SPECIAL ISSUE: INTERVIEWS
By Melissa R. Sipin
Miguel Syjuco is the grand prizewinner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize for his first novel Ilustrado (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010). Syjuco’s debut novel also won the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature, the Filipino Readers’ Choice Award, the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and was translated into more than 15 languages. Syjuco, who earned a PhD in literature from the University of Adelaide, has received fellowships from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation and the Santa Maddalena Foundation and grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec.
Born and raised in Manila, he was the 2013–2014 Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University. He is the literary editor of the Manila Review and a member of the Folio Prize Academy.
Ilustrado has a lot to do with literary expectations. Have you felt any expectations thrust upon you as an Asian-American writer?
I’m not an Asian writer. I was born an Asian, but I’m a writer now. I’m a writer who happens to be Asian. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed. I’m writing about the Filipino experience, but I’d like to think I’m making it universal.
2008 year was a great year for you. The Palanca Award, Man Asian Literary Award, a literary agent and a book deal. Was 2008 the year where everything started for you?
Yeah, I guess so. For years, agents didn’t want to talk to me, publishers didn’t want to talk to me, were not interested in something that’s about the Philippines, this unconventional book that has jokes in it, snippets of conversations and excerpts from books, poetry, blogs, and text messages. But the prize got me up there.
When you’re writing stuff like mine, you need someone that gets you. And I always want to write stuff that’s a little bit different, that’s a little bit of a challenge. Well, you know that’s the thing, the really open-minded, forward-thinking agents and publishers are the ones who don’t take unsolicited manuscripts because they’re working with people at a higher level.
So, it’s tough. All the agents I used to query told me, stop doing what you’re doing. Write differently. Write more conventionally. Write something more marketable. So I mean, I was pitching and I was hustling, I’ve been working for years. I’ve even wallpapered my study with rejection slips. I read that F. Scott Fitzgerald did that, so I thought I would do that too. So that’s what I did. For years, I just kept at it.
How was 2009? How was life before your literary stardom?
2009 was a year working. Revising Ilustrado. Before that, I was a copy editor at the Montreal Gazette. I’ve also been a freelance journalist for years. I did anything to get by. I was a medical guinea pig. I was a bartender. I painted apartments. I was an eBay power seller, a seller of lady handbags. Seriously, I did everything I could to make ends meet. My full-time job was writing but my hobbies were jobs that made me money. That’s how I did it, I had to flip it.
Fill in the blank. Writing to you is: ____ ?
Work. Fucking tough. The hardest thing I’ve ever done. How about that? Writing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
What influenced you to write Ilustrado?
That’s a good question. What do you mean?
Well, where did you start? Starting can be the hardest.
I don’t know about that. Continuing is always the hardest. Finishing is always the hardest. I started it as part of a PhD in creative writing at the University of Adelaide, so I had to do a creative component. And Ilustrado was that. It was the creative component. I was doing some fact-checking before that, and I was working at the Paris Review as a fact-checker for the Writers-of-Work series, and I was, say, on a subject like Jack Kerouac. I found myself in the library stacks, checking stacks about his life. So I was going through literary biographies, memoirs, articles about him, interviews. Cobbling together a portrait.
Do you have any words of wisdom for inspiring writers or artists?
Listen to everything.
What about the critics?
Well, take them with a grain of salt. Listen, but don’t listen to just anyone. Just finish what you started and start it all over again because it’s about the revising, it’s not about the writing. That’s something I’ve learned at least. It was hard to learn because you sit down and think: you’re the shit, right? “Oh I’m writing, I’m so good, right?” But then—it’s hard. So that’s my advice. Keep at it and don’t stop.
What role does art play in the 21st century?
The same role it’s played ever since. It tells a story of who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going. Simple as that. It’s a chronicle of humanity. Of our own worst tendencies and our biggest aspirations. I mean that’s what makes it worth it. It won’t change the world, but it’s an integral part of it. I’d like to think it would change the world, and in some cases it might. But, you know, that’s more people changing the world because of the art, not the art changing the world.
How about a more personal question. What’s on your iPod?
Addresses, calendar, and porn. Pretty much. I prefer listening to vinyls. I don’t want to listen to music in the background, or on an iPod, I like to sit down and hear music. I think it’s respectful. Also, I want to hear the world, I want to see it, I want to overhear conversations and I don’t want to tune it out. My iPod is just for when I travel. It’s an iTouch, actually. It’s my planner. I’ve got my contacts, I’ve got my calendar, and I’ve got porn for when I’m lonely.
What makes you angry?
Litterbugs, rude people, basically. Really pisses me off. I think if we were all brought up to be not rude the world would just be a better place. Rudeness, yeah, that gets me pissed. There was a great quote—I forget who said it but—“Rudeness is a poor facsimile of strength.”
What inspires you?
Anger inspires me. And you can say that: everything comma man [sic]. It’s true. Everything inspires me. I love high culture. I love pop culture. I love zombie films. I love cheesy music. I mean, I love everything—everything that’s good.
What’s your favorite city in the whole world and can you write there?
That’s tough. I don’t know how to choose. My current one is Hong Kong. But I guess, Manila now. Yeah, Manila. It’s home. But can I write there? No, I can’t.
Why can’t you write there?
Because I’m too busy being angry. I’m also too busy ‘being busy,’ you know. Making a living is very difficult to do as a writer, so you have to do all sorts of different things. You’ll be asked to teach or you’ll be asked to give talks. And if you say no, they’ll think in Tagalog: he’s an asshole, you know? I like cities where… like Montreal. Because I’m left alone. I’m completely anonymous, I’m no one. All I have to do is write. It gives me the distance.
Lastly, what does being Filipino mean to you?
Being Filipino to me is defining but not limiting. I’m nothing but Filipino, but you know before Filipino, I’m a human being. And I think that’s an important thing for a writer to realize, to know what you are and who you are. Being Filipino means being hard-working, being compassionate, being a little bit irreverent, and knowing how to laugh at ourselves.
Above photos provided by author | Previously printed in TAYO Issue 2