Filipino Expat Miguel Syjuco's Breakout Novel

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Marcos Townsend

Miguel Syjuco

In Spanish, Ilustrado means "enlightened one." During the 19th century, it referred to the Philippines' Europe-educated literati, whose revolutionary ideas helped establish the foundations for Asia's first democracy. Fast-forward 200 years: expatriate Filipino author Miguel Syjuco has put a modern spin on this dated term with his 2008 Man Asia Literary Prize–winning novel Ilustrado. Syjuco's novel follows the exploits of a young Filipino protagonist — also named Miguel Syjuco — who returns to the Philippines and the past he left behind to investigate the death of his dissident mentor Crispin Salvador. This satire of Philippine society comes at a time when this Southeast Asian nation stands at a political crossroads. Born into a well-to-do political family himself, Syjuco is not unfamiliar with the elite class he parodies, but he is quick to point out the differences between himself and his fictional namesake. During his whirlwind Asian promotional tour, Syjuco spoke with TIME in Hong Kong about the power of the written word and his transnational exploits as a modern-day Ilustrado.

How was your return to the Philippines? Was it a big homecoming for you?
It was. I saw friends who I haven't seen in a decade, in many cases. I spoke at my alma mater, the Ateneo. I saw all these teachers who, quite rightly, are surprised that I ever did something, got anywhere with my life. I surprise myself that I'm not dead in the gutter somewhere, surprised that I haven't given up.

What drove you to leave to begin with?
I left to pursue my education as a creative writer. I studied in New York. I fell in love with an Australian-born, half-Filipina girl. So we moved to Australia when she went to her university and I moved with her. We moved to Montreal because she was going to take her year abroad and I wanted to see if I could keep on writing there. It's really hard to make it as a writer in the Philippines. But I also wanted to see if I could make it on my own. I wanted to live in a place where nobody knew my last name and didn't ask where I went to school. I wanted to get by on my own merit. As many young men and women do, they have to leave home, leave their parents — their loving parents — and strike out on their own to prove themselves.

In Ilustrado, the protagonist is named Miguel Syjuco. Why did you name him after yourself?
The Miguel Syjuco character is not me. I wanted him to represent my own fears and frustrations and guilt, my own worst tendencies and my optimistic expectations. He's a cautionary tale for me. But he's also an examination of the darkest things that haunt me as a person. I named him after me because I think it keeps the reader a little bit more engaged and wondering what's real and what's not. And that's a good thing.

What is your writing process like? How do you motivate yourself to fill the page?
I treat my writing like a day job, like my main job, even if for many years I was doing other jobs to pay the bills. I worked as a copy editor. I was a medical guinea pig. I was an eBay power seller of ladies' handbags. I was an assistant to a bookie at the horse races. I bartended. I did anything I could to make ends meet. And those to me were hobbies that paid money, because my main job, even if it didn't pay any money, was creative writing. So I'd wake up, and I'd go straight to my desk, and I'd work until I couldn't work anymore. I feel like an overworked executive trying to make a promotion. I think that's how writers have to do it. I think of the romance novelist Nora Roberts. Her philosophy is pared down to three words: butt in chair. So I stick my behind in my office chair in front of my computer and just work.

That must take a lot of discipline.
Discipline and desperation, I guess. And delusion.

As a diasporic author, did you feel any pressure representing your mother country?
I'm a Filipino. I'm nothing else but a Filipino. I'd like to be a writer, not just defined by race. The book deals with those issues — the guilt and the sense of purpose and wondering if what you are doing is right or wrong. But I think that's natural. I think that anyone living abroad would feel that way. And if you were living at home, you'd be feeling other things. So I guess I am a diasporic writer. If you ask me, I'm just a dude who sits at his desk and writes as best he can. And everything else is just subsets of that.

It was Jessica Hagedorn who once told me, "Don't just try to be a Filipino writer. Try to be a writer." The beauty about being a writer is that you put yourself in other people's shoes. You imagine the lives of your characters. My writing changed after she told me that. It stopped being so angry and militantly nationalistic. I stopped trying to explain the Philippines, or I stopped trying to prove everybody wrong about the preconceptions and misconceptions that they have about Filipinos. I started just focusing on the story. The book is about the Philippines, but it's about the Philippines that I've created within the context of the novel. So it's a real place, but it is a work of fiction.

With the elections happening, your novel comes at an important time for the Philippines. Did you plan this release purposefully?
Yes, I pushed my publishers to do it. They're wonderful. They listened, and they understand how important this is. I wanted it to come out before the elections. It's funny — as I was revising it this last year, a lot of the things that go on in the book seem to have happened. It seems prescient almost. And I thought at first, "Well, why is this? Am I just ripping off? Am I Nostradamus here?" But no, I think it's really just because the Philippines is in a cycle of constantly recurring problems and issues that we have never really solved. That's why I'm able to write about these things in the book, because they're just constantly recurring. And hopefully now that I've articulated them, put them down, people can read about them. Now we can see them a little bit more clearly and maybe turn our eye towards discussing solutions.

So you believe that words can create change?
I think every writer at their heart believes that when they sit down and write, they can do something meaningful with their work and they can incite change. It's what keeps us writing. Well, maybe some writers do it for the money, but I certainly am not. But I have no illusions about the idea or even the possibility that my book will come out and all of a sudden everybody's going to vote properly and they're going to change the country and they're going to get rid of all the corruption. It's not going to happen.

Do you have hope for the future of the Philippines?
Yes. I believe change will come from the grass-roots level. I don't think we have a Barack Obama who can inspire the people and really lead them to change. We're a fractured society, and I think that change will come from organizing the people who can benefit most from change and helping them help themselves. But again, I'm just a writer. I don't know much about politics.