Miguel Syjuco was born and raised in Manila. A journalist and freelance writer, he recently appeared as a part of the Melbourne Writers Festival and spoke with Angela Serrano.
His eyes, a shade that hovers between hazelnut and acacia wood. His voice, the right balance of sweet but still good for you, like manuka honey on Tasmanian salmon. His style is slick but not stuffy: a tweed jacket over a royal blue knit and faded black skinny jeans skimming a lean, lithe frame. His polished, cultivated demeanor is the complete opposite of his language: he says “fuck” and “dickhead” a lot. He has a chill ‘tude towards recreational drugs. And building fake Wikipedia and Facebook identities so convincing they become the target of real people’s indecent proposals. Not so beige, this one. Perhaps that explains his appeal to the women of Australia. My Sydney and Queensland girlfriends all have mad crushes on him.
Miguel Syjuco is a man on a mission, though not the mission one might expect at first glance. Born in 1976 to a political family, he went into creative writing and journalism, much against his father’s wishes for him to enter politics. And yet his work is coloured by his intimate knowledge of the lifestyles of the political class. Nowhere does he write of farm animals, fields, fishing villages, factories, or prurient longings for women out of his league. His created worlds are urbane and international. Many scenes take place at dinner tables and airplane cabins. Close attention is paid to the nuances of accent and dress. Drugs are consumed occasionally. The sex scenes never feel furtive and stolen; there are references to swinging and mild sadomasochism, the indulgences of the bourgeoisie. The protagonists Miguel and Crispin are never sexually frustrated, yet they seem perpetually dissatisfied. They could be symbols for Filipinos today, arguably oversexed as evidenced by the 100-million-strong population, but ever so anxious about their place in the global economic and political community.
Written whilst working on his PhD candidature in Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide, Miguel’s first novel Ilustrado is a multiple award winner. In 2008, it won the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature. It was published in 2010, when it also won the New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Ilustrado is the story of a young Filipino writer tracing the final movements of his late mentor, an unrequited search for redemption not just for the older man’s under-appreciated life’s work, but for his own relentless ambitions – an enquiry into whether it is worthwhile to continue writing about and for a country where the masses don’t read, and where the literati are caught up in pissing contests over what counts as “authentic Filipino writing.”
Miguel might not immediately strike one as an “authentic Filipino writer.” Having grown up in Vancouver, having completed secondary education at an international school, English is the language he is most comfortable with. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from the Ateneo de Manila University, a private, Catholic, Jesuit-founded and -led university in the nation’s capital, a university attended largely by the sons and daughters of the upper middle classes and the political and economic elites. Miguel was born lucky, and he can’t help it. To his credit, he doesn’t try to gloss over it or to pretend he is anything he is not. At the same time, he does not limit himself to where luck has landed him; he propels himself towards broader horizons, and sweeps his readers along for the ride. Perhaps authenticity is more about being honest about where one stands and where one is determined to go, rather than affecting a fit where one does not exist.
There is value in writing about what one knows, even if one sits uncomfortably with that knowledge. Of writing intimate portraits about the mobile, globe-trotting intellectuals with upper middle-class and elite backgrounds, Miguel says, “The elite have really fucked up our society. They’ve led us astray. I certainly don’t like the place they have but we have to understand their issues for us to be able to fix those issues. The rich aren’t going to go away. And to pretend and to create two-dimensional rich characters in our literature as we do is ham-fisted, limited, and frankly, lazy.”
For more incisive, decisive writing on the effects of economic and social inequality in the Philippines, on the damage caused by colonial history, the local elites, and the efforts to engage meaningfully with them, or stop them, Miguel encourages following and supporting independent journalism. “I read a lot of the work by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Newsbreak, and Amnesty International. Our PCIJ is perpetually underfunded. They publish magazines with independent, investigative journalism and nobody buys them! If we want to understand the Philippines more, that’s where we should start.” The publications he mentioned have much material available online, and are up-to-date, free of charge, and in English.
Certainly, supporting independent journalism about Philippine issues would be the least we can do, not only to learn about the Philippines beyond tourist guidebooks, on-boarding work programs, and click-bait sites, but also to support a much beleaguered profession. In 2015, the Philippines was discovered to be the third most dangerous country in the world for journalists, after Iraq and Syria. Majority of the murders of Filipino journalists since 1992 were proven to be deliberate, targeted killings. The now-infamous Maguindanao Massacre, where 32 journalists were murdered in a one day, is still, according to CNN, the “single deadliest event for journalists anywhere in the world.” Six years later, he case is still in court despite maximum expediting; many judges have refused to touch it, and prospective witnesses have been attacked, injured, and killed (for more see here). Yet Filipino journalists today continue to brave these many risks, investigating difficult issues and publishing their work locally and internationally.
Miguel believes that supporting Filipino writing is also a way of asserting one’s identity in a global reading market, evoking a sense of community consciousness through voting with one’s wallet. “We should read Filipino poetry, and support the few novels. There was a study that showed that in the past 20 years internationally there have only been 20 books by Filipino authors published internationally. That’s one novel a year. In the US they publish 200,000 novels in a year. So, we have one every year, out of those 200,000? We need to get behind Filipino writers. Even if we don’t read their books, we have to buy their books. Because if we get the hundreds of thousands of Filipino-Americans to buy Filipino books in the US, one of the largest, leading book markets, the American publishing industry would sit up and take notice. Then our voices would not be so marginal.”
Throughout our conversation, Miguel hints at – though never indulges in – an awareness of marginality. Whilst discussing his next novel, told from the perspective of a president’s mistress, he expects snide commentary about his origins, about whether he has anything meaningful to say because of who he is. “What does he know?” he says, anticipating his detractors, “He’s not a woman. What does he know, he does not live in the Philippines. What does he know? He’s not poor. So, can’t female writers write male characters? Can’t middle class or underprivileged Filipino writers write about the wealthy? These are exclusionary tactics. In Philippine politics, we practice those tactics, where people often feel they have the exclusive right to say something.
“Writing about Vita Nova, the starlet from Ilustrado, was an enriching challenge whilst working on my second novel. A little frightening, too. I had to be responsible, I had to be open. I had to write beyond myself as a male writer.”
What has his writing cost him? “Not enough,” he said. “But you know what? I could leave the Philippines and never look back. I could choose not to write about the things I write about. I could choose not to read the news, the terrible news about what’s going on at home. I could choose not to come to the Philippines as I do every year. But I don’t. I want to be this citizen, this writer, this human being, who is engaged with asking questions, with holding myself and our leaders and the elite and those at fault to account.”
Here was the Miguel Syjuco who wrote “Beating Dickheads”, a bold defense of the right and freedom to criticise public officials in a country where authority figures in the government and the church feel entitled to saccharine, smiling compliance, a country where impunity is rampant and the judiciary is not independent where one in 10 children and youths of school-attending age are neither in school nor working, and the winner of the 2016 presidential election might very well be the son of the late, publicly ousted, corrupt militarist dictator Marcos or an incumbent, allegedly corrupt Vice-President with a family just as embroiled in scandal.
I feel my white hairs multiplying every time I read or discuss Philippine news, but toward the end of our half hour conversation Miguel still seems to have a lot of gas in his tank.
“Don’t burn out,” I cautioned him.
“I won’t burn out.”
“And don’t end up in the Hudson River.”
A smile in his voice. “Let them try.”
Australian readers can buy Ilustrado online through local booksellers, and can purchase the Kindle edition immediately via Amazon. The Griffith Review’s New Asia Now print edition, which contains Miguel’s essay “Beating Dickheads” as well as the work of other Asian commentators under 45, can be bought at bookshops or on the journal’s website. Miguel’s second novel I Was the President’s Mistress!! is forthcoming.