An interview with the author Miguel Syjuco

23 May 2010

In this insightful interview, the author Miguel Syjuco speaks with critic Marcel Avellaneda, and gives insight into his background as a writer, the inspiration behind his novel, and the influence and inspiration he draws from his Filipino background.

Marcel Avellaneda: How did you become a writer?

Miguel Syjuco: I flunked out of my major in Economics when I was studying at the Ateneo, and I chose an English Literature major instead. I've always liked reading and I thought it would present the path of least resistance. (Little did I know how hard writing is!) When I finished in 1998, I started a cityguide and lifestyle website called Localvibe.com, and it was there as editor in chief that I had to quickly learn how to write news, feature, profile, review, and interview articles. Since that time, I've worked at various major and minor newspapers and magazines, as a copyeditor, a staff writer, a research assistant, and online editor. Because I left home and chose to pursue my own path of writing, I was on my own and when the journalism jobs weren't available I also had to do odd jobs such as a working as a bartender, a medical guinea pig, an assistant to a bookie at the horseraces, taking stock at a hardware superstore, selling brand-name handbags on Ebay, and whatever else I could to pay rent and put food on the table. But all that time, I was writing, and I managed to get some scholarships that helped me pay for my education and continue writing fiction. Thankfully, my writing seems to have started to take off.

Marcel Avellaneda: Can you please tell us what inspired you to write Ilustrado?

Miguel Syjuco: I started writing Ilustrado more than four years ago. I was doing some work for The Paris Review in New York, fact-checking their old writers-at-work interviews before they were published online. As I did that research I discovered I was learning about each interview subject from a collection of sources - memoirs, interviews, introductions to their books, literary biographies, timelines, excerpts from their work, essays, etc. That was my eureka moment. I thought: "What an interesting way to present a character." It made sense to me, because nowadays we understand our contemporary life by cobbling together various bits of information from many sources - books, news articles, blogs, gossip, text-messages, actual witnessing, memories, television, overheard conversation, etc. And so, being a Filipino writer trying to understand his own work, I set out to write a novel that seeks to understand the challenges and potentials of Philippine writing, and by extension, the problems and opportunities of Philippine life which the engaged writer should be making his subject matter. Everyday life in Manila is filled with so much beauty, tragedy, sadness, courage, absurdity, and opposing forces such as rich and poor, East and West, ancient and modern, liberal and conservative. I set out to write a novel - or I should say "try" to write a novel, because this is my first attempt in my life at the novel form - that captured all that, along with all the paradoxical nuances that exist between the absolutes.

Marcel Avellaneda: How and why did you choose this unconventional structure for Ilustrado?

Miguel Syjuco: I wanted to fit everything I could into the novel - Philippine history, jokes, anecdotes, a coming of age story, politics, religion, sex, drugs, murder, literature - and my manuscript initially was very thick and difficult to read, because it was presented as a linear narrative. One day, I was watching a documentary about the T'boli weavers, and I saw how they created distinct threads and then wove them in to create patterns. That was another eureka moment for me. I took apart my book, developed every different narrative on its own, just as the T'bolis made their thread, and then I wove the different narratives into each other, creating patterns that make up the entire book. I found that this allowed me to focus on disparate elements of Philippine culture that are themselves threads of the whole. And I was also able to focus on themes - revolution, duty, social change, heroism, cowardice, regret, faith, exile, nationalism - and make them bump up against each other in interesting ways. I know my book is challenging, but I think when readers see it as a whole they'll see that it has its rewards.

Marcel Avellaneda: Is any of this autobiographical and based on fact?

Miguel Syjuco: My book is a work of fiction. But as Albert Camus said: fiction is the lie we tell to get to the truth. The characters and incidents that make up the narratives in my book are all fiction, but it was important that I made them in such a way that they resonated with our shared social and historical realities. The Philippines I've created in Ilustrado is a Philippines in an alternate dimension, which has shared some real-life historical events that have shaped Filipino identity - the Philippine Revolution, WWII, the Marcos dictatorship. The people and events are all imaginary, but the truths they represent - the flawed humanity, the mistakes we make, the potential for good and bad, the celebration of who we are and can be - are all real. The president in the book, Fernando V. Estregan represents all our presidents; the religious preacher represents the sham of religion; the politicians, the philandering husbands, the faithful family, the corrupt businessmen, the revolutionaries, the rich, the young and purposeless, the foreigners, the cops, the street children, the literati - they're all representations (usually satirical) of archetypes we all know. If they strike any reader as seeming to be patterned after someone specific, I think that's only because the characters resonate with real life. And no, the book isn't autobiographical at all. For example, unlike the Miguel character in the book, my parents are not dead, and they've always been good people, loving and generous to me in their own special way. And my grandparents were low-profile, decent, hardworking and simple. My friends were never so louche. My girlfriends were never like the girlfriends in the book. I write fiction unbounded by fact, and that's what I love about fiction - it's a flight of imagination. It's about how things could have been and might be if we're not careful. To me, the most true-to-life characters in my book are Boy Bastos and his father, Erning Isip.

Marcel Avellaneda: Then why did you decide to name your protagonist Miguel Syjuco?

Miguel Syjuco: I wanted to break down the biases readers unconsciously have when they read fiction or non-fiction. When we read non-fiction, we invest more meaning into it, and tend to think that since what is represented really occurred then it must be more worthwhile. And when we read fiction, we expect instead to be entertained, to be transported away from our everyday realities. I wanted to write a book in which the reader is always questioning what is real and what isn't - because that puts the reader a bit off balance and therefore makes them more engaged. The book is challenging, and asks a little more from the reader than other books do, but I tried to make it also more rewarding in its way. The simple fact that people are already asking me if the Miguel character is based on myself shows that fact and fiction matter to readers. It really shouldn't matter, especially if the book is well-made. The places, events, and characters exist only in the book, and if you inhabit the book then they are real to you as long as you are in it.

Marcel Avellaneda: You satirise many aspects of Philippine life, particularly Manila. Why?

Miguel Syjuco: I love Metro Manila, and I think that because of my job as editor of Localvibe I came to know it more intimately than most ManileƱos. But just because you know and love something deeply doesn't mean you are blind to its shortcomings. In fact, if you really love it, you give it tough love so that it can become better. I think all ManileƱos have a love-hate relationship with our city, just as all Filipinos have a love-hate relationship with our country. But to just shrug our shoulders and say bahala na means nothing will get fixed. In my writing I always think of Rizal's immortal dedication to the Noli. We have to expose the social cancers so that together we can try to cut them out and then heal. I also think that it's a very Filipino thing to tell the truth by telling it as a joke, and that is why I present my own form of satire - we can laugh together but together we must also see ourselves honestly.

Marcel Avellaneda: You've lived abroad for a few years now. How did this effect your writing?

Miguel Syjuco: In today's world, with Filipinos everywhere, our identity is most certainly a global one. I think my experience abroad is very much the same as that of the millions of expatriate Filipinos who make up our wide diaspora. It's filled with the contradictions of freedom, loneliness, safety, insecurity, independence, alienation, opportunities, failure, dollar salaries, higher cost of living, clean air, brutal winters, etc. Life abroad is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's allowed me to grow as a writer, because writing abroad is more competitive than it is at home - it's much harder to get published, and one has to deal with constant rejection and the habitual returning to the proverbial drawing board. Living abroad has also allowed me the distance necessary to see the bigger picture from afar as well as avoid censoring myself. But with every passing day I feel like I'm growing ever more distant from my roots. That, however, also means I make more of an effort to keep up with Philippine news, to connect with the Filipino communities abroad, to examine and understand better our culture, and to recreate in my work the world that I have missed these past years - and I think in so doing I am able to, as a writer, engage in another way with the Philippines and the concept of the Filipino. It may not be as immediate or direct a way as those who stay in our country, but it is a way that works for my writing. I never expected to be away from home for so long - I only left to study, but that led to more studies, and then work opportunities in which I had lots to learn. I'm trying my best to learn all I can now and to establish my writing career as an international author who is proudly Filipino, but I certainly plan to come home when I have more to offer so I can help in however small way possible. Right now, I think I'm helping in my own way by being a Filipino writer on the global stage.

(This interview has appeared on Avellaneda's blog The Burley Raconteur)

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