Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Miguel Syjuco, winner of the 2008 Man Asian Booker for his novel "Ilustrado", is happy when people confuse his characters with real people.

clarissa tan

Clarissa spends her life trying to separate fiction from non-fiction. As a journalist, she focuses on travel and the arts. As a desperately hopeful author, she writes short stories and is working on a novel. Clarissa won the Spectator’s final Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. Her blog, Words and Letters, is a series of vignettes exploring the nature of fiction.


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The Fact of Fiction
June 1, 2010
Special to asia!

Miguel Syjuco, winner of the 2008 Man Asian Booker for his novel "Ilustrado", is happy when people confuse his characters with real people.


His own man: Miguel Syjuco struck out on his own and wrote Ilustrado while working abroad.

His own man: Miguel Syjuco, now 33,  struck out on his own and wrote "Ilustrado" while working abroad.

Photo credit: Marcos Townsend


asia!: Congratulations on winning the Man Asian Booker Prize. Your book "Ilustrado" is extremely wide-ranging, touching on Philippine life since Spanish colonization to the present day, and spanning literary genres from the detective thriller to the satirical novel. How long was it in the making?

MS: Thank you, it’s been a really good run since I won the prize! I started writing "Ilustrado" in 2005, as part of my PhD at the University of Adelaide. I first got the idea for it when I was working at The Paris Review in New York. But I had been writing short stories before that, and many of the themes and anecdotes from these stories have been incorporated into "Ilustrado". I have been writing fiction for 10 to 12 years.


asia!: In your book, an aspiring writer called Miguel Syjuco investigates the strange death of his mentor Crispin Salvador. There are also constant references to Philippine politics, as well as to artistic and popular culture. Such is the overlapping between fiction and reality, some of your readers assume that Salvador is a real person, while many others can’t help drawing parallels between the politicians and businessmen in your novel, with those in real life. This must be the kind of reaction you were hoping for, we suppose?

MS: What writer doesn’t want to write a work of fiction that people take to be real? I like it that people are looking at is as truth. And I distinguish fact from truth. Facts are verifiable occurrences, but there are greater, broader truths that are possibly even more important.

I was a bit worried that people would get upset. Literature that takes a satirical tilt, like "Ilustrado" does, holds up a mirror to society. Some people don’t like that, to see the mirror. But the reception I’ve gotten has been great. Most people say that they find the work to be so true of life in the Philippines. They cry, they laugh, they get angry about it. I tried my very best to make the book sympathetic and compassionate, and thankfully it seems to have worked out that way.


asia!: Obviously, the young writer Miguel Syjuco in "Ilustrado" is reflective of you in many ways. But how about Crispin Salvador? Is he also an aspect of your personality?

MS: Of course. Any character that an author comes up with, is partly him. The writer’s own personality is always a point of departure when creating a character. After that – well, anything goes. Salvador is the kind of writer I fear I could become – bitter, angry. He is a cautionary tale for me.


asia!: You are currently in Montreal, and you have lived and worked in the US, Canada and Australia for some years. Is it, in some sense, easier for you to write when you are away from home?

MS: The publishing industry is not as robust in the Philippines. In the West, you can supplement your income quite easily and write at the same time. In the Philippines, I would not have been able to make writing my vocation the way I did abroad. And currently, the West is also where all the readers are.

There’s also the sense that, when overseas, you don’t have to pull any punches. I don’t have to censor myself, to worry that I will upset people. This book doesn’t take on the establishment in any big way, but at the same time, when you start writing, you don’t know where a book will go. And being abroad gives you that space, that freedom.

You need to be thin-skinned when you are writing a book, to allow entry to various emotions. In many ways, the Philippines is a confronting place, and one has to develop a thick skin to deal with the poverty and the injustice. Back there, I tended to tune out, to completely disengage. But now, I read the web pages and the blogs from back home. I try to find out what’s going on. Distance gives you perspective. When you are away from your country, there’s a greater desire to keep the roots deeply rooted.


The novel Ilustrado won the Man Asian Booker Prize for 2008, and has recently been published by Pan Macmillan Asia.

The novel "Ilustrado" won the Man Asian Booker Prize for 2008, and has recently been published by Pan Macmillan Asia.

Photo credit: Marcos Townsend


asia!: You come from a political family – your father served in the Arroyo government, and your mother was a member of Congress. What was it like, growing up in a household with strong political figures?

MS: My dad is political, but my family in general is more a business family than anything else. You know, we were the kind of Filipino-Chinese family that had saved a lot of money.

My father was the bright morning star of politics. We are a family of six siblings, and we grew up seeing the effects that politics had. None of us wanted to go in it. My father was a Congressman for three terms, then was asked by Arroyo to serve in her cabinet. He was hoping that one of us would take over his Congress position, but none of us wanted to. He asked – I don’t want to say shanghaied – my mother to take over. She was congresswoman for two terms, and my father was in the cabinet.

My family moved to Canada during the Marcos years. I remember, during those years, there were many occasions when my parents were not around. They were campaigning in the Philippines. And later when we all went back to the Philippines, they would take us campaigning with them. I think they felt it might build character, give us a different perspective.


asia!: What are your feelings about the recent Filipino election?

MS: Because of the constant turmoil in Philippine politics, everyone always says of any election, “This is the most important one”. But this one really felt like the most important one. We’ve had a horrible president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who has been the most unpopular president since President Marcos, I think.

Fortunately, Benigno Aquino feels to be the winner. What a relief that he won. True, he has yet to be tried as a leader, and he has a really big task ahead of him. He may not be able to surmount the system of corruption and patronage, so the real challenge will start soon. But I think we’re lucky that he’s won.


asia!: Your father was in the Arroyo cabinet, and you’ve just said that you are not at all impressed with President Arroyo. Has there been tension on this front, between you and your father?

MS: We don’t have the two-party system as the US or Canada does. Our parties are not based on ideology, but on pragmatism and opportunities. It’s a system of allegiances, based on who can get along. Politicians do what they can to get into power, because without power or a viable position, they can’t implement the changes or the policies they want to see.

I’d like to think that that was what my father was doing. I have my own political view. But just as I respect my father’s view, I hope he respects mine.


asia!: Did any politician ask for your endorsement during the recent campaigning period?

MS: I’m not famous. In the Philippines, fame is very important. That is why actors, boxers can get to be politicians. Literature, unfortunately, doesn’t place. I’m just a lowly writer. So no, nobody has asked me for any political endorsements.

In fact, I would imagine that I’m more famous abroad then at home. It was only through the Man Asian that people in the Philippines started to read me. So there’s still that colonial mentality, in that sense.


asia!: You come from a well-off family, and could, we presume, have been able to live comfortably while writing your first novel. Instead, you decided to strike out on your own. Can you tell us a bit about that?

MS: Yes, I struck out on my own. Everyone strikes out eventually; it was just that for me, it came abruptly, jarringly. I was going to Australia, of all places. My family didn’t understand why I wanted to do that. My father and I didn’t speak for years.

I am very similar to an overseas Filipino worker, like a contractor or a domestic. They need to go abroad to earn their keep. I’m doing the exact same thing. It just seems different because I’m a writer. People think I’m taking long walks or something. But I’m at my desk for long hours, every day. I’ve lived in relative poverty for years, before I won my prize. And even after my prize – with the award money, I used it basically to pay of debts that I had accumulated over the years

My book is a bit like a jeepney. In the Philippines, a jeepney is made from the different parts of old US army jeeps, cobbled together. That’s how I see my novel. It’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that. It’s what I could put together to make it work along the terrain that I have to traverse.


Miguel Syjuco will be speaking to the journalist Maya Jaggi about his new book, "Ilustrado", at the Festival of Asian Literature at London’s Asia House on June 2.

Asia House is a non-profit, non-political organization that aims to foster closer ties between the peoples of Asia and Europe. Read asia!’s interview with its director here.



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