The politics of writing the Philippines

KASAMA Vol. 24 No. 3 / July-August-September 2010 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

The politics of writing the Philippines

For the then unpublished manuscript of “ILUSTRADO”, MIGUEL SYJUCO won the 2008 Man Asia Literary Prize and the Philippines’ highest literary honour in the English Division of the Palanca Award. The following excerpts are from Tiffany Murray’s conversation with Miguel and some questions from the audience at the 2010 Brisbane Writers Festival.

Miguel Syjuco

Can you tell us about the title and its meaning?

The novel spans about 150 years of Philippine history. The Ilustrados were a group of young men who in the late 1800s were educated in the Philippines, got scholarships and were sent abroad by their families to study in Spain and other parts of Europe. They were called ‘Ilustrados’. It means ‘enlightened’ in Spanish. These young men gathered revolutionary ideas – they studied warfare, the arts, humanities and science – and returned to the Philippines and inspired our revolution in 1896 when we began to push out the Spanish who had colonised us for 400 years.

There are Filipinos all over the world. We have a huge diaspora of 9 million plus, and that’s only the legally registered Filipinos living abroad. I wanted to play with the idea of the Ilustrado class being not just calcified in history but a potentiality for today … and it would be great if they didn’t forget where they came from … Hopefully there would one day be some sort of social revolution because we are a very complicated and troubled country. I use ‘Ilustrado’ ironically because the book is something of an indictment of the educated ruling class who consistently failed to provide any guidance and leadership, honesty and trustworthiness for Filipinos. So over the 150 years that the book charts, I go through the Philippine revolution, the American occupation, the 2nd world war, independence in 1945, the Marcos era in the 60s and 70s, all the way up to 2002.

The way you handle it, by balancing and juggling all these narratives, how did you manage to get to the end point where they all interleave?

With much difficulty and revising. The book gathers together a variety of different forms of writings … I believe that this is the way we process information nowadays with the Internet. You hear about news through gossip and from text messages. You don’t find it in just one place any more. So I thought this was a very organic way of presenting the story … This is a book told in fragments which allowed me to pull together all manner of subjects and that’s how I was able to span 150 years of Philippine history in 306 pages and also explain Philippine humour and culture and our relationship with the west and the diaspora. And, there are dirty jokes as well. In fact there’s a string of them … I believe that jokes in the Philippines particularly, become something like folklore. This is the way we explain ourselves to ourselves. It takes on an amount of ‘gallows’ humour where we all know the punch lines, we know what’s coming, it’s not even funny any more, but there’s something cognitive about it, reassuring. So, what I’ve tried to do is connect these jokes to the broader political and social condition.

… I named the protagonist Miguel Syjuco because I wanted to keep readers a little bit off balance. I wanted them to be constantly wondering what is real and what isn’t … I wanted the reader to go thorough the whole book always questioning … I believe that writing can be and should be a political act, illuminating things that we don’t often get to see and discuss, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with this novel.

… My next book titled “I was the President’s Mistress” satirises the ‘celebrity-tell-all’ memoir, so it’ll be racy and sexy and quite fun. It’s the story of a young women who sleeps her way to the top of Philippine society. She comes from a humble background and becomes the President’s mistress. Mistresses are very common in Philippine culture, ironically within such a Catholic society. Many men, especially men with power, have mistresses … [The book] is an anatomy of the different forms of power at play in a culture like the Philippines as well as an examination of corruption and how it works.

With a straight linear narrative form this time?

When I wrote Ilustrado, I wanted to change the way we read. I wanted to change the world. I wanted to write something completely and utterly different because that’s what we should be doing as writers … I reached further than I was capable of doing and, as a result, I was able to grow as a writer … I worked as a journalist for many years and I was intrigued by transcripts of interviews. Presidents Mistress is written as a series of interviews with this young woman and all the men she slept with. It’s a kind of he-said-she-said sort of thing and in the process you get a cross section of this nuanced culture.

Which Philippine writers influenced you?

Philippine literary tradition is quite complicated. We were under the Spanish for 400 years and then the Americans for 50 years. The old cliché is: we spent four centuries in a convent and five decades in Hollywood ... creating a sort of schizophrenic literature … Our national hero José Rizal wrote two books in Spanish, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo which were instrumental in inspiring people to revolt against Spain. I take a lot from him because he’s the seminal Filipino novelist. We also have a long tradition since the 1920s and 30s of diasporic writing, particularly Filipino American writing. There was an author, Carlos Bulosan, who has been called the Filipino Steinbeck. He’s one of the fathers of Asian American writing … He was one of the first Asians to have short stories published in The New Yorker … but unfortunately he was black-listed and he died of tuberculosis in a halfway house. I take a lot from his work also … the idea of coming and going; Filipinos constantly moving and wanting to return home, if they can. And, perhaps the most well known Filipino author nowadays is Jessica Hagedorn who wrote a book called Dogeaters some years ago. It mixed Spanish and Filipino and English … and she was one of my professors on my Masters program in New York … I’m influenced by her as well. I’m influenced by everything I’ve ever read … and I pay respect to that in the book … you’ll see little gifts of hidden inside jokes for people who enjoy literature … because I believe that all literature is connected.

Some say Filipinos do not have a reading culture, is this true?

No. Actually in the 1910s, 20s, & 30s during the American occupation … publishing thrived. We had plays, literary journalism, magazines in Spanish, Filipino and all the dialects, and English. That’s when the Philippines had some sort of affluence and universal education was quite good and the literacy rate was high. Unfortunately … those things have become weakened and it’s now very expensive to buy books … We’re dealing with problems of poverty, putting food on the table, and books really are a luxury. So, I think we’re not a reading culture in the Philippines as much as we were. We watch a lot of television, read gossip. One of the reasons I left the Philippines was to become a writer. I wanted to study and I knew that I had to make it abroad if I were to get Filipinos reading me … we have this colonial mentality that if you make it abroad, that’s when people will pay attention to you. Now that I’m published abroad, Ilustrado has sold out its first print run in the Philippines … I really pushed my publisher MacMillan in the Philippines to make it as cheap as possible and they came up with a beautiful edition in paperback … that is pretty affordable … I thought it’s very important to get it out there …

Published by MacMillan Philippines and exclusively distributed by Anvil, Ilustrado is now available in the Philippines for 385 pesos. Published by Random House in Australia for A$32.95.

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