Ilustrado, the striking debut novel by Miguel Syjuco, builds a world out of fragments ingeniously fused together.
Fictional interviews and blog postings, along with excerpts from nonexistent novels, essays, and biographies, illuminate the parallel lives of a deceased Filipino literary icon and the ex-pat writer he mentored—a young man (notably named “Miguel Syjuco”) from a privileged Philippine family, struggling to find his own way of confronting his native country’s turbulent history and callous social order. Along the way, Ilustrado (Hamish Hamilton, $34) touches on a huge, complex range of subjects: the friction between national and personal identity, the collective trance of celebrity culture, the toll taken by the past on the present, and the powers and failings of art.
Syjuco, who was born and raised in the Philippines (and spent several years of his youth in Vancouver), lives in Montreal. He was a guest of last week’s Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival. The Georgia Straight caught up with him there, for a conversation at a Granville Island restaurant.
Georgia Straight: Ilustrado contains a lot of detail about politics and social struggles in the Philippines. Your readers will be a mix of those who know little about these things and those who know a great deal. Is the book’s power in its universals or in its particulars?
Miguel Syjuco: The universal is a way of building bridges between cultures and individuals. So I do have a lot of universal stories within the book: father-son or parent-child relationships, the immigrant experience, the relationship between a young man and his girlfriend or wife, the relationship he has with himself as he’s growing. All these themes are stories as old as time”¦.
At the same time, I didn’t want to just make it a study of a marriage. How many more books like that do we need? I look at western literature and especially North American literature, and I feel like it gets bogged down so much with all of that, with domestic stories and relationships and a woman dealing with the loss of her husband. I mean, it’s honestly quite spoiled. It’s a pampered view of the world”¦.
I think we shouldn’t forget that there’s a whole world out there of things that need to be covered.
GS: One of the main characters in the book, a young author named Miguel, returns to the Philippines to do research after living for years in North America. At one point, he runs into a member of the Philippine literati, who says to him accusingly, “How can you write about the Philippines?” Is that part of your own experience?
MS: Absolutely. As a Filipino writer, there’s always something. Either you’re not Tagalog or Cebu—which is another dialect entirely, another island, where I went to high school—or because you’re mestizo, you’re half-Spanish, or you’re part-Chinese. I mean, we have this strange view of nationalism which is based on purity, almost, which is ridiculous, because we’ve been such a melting pot for centuries.
But in reaction to our colonial experience, in the ’70s especially, a lot of Filipinos rejected Americanism and American pop culture, English as a language, foreign culture, and tried to go back to some skewed, strange ideal of authenticity”¦.And I think we’re in a post-postcolonial period now, where we no longer have to react to colonialism”¦.
There’s this trend in Filipino literature and in literature everywhere, where they say, “Well, this isn’t Filipino enough” or “This isn’t Canadian enough,” denying the fact that we’re interconnected. And you get that here, even in Canada.
GS: You mean fixed ideas about what counts as authentically Canadian?
MS: Yeah. You know, what is Can lit? You have people in institutions or in journalism or on prize juries who have a very clear view of the Can lit community.
GS: Many parts of Ilustrado seem highly critical of Philippine society. This must strike some in that society as airing dirty laundry before a global public. Certainly, many other ex-pat writers have run into that kind of charge.
MS: Some people say, “Why do you have to be so negative about the Philippines? Why can’t you write positive things?” It’s that head-in-the-sand mentality, where rather than trying to find an understanding with ourselves and the rest of the world, we’d rather deny it—rather write love stories or fiction pretending to be a travelogue. But I really believe that to try to pose solutions to problems, we need to understand the problems first. And that’s what I believe fiction can do”¦.
I try to make it something universal, something funny and interesting. But at the same time, you’re learning about Philippine history. You’re understanding why these Filipinos have to leave the country. Is it just [Ferdinand] Marcos? Is it just rich versus poor? No. It’s been 150 years and longer of oppression, of the people in charge—the elite—not taking their responsibility. It’s partly been colonialism. It’s all of these very complicated factors. And that’s why I think it’s important”¦so they can expand their understanding of the Philippines beyond maids, prostitutes, and Imelda Marcos”¦.
Fiction is a very powerful tool for teaching history. The Philippines was the first Iraq, the first Vietnam, the first Afghanistan, in the sense that it was the United States’ initial or baptismal experience in nation-building. They came in, they established a ruling class made up of people who are sympathetic to the American agenda in the country”¦.
That’s what neocolonial powers do—they choose the lesser of two evils to suit their agenda. And for us to understand what we could be doing imposing these leaders on people in the Middle East and elsewhere, I think we need to look at the Philippines, where 120 years later we’re still having the same problems.
GS: Near the end of the book, a character mentions the process of transforming memory into fiction—a process that’s clearly part of writing a novel like this one, where personal experience is used as source material. But this same character also mentions transforming fiction into memory, as if writing changes the way people view themselves and their past. Is this part of your purpose?
MS: Very much so, especially in a country like the Philippines where mythmaking, celebrity, branding, and all of these things play such a part—and not just in the Philippines but everywhere. I mean, isn’t J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield as real to you as Stephen Harper? Maybe even more so. And in the book I have another character say she wants to write a book of possibilities. And that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to write a book of possibilities.