Miguel Syjuco: "I'm a perpetual outsider."
I speak to the Filipino novelist about his debut novel's success and the joys and pains of writing ahead of his appearance at the 2014 Cooler Lumpur Festival in Malaysia.
( Esquire Malaysia )
Filipino writer Miguel Syjuco hit the big time when his debut novel Ilustradowon the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, when he was just 32 years old and the "book" was still an unpublished manuscript. In a move that will keep you guessing whether art imitates life, the novel's about a writer also called "Miguel Syjuco" who is looking for answers to his mentor Crispin Salvador's ostensible suicide. It's interesting in part because it subverts the usual narrative form of the novel, telling it also with excerpts from the writings of these two men, detailed footnotes, news headlines, blogs, interview transcripts, message forums, and the like. This illusion of reality will have you googling at every turn to find out if something is real, or not. It'll keep you on your toes.
Now, having finished writing his salaciously titled second novel, I Was the President's Mistress, which Syjuco says is due for publication in 2015 or 2016— based on a minor character in Ilustrado called Vita Nova (Syjuco even created a Facebook page for her, who, in turn, created an online fan shrine dedicated to him; yes, just go along with it)—and being scheduled to appear at this weekend's Cooler Lumpur literary-centric ideas festival, we speak to Syjuco about his early success in retrospect, how he reconciles the local and the global, the larger social purpose of a novel, and the importance of freedom—both political and personal—to the act of writing. Read on:
ESQUIRE: You won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize with your debut novel, which has since received a lot of hype. Subsequently, you've been, however, left out of several Canadian awards, and you've said before in other interviews that Ilustrado isn't exactly "flying off the shelves". How do you define success for yourself?
MIGUEL SYJUCO: I guess I'm successful in the sense that I'm published, my work is translated, and people are reading it. In my mind, I'm already successful —because I tried for years to get published. I couldn't find an agent, I kept getting rejected, I had to work all sorts of odd jobs just to make ends meet, while waiting for my literary dream to take shape and form. So, you know, I'm happy with that. But it was a little bit disappointing that I didn't even make the longlist for several of the big prizes in Canada, when Ilustrado's done quite well critically elsewhere. I also know it's reputed to be a difficult book amongst readers, which I like; I like challenging and rewarding my readers. The book doesn't fly off the shelves, but I guess this is all I can ask for. It would be nice to drive a sports car or have a yacht and be rich, be like Gore Vidal, but that isn't my measure of success.
ESQ: So whose regard matters to you more? The readers' or the critics'?
MS: I like to think that a lot of people who like my kind of writing read my book. Reading is a very personal thing, so I like to be able to connect with the right kind of people rather than just everybody—people who like a little bit of a challenge, who are willing to engage with the book cooperatively in the sense that if they don't understand exactly where it's going at all times, or if they come across words that they've never encountered before, they don't just blame the author for their ignorance, or for their yearning for security; they're willing to take a journey and learn new things. It's because I also see reading as being collaborative. All too often, we read books because we want to escape, or we want to be taken by the hand and held along. I don't see my work as that kind of work. That’s not what I want to write. I want to write work that gets people thinking, that leaves them with as many questions as answers. That's what I look for in a book when I read, and those are the kinds of readers I hope to reach through my writing.
ESQ: You've said that you aim to write works that socially engage with what's going on in the Philippines; and you've also said that you want to change people's perception of the Philippines. Which reader do you write primarily for—your Filipino reader, or the international reader?
MS: I believe a book can be rich enough to have elements that resonate with readers at home, but that maybe are over the heads of readers abroad—and vice versa. I believe that's one of the challenges for an author: to offer a book which has many attractions, elements and nuances [that appeal to different readers]. So one reader isn't more important than the other. But unfortunately, as may be the case in Malaysia, we have this colonial mentality where, if you make it abroad, your chances of making it at home is quite good too, and I knew that. We don't have a very big reading culture in the Philippines, so I left for North America to study. I knew if I could make it on the global stage, I could make it quite well at home—and that was the case.
In terms of writing to effect change in the Philippines, I have no illusions that anything I write will start a revolution or, you know, change government policy or whatever. I believe writing novels is the long game. I'll maybe influence, or get thinking, the people who will, in the end, become CEOs of large companies or government leaders or community activists, or just socially engaged citizens who graduate from university and go out into the world. Maybe they'll be thinking a little differently about the world, about the Philippines, or about the country they come from, partly because of my writing, among all the other things they've read while they were in their formative years. So that's kind of how I write.
And yes, I believe a book should have some political purpose. It shouldn't be propaganda trying to drive home a point, but... you know, I always turn to this quote by David Simon, the creator of [TV series] The Wire. He said something along the lines of... that the best reportage is to take something endemic and complicated, examine it from all sides and explain it as clearly as possible, so other people can also look at the problem and apply themselves to fixing it. And so that's what I try to do with my work. I try to understand these very prickly, abstract social problems and bring them down to the human level through my characters, in hopes that the reader will grapple with that as well and come out with a deeper understanding of these issues.
ESQ: You talked about the importance of books having a political purpose. Why do you think this only usually applies to developing countries? There's certainly less expectation of North American, Australian or British literature to do that.
MS: Well, I think it's because we feel a sense of urgency that those developed countries do not. We ride our car to work and we see the beggar knocking on our window on a daily basis; our roads are terrible; we see endemic corruption. And, of course, every day you ask yourself, "What can I do with my life to kind of cope with this? To address this, or help fix the problem?" As a writer, you hope that your work will have that sort of purpose and that sort of effect, so I think that's why as writers from developing countries, we want to do something more with our work than just entertain or sell. And to be perfectly honest, that's why I write what I write and that's why I'm interested in writers from backgrounds like mine, because I feel they're doing more with their work. They're trying more with their work, rather than just trying to capture the human element of life in the suburbs, or the new immigrant, or whatever, which you see again and again and again, say, in North American fiction—which is really great, you know, but in that, more often you see [an emphasis on] craftsmanship and artistry over social examination.
ESQ: Also, when you say you want to change people’s perception of the Philippines, how much of that feeds into also wanting to change people’s perception of yourself as an individual when you’re abroad? Because, you know, stories in our culture inform what other people think of us, what they can imagine of us and for us...
MS: As a Filipino, we're chameleons—as I know Malaysians are too. We can adapt and assimilate relatively easily wherever we go. So it's not really a question of letting people know: "This is who I am." But I'm into history and society and politics and I want to be able to share the rich histories and fascinating elements of my culture with anyone who is willing to read me and take that journey. I don't see myself as an ambassador or immigrant trying to carve out my identity. I'm just blessed with having come from this amazingly rich culture and, you know, it's a part of the world that people long to visit on vacation or move to as retirees. I see a lot of authors from Latin America or India have benefitted from the boom in people reading their work, getting to know their history and culture; and, of course, as somebody proud of being a Filipino and a South East Asian, I want to be able to share that with the world.
ESQ: In Ilustrado, there's a line that says, "To be an honest writer, you have to be away from home, and totally alone in life." Has this been true for you personally?
MS: Yeah, I'm a perpetual outsider. I don't like living in places where I fit in or feel too comfortable. I find that you become a bit diminished and less aware of your surroundings. Also, living abroad has allowed me to write a lot more freely about the Philippines. I'm no longer afraid because I'm so disconnected personally from the place, although I visit every year. However, I follow Filipino politics and current events and gossip and everything religiously, more than I do of the city I'm living in. The Philippines is still very much home, but I'm no longer part of all the intrigues, the anger and the frustration that I felt when I lived there. I can target politicians, I can make fun of them, I can let them know that we're watching. Because I believe, you know, that we've got this elite who have, for generations, completely plundered and manipulated the legal system to consolidate power for their families, and we have nothing left. We can't oust them, we can’t get them in Senate or Congress—they're Teflon, you know; nothing sticks and they somehow survive. All we, the powerless people, have are words. And I'm using my words to ensure that the legacy of these people is guaranteed. We know they're corrupt, the world knows they're corrupt, and history will know they're corrupt. Living abroad gives me the freedom to write without fear.
ESQ: Your “Miguel Syjuco” character in Ilustrado has conflicts with his family over the things he writes about. I know you’ve said that this character, though he shares your name, isn’t you, that you just wanted to keep readers guessing, but did you, or do you, have similar conflicts with your parents?
MS: My father and I didn't see eye to eye about my writing at all. We didn't speak for many years. He didn't feel it was a good choice for me and he wanted me to get into politics like him. I work through that in my book—I write because I want to understand my world: this father-son relationship, for example, and my relationship with my home country, my identity as a Filipino, etc. I'm very close to my five siblings; my mother and I have a great relationship; and my dad and I have improved our friendship over the past years. It was funny: after I didn't speak to him for a very long time and was really kind of... I was really alone in the woods for a while—and to my mind, it was indefinite. And it was probably the best thing that happened to me. Then I knew I couldn't rely on my parents, I knew I had to make my own way in the world as a writer. Not having them... it was really very formative for who I've become as a man. So being away from my family and my country really was very freeing.
ESQ: Aside from choosing to become a writer instead of a politician, what about when it comes to borrowing details from real life? Since your last name is a known quantity in the Philippines, do you feel you have to protect it? Do you pull any punches when writing, when borrowing details from your own life—like family, for example?
MS: No, I don't pull any punches. Of course, though, I'm respectful. I don't write about my parents... You know, I'd like to be an artist; I like to think that what I do is artful. So I've managed to make all of my characters amalgamations of people I know—politicians or public figures or relatives. I think it's interesting to take elements from different people, from different sources, and cobble together a character who is unique. That's part of the artfulness: writing unique characters. And, you know, in Ilustrado, the parents of the "Miguel Syjuco" character were killed off in an airplane crash, and I meant that as a sign of respect to my parents: That character's named after me, but you were not in this book. I'm a novelist after all; I will take from everyone. I find interesting stories but I'm not going to create this thinly veiled version of them that will hurt them or cause people to gossip. I think I'm more of an artist than that.
ESQ: What does writing do for you? Or, I guess what I mean is, whydo you write? I think one writer—I can't remember who—once said that he wrote to be loved, as a f*** you to all the women who never loved him. What's your motivation?
MS: I try to understand the world, to help other people understand it. I don't write to be loved at all [laughs]. In fact, if I'm upsetting people, I feel like maybe I'm doing something right. I'm trying to cast light on what is still hidden, to talk about things people refuse to talk about. The book I've just finished writing—it’s called I Was the President’s Mistress—is about all the things that you don't discuss at a polite dinner party. While I was writing it, I had these very reprehensible, sometimes racist and bigoted characters, and I thought, "I can’t have this guy say that," because, you know, the Christians will get upset. Or, "I can't have this character tell this joke because I might get a fatwa," or something like that. And when I was going through this process, I thought, "This isn't right. I'm a novelist. I'm living in countries where freedom of speech is paramount, and yet I'm afraid of what might happen, because I say something that I feel is important and then it upsets somebody on the other side of the world and they create violence—and I’m the one to blame for their reaction...? That's wrong. That is already the tyranny of thought—and this is kind of what I'm writing against now. I try to examine different aspects of inequality and censorship, and propriety is something I think artists really must wrestle with.
ESQ: You said you had a lot of rejections before Ilustrado won the Man Asian Literary Prize. What made you keep going and made you believe in yourself? How many rejections is too many?
MS: Hmmm... Well, you know, I wallpapered my office at home with rejection slips because I'd read that F Scott Fitzgerald had done the same thing— forgetting, of course, that he had gone crazy. How many rejections is too much? Maybe I would have given up after 10 years of it, maybe I would have changed my tactics... but I think the rejections really strengthened my belief in what I wanted to do. Of course, I'm saying this completely in retrospect; at the time, it was terrible. At the time, I needed my dear friends and loved ones around me to keep telling me, "You'll be fine, don't give up." And I owe so much to them for their belief in me when I didn't believe in myself.
I often look at some other writers, who get published right away because the professor in their writing program took a liking to their work, helped them find an agent and a publisher, and blurbed their book. Then the book comes out and it's okay, it's fine... you know, it's wonderful for them. But really, it could have stood for a bit more adversity; it could have been placed in the pressure cooker for another year. And had the author not had access to those opportunities to publish, he or she would have kept on revising it, refining the whole thing and making it better, until finally, it found its way. That reminds me of the importance of adversity. It makes me feel very lucky in retrospect because at the time, it didn't feel lucky that I had such a hard time finding my way.
ESQ: When you won the Man Asian literary prize, they still accepted unpublished manuscripts and writers could self-submit, which isn’t the case anymore. What persuaded you to give it a shot? What made you think your book could be good enough? That self-belief is so integral to being a writer, because you may not see any results from your efforts in the short-term.
MS: The great thing about being young is that you have this overinflated sense of importance and possibility. I was in my twenties then and I thought I could be something. When you're at that age, all the doors of opportunities are still there for you to open, and you haven't had so many of them shut in your face yet. So I thought I could write something interesting, something new, something that takes from the Filipino tradition of English literature, but kind of moves towards the edge of it and tries to examine other possibilities of what the novel form could be. But I never really thought that I could do it.
I won the prize in 2008, but that's after having applied in 2007 and not even getting on the longlist. I spent the subsequent year revising the manuscript, changing it, gutting it, polishing it, and completely reworking it. Then I applied in 2008 with the hope that I would just get on the longlist, so that agents would pay a little bit more attention to me. Then I got on the longlist. And, honestly, I cried. I was so relieved and so happy. It was the little bit of affirmation that I needed. And then I got onto the shortlist and I thought, "Well, fantastic. I'm going to get a free trip to Hong Kong for the prize ceremony, I'm going to lose, I'm going to get drunk, I'm going to have a good time, I'll eat some dim sum and catch up with friends... and it'll be great. I had no expectations whatsoever of winning; and when I did, it was beyond my wildest hopes and dreams. Everything changed for me overnight. Suddenly, I had an agent in less than three or four days, and a book deal within the week. It was a Cinderella story.
ESQ: Are you competitive with other writers?
MS: I always want to be better than what I'm doing. I compete mostly with myself. I don't see writing as a competition with other writers. As anyone who knows me will tell you: when I've had a few drinks and I'm at a dinner party, I might debate quite energetically, but I don't just want to get my point across at the expense of the opportunity to learn or to connect with somebody. I'm not going to be the drunk guy belligerently forcing his ideas down everybody's throats or, you know, trying to be the guy who wins the debate and leaves with a puffed-up sense of self-esteem. Writing is the same for me. Books are part of our conversation that spans eras and crosses borders; it's an ongoing human discussion, and I’m just glad to be a part of it. I'm glad that I'm able to read really wonderful books that are part of the same discussion and get to know the authors on a personal level so I can understand their process and their craft. I'm not competitive at all.
Of course, there are some authors that don't like me. I've reviewed some books for the New York Times, for example, and that was a little difficult because, you know, authors can be a bit tetchy when it comes to criticism. I've had some authors say, "Oh, you know, what he wrote was bullshit." I've had people tell me that they know these people who hate me. That's disappointing because it's not a competition whatsoever, not to me.
ESQ: Do you respond to these haters?
MS: No, I just leave it. I'm kind of active on social media and I do respond to people in terms of debate. I can counter and interact with perspectives that are different from mine and I see that as magical. For example, I haunt message boards—not about my work but just about current events; I like Fox News. I guess I'm admittedly left-wing, so what I do is I read articles from the right wing and I read the message boards because I want to understand how other people think. I'm not one of those who will just stay in the echo chamber and read only articles that will affirm my own sense of self and my own beliefs. The things that make me angry about what people say about me, well, you know, the only possible way I can change their mind about who I am and what I do is if I keep on writing.
ESQ: Who, in your opinion, are the most overrated and most underrated writers today?
MS: Hmmm, overrated... I honestly can't say. I know what it's like to write a novel and it's extremely hard. It takes you a very long time and you're filled with self-doubt constantly and your work will never be as good as you hoped it would be. So I would never want to cast aspersions on another author, because I know how hard it is. And being underrated or overrated is completely out of their hands. It's not their fault.
But I mean, you get a lot of the bestselling authors—James Patterson, for example—who are not interested so much in literature like I am. So, of course, I see them churn out their work and I see them making millions and that strikes me as enviable, I guess, because of course I want to have that financial security. But, you know, they're doing something different. Still, I do look over the fence and think, "Oh boy, that doesn't strike me as very right or fair," in that sense.
As for underrated... well, he's no longer underrated but Tash Aw from Malaysia is really finding his readership now, especially with his latest book, Five Star Billionaire, and I'm glad to see that. There's also a Canadian novelist I really like:Colin McAadam. And Claire Messud—I read her book, The Woman Upstairs, fairly recently. I'm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, now on a fellowship and the book's set there too so, you know, it kind of pops into my head. She's a big writer, but I think she deserves to be read more.
The wonderful thing about writing, though, is that these fortunes change. People go up, people go down. One of my contemporaries is Eleanor Catton... I felt that her first book, The Rehearsal, was fantastic; and then she comes out withThe Luminaries, which won the Booker, so she goes from underrated to being rated as she should be.
Another thing I should say is that Filipino literature is underrated. We have wonderful writers: Bienvenido Santos, NVM Gonzalez, Nick Joaquin... There are also a lot of young writers as well in the Philippines who are writing short stories, but because people aren't reading Filipino writing as much as they should, they aren't daring to write a novel, because you could spend four years on it and not get published. Also, I don't want to call him “overrated”, but our national artist for literature, F Sionil Jose, has written wonderful novels, but I feel his criticism of late has become very insular and personal. He's often lionised as the only Filipino who has ever been considered for the Nobel Prize, but I worry that with all of his security and his position, he doesn't have to struggle as much as he once did. I'm looking forward to new work from him. It doesn't seem like he's writing novels so much anymore, which is a pity.
ESQ: Do you tend to hang out with writers and does that help your writing, or not?
MS: I live in Montreal and I don't have many friends there. I live a very hermetic life. It's really just because I embrace being an outsider in the city and my social life for the past four to five years has been with friends and loved ones in New York where I used to live; and being on the festival circuit or going to literary events when I'm invited. That becomes sort of my social world. So yeah, I do hang out with a lot of writers, but one of the great things about being an artist is that I get to hang out with a lot of other artists and encounter art forms new to me. So I have friends who are composers, painters, visual artists, poets... and that really helps my writing. With my writer friends, we tend to commiserate with each other. We don't have to explain how hard things are, and we get to talk shop shamelessly once in a while. I think that's important: you kind of need that outlet, but you can't be too steeped in it. I think that might be a little detrimental and that's why I don't stay in Brooklyn or Berlin. I'm not part of the literary scene and I don't go to poetry readings and I don't blurb books, because I feel that does affect the work. It becomes more about the work being for other people than being something that is personal to you that you want to prepare and then share when it’s ready.
ESQ: So you’ve never blurbed books?
MS: Yes, I blurbed one, in Canada. We had the same editor, who felt very strongly about it, and I didn't happen to be reading something at the time. Now, I would possibly do it if it was a book I absolutely believed in. But I'm not going to blurb a book just because I'm friendly with someone; nor will I do it for my career to get my name out there. I'll do it because I really love the book and, reading being personal, if it happens to resonate with me at the time in my life. Unfortunately, I've been writing my second book which is told in 13 different voices, all in the first person, so I've had to step away from reading a lot of books because their voices get into my heads and I tend to get influenced a little. So really, other than my own novel, I haven't read as much as I would have liked in the past three years. I end up reading a lot more graphic novels and journalism and research for my current book, and now that the book’s done I'm really looking forward to reading fiction again.