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Home » Interviews, Non-fiction

INTERVIEW – MIGUEL SYJUCO

Submitted by admin on June 7, 2010 – 12:43 pmNo Comment

by John Syfret

miguel syjuco

Miguel Syjuco cuts a trim and dapper figure when I meet him, dressed in light chinos and collared shirt, he is at ease in the sweltering heat of a glass-topped room in King’s Cross, while I sweat profusely; at 33 he could pass for five years less. It feels oddly old fashioned, a scene from a Graham Greene novel: I the overheating Englishman, Syjuco, a Filipino, totally relaxed in the tropical heat. I have to remind myself I am only in King’s Cross. He seems polite and sincere, not as grand as one might expect, or fear, from someone who won the 2008 Man Asian prize for literature, with his first novel, Ilustrado (a 19th century term used to refer to Filipinos who emigrated in order to gain a Western education), which is being published in the UK in just a few days’ time. Although as he reminds me early on in our interview, Ilustrado was awarded the prize while it was still an unpublished draft.


The book tells the story of Crispin Salvador, an intellectual loose-cannon; a famous Filipino writer who because of his own bitterness never quite produced a great work to seal his reputation. It is narrated through the voice of his young protégé, named, curiously enough, Miguel Syjuco, as he tries to trace the personal history of his hero, and through extracts of his and Salvador’s work setting aspects of Philippine history and politics against these two fictional biographies.

Inevitably, a great deal of personal experience has gone into the novel, but it is a work of fiction. However, just like his fictional counterpart, Syjuco has lived in many countries. I begin the interview by asking him about this, although the first few minutes are spent scrabbling around setting up a chess board, since somewhat on a whim I requested to play a game as part of the interview. The game is mentioned a couple of times in the book, but it was nonetheless a surprise when he accepted the invitation enthusiastically. We begin talking with the board between us, the pieces in place for the first move. “The Philippines are home”, he says in his well modulated and relatively soft American accent, “I still have family there, and it’s the only place I return to every year. New York is a place where I have a lot of friends and I’d love to live there because of the friends, but for now Montreal is my second home, I’ve lived there for 3 years.” Will you remain peripatetic? “Yes, probably. It gets harder and harder the more books and records I collect. I have a lot of vinyls. I have a lot of classical music, a lot of really cheesy stuff you wouldn’t normally buy, even Austrian folk music. This is stuff from Oxfam or Salvation Army”. Do you listen to them all? “I do. I have a DJ set up, so I mix things. It’s how I account for my frustration that I’m not a musician, I don’t play an instrument.” At this point he asks where the knight is supposed to go, and it crosses my mind that I am facing a shark, and that he has hidden grandmaster talents. He assures me that it is because he hasn’t played for a while, although he was an enthusiastic player at university. Nonetheless I approach with trepidation.

Syjuco picks black – and explains that he loves all sports “for me it’s always about the legend and the myth – the highlights”. Later, when I ask him about writing, I get another insight into his hobbies: “I’m just a guy who sits around writing my book” Isn’t that what all writers do?Some of them, but others are towering intellects; honestly I smoke a lot of weed… I play FIFA on my Playstation.” I offer to keep that revelation from my write-up, but Syjuco is fervent in his rebuttal. “I have nothing to hide. If I’m going to be as honest as I can with my writing I should be as honest as I can with my life. There are no tough questions, nothing is off limits. I am who I am. My one great guilty pleasure is Fifa 10. I like to play as France; Spain is just too good.”


The mention of sport and myth, and indeed intoxication, puts me in mind of Hemingway, whom he  claims as an inspiration, along with José Rizal, Borgès, and Nabukov. “Hemingway keeps me disciplined, and thinking about writing in relation to the sentence. He makes me write carefully. I like the formal play of Borges and Nabukov, and Nabukov’s flights of language. With that being said, the literary gamesmanship in Ilustrado is not just there for fun, I’m trying to parody a lot of the clichés of Philippine literature: magical realism, Asian identity, social realism taken far too seriously and without any humour. The reason I wrote the book the way I did was not just because I read too much Borges or Nabukov, it was because I wanted to be able to touch on Philippine History without being clumsily didactic. I felt that the best way to do that was by utilising forms that are naturally didactic, blogs, articles, interviews. But this also reflects the fragmented experience of modern life. It may be unconventional in a novel but it’s not unconventional in relation to life.” Rizal, he explains, became a national hero after writing satirical novels at the end of the 19th century, which criticised the Spanish colonists. He was executed for his trouble, but his agitation was a major factor contributing to the revolution in 1896.


I continue by asking him about how winning the Man Asian prize has changed his life. “It’s changed incredibly, I had spent years trying to be a writer, going from writing programme to writing programme, I took up English Literature at university in the Philippines, tried to get published abroad and moved abroad. I still couldn’t get published. I had lots of rejections, lots of odd jobs…I was a medical guinea-pig, I painted apartments, I bar-tended. I worked as a booky’s assistant at an Australian race course. While I’m still getting rejected I have a lot more confidence now to do the crazy things I want to do with my work. I feel less compelled to try to write conventional stuff just to get published.” How did the experience of being a penniless struggling artist inform the writing of Ilustrado? “Well doing all these odd jobs certainly gave me a good work ethic! And I come from a comfortable background. My father’s in politics, I could easily have done that; but I left like many Filipinos to find opportunities elsewhere, and the questions of class at home, are of course transposed abroad. You’re always judged by your name, your region, your dialect. And it’s unfortunate that even amongst Filipinos we’re still a very fragmented diaspora. Working among western writers I saw a different work ethic. In the Philippines it’s a lot harder to make a living as a writer, so it doesn’t become a full time job, and the quality isn’t as high as it is in the Western world. Editors aren’t as demanding, the journals are more likely to publish your work whether or not it’s ready. In moving to the West I learned how revise and edit and be ruthless, so it’s a funny sort of thing: you’d think that the Filipino work ethic would inform the way I worked, but it was little of both I suppose. The Filipino work ethic is to make ends meet at all costs, but it was the Western writer’s work ethic that really helped me finish the book.”


Ilustrado1In the only moment during our interview in which Syjuco is anything other than totally calm, he is  keen to dismiss any suggestion that his choice to write in English is in any way problematic: “I’m writing in what I regard as Philippine English, it’s the only English I know. I think this question of authenticity of language – is it any less Filipino, or less Asian, because it is in English? – is an absurd question. You work with whichever tool is the sharpest, it’s the language I’m most adept with, and writing in English is the price you have to pay for having an international readership.” On a wider level, he sees the increasing usage of English in the Philippines as a stabilising influence, one which changes rather than dilutes its culture.

So, I ask, is the future of the Philippines a more international one, or one in which it finds a stronger sense of local patriotism? “In the 1970s there was a move towards a more nationalistic outlook, with increased teaching of Tagalog in schools; but it didn’t increase national confidence, it created a sense of cultural schizophrenia.” Is that reflected in Ilustrado? “Yes – it’s also a class thing. The more educated classes speak more in English and lose the ability to speak Tagalog. The bad thing is that in our country we don’t have the institutions to teach the poorer people properly.”


I suggest that Ilustrado criticises both the liberal sensibility which is determined to help pointless causes and the conservative tendency not to help at all, but Syjuco corrects me, firmly enough, that he is writing against “this tendency for us to adhere to facile absolutes without thinking. So it’s not against liberalism or conservatism, it’s against the knee-jerk tendency not to think through our actions. In the Philippines we have a very complex culture, so it’s understandable to pare things down to absolutes. What my work tries to do is to inhabit the grey areas and the complications of life.”


I quote to him a passage from his novel, supposedly written by Salvador, which sums up this attitude. “These are the broad themes: enigmas, dreams, mythologies, the tyranny of absence, the shortcomings of language, deciduous memories, endings as beginnings.” “This is a quotation in the book attributed to Salvador. But of course he represents part of myself. He ’s sort of a cautionary tale, for me not to forget that while living abroad I should not become bitter, embittered by the homesickness, the frustrations, by the solitude and loneliness of being a writer. But he also represents all my best hopes, the fact that he has written all these things. I hope I can do that, and he does represent things I have thought through, or am in the process of thinking through. And there’s the fact that he is an uncompromising character, but yet at the end of the book he is able to change and re-think himself. In that sense he becomes a metaphor for the Philippines generally.” And Miguel Syjuco in the book? “Well of course he isn’t me, but he represents my own worst tendencies. An addictive personality, naivety,. A constant, and I think universal feeling, of being adrift in life, always awkward. And the frustration of a writer abroad, not knowing if he should be going home, or if he is doing enough with his life. There are people I condemn for not doing enough in the diaspora, but I’m only a writer.”


I point out, that as well as being about Philippine history, the book sits in a grand tradition of novels, including those seminal works by Proust, Sterne, and Cervantes, that are about writing (although I am careful to say that the comparison is thematic, not to flatter him into the pantheon). “Well I write to understand life and articulate whatever small wisdoms I can find. It so happens that right now I’m trying to figure out how to write a novel, so that has seeped into my work. Having written this book, now I know what I want to write next. Ilustrado is a study for other books that I hope will come.” But those books I mention are about the limitations of language too. How do you feel that this relates to the wider political points? “Well it speaks to my frustration, and insecurity that by writing I’m not doing enough, and the whole question of “can writing actually do something?” is an important one. And I actually think it does, it can inspire, it can get people to think a little more. But, you know, in those tough nights of soul searching, sometimes I just wonder if that’s just a whole crock of crap and I’m just justifying living abroad. But you know, writers do I think believe that there is something alchemical in the ability for the word to be transported to a reader, and the reader to be changed by those words. I think the idea that we could one day write something that will change the world is what keeps us going. So it’s also a hopeful practice, just as reading is, when we hope to find something that will change us and bring us somewhere else.” And are you hopeful about the future of the Philippines after last month’s elections? “Yes, I think we all are now. We have to be. But thankfully the new President is somebody who does give us hope. That’s a wonderful thing; thank goodness, it could have gone the other way.”


When reading Ilustrado, it struck me that there was a similarity between Syjuco’s book and a Sri Lankan novel published in the same year. Chinaman written by Shehan Karunatikala, is a book in which a fake historical figure is also created with a level of detail that hoaxed many readers, including falsifying articles and references on the Web. It seems both authors have discovered the same Post-Post-Modern response to a Post-Post-Colonial issue. When I put this to him, Syjuco is rather pleased with the synchronicity, although he says he has not read Chinaman. “I think it speaks to the idea that we want to reclaim our History, and the we want to re-present it, not just represent it. Sometimes History tends to become calcified; History books are the domain of… (at this point, cruelly, I forked his knight and bishop with a pawn, which put him off a bit). History is the domain of people who like reading History, whereas fiction potentially could reach a broader audience, so both books probably wanted to do that. And the nice thing about inventing is that it frees you from the noise of factuality. Of course if you are dealing with facts you should be as correct, or I should say, as credible as possible, as long as you are responsible it’s fine. You know, there’s that old saying that fiction is a lie we tell to get to the truth, and so writing historical fiction you’re able to chart and reclaim History from the History books, and breathe new life into it.” And for readers like myself, who are ignorant of Philippine history..? Well I’m hoping that the book helps engage readers who don’t know much about it. That was a challenge for me as a writer, to translate that experience. I’m not translating myself as a Filipino, but as a human being.”


As we head towards the end of the interview, my questions become shorter and so do his answers.  We are both running out of time on the chess board (we have been playing timed game, half an hour each). He says that writing Ilustrado was cathartic, that he now understands himself a little better, feels a little freer. We talk about England as well, which he knows well from visiting his brother who studied at the London Business School. “Whenever I come here I’m always intent on eating something strange and gross. I’ve had chitterlings before, that was nice. I’m a Filipino, we eat everything too. I also love haggis, Marmite, roast beef… I would move to London if it wasn’t so damn expensive. If I were given the opportunity to teach or study in the UK I would jump at the chance.” I don’t admit to him that I only have a hazy notion of what a ‘chitterling’ is, but his enthusiasm for our food is gratifying, given that he has eaten all over the world.


Finally I ask him what his next project is, and he tells me has written the first draft of something he started halfway through writing Ilustrado, since he thought that his first book would have no chance of being published. “I want it to be a meditation on the different forms or power at play in the Philippines, written from the point of view a young woman who has slept her way to the top of Filipino society. It’s about the facets and hierarchy of class in society, but also about power and ideas – I’m hoping it becomes more universal than just being about the Philippines.”


As we come to end of the interview I am a piece up, but Syjuco had maintained pressure in the centre of the board with his pawns, and kept them well protected with his rooks on the back rank,preventing me from pressing home my advantage in my haste. However he runs out of time first, so I claim a victory. He is not at all annoyed, quite the reverse, he is extremely gracious in defeat, but there is clearly a competitive streak. I’m sure it is a streak that will keep him writing, keep him winning prizes, and keep him pushing for a bright future in the Philippines.


The Game.

Syfret – Syjuco

1d4 d5; 2Nd3 e6; 3 Bf4 Bd6; 4 Bd2 b7; 5 Nf3 Ba3; 6 Bg5 Ba3; 7 Bh4 Pf6; 8 a3 Nh6; 9 Pb4 Nf5; 10 Pb5 Bxb5; 11 Nxb5 Qd7; 12 Pe3 Pa6; 13 Nxd6 Qxd6; 14 Bxd3 0-0-0; 15 0-0 Pxe5; 16 Bxf5 Bxf5 +; 17 Nxb7 Pxe4; 18 P(d)xe5 Nxe5; 19 Nxe5 Qxe5; 20 Qxf3 Qc2; 21 Bg3 Pg6; 22 Bd3 Re8; 23 h3 Pa5; 24 Pe4 Pa5; 25 Pe5 Pc6; 26 Qe2 Pe5; 27 Bxe5 Qc5; 28 Ba3+ Ka7; (time here becomes very short and moves are rushed by both players) 29 Qe3 Kxa7; 30 Qxc5 Pxc5; 31 Pf4 Pa4; 32 Rb1 Ka7; 33 Pg3 Rb8; 34 Bxb8 + Rxb8; 35 Rxb8 Kxb8; R b8 + and Black times out.

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