The incredible, ironic, infuriating awakening of Miguel Syjuco

What happens when your first novel becomes an important piece of Filipino literature? You take that as a cue to start finding yourself.
IMAGE Rennell Salumbre

Here is the story so far.

Miguel Syjuco, then 31, then a largely unpublished writer, won the second Man Asian Literary Prize given out in 2008. That year, he beat out Alfred A. Yuson, Ian Rosales Casocot, and Lakambini Sitoy, among other writers from elsewhere in the region. For writing what the judges believed to be the best unpublished novel in the English language written by an Asian, Syjuco won US$10,000 and instant fame for Ilustrado.

In 2010, on Man Asian’s fourth year, the purse tripled to US$30,000, at the same time that the prize was opened to published novels—“difficulty in finding talented unpublished authors” was cited as the reason for the changes. The 2012 Man Asian was the last, as the Man Group (a financial services company, in case you’re wondering, based in the UK but with interests in many parts of the world [and which, interestingly enough, started in the sugar industry; its fortune was guaranteed as early as 1784, when the company won the contract to supply the Royal Navy with its “daily tot” {a ration of rum given to sailors every day}, and which the company kept for hundreds of years, until the tradition was halted in 1970 {as you can imagine, the tots added up to a tidy portfolio}]) announced that it was pulling out its funding in order to concentrate on the far more well-known (read: prestigious) Man Booker Prize and the biennial Man Booker International Prize.

This has meant that:

a.) no other Filipino author has had the opportunity to win the prize, leaving Miguel Syjuco to be the only Filipino writer with the distinction for eternity, unless the prize resurrects; and


b.) there have been no other Cinderella stories quite like Miguel’s, especially since the unpublished-novels rule only lasted until 2010.

The following year, in fact, Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe was named to the short list. And so Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado, finally published in 2010, became, as the respected academic Caroline Hau wrote, “arguably the first contemporary novel by a Filipino to have a global presence and impact.”

Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux picked up the rights for Ilustrado for the United States; Picador for the the UK, both in 2010. Hau also noted that the book “garnered rave reviews across the Atlantic,” was included in the New York Times’ “100 Notable Books of 2010”, and “was slated for translation into 13 languages before it had even been published.” Hau also noted that Ilustrado “received press coverage” in Australia and Canada. Today, there are no less than 20 editions of the book.

* * *

SO MIGUEL SYJUCO has become some sort of literary superstar. While publishers continually grouse that Pinoys don’t like reading, no other market treats writers like rock stars as we do (see, for example, the reception accorded to Neil Gaiman or to Lang Leav). And so here is Miguel Syjuco, coming home periodically to grace literary festivals, and to give talks about Ilustrado, about his life as a writer, etc. Here he is, on his enviable Instagram feed—in between jetsetting, parkour, residencies, lectures—posing with high-school kids from ISM, who are clearly thrilled to have run into the author they were just studying in class.

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Syjuco fits the role perfectly. He’s a handsome guy. He’s urbane, elegant, and stylish in a way that puts to shame all the writers who make a virtue out of being seen only in their hoodies. His hair, once combed back in a perfect good-boy coif, has now grown out into a dashing, still-perfect mane. He sports a goatee better than any Asian man has a right to. Frankly, he looks like he’s been grown in a vat specifically to play the part of Acclaimed International Writer perfectly.

It doesn’t hurt that he is, as a book publisher once gushed, “very charming, quite unlike many other writers.” (I paraphrase.)

And so here he is, at a talk at the University of Santo Tomas, at which he is the guest speaker for a forum titled Writing in Exile. The auditorium is full; much fuller than expected, in fact. I had managed to call to reserve a seat just an hour before, which turned out to be a lucky thing, because every seat was taken by the time I arrived.

“…do you know who you’re voting for?” he asks the audience, and the audience murmurs its reply. “You’re lucky,” he continues. His voice is soothing, his tone measured, and he speaks with that kind of softness that registers equally as gentleness and menace. He sounds a bit like Petyr Baelish, I decide. I spy a copy of Ilustrado on every third person in the room; the guy seated next to me has his copy wrapped lovingly in thick plastic wrap.


It’s no surprise that Syjuco has the audience eating out of his hand. The topics swing from Ilustrado to postmodernism to his struggles as a writer to politics and morals, and throughout it all the audience is clearly in love with him. He doesn’t seem to do funny, but he is charming enough to get the room to chuckle appreciatively.

At the end of the talk, after all the questions are asked, the moderator announces that the author will be signing copies of Ilustrado. A line forms, and it stretches all the way from the stage to the very back of the auditorium. Syjuco had mentioned somewhere during the talk that Ilustrado still sold best on home turf, even if it was written by an expat, with an expat perspective and expat characters. Even if it had won the Man Asian Prize, whose stated goal was to “significantly raise international awareness and appreciation of Asian literature.” This audience seems to prove that claim: In line, everyone appears to be carrying well-worn, much-loved copies; there are no uncreased copies that might look as if they were bought specifically for the occasion.

Over to one side of the stage, some of the professors from the university’s English department have gathered to wait for the line to thin out and escort their guest to the waiting reception afterwards. They’re pleasantly surprised at the turnout and with the discussion; Professor Hidalgo remembers how far Syjuco has come from being that young upstart who hadn’t shown up for the interviews for a coveted spot at a writers’ workshop. She remembers the audacious manuscript he’d turned in as an entry for a literary prize. Who knew, everyone seems to be saying. Who knew?

Syjuco himself understands their surprise. In an interview with Time, after his first post-Man Asian visit home, he had said: “I saw friends who I haven’t seen in a decade, in many cases... I saw all these teachers who, quite rightly, are surprised that I ever did something, got anywhere with my life.”

Full disclosure: I was passing acquaintances with the author when we were in university, and then again in the swamp of post-collegiate life. I didn’t know him as “Miguel Syjuco,” since he went by the nickname “Chuck.”

Now, when your nickname is Chuck, it makes it easy for the world to append adjectives to your name. Chuck was not particularly likeable, and surrounded as he was by other young men who were not particularly imaginative, one can easily surmise what name he was called behind his back. Even then, he wanted to be a writer, but it was easy to dismiss Chuck: He was too good-looking, he was too rich, he wrote too little, his writing was too naïve. I have a memory of a common friend who essentially told Chuck that his good looks were forever going to stand in his way.

Other things happened. In the gold-rush days of early Internet, Chuck was able to make a tidy little sum selling off a site that he’d built. He fell in love, he moved away. To everyone else, it looked like Good Luck Chuck was going to be a more fitting nickname. To be honest, it still wasn’t easy to take the handsome playboy seriously, and when Man Asian came calling, it just seemed like yet another thing in a long series of irritatingly lucky breaks. The little fucker even looked amazing in his tux when he accepted the award.


* * *

NOW, ABOUT ILUSTRADO. Even Syjuco himself calls it an “infuriating” book, which it is. To some readers, at least (myself included). “I’ve gathered from their reviews and comments that they find it too open-ended, too fragmented, too confusing. They call it, pejoratively, po-mo—even if I don’t consider it at all postmodern in its sensibility,” Miguel e-mails me. “For example, one commenter on Facebook recently complained: ‘To have it start with a mystery and not have it solved?’ While another reader on Amazon said it was a mess, and that they didn’t get halfway in finishing it.”

And then there’s a mixed review The Guardian gave in 2010: “Many if not most of the narrative mechanisms of this first novel don’t actually work, but it’s hard to quarrel with the judges who awarded it the Man Asian literary prize.” It goes on to say, “The pleasures of Ilustrado are not in the rather creaky evocations of the past nor in a rhetoric that grows increasingly sententious as the book goes on, but in its sophisticated and seductive evocation of modern Manila.”

Other blurbs of note:

“If you’ve never read a novel about the Philippines, then read Ilustrado. If you’re dismayed at how few books are written and published by Filipinos, then buy twenty copies. Ilustrado is an exuberant, complex, and fascinating ride through 150 years of Philippine history.” —Grace Talusan, The Rumpus

“But the scope and ambitions of Ilustrado suggest that the novel was written not simply for an international audience as part of the author’s mission to establish himself as an international writer. It is, more properly, a Philippine contribution to what Goethe calls ‘world literature’ (Garlitos 2008), one that, Janus-faced, is meant for both international and domestic readerships (Colbert 2008) and must perforce juggle issues and questions that concern not only the ‘world republic of letters’ (Casanova 2004) but also the community of readers who call themselves Filipinos.’” —Caroline Hau

“An unruly and energising novel, filled with symmetries and echoes that only become apparent in its closing pages, Ilustrado pushes readers into considering matters of authenticity, identity and belonging.” —Angel Gurria-Quintana, Financial Times

“It is certainly an extraordinary debut, at once flashy and substantial, brightly charming and quietly resistant to its own wattage. (...) Miguel Syjuco has worked out, in a sense, the project for a new kind of Asian identity, one that can simultaneously sort through the messes of the colonial past while staying alert to our emerged century of almost too easy East/West flow and too many realignments of formerly solid borders. More remarkably, he has done so in an exuberant, funny novel that neither takes its grand ambitions too seriously, nor pretends to be measuring itself by any less a scale of intent.” —Charles Foran, Globe & Mail


“Syjuco is a writer already touched by greatness, but his truly uncommon gifts delight all the more when they are permitted to emerge subtly, without overture. But this is a remarkably impressive and utterly persuasive novel.” —Joseph O’Connor, The Guardian

“It is a most cerebral novel that dares to reflect the Philippines and Filipinos at so many levels and dimensions. Through virtuoso use of language and a dazzling array of fictional techniques, it achieves all of its lofty objectives.” —Antonio A. Hidalgo, Philippine Daily Inquirer

“Not everything works: Ilustrado takes on two of the challenges that bedevil young novelists—how to smooth net-speak into prose, and how to write a good scene set in a nightclub—and fails at both…But spots of rawness in such an engaging first novel indicate how good Syjuco’s next books could be.”—Ben Jeffrey, Times Literary Supplement

* * *

SOMETHING HAPPENED to Miguel Syjuco while he was away. For the fictional Miguel Syjuco, it was the death of his mentor, and his subsequent return to the Philippines that forces him to confront, to search, and to question.

For the author Miguel Syjuco—after Ilustrado, after the award, after the fame—“where it all began,” he writes in an e-mail, “pulling me from my largely apolitical public life—which was focused mostly on the quiet life of literary fiction and its long-game political possibilities” was plagiarism. Not his, but Senator Tito Sotto’s.

A quick refresher course on the controversy: already on the losing side of the debates in Congress about the Reproductive Health Bill (now law), Sen. Sotto was found to have lifted entire paragraphs of his speech from a blog, and was called out by independent writers online. The senator denied wrongdoing. Syjuco, “more incensed by Sotto’s haughty denial than by the plagiarism,” went further and turned up more instances of plagiarism. And worse, Sotto had plagiarized from three different blogs, all from reproductive health advocates who would’ve shuddered at the senator’s intent to quash the RH Bill.

Already vocal on social media, Syjuco went on to write a long piece for Rappler: “I, for one, was furious the senator had not only stolen words, but robbed them of their meaning, twisting the intent of the plagiarized authors to fit his purposes. I felt the untimely death of intellectual integrity was worth weeping over, ostentatiously, in public, because it’s the heart of public discourse.”

It was an impassioned screed, and sometimes naughty, too, as Syjuco took absolute joy in using prophylactic imagery to rail against the anti-RH senator and his minions. He was also right; in between calling Sen. Sotto “a liar and a thief” who “resembles a foot,” and Sotto’s aide Hector Villacorta “smegma,” he made this point: “Plagiarism may be Sotto’s peccadillo, but his second and greatest sin is arrogant impunity—the sort we see when public officials believe themselves above the law.” Sotto has still, to date, refused to acknowledge that he committed plagiarism.


But the genie was already out of the bottle. Syjuco seemed reborn in this new role, taking up arms in the fight for the RH Law, and then referencing his feud with the senator when he delivered a talk about censorship at a literary festival in Kuala Lumpur. Last year, Syjuco was among the writers published in the “New Asia Now” edition of the Australian Griffith Review. His essay, “Beating Dickheads,” took names (Marcos, Enrile, Joseph and Jinggoy Estrada, Arroyo, Jalosjos, Bacani, Villegas, Aquino, Binay, Duterte, Roxas, Sotto, “the list goes on.”) and kicked ass.

* * *

WE MEET FOR LUNCH at the Manila Polo Club because, Miguel Syjuco says, “I love feeling the irony here.” The obvious irony, of course, being the very fact of existence of a polo club in the middle of urban Makati. The less obvious irony being, he confides, the fact that he’s a penniless writer enjoying the very exclusive privileges of the polo club. “Broke” is highly relative, of course, and I note with bemusement that being poor, for Good Luck Chuck, does not preclude wearing a Rolex, for example, or for renting out one of the polo club’s ultra-exclusive residential units for the few months that he’s back home.

And yet he’s very candid about his financial struggles, going into uncomfortable detail about his having to take odd jobs (as bartender, lab rat, eBay merchant, etc.) in between the more cushy gigs as visiting professor, writing fellow, and even research associate at Esquire in New York (David Granger complimented his shirt in an elevator, once). Let’s give him this: that he did sacrifice a whole lot in the pursuit of a writing life—he left the country, he left his family and his friends, and he allowed himself to be completely cut off from the family fortune, if not access to a sibling’s account at the Polo Club.

At the same time, he’s always had to acknowledge the fact that he’s been incredibly privileged all his life. “I’ve been very lucky my entire life,” he says to me, which is shorthand for what he’d told the UST audience the week before: “I’ve been getting this my entire life. Coño kid. Mestizo. That’s not my fault. That’s how I was born. That doesn’t change my love for the country, that doesn’t change how I want to help. It was the same thing, when I went to Ateneo and hung out with UP writers, I’d be asked things like, ‘How can you write? You don’t know how it is to suffer.’ Or ‘You don’t know what it is to be Filipino.’ Well, what am I if not Filipino? It’s where I was born, it’s where I was raised, it’s who I am.”


That said, this time he intends to put down roots in the Philippines. Though he is soon off to New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus as a visiting professor, he will be calling Manila home for the first time since he left, back in 2001. His return was curiously timed to coincide with the national elections—is this by design, considering what seems to be his newfound political conscience? Or is it as some people have speculated, for his father, who had tried to join the presidential race? “Hm,” the son pauses. “I think I’ve moved beyond my father in my own motivations and my own identity—I think that’s incredibly clear,” he says, and then: “I think it speaks to the culture we live in that people wonder if I’m connected with him at all. The answer is, not at all.”

The reasons, he says, for his return are more personal; and aside from acknowledging that he’s just emerging, happily, from a rather complicated time in his life, the other pressing reason for his return is his second book. The novel, I Was the President’s Mistress!! follows one of the minor characters from Ilustrado, and it sounds like it’s going to be just as adventurous and as infuriating as its predecessor. Taking the form of a celebrity tell-all, “it’s a series of transcripts—of her, of her 12 lovers—as she came from this very humble background of being a GI baby until she was finally the mistress of the most powerful man in the country.” The work has been completed, thanks to a couple of fellowships, but his editor has demanded a few revisions, which he is now working on, for publication maybe in 2017. He’s presented the manuscript at Radcliffe, and a video of his reading comes with this caption: “[Syjuco] examines different facets of power and how they comingle, conflict, and contradict. Through satire and parody, Syjuco hopes to examine his own biases, justifications, and limitations as a male writer to better understand gender politics in developing societies.” The title to the video clip announces, “I Was the President’s Mistress!!—a Novel About Sex, Power, and Corruption in the Third World.”

When I tell him that perhaps his third novel is the one to watch, he replies that he’s conceptualized it, and indeed has a proposal written out. He very generously offers to e-mail me the document, on the agreement, of course, that it remain confidential. (He did e-mail it to me, and it will remain confidential. But I think I’m allowed to say that the work is very political, and that the proposal contains this line: “This novel will be very ambitious…”)

We cover a lot of ground during our conversation, and somewhere during our talk, he raises this point: that no one has produced Filipino literature from “the perspective of the elite.” For two hours, I’d been racking my brains for an example, but he may be right—I can’t think of any, other than Ilustrado. “I don’t know anybody who writes about these things, about the Polo Club, about Forbes Park…” he trails off.


Our discussion dwindles, and Miguel walks me to the parking lot, making a slight detour to look at the Polo Club’s reading room. “The only place here where they don’t ask for your members’ ID,” he chuckles. He sees me off at the parking lot, and walks across the grounds—where, he says, he likes to take off his shoes and feel the freshly cut grass under his feet as he walks to his townhouse.

This piece originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.

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Kristine Fonacier
Former editor-in-chief of Esquire Philippines
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