(Published in the Business Standard, January 2011)
Among the spotless white mundus and crisp cotton saris of visitors to the Hay-on-Thiru festival held earlier in the year, one writer fitted in, keeping his cool despite the Kerala heat. Miguel Syjuco, the young winner of the Man Asian Prize for Literary Fiction 2008, had spent much of 2009 and 2010 in a quietly triumphal tour of literary festivals; he is now something of a veteran, his polish and assurance on stage belying his 34 years.
He fits seamlessly into the Hay-on-Thiru programme; along with Mexico’s Jorge Volpi and India’s Charu Nivedita, Syjuco brings with him stories less often told. He won the Man Asian prize for his dazzling first novel Ilustrado, and he opens up about it as we share an excellent lunch of kappa-fish curry, mutton fry and appams, in the open-air tents pitched at the Kanakakunnu Palace.
“It was a Cinderella story for me,” says Syjuco, digging in with some happiness into the three delicate vegetable thorans—home-style Kerala food at its best. But he’s quick to add that it wasn’t the overnight success story reported in the media. It was in 2001 that Syjuco joined a creative writing programme; by 2006, he had the rough draft of Ilustrado; in 2007, he submitted it for the relatively new Man Asian Prize, then open to unpublished manuscripts. It didn’t make the shortlist. It didn’t even make the longlist.
“I had spent years trying to find publishers and literary agents. I was getting rejected all the time,” he says. “I kept meeting failure and disappointment, and I didn’t give up. I told myself I’d give myself ten years, and if in ten years I didn’t make it, then I’d quit.” Syjuco had three years left of his allotted decade when he finally made his mark.
When he didn’t make the Man Asian’s 2007 cut, he revised Ilustrado, and resubmitted it in 2008. “For its first three years, they really had this goal of wanting to find unpublished talent. Authors would rush to finish their novels, because now they had a bridge between them and publishers in the West.” Ilustrado was shortlisted: “Winning the Prize got the book on the desks of agents and publishers,” he says.
After his years of being an observer of the literary scene, Syjuco is now an insider; his reading at Thiru, for instance, drew writers like Sebastian Faulks. “I don’t really care about prizes,” he says, “the biggest motivation for writers is that prizes have taken the place of book reviews.” The shrinking space for book review pages, and the proliferation of amateur reviews online has meant, he explains, that even good critical reviews are “drowned out by the plenitude of noises”. In that scenario, prizes like the Man Asian or the DSC South Asian prize, or other regional literary prizes offer a stamp of approval, and access to readers and publishers in the West.
We take second helpings of the kappa and fish curry—the sole swims in a thin but perfectly spiced red gravy, the kappa is freshly pounded. At the next table, Simon Schama, Peter Florence and William Dalrymple hold court, with rising literary stars Basharat Peer and Manu Joseph just a table away.
Syjuco has moved on to the craft of writing. Illustrado spans contemporary and past Filipino history through the stories of two writers, one young and filled with passionate conviction, the other, Crispin Salvador, dead in mysterious circumstances. The illustrados of the title are the “learned” or enlightened ones—the privileged intelligentsia of the Philippines, but in Syjuco’s retelling of history, the illustrados have also betrayed their country, by their lack of engagement.
“You learn craft through trial and error, by writing; but a good creative writing programme will teach you how to read,” he says, moving his chair back from the strong winter sun. “You write the books you want to read—I think many writers write because they want to get published, or write for approval, and that is limiting.” For Syjuco, becoming a writer also brought him to grips with his country’s history, and with the weight of the colonial past.
“I didn’t want Illustrado to be an explanation of Filipino history,” he says. “I wasn’t out to explain, or to represent. The book is an indictment of the ruling elite of a generation—they did not make the difficult choices, and the personal histories I focus on is part of that larger history.”
We skip the rich desserts; I don’t have the palate for kheer, and the humidity, despite the cool breezes and the occasional drift of rain, has taken away Syjuco’s appetite. It’s time to shift inside, to the author’s green room, which is a grand, formal room speckled with chandeliers. Local celebrities—Shashi Tharoor, NS Madhavan, Mamooty—eddy in and out of the room, each with a small retinue of fans, as if this were a medieval court rather than a literary festival.
The similarities between the Filipino, or the Indian, or the Mexican writer are striking in some ways, despite the very different local culture; we have a history of colonialism in common, we have the experiences of corruption and insurgencies in common. “The anger—the anti-intellectual backlash—you see in the US or the Philippines or perhaps India comes from the sense of betrayal,” says Syjuco. “But I also wanted to take a compassionate look at the frustration that the privileged classes feel—we were born into wealth, privilege, influence, but the system is so complex and so rigged, that there’s no place for us.”
It delights him that readers in the Philippines have responded to the novel, though most of the reviews have focused on the success of Illustrado, rather than its content. Even the experimental form, which places Syjuco alongside playful post-modernists like Roberto Bolano, Junot Diaz and David Mitchell, hasn’t deterred readers, though it’s a departure from the traditional Filipino novel.
“The problem is that a lot of people do feel the perfect Filipino novel is about the rich versus the poor, socially relevant, the struggling classes—the story takes a backseat to the message—and we also like to exoticise things, we do write for the West.,” he says. I ask if that’s becoming an increasingly difficult choice for writers like him: does one have to write for the reader elsewhere rather than the reader at home, or is there room for both?
Syjuco pauses, to allow the film star Mammooty’s more enthusiastic followers to pass: “I was writing for everybody—I don’t think we should have to choose, I think a book can be both, it can work for readers at home, and readers elsewhere. Just work harder, don’t be in such a hurry to get published.”
His next book, a novel he began writing in the rejection-slip years, is written in the voice of a Filipino woman who has been mistress to a very powerful man. Through the stories she narrates of her lovers, Syjuco says, he wants to convey a view of a society in change. “It’s an examination of power, of corruption. Fiction is a very powerful way of understanding your society and history.” A political way, I suggest. “I do believe that writing should be political. Another family saga? Really, we need that? Another failed marriage and meditation on what it means—we need that?“
Syjuco, always polite in his personal style, is warming up now to a rant. “This might be provocative, but because the publishing world is centred on Western reading, it doesn’t have the same issues we have. If Philip Roth—whom I admire greatly—if he lived in Africa or the Phillippines, he would have to write differently. Writers who have witnessed the disparity, the poverty and the corruption of the world they live in—they can’t revisit the same family stories, the same quotidian lives.”
Nor does this, he says, have to be poverty porn. And this Filipino writer demonstrates his claim to be a citizen of the world by quoting the great non-fiction writer Ryszard Kapuscinski. “Kapuscinski spoke in a Paris Review interview of how he’d been all over the world, lived through coup d’etats and revolutions, poverty and famine. And he said, everywhere I go, I see journalists and soldiers and aid workers, but I don’t see poets, or fiction writers, even sociologists. Where are they? They should be there.”
That is what Miguel Syjuco, writer, illustrado, is trying to do, away from the literary festivals and the podium: to listen, and to tell it straight. As he leaves, a dapper figure in the Thiruvanthapuram sunlight, I’ll make a prediction you can’t always make about debut novelists, however good their debuts: Syjuco will have a long career ahead of him, as provocateur and teller of tales.