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The SLS Interviews: Miguel Syjuco

The SLS Interviews: Miguel Syjuco

The Illustrado author on political art, winning literary prizes and why he doesn’t want to write The Alchemist.

Photograph by Edith Werbel.

I first met Miguel Syjuco at a Books and Breakfast reading at McGill. It was before his 2008 Man Asian Prize-winning book Ilustrado was even published, and after the reading he was signing flyers describing the book. Now Ilustrado is a year old and also bears the title Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize-winner. Syjuco has travelled the world promoting the book.

Suzanne Hancock: Miguel, did you get what you wanted out of this experience? Now that Ilustrado is published, do you feel satisfied with the results of that process and with everything that's come as a result?

Miguel Syjuco: Yes and no, I think. What I've gotten is beyond anything I could have imagined. I thought, really, that no one would want to publish Ilustrado. In fact, half-way through I shelved it and started another book because I thought this is too weird or difficult, and as a Filipino author I'm also facing this idea that Filipino authors can't get published in the West, no one wants to read them, all that sort of stuff. So, the fact that I got published so big and so well is beyond any of my wildest dreams.

I just wanted to publish a book anywhere so maybe I could get a job as a teacher. I never realized that overnight I'd be able to support myself through my writing. So I got everything I could ever want. What's funny, though—and I don't want to sound at all ungrateful—but it's funny, because I spent all my years wishing for something which I suddenly get, and when I get it I suddenly start wishing for all the stuff I was tired of. The quietness, the fact that I could write without consequence, nobody's waiting or expecting anything. I'm also a little disillusioned with everything, with the way things work.

Suzanne Hancock: With publishers? Or readers? The whole literary culture?

MS: No, my publishers have been great. I think sometimes it's with readers. I want to assume that all readers are smart because I think they are. But I didn't realize how many are lazy. And how many angry readers are out there!

SH: That aren't willing to be challenged?

MS: That aren't willing to see the book for what it is. They come to the book with their expectations and, at the very least, they expect to be entertained. So I came into this thinking that I want my book to be published and I want to write a book that everyone will love, and I've had to rethink that. I've realized that I don't want to necessarily write something everyone loves. I don't want to write The Alchemist. I'd love to write Catcher in the Rye, sure. I want to write something that does get people talking, that polarizes them. I've had to readjust what I want from my work and what I want from my life.

It's funny, too, because you write a book and suddenly everyone thinks you're an expert writer and an expert at the politics of your country. I'm still learning! It's my first book, but all of these different opportunities and expectations, to me, are just bigger challenges. When I wrote the book, finishing it was my end goal. Now I've written it and I've got all these other challenges. They're good challenges to have, but it's not quite the way I thought it was going to unfold.

SH: I think that's appealing about being a writer, though. It's cyclical. Your book comes out, you're on stage, you're a public personality, you're interacting with other people, and then that dies down again and you get back to focusing on the next book and all the challenges associated with that: being solitary, not having constant feedback, and then the next book comes out and you become that public person again. And then the writing starts again. There's something appealing about having both worlds, about being able to interact with readers and then just interacting with the page again. Were the festivals and touring what you thought they'd be?

MS: They were better than I thought they'd be. These festivals are crazy and amazing! You get brought to locations all around the world, you get to hang out with amazing authors and like-minded individuals, many of them people you've admired from afar. It brings you out into the world in a space where you're surrounded by people who understand and appreciate and share the love for books and the job you're doing. So, that blew my mind. It's really interesting meeting readers. But I was surprised by how many people in the audience are curious less about the ideas and what the book says, and are more interested in you as a writer, what you do and how. I'm surprised by how many people want to be writers! We all have our stories to tell.

SH: Ilustrado is in many ways about struggles with identity and the identity of Miguel Syjuco. Do you find yourself exhausted now by the question: who is Miguel Syjuco? Are you tired of being dissected? Do you want me to stop asking questions now?

MS: I don't find it tiring. I find it a better option than those people who think that they understand you and write you off. I don't mind people asking me stuff about myself because I figure, well, if writing is supposed to be a very honest act, and the best writing I think is the most honest writing, it only makes sense that the author should be honest as a person. At least, that's what I try to do. Sure I write fiction, but I try to write it honestly. I try to be brave about the things I write and so, therefore, I should be brave enough to say this is who I am, this is my background, this is what I like, these are my problems, my weaknesses. I don't mind that. I have nothing to hide.

What I don't like are those people who say: he comes from a wealthy family in the Philippines, that's probably why he got published. Or, more annoyingly: how do you think you can write about certain things, when you don't know what it's like to suffer? These are ridiculous, blinkered and uncompassionate approaches to trying to interact with someone. I see it as a few steps removed from bigotry. The wonderful thing about writing is it creates empathy and I appreciate empathetic, curious readers.

I didn't actually set out to write a book about identity, but it seeps in from my own struggles with who I am. And it's a work in progress. I think readers have to recognize that. I accept all the parts of myself, the different languages I speak, the different cultures that have informed me. What I find difficult, though, is I don't really like books about identity. When that is made the big issue. I like to think Ilustrado is about more than that. It's so funny that people want to compartmentalize. Writing is about complexity, it's about saying things are not as simple as they seem, and yet within the publishing industry, within reading and writing about books it's all about categorization. It's all about simplifying it for readers. I find that disappointing.

SH: Right. And what about the whole prize culture out there? I imagine you have a complex relationship with the prize world. One reason Ilustrado found its way into the hands of the right publishers was because of the Man Asian Literary prize. But then there were the surprising omissions from some of the other prize lists. What do prizes mean to you? Should they mean anything? Are they sometimes too parochial? Are they relevant? If they don't translate into sales, do they mean as much as they seem?

MS: I want to be a successful enough writer financially so I don't have to care about prizes. But because I'm not, and I'm still living book to book, and I would like to be able to afford to live off my writing and provide for my loved ones, I am forced to care about prizes. In reality, I don't. I just want to write. As Julian Barnes called them, prizes are "posh bingo." I hit the jackpot with the Man Asian Literary Prize, it got me out of the wilderness, got my book into the hands of the right people. In my dark moments I wonder, well, was it the prize or was it actually the book? I think the book has succeeded on its own merit and I think I can feel secure that it was more than just the prize.

But the fact that I needed to win the prize to get there is troubling. But I guess that's how the world works. My theory is that it's because of the democratization of the internet, the fact that we now have bloggers and Amazon reviewers who are deciding to write reviews, and most readers will take these reviews with as much weight as a reviewer who has spent her lifetime reviewing for a newspaper. They might even give more weight to the man on the street and I believe that reviews now in newspapers and other publications have less weight; that prizes now hold that sort of place in people's minds. And that's not necessarily fair. They shouldn't make a difference to publishers, but unfortunately, they do.

SH: Have you been able to do much writing since Ilustrado came out?

MS: No, not on my next book. But, I've been lucky enough, because of this book, to be able to write for the Globe and Mail, the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune. I've been able to do radio. A couple of weeks ago I was the narrator of a documentary. So, I've had all these cool, new opportunities. I've written a couple of short stories that were commissioned by festivals. I'm not writing fiction, but I've been doing other things. I'm working in other forms of communication. So, it hasn't been that bad a year for writing. Plus, I met all my idols. It's been a great year, just not for writing fiction, but for living. I stole all the soaps from all the big hotels and we haven't had to buy soap for the past year, which is great!

SH: Sweet. What are you hoping for the second book?

MS: Well, to finish it! I want to write books that examine the connection between characters on the human level and the society that surrounds them. I'm inspired by a lot of writing from other parts of the world: Asia and Africa and Latin America. The subjects always seem more important than much of what is written and prized in North America. Some of that feels like spoiled writing to me. What about going out into the world and finding other subjects to write about?

One of my favourite quotes is by the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński, who travelled as a foreign correspondent. I'm paraphrasing, but he said something like: "I've been all over the world, I've lived through famines and coup-d'états, revolutions. I've seen all sorts of things, and in all these troubled areas, I see aid workers, soldiers and victims, but I never see poets or novelists or playwrights. And then I go home to Europe and there they are giving each other prizes for stories that we've all read before." And I kind of believe in that. I agree. We don't see a lot of writing here about those kinds of important topics.

SH: Is it a different writing experience now knowing that this book is going to be published, that you have a contract for it? Does it make the experience of writing it different?

MS: Yes, I think so. I feel a little bit more brave, knowing I've got a publisher lined up already. And that I've got an agent who will sell it for me in other countries and languages. But at the same time, I know that people are waiting and people will expect it to be different or better than Ilustrado, and what if it's not? It'll always be in Ilustrado's shadow, and I'd like to write a book that isn't. That means it needs to be better!

SH: I've always been intrigued by this quote by Flannery O'Connor: "The novel is an art form and when you use it for anything other than art you pervert it." Do you agree with that sentiment?

MS: Yes, to a certain extent. If you set out to write a novel that is not artistic but is propaganda, then it's not art. It's not a novel. That said, art can be engaged with the world, it doesn't have to be art for art's sake. I'd like to think that what I write and what I do aspires towards art, but because I'm a politically-minded person, and I'm engaged with society's questions, especially because I come from a third-world society, and I'm always wondering about how we can change the system, I think that affects my art. I'm not setting out to only discuss those possible changes, I'm trying to create art. But because it is a fruit of me, inevitably it will contain all of those things I'm preoccupied with. I think art for art's sake becomes dangerously close to becoming disconnected from exactly what it's trying to write about.

SH: Is there a specific book you've read recently that illustrates the idea that art and politics can be fused?

MS: Yes, the latest one is the book Corruption, by the Moroccan-French writer Tahar Ben Jelloun. It examines the fall of a mid-level bureaucrat in Morocco from being one of the only remaining honest men in the system, and how forces acted upon him to corrupt him: his wife, his boss, his underlings. And you see over the course of the book how he struggles with these questions; and this was a real revelation to me. All too often, books are about the big epiphany, the climax, and I like this book because it isn't about that sudden change, and life is like that. It was art, but it wasn't polemical, but it was very involved in trying to understand this abstract problem and bring it down to the human level. It's a small book, 150 pages, but it was huge in what it was trying to do.

SH: One last question, Miguel. And this one goes back to Ilustrado. What's the most important thing you want your readers to take away from Ilustrado?

MS: I would like the reader to take away an appreciation of complexity. I think that our tendency towards simplification is one of the most dangerous things that we as humans can be doing. It is the root of racism and misconceptions of a country and its history. For example, why have all these Filipinos had to move to different countries all over the world? Because they wanted to? The answer isn't as simple as: it was the Marcos dictatorship. No, there are very complex problems going on for generations that haven't been fixed. The spirit of the novel, as Kundera says, is complexity. That's the sort of book I wanted to write and I hope readers can see that. Literature shouldn't give us the answers, it should make us question. I'm hoping that readers will come away appreciating the spirit of complexity and questioning.

Suzanne Hancock's second book of poetry, Cast From Bells (McGill-Queen's), was published in April 2010.

SLS

As part of Montreal’s Summer Literary Seminars, Miguel Syjuco is reading Thursday, June 23 at 7:30 p.m. at Concordia University’s deSeve Hall with Lee Henderson and Mary Gaitskill.

Montreal’s Summer Literary Seminars take place from June 12 to June 25, 2011. For a schedule of events, or to buy a pass, visit www.sumlitsem.org/montreal/schedule.html.

Related on maisonneuve.org:

—The SLS Interviews: Christian Bök
—The SLS Interviews: Lynne Tillman
—The SLS Interviews: Eugene Ostashevsky

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