It was my pleasure to interview Filipino writer, Miguel Syjuco whose debut novel is set to come out in North America on April 27. The novel, Ilustrado is very much about the Philippines and the Filipino experience. The manuscript of the book won the 2008 Palanca Award grand prize, as well as the Man Asian Literary Prize.
Please introduce yourself.
I was born in Makati in 1976. Since then I’ve lived in many cities of the world, though my longest stay anywhere in the world was in Metro Manila, from when I was 16 to when I was 26. My mother’s family is from Iloilio and my father’s is from Malobon. I did my high school at Cebu International School, my undergrad at Ateneo de Manila University, my master’s at Columbia University, and my PhD at the University of Adelaide, in Australia, though they’ve allowed me to complete it remotely while I currently live in Montreal. I’ve worked in many jobs – editor of a seminal dotcom in Manila, research and editorial assistant at major international publications, bartender, apartment painter, assistant to a bookie at the horseraces, stocktaker at big-box stores, freelance writer, medical guinea pig, powerseller of ladies’ designer handbags on Ebay. Most recently I worked as a copyeditor for newspapers in Australia then Montreal, but in February 2009 I quit my job to focus full time on my writing, though I still do freelance assignments, such as the weekly book reviews I do for a program on CBC radio. My favourite books are too many to list, but the writers I always look to are Hemingway, Bellow, Nabokov, Borges, Bolano, as well as Bulosan, Bienvenido Santos, and Gregorio Brillantes.
What is Ilustrado about?
Ilustrado begins with a body. On a clear day in winter, the battered corpse of Crispin Salvador is pulled from the Hudson River — taken from the world is the controversial lion of Philippine literature. Gone, too, is the only manuscript of his final book, a work meant to rescue him from obscurity by exposing the crimes of the Filipino ruling families. Miguel, his student and only remaining friend, sets out for Manila to investigate. To understand the death, Miguel scours the life, piecing together Salvador’s story through his poetry, interviews, novels, polemics, and memoirs. The result is a rich and dramatic family saga of four generations, tracing 150 years of Philippine history forged under the Spanish, the Americans, and the Filipinos themselves. Finally, we are surprised to learn that this story belongs to young Miguel as much as to his lost mentor, and we are treated to an unhindered view of a society caught between reckless decay and hopeful progress. Ilustrado is about literature, revolution, exile, political commentary, coming of age, truth, duty to family and country, Metro Manila traffic, sex, drugs, culture, and a distinct aspect of the Filipino experience both at home and abroad.
Do you have any advice for Filipinos who aspire to be writers?
I don’t like to give advice, though I am always grateful to listen to it from others. So I’ll just tell you what has worked for me in terms of writing. I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration; I believe in hard work and putting in the hours, months, the years until you finally finish the book you want to write. Treat your writing like a job and you’ll increase your chances at success. It’s like that old adage that god helps those who help themselves. I also don’t think we should be too precious about the words we collect on the page; aside from reading, the most important thing is revision. This is advice I’ve heard from so many other writers, and I’ve found it works for me. For Filipinos specifically, I think it’s important to not only study our own culture and history, but also to learn from the cultures and histories of the rest of the world. The Filipino experience, after all, is global. So it is romantic, but artificial to overlook that. Ultimately, I think my best advice is to be wary of following other people’s advice.
What does being Filipino mean to you?
Being Filipino means a lot to me. Though another thing I’ve learned from writing my novel is that one should be suspicious of easy answers, and ready definitions are sometimes easy answers. The Filipino experience is vast and always evolving, and one of the great opportunities for Filipino writers is the fact that so far our literary tradition hasn’t been sufficient in exploring all the different facets of that experience. I think being Filipino should be defining but limiting, and we should embrace the fact that Filipinos come from influences that are Malay, Chinese, Spanish, American, mixed race, Christian, Muslim, Animist, socialist, conservative, rich, poor, middle class, etc. Because of our colonial experience, for a very long time we sought to find the “authentic” sense of pagka-Pinoy, without realizing that that doesn’t exist anymore and that we stand to exoticize ourselves if we’re not careful. We’re a nation that is still emerging, and that is why art can be so important because it is through art that we can come to view ourselves a little more deeply.
What do you feel needs to change with Filipinos and how the world views us?
My novel is very much engaged with that question. I don’t have the answer. So rather than attempt an answer, my novel seeks to hold a mirror to Philippine society, even if that means some Filipinos won’t like what they see. I honestly don’t know where to start in terms of what needs to change with Filipinos. Sometimes the situation in the Philippines seems so bleak, so irreversible, that it is tempting to believe that giving up is the only thing to do. Frustration sets in and I question why those in power don’t use their power to change things, why the rich don’t know when enough is enough, why the Catholic Church can’t see the urgencies of life in the here and now rather than in the supposed afterlife, why we let the crooks in power continue to get away with things that are clearly wrong. Why does the battle between the opposites of the bayanihan spirit and the crab mentality very often result in the latter winning over the former? And I know those are frustrations every Filipino feels. I think the world views us with a lot of sympathy – they know we’re warm, kind, hardworking, talented, creative, smart, unpretentious, hopeful. Yet they’ve also come to know us as unable to fix our corruption, our human rights, our democracy, and also unable to provide for our people so that they end up having to go overseas. I don’t know what we need to change about ourselves, but I know something needs to change, and quickly. I try in my writing to tease out for my own understanding a clearer picture of those issues, and then share it with the people who will read my work.
Do you look up to any famous Filipinos as role models?
Of course. Though I look up to them with the full awareness that they were nuanced people with flaws, and that their heroism came from both circumstance and their ability to rise to the occasion when the circumstance presented it. Jose Rizal. Ninoy Aquino. Emannuel Lacaba. Antonio Luna. Marcelo H. Del Pilar. Gabriela Silang. Claro M. Recto. I even dare say I admire the commitment of such controversial figures as Artemio Ricarte, Satur Ocampo, Joma Sison, because I know that all men and women are flawed, but not giving up on their country was something these men have over most of us. Because of both the problems at home and the opportunities abroad, I admit that I constantly struggle with the temptation of giving up and deciding to just turn my back on the Philippines — but the fact that these Filipinos didn’t convince me not to, and I guess that makes them important role models. On the flip side, the Filipinos who are role models for daily hard work, educated understanding of the nuances of our social realities, and for never forgetting our past so that we can have a brighter future, are Ambeth Ocampo and Manuel Quezon III.
I guess I was caught up in literature and politics that I forgot the most obvious hero — Manny Pacquiao. He’s one of those Pinoys I most look up to — his heart, his strength, his dedication, and openness.
What is your favorite Filipino dish?
Kare kare. Ilocano empanada. Sans rival. Crispy pata. Tapsilog. Calamansi juice. Cebu litson. Sizzling tiyan ng bangus. Coffee crunch cake. Pansit palabok. Bicol express. Panaderia de Molo biscuits. Magnolia and Selecta ice creams. Halo halo. Leche flan. The list doesn’t stop.
Is there any additional information you would like to share with us?
Yes. People like to ask me interesting questions about Filipino identity, history, inspiration, politics, social problems, etc. They’re interesting, important, and often lofty issues, and I try as much as I can to answer them as interestingly, with due importance paid, and with appropriately lofty hopes. But I’m just a guy who sat at a computer for four years and wrote a book. I tried my best to read and observe and understand everything I wanted to write about, but my writing seems to pose more questions than it does answers. That’s because I don’t have answers, even though I wish I did. I’m not out to write the “Great Filipino Novel”, nor am I capable of representing our country through myself or my work. I just want to be a better, more honest person every day, and therefore that means every day I honestly try to be a better writer and a better Filipino, because those are two important facets of who I am as a person. I’d never written a novel before I wrote Ilustrado, and I hope it will be a study for those I hope to write in the future. It’s a very imperfect book, but I’m proud of myself for having tried my best, and I hope my fellow kababayans will be proud of me not for the prizes or places the book is published, but for that reason as well.
You can pre-order Ilustrado at Macmillan. As for Syjuco’s North American book tour dates, he will be launching the book in New York on April 27, 7pm, in Idlewild Bookstore. And he’ll also be doing an event at the Los Angeles Public Library with Cecila Mangerra Brainard on May 5. Book tour dates are still tentative but be sure to visit his website and Ilustrado on facebook for tour updates.