Miguel Syjuco: First an Expatriate, Then a Novelist

Speaking in in Hong Kong on April 15, 2010, Miguel Syjuco reflects on his status as an expatriate Filipino novelist. (3 min., 52 sec.)

HONG KONG, April 15, 2010 - Filipino author Miguel Syjuco, whose debut novel Ilustrado won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, had to become an expatriate in order to become a writer. As he explained in a conversation here with Asia Society members and Asian Literary Review Editor-in-Chief Stephen McCarty, Syjuco needed distance to gain any clarity about both his country and his own identity.

Syjuco detailed the years of hard work that led to his purported overnight success. "I've been whacking away, trying to be a writer for many years," he said. "It was all I ever really wanted to do. I could never get published so I went and took courses, a creative writing course. I still couldn't get published, I did a masters, still couldn't get published, so I did a PhD."

In 2007, after taking up many odd jobs that would allow him time to write, Syjuco first submitted the manuscript of Ilustrado to the Man Asian Literary Prize. He did not even make the long list. Syjuco gave up on the book several times, but his PhD adviser convinced him to stick with it. He spent another year on the book and saw his commitment pay off when he re-submitted it for the prize in 2008; he made the short list, and eventually won the prize.

Ilustrado is a satirical portrait of a fictitious Filipino writer, Crispin Salvador, pieced together by his apprentice after his death. "I had hoped that the book would be less linear, and conventionally plot-driven, and more driven [by] the way that the different themes resonated and bumped up against each other," Syjuco offered, by way of explaining the novel's unorthodox structure, which interweaves interviews and memoirs. 

"If you look at our modern society today, we cobble together our idea of what is going on in the world and of who we are by accessing all sorts of different resources. How do you find out your news? You get it on the Internet, you overhear it by gossip, somebody text-messages you that sort of stuff. We have this multimedia sort of existence now; I thought that was a very natural way to put forward my own portrayal of modern life," Syjuco said.

Coupled with these entwined threads is 150 years of Filipino history—encompassing colonialism, power struggles, and the author's frustration with his country's political system. "The idea of ilustrado is not something calcified and lost in the history books. It's a potentiality. Ilustrado is a Spanish word for 'enlightened.' But it's also a very ironic way of using the term ilustrado, because this book is about the failure of the leadership, of the elite Filipinos who should know better, and how they've failed to really do their part in helping our country."

Syjuco is often asked why he chose to become an expatriate Filipino writer. "I write because I want to try to understand myself and my place in the world," he told the Hong Kong audience. "I'd like to try to articulate it, and make sense of it as best I can and hopefully share whatever tiny wisdom, or perspective or clarity I can gleam from that process with other people, with anyone who would listen. So this isn't catharsis, but it is an examination of self, and I'd like to think of universal humanity. It's a book about the Philippines, but I think it's very much a book about all of us."

At the same time, the author worries about losing touch with the Philippines, which he tries to visit annually. "Because we are such a complicated and troubled country, what happens when you're there, you develop a very thick skin, you become quite jaded. And when you go abroad I think you need to recreate, because of nostalgia, because of homesickness ....  You become in a sense a lot more engaged actually with the country."

Syjuco also hopes that his Filipino identity is defining, but not limiting, and that it will allow him to tell stories that are universal, not just Filipino. He is currently working on a second novel that will examine Filipino culture through the different forms of power at play in the country.

Reported by Winsome Tam, Asia Society Hong Kong Center