as related to a sense of provincialism?

No, I don’t think it’s a sense of provincialism at all. Philippine literature, in both English and the vernaculars, is very sophisticated. It should be more widely read, and I believe it will soon be. (What is provincial is Philippine literary criticism, but that’s a topic for another interview.) What is confused as provincialism in our literature is simply a mix of the world not yet understanding our culture beyond superficiality and stereotypes, and the tendency of the dominant Western publishing industry to pigeonhole our writers and our books. Thus, the overabundance of family sagas, poverty porn, or descriptions tinged with the tropical or exotic. The provincialism exists not so much among Filipino writers as it does with Western readers and the editors in Sydney or New York or London. Thankfully, literature is a conversation, right? Through it, writers and readers on both sides can learn and grow their perspectives together. The more we read about another culture the more we understand it, and the less that culture feels it has to take this rare chance to explain itself.

You identify the Philippines as a ‘third-world’ society, where democratic process and values are not adequately recognised by the state. I know that you have also criticised first-world democracies such as Canada, North America and Australia for their political conservatism, cultural cynicism and tendency to alienate ‘smart people engaged in change.’ Can you talk about this critique?

It’s not a critique. It’s fucking madness. And we’re all involved. All those social issues you mention are facets of one simple thing: inequality. It’s as simple as those in power seeking to retain power, and doing all they can to retain their advantageous dynamic of inequality – be it by subjugating the press, the populace, the have-nots, women, minorities. It’s common sense, you can hardly blame them; it’s been that way throughout history. We see it in the Philippines and other developing countries, but this problem is global. Like snow blanketing all, it merely gathers most where the cracks are deepest – in fractured societies, like where I come from. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem everywhere. Everywhere. The inequality becomes institutionalised by economics, politics, and culture – the rich support certain politicians, and legislation is written to protect the supportive rich, all while voters are continuously disenfranchised and our right to protest is steadily eroded and silenced.

Think about it: it’s gotten so bad, the powers that be want to wrest from us even our right to protest. That’s all it is: our right to protest. Rupert Murdoch’s monopoly of Australian media, and all those one-newspaper towns, is the economic equivalent of Senator Tito Sotto pushing a law in the Philippine legislature criminalising online defamation, threatening irate tweeters and Facebookers with a jail sentence of twelve years. They want to control the conversation. Meanwhile, the Harper government’s defunding of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation can be seen as a tactic of silencing liberal dissent, and in that regard is the gentler sibling to the extreme jailing and lashing of dissidents by the Saudi government. They want to shut us up. Those are just easy examples of what’s happening everywhere. And I’m only talking freedom of expression – the citizenry’s right to voice our grievances.

To me, this proves how tenuous is the legitimacy of those in power, if they feel threatened merely by our words. It’s not enough that 1 per cent of the population now controls the equivalent wealth of the world’s poorest 50 per cent – by some estimates, that’s a few score of the world’s richest individuals owning the equivalent resources of 3.5 billion of the world’s poorest. It’s not enough that the pendulum is swinging and societies everywhere are becoming more xenophobic, less tolerant, more militantly religious. It’s not enough that sea levels are rising quickly; or that even those in the developed world live in a culture of constant fear; or that tens of thousands are taking to the seas to flee war and oppression in their homelands; or that our votes, when they count for anything, are only counted in a race between two terrible choices.

Yet the inequality that sustains all that is not enough – those in power still feel the need to continuously take from us our right to engage politically. The world’s in trouble, and broken is the system of democracy that was supposed to allow individuals to do something about it. It’s not a critique. It’s an alarm. It’s fucking madness.

You are interested in the respective assumptions that readers bring to fiction and non-fiction writing. Can you explain how your novels challenge that distinction? I know that you created several fake websites to substantiate characters in both Ilustrado and in President’s Mistress

I like telling stories. I like stories that are too good to be true. I like stories that are so fantastic you couldn’t make them up. I like keeping readers guessing, off-balance, because when they’re that way they’re paying attention, engaged. And who doesn’t want that in a reader? I’m fascinated by the mythologizing that makes people larger than life, just as I’m fascinated by the process in which I as a writer must make characters large enough to be alive. That’s both play and craft. That’s both telling the lie that tells the truth and telling the truth that exposes lies. I want to break those discomfitting assumptions readers bring to fiction as artifice, and break that comforting assumption that non-fiction (such as news, or the biographies of politicians – like that of the execrable Juan Ponce Enrile) is true. To me, a good book does not present the answers to the reader; To me, a good book prompts the reader to find her or his own answers. And if they’re always guessing, if they’re paying attention, then the answers will be their own; and that, as a writer, is precisely what I want.

As well as working on your second novel, you have also worked as a literary editor for The Manila Review. Can you tell us about that publication?

I’m no longer working in that capacity, to my sad misfortune. I’ve had to relinquish all involvement in anything else except finishing my current novel, and, of course, paying my bills. But The Manila Review has proved a milestone publication, widening the scope of Philippine literary criticism by expanding it to also include the diaspora, with their contributions of disparate perspectives from around the world, and their distance from the sometimes hermetic and incestuous centers of creation back home. This expansion is something seen in other cultures’ literatures, and it is a mark of maturation – and in the Philippines The Manila Review has been part of that. You see, the feudalism in Philippine politics is also sometimes paralleled in our literary circles – the elder statesmen getting away with plagiarism; or National Artists for Literature making asinine but respected pronouncements in the media, while writing nothing else of value; or ambitious pseudo-critics engaged in tribalism, exclusion, and self-puffery. The Manila Review, for better or for worse, has sought to challenge those tendencies both by boldly entering into the conversation and by making sure the conversation includes Filipino creatives wherever they are. It’s an admirable publication, and I hope to be part of it again one day.

Anton Chekhov expressed the view that ‘a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.’ What does the task of writing mean to you? What is your process?

I hate writing. It’s lonesome. It’s ruined my back. It’s frightening. It doesn’t pay well. But it’s what I seem best at doing, and so it’s become my tool for political engagement. I see myself as a citizen who writes, rather than a writer who is political. And so my process is setting out to examine issues that stymie me, to hopefully understand them better, and to share that small understanding with whoever will read me, so that we can work together towards addressing those issues. That is why my characters are individuals at the mercy of larger systems – government, the Church, familial duty, patriarchal society, what have you. Yet as characters, they are also individuals who believe they can somehow shape those larger institutions, whether through political engagement or sexuality or simply tuning out. I see this oppressive situation and self-belief as a very human thing – very universal, very timeless and, therefore, very much part of the literary tradition. That’s why I write what I do. That is what writing means to me. That is how my process starts. What follows is me simply researching, observing, then sitting at my desk to sketch out characters, plot out plot, and accomplish draft after draft until I have a finished book. Oh, and not giving up. Because goodness knows, that’s what I want to do every single bloody day.

How has being away from the Philippines altered your perception of it and your own sense of Filipino identity?

Being away has, ironically, strengthened my sense of Filipino identity. Distanced from the auto-felation of patriotism, away from the tribalism of home shores, apart from the exclusionary pissing contests of authenticity, I have found myself as a Filipino. I’ve nothing else to prove. Many years now I’ve been away from home, yet I’ve never felt more Filipino. For what else am I? I could leave the country behind with practical ease, since due to my skin color and fortune of birth and childhood beyond my control, I was never truly welcomed – I was always other in my own homeland. (Yet in my veins runs the blood of the Philippine experience – Filipino, Chinese, American, Spanish.) And those years I lived in Manila, I was beaten down by societal expectations that left me feeling helpless, useless, guilty, frustrated and angry at the everyday injustice I saw too well, for I was part of it. But it was only upon leaving that I found perspective and purpose; it was only in finding myself as a writer that I discovered how I could, in some small way, be involved in the formation of our country. Yes, I’m lucky – I live abroad, away from the dangers and pressures I’d have at home, and as a writer I’ve been given a sizeable soapbox. Such luck is precisely why I take very seriously my role, as one among many brave Filipinos, who can tell it like it is. Who can mock our despicable bishops and politicians. Who can tell one of our many stories. Being away has widened my sense of Filipino identity. I now see the Philippine experience as one so boisterous and abundant it cannot be held within the borders of our archipelago. Filipinos are now at home in the world, and rightly so. Filipinos make it so easy to be proud of them. I certainly am very lucky and proud to be one.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 49: New Asia Now © Copyright Griffith University & the author.