Interview: Miguel Syjuco

Miguel Syjuco

Interviewed by Brian Ascalon Roley

Miguel Syjuco’s novel Ilustrado won the MAN Asian Prize before it was even published and was eventually released in the U.S. to wide press coverage and acclaim.   In the interviews that followed in the wake of the novel’s publication, Syjuco’s dapper appearance and privileged background were often noted.   Journalists often seemed most interested in his family’s high political connections back in the Philippines.   But while politics and upper-class Philippine society do play a role in Syjuco’s writing, other elements seem primary.   Ilustrado is both literary marvel and satire of literary culture; it captures the expatriate nature of being an artist, whether at home or abroad; the sort of politics it most enthusiastically skewers is that of the literary bent.

I spoke to Syjuco long after his book was released in the hope that the memory of book tour and press materials would have faded, allowing him the chance to go into more detail with the perspective of time passed.   He is a soft spoken man and incredibly thoughtful; like a philosopher, he is a stickler for accuracy and long sentences that self-correct as he goes.   In conversation, he is always probing for the truth, for complexity.   Particularly as we got deeper into discussion, he showed a remarkable ability to think out loud in long complex sentences that do not lose their logic or train of thought, even while simultaneously searching for meaning and probing for a graceful way to achieve grammatical balance by sentence’s end.

What strikes me most about Syjuco is his honesty and concern that writers be honest, to not let their search for the truth be corrupted by pandering to some notion of what an imagined reader or editor might want.   One sees the effect of his attitude in his fiction, of course, but also in the candid opinions he gives in this interview.

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Brian Ascalon Roley:   I’m interested in when you started writing and what the impetus was, even before becoming a novelist.   I noticed that you studied writing even back in the Philippines.

Miguel Syjuco:   I’ve always been a reader.   When I was at university, I studied economics because I thought I’d go into the family business.   But I flunked out of my math course so I had to find a new major.   I chose English lit because I liked reading and I enjoyed partying, so let’s choose the path of least resistance, because I thought it would be easy.   It actually wasn’t easy, but it was something I wanted to do…so I stumbled into literature, even though in retrospect it should have been the only choice.   And again, in my senior year, I had to choose whether to do a scholarly or creative thesis…again I chose what I thought would be the path of least resistance, that short stories would be easier.   So I started writing a short story, and then another one, but then my program turned me down and said I wasn’t good enough.   So I had to write an academic thesis, but the writing bug had hit me.

In the Philippines we start off university very young–sixteen, and you’re done around twenty–still a very early age to know what you really want.

So after university, a few of my friends were putting together a website, a guide to Metro Manila–this was 1998 and there was still no Internet source of knowing what was going on in the city.   They needed an editor and asked me.   It was there I taught myself how to write features and articles, interviews and profiles, all that kind of stuff.   I never went to journalism school. I really cut my teeth, learned how to write to a particular purpose to a particular length and decided I wanted to pursue writing.   I worked on a creative application sample, applied to a dozen and only two accepted me–Columbia and NYU–and I chose Columbia.

BAR:   Was it a good experience?

MS:   Yes. It’s great because it’s a wonderful mix of course work and a dedicated workshop professor every semester.   Plus, it being New York, you have all that the city has to offer. And it opened up great internship opportunities.   I interned at The New Yorker and Esquire, and became an editorial assistant, and worked too at the Paris Review.

BAR:   Working at these magazines, did that affect your writing?

MS:   Yes, I saw that many contributors–whether they know it or not–subscribe to some sort of a formula that they feel is the publishable type of form of a short story, and the sort of polish they look for.   It turned me off on that sort of thing.   I wanted to write something different, that was at least new and challenging to me.   If you are a reader reading say a hundred stories a year, you don’t pick up on the pattern as much as a reader going through these slush piles–I went through hundreds if not thousands.   It really pushed me forward to wanting to write something that was different to me…

BAR:   Since I teach, I am curious–some people say that creative writing programs encourage a sort of generic writing.   Do you have any thoughts on this–having seen patterns in submissions, and having had a student background from different countries–the Philippines, the U.S. and Australia?

MS:   Yes.   In the Philippines, this is changing, but the workshopping isn’t as vigorous and craft oriented as in North America.   Because of the way we are, there is a lot of emphasis on class and this Marxist criticism perspective.   Where people question, “Is this piece relevant?   What is the message this story is trying to put out?”   As opposed to asking, “Does this story work on its own merits?”   This has been very detrimental to Philippine writing.   But this is more and more changing.

At Columbia–I understand what you are saying about creative writing programs fostering a certain pattern, or a certain style–there is this polish that you learn to do in a creative writing program, but I don’t see anything wrong with this as a starting point.   Creative writing programs teach you the tools and give you the community support and the space to fail as a creative writer.

Learning to write is very similar to learning how to speak a language–it’s a form of communication–and there are prescribed ways of speaking a language just as there are with telling a story.   It’s only when you are comfortable with that language that you can start going into colloquialisms and playing with language and such.   And I like this analogy because it’s true of creative writing too.   You need to know about a beginning, middle, and end before you can start mixing it up.

But there was a tendency towards getting generic–“This is the sort of story that I can get published in The New Yorker, Granta, or whatever, and I’m going to try to mimic this rather than trying to do something different.”

So when I went to Australia to do my PhD in creative writing at the University of Adelaide, I decided to write something completely different to me, and which in fact changes the way we read.   And of course I failed miserably–it isn’t Ulysses, it isn’t anything entirely new.   But it is new to me, and although I fell short in creating some sort of writing and reading revolution, I think that I was successful in creating something that exceeded my expectations of what I was capable of.

BAR:   I really enjoyed and admired Ilustrado.   You are talking about some of the different things you were trying to do in writing it, but it also seems to me that I haven’t read a book about the Philippines quite like this before.   I’m wondering how much of the form comes out of the material you are trying to cover…

MS:   Yes, I think it was the material. I wanted to accomplish with Ilustrado some of the things I think Philippine writing often fails to do.   Filipino writing tends to exoticize itself in order to cater to Western readers.   In the Philippines, we don’t have a very big reading culture–we’re a poor country and books are expensive, so all too often Filipino writers need to look to the West for a readership.   So all too often this tends to create writing that tends to pander–it’s writing that says, “Okay, you want exotic, we’ll give you exotic.”   Or it’s writing that says, “Well, magical realism is the big boom now for Latin Americans, and they have a very similar background to us, and our reality is sort of magical realistic, so Philippine writing is going to be like that as well–magical realistic.”

There’s also this tendency to want to explain ourselves to the West, so there’s a didacticism to our writing, where we have to explain who we are and where we’ve come from and our colonial experience, and all these  complicated nuances that we know about but the rest of the world doesn’t…and I wanted to be able to  react to those things–and so I thought, How am I going to write a book that was necessarily didactic without seeming to be didactic?   Without it seeming like I am saying, “Okay now, reader, this next paragraph or two is going to be back story and history”–how am I going to do that elegantly, and how am I going to write against this magical realism and this exoticism?

I was doing some fact checking for the Paris Review for the Artist at Work series. They were going to be putting their archives online and wanted to make sure the facts were straight.   So when I was fact checking Kerouac, I was going into the libraries and checking out all the books on Kerouac–interviews, introductions, books about the Beats–and I thought, This is a really interesting way to create a portrait of an artist.   Because as I was reading these diverse sources, it felt to me as if I was discovering Kerouac directly, rather than reading one single book where the author was telling me about a person, I was undertaking the task of the researcher.   I thought, This is an interesting way to create a portrait of the artist, this is how I want to do this.   So that was the seed, the first initial spark in my head about how to write Ilustrado.   And this fragmented idea became not just a question of literary gamesmanship, it became a way for me to tackle these issues of didacticism, exoticization, magical realism, also the fact that there’s an absence of certain genres in Filipino literature–we don’t have the detective novel, we don’t have a seafaring adventure, even though we are an archipelago.   We have very few genres beyond the social realism that our sense of nationalism and our literary tradition have fostered.   And so I wanted to do all of these things.   I wanted to write back against the clichés and I wanted to write to all the possible genres that Philippine literature can branch out into and I thought, Okay, I’m going to invent this guy named Crispin Salvador who wrote all of these things, and I’m going to do this in a fragmented way because it allows me to cover a broad expanse of history, plus I’m going to write in different voices and forms because if I’m writing biography or blogs or newspaper articles, those are essentially didactic forms, therefore I can tackle that problem of didacticism.

BAR:   One thing that’s interesting to me is that you mention that there are certain genres that don’t really exist in the Philippines.   But in your book, you create a body of writing in these genres–so sometimes you are parodying writing that exists, but at others writing that’s imagined.   But it feels real in both cases.   So while I was reading the book, I read about all this Philippine literature that I hadn’t realized existed–and got excited–but when I went to look it up, I realized that actually you made it up.   The veracity of the illusion was so strong–obviously, because I believed it.

MS:   I’m glad to hear that.   What more can a fiction writer want than to seem like he’s not writing fiction?   But I guess it’s easy for me to do, and easy for me to write, because I didn’t have to write an entire book or an entire series; I only had to write excerpts and throw everything I knew into those excepts to try and make them seem real.   But this idea of not fooling the reader but aspiring to verisimilitude is something I wanted to play with, and that’s why in addition to what you mention–all these different forms–and this narrator Miguel Syjuco, who shares my name, there are these characters who are real people mixed in with characters who aren’t real people, or publications that are completely fictitious standing alongside those that are very well known.

BAR:   Have there been any specific writers or books or literary traditions that you were thinking about as you decided to employ this strategy?

MS:   Yes, I loved Possession by A.S. Byatt –this idea of creating this fictional author and dealing with his work.   Of course, Borges–just the idea that you can create actual books or traditions or authors, I love that idea.   It’s almost like playing with mirrors, which is another symbol that he liked.   Nabokov–I loved Pale Fire, that was an amazing book.   Saul Bellow, the way he likes to write about these large characters with great ideas and sprawling careers.   And I wanted to follow in that tradition, but not just to do that for fun, but because I felt it was a good way to point out the lack in, as well as the possibilities for, Philippine literature.   I used parody sometimes in my book, but not just to point out what is missing or where we fall short, but also to point out what could be.   There’s a character in the book who says “I want to write a book of possibilities.”   That’s the best thing that fiction can do, be a book of possibilities.

BAR:   The opening of your book deftly creates a suspension of disbelief.   The way you show us the contrasting literary and media receptions of Crispin Salvador over the years–between how he’s received in the Philippines versus in the States, and also in France, generally in the West–that allows us to then jump into passages later in the book, once our context has been laid out.   So that was an effective opening.

The parodies of the critical reactions to Crispin Salvador’s book had a ring of truth to it. Do you have any thoughts on the comparative literary and critical environments of the Philippines and the U.S., and also on how you navigate them as a writer?

MS:   Being a Filipino writer writing in English and living in the West, I knew that anything that I published would have certain reactions–I see that not just with myself, but with other compatriots and all sorts of writers everywhere: there’s questions of authenticity, questions of whether or not the author has any right or authority to write what he writes, and I thought, This is an interesting thing, a frustrating thing, and it’s not something writers should have to worry about; they should just be trying to make the best possible story that they can write.   So I thought, Why don’t I parody this about how literary establishments can be so dismissive of work because it doesn’t fit into their own narrow definitions of what is good?   Jealousy is a powerful thing.   And I wanted to play with that idea.

BAR:   It might make it harder for a reviewer or critic to bring up those sort of clichéd complaints.

MS:   [MS laughs] Well, some reviewers have complained that I’m being defensive, but I’m not out to defend myself or anything.   These are reflections of reality and the industry, or whatever you want to call it.

BAR:   It is a reality.   I have talked to Filipino writers living in the States who came to the States well into their twenties, who when they go back to the Philippines have encountered–one writer referred to herself as a “Filipina writer,” and an academic interviewer interrupted and corrected her, said, “No, you are a ‘Filipina American writer,’ not a Filipino writer.”   That author actually felt not quite American, having moved there at an advanced age.

MS:   I know, these are labels that get in the way of the actual writing.   Writing is about going out in the world, looking around, seeing something unusual, and writing a story about it.   Trying to figure out how the world works and the best way to articulate it and share it with the world.   These questions of identity and postcolonialism, is this postmodern writing?   These are absolutely ridiculous problems, viruses, excuses that get in the way of our actual job of trying to figure things out and present them as truly as possible.   It’s a real bugbear to me.   I’m Filipino–I’m lived in Australia, Canada, the U.S.–does that make me Australian, Canadian, American Filipino?   No.

BAR:   Does that help you–make it harder to box you?

MS:   Perhaps.   The writer Rodrigo Fresán, who was born in Argentina, said, “I was born an Argentine, but I want to die a writer.”   And I love that.

The more you write and look at humanity, the more you realize you are a human being first and all those other classifications are second.   At least that’s how I feel.

BAR:   Speaking of living in different countries, now you are living in Montreal?

MS:   Yes.

BAR:   Has moving around and living in different locations affected your writing?

MS:   It has.   The distance between the place I am writing about and where I am living adds something.   The fact that I am not in the Philippines works for me on a number of levels.   One, I want to recreate the sights and sounds and familiar sensations of the place I have lived in and loved and miss all the time–that stimulates my imagination.   I have to recreate the Philippines, and in doing so perhaps you are a bit more detailed, and take things less for granted.

Another thing: living abroad has given me the sensitivity and freedom to write about the Philippines honestly.   When you are living there, it is a society that has its issues and complications, and you develop a thick skin sometimes.   When you read the newspaper and some politician does something stupid, you shrug it off and say, “Here we go again.”   But being distant from all that, you look at it and say, “Oh, that’s funny, that’s tragic, that’s interesting, that’s poignant, this is something worth exploring as an idea, as an anecdote.”   So the distance allows me to do those things and to be sensitive to those things I am writing about.

But being abroad also gives you a larger worldview; you see that things are different in America and Australia and the Philippines–and being sensitive to those differences allows you to talk about them, I think, quite accurately.

I think of a book by the Ethiopian writer Dinaw Megestu, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, and it’s about African immigrants living in Washington, DC.   There’s one passage where he’s talking about public transport, and we take this for granted, but to somebody with a different perspective, they see that this is a wonderful thing.   Having a worldview stops you from taking things for granted.

BAR:   I’m interested in this idea you mentioned, how living abroad allows you to be more sensitive.   David Sedaris said the reason he likes living in Paris is that he likes being a foreigner; it makes you notice more things.

MS:   Exactly.

BAR:   But also you talk about not being in the Philippines; when you are there, it’s easy to shrug its problems off.

MS:   You become jaded.

BAR:   And perhaps that’s true with people in any society–it’s a coping mechanism to not fall into despair.   But if you aren’t living there, you don’t need that mechanism.

MS:   It’s an extension of that old saying that writers are always foreigners, detached observers.   Being a foreigner sharpens that to a sharp point.

BAR:   One way that people deal with uncomfortable emotion is through humor.   One thing I appreciate about Ilustrado is that you use a lot of humor.   And yet you don’t have the problem of comic distance being a barrier between us as readers and the emotional terrain of the book.

MS:   Yes, I tried very hard to make it work that way.   It’s not a specifically Filipino thing, but when you are embarrassed or in a high-stress situation, you tend to giggle or laugh at yourself.   I worked on a copy desk for several years at newspapers.   Because copy editors deal with murders and car accidents and fires and all sorts of dark, horrible aspects of humanity, they develop a sort of gallows humor as a defense mechanism.   But in regard to Filipinos, we use humor as a way of explanation and making fun of ourselves as well.   In Ilustrado the jokes come from Philippine culture.   I didn’t make them up.   But I wanted them to be more than delivering a punch line, I wanted them to be part of narrative lines.

The best measure of whether you understand a foreign culture is whether you understand their humor.   For example, I live in Montreal and am learning French.   With my Québécoise friends, I do not yet understand their jokes.   When I understand their jokes, I’ll understand their culture.   I wanted my readers in Ilustrado to have that sort of understanding.

BAR:   That seems like a challenging task in that most of your readers are not familiar with Philippine culture.   The problem wouldn’t just be limited to humor, of course.

MS:   Some reviewers said, “I don’t understand why are you including these jokes, they are corny,” but this is what we Filipinos like about them.

Often what’s most funny aren’t the punch lines, but the situations.   That was my best guess about how to try to bridge that gap in culture and understanding.

BAR:   You mentioned that in high-stress situations Filipinos will often giggle or nervously laugh.   This is a trait I think I had when I was younger, and was ashamed of, and managed to learn to hide.

John Cleese spoke of English humor often coming from the fear of embarrassment.   He will often set up situations with embarrassment, or the fear of it, and it draws the audience in.   Not just English viewers.

MS:   I like that.   In the Philippines, we have this similar situation where three young women will be walking.   They are almost bumped by a car or bus.   And the women will cover their mouths and giggle as they run for their lives.   This is a very common thing to see in the Philippines–we will “hee hee hee” in the most difficult situations.   And I think this has nothing to do with slapstick but is a deeply rooted defense mechanism somehow.

I myself haven’t quite figured it out, but I know it’s an aspect of the culture I wanted to portray.

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