Miguel Syjuco's favourite quotes

25 May 2010

We caught up with Miguel Syjuco, the author of Illustrado, as he delved into some of the quotes that have inspired him in life and his writing alike.

 

A dear friend, the wonderful American writer John C. Evans, introduced me to this quotation, as an exhortation. Whenever I am tempted to write something simple, or entertaining, or domestic, or cute, or cool, I think of this quote by the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. Writing, by nature is introspective. This quote always reminds me to also look outward.

Ah, you have just touched upon an important point in my thinking. Twenty years ago, I was in Africa, and this is what I saw: I went from revolution to coup d'etat, from one war to another; I witnessed, in effect, history in the making, real history, contemporary history, our history. But I was also surprised: I never saw a writer. I never met a poet or a philosopher-even a sociologist. Where were they? Such important events, and not a single writer anywhere

Then I would return to Europe and I would find them. They would be at home, writing their little domestic stories: the boy, the girl, the laughing, the intimacy, the marriage, the divorce-in short, the same story we've been reading over and over again for a thousand years.

I always return to Hemingway, for his unswerving rigour, for his attention to both the minutiae and grand-scheme aspects of writing. I love this quote because it shows a side of Hemingway all too often overlooked - his ability for deep compassion and its vital corollary, empathy. Hemingway the reader recognised that empathy is essential in the relationship between the reader and a writer's book. Hemingway the writer, however, was steadfast in his definition of what makes a writer, and it is his definition that a strive toward.

All good books have one thing in common -- they are truer than if they had really happened, and after you've read one of them you will feel that all that happened, happened to you and that it belongs to you forever: the happiness and unhappiness, good and evil, ecstasy and sorrow, the food, the wine, beds, people and the weather. If you can give that to readers, then you're a writer.

At university, I wrote poems to woo women, those lithe of leg, long of limb. Such lyrical murmurs constitute a long tradition dating centuries. Today we may have tequila shots and R.Kelly music, but back then there was only poetry. None exemplifies like Andrew Marvell's To His Coy Mistress. Carpe Diem, Memento Mori, Who Let the Dogs Out, I'm Bringing Sexy Back - all these say the same thing. But nobody puts it better than the marvellous Marvell: though we can't stop time - he says - we'll have a fricking good go at making it fly by having some fun.

‘Though we cannot make our sun stand still, yet we will make him run.’

This, from the masterpiece 2666, is a touchstone for me. I think writing should be bloody, messy, and you should be always biting off more than you can chew. If your book is perfect, then maybe you're not reaching far enough, not risking enough. If you don't need a new technique, then maybe what you're saying isn't new. Bolaño addresses this to not just writers, but to readers. There's too much emphasis these days on the blockbuster, the masterpiece, the packaged product. Bolaño posits, and I agree, that writing, and reading, is the observation of a process: of growth, of struggle, of the painful birthing of ideas.

What a sad paradox… Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

This famous dedication is from the seminal Filipino novel, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not). Jose Rizal states his intentions, his hopes, his apology for the hurt his honest portrait of a nation will cause. This, to me, is what Filipino writing, and writing in general, must do. Lift the shroud, not so that we can recount all those things we all remember, but so that we can reveal all those things our weakness has made us try so hard to forget.

In the annals of human adversity, there is etched a cancer, of a breed so malignant that the least contact exacerbates it and stirs in it the sharpest of pains. And thus, many times amidst modern cultures I have wanted to evoke you, sometimes for memories of you to keep my company, other times, to compare you with other nations - many times your beloved image appears to me afflicted with a social cancer of similar malignancy. Desiring your well-being, which is our own, and searching for the best cure, I will do with you as the ancients of old did with their afflicted: expose them on the steps of the temple so that each one who would come to invoke the Divine would propose a cure. And to this end, I will attempt to faithfully reproduce your condition. I will lift the shroud that conceals your illness, sacrificing to the truth everything, even my own self-respect, for, as your son, I also suffer in your defects and failings.

I'm a human being, concupiscent, flawed, unabashed, confused, and struggling every moment with honesty. I have no answers, and will spend a lifetime asking questions so that together we can inch closer to the answers. When my life is over, I, as Hilaire Belloc did, hope to be remembered with acceptance of what made me human.

When I am dead, I hope it may be said: His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.

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