Fragmentary writing and keeping it all together

25 May 2010

Miguel Syjuco, author of the Man Asian Literary Prize for his novel Illustrado, talks to us about the writing process, and how his novel became a form of literary bricolage.

by Miguel Syjuco

Ilustrado uses fragments of various writing (excerpts from essays, memoir, poetry, blogs, short stories, bawdy jokes, straight narrative, etc.).

This structure was employed as a way to address certain issues: to create an organic way of explaining Philippine culture and society by using inherently didactic forms; to allow for satirisation of certain social aspects as well as elements of the Philippine literary tradition (our tendency to exoticise, to overwrite, and our love of melodrama); and to cover 150 years of a country's very complicated colonial and postcolonial history. Fragments made sense to me, after all, don't we, in contemporary life, cobble together our reality from fragments from disparate sources such as news tickers, overheard gossip, text messages, online newspaper articles, magazine pieces, items in actual conversation, etc?

I summarised each fragment in one sentence. I colour-coded each fragment according to which narrative thread it belonged (jokes, memoir, Manila narrative, Miguel's past, Crispin's various writing, etc). I listed these colour-coded fragments, printed them on card-stock paper, and backed them with one side of Velcro tape. I opened up ten file folders, each pertaining to one of the book's ten chapters, and taped the other side of the Velcro to them. Then I expanded my folding kitchen table, spread the chapter folders out, took my pile of fragments, and went to work. Slowly, I built, fragment by fragment, a narrative arc for each chapter and then a narrative arc for the entire book. I moved things around, experimented with juxtapositions, and made the threads progress in their own chronology to make it easier for the reader. A wonderful side effect of this system is that if a fragment didn't fit or function properly within the book, I simply tossed it out -- something I had a hard time doing when I was reading the fragment as a piece of text I'd spent years labouring over and polishing.

The inspiration for this system, I realise now, came from my years spent as a sub editor for major newspapers. While working on programs like QuarkXPress or InDesign, I used small parts to create a whole page - text boxes for the articles, and boxes for heads, bylines, pictures, captions, photo credits, stand-firsts, pull-quotes, infoboxes, pointers, etc. All these could be moved around to change the shape of the article, of the section, of the page, of the newspaper. Or they could be spiked, replaced, or expanded according to sudden needs. I'm convinced my working this way on the newspaper had a tremendous effect on my creating this system for Ilustrado.

Readers have called Ilustrado literary bricolage. With this system, Ilustrado was literally bricolage.

The challenge with Ilustrado's structure was twofold. First was how to keep the many narrative threads together. I attempted cohesion by having themes recur across all the threads, in the same way a piece of jazz or classical music will use recurring motifs, played by different instruments or sections, for shape or direction. Ilustrado deals with exile, heroism, the relationship between children and those who raise them, nationhood, responsibility, faith, and literature. These themes recur across the different narrative threads, in an attempt to tie them all together. Second was the challenge of how to keep track of all these fragments in my head. At first, my method was haphazard. I'd cut and paste a fragment and move it around, shoe horning it where I intuited it might fit, and then revising it so it flowed better where it lay. This way didn't work well. So I devised the system pictured below.