The Fact of Fiction

Jun 01, 2010
*Special to asia!

Miguel Syjuco, winner of the 2008 Man Asian Booker for his novel "Ilustrado", is happy when people confuse his characters with real people.

Fortunately, Benigno Aquino feels to be the winner. What a relief that he won. True, he has yet to be tried as a leader, and he has a really big task ahead of him. He may not be able to surmount the system of corruption and patronage, so the real challenge will start soon. But I think we’re lucky that he’s won.


asia!: Your father was in the Arroyo cabinet, and you’ve just said that you are not at all impressed with President Arroyo. Has there been tension on this front, between you and your father?

MS: We don’t have the two-party system as the US or Canada does. Our parties are not based on ideology, but on pragmatism and opportunities. It’s a system of allegiances, based on who can get along. Politicians do what they can to get into power, because without power or a viable position, they can’t implement the changes or the policies they want to see.

I’d like to think that that was what my father was doing. I have my own political view. But just as I respect my father’s view, I hope he respects mine.


asia!: Did any politician ask for your endorsement during the recent campaigning period?

MS: I’m not famous. In the Philippines, fame is very important. That is why actors, boxers can get to be politicians. Literature, unfortunately, doesn’t place. I’m just a lowly writer. So no, nobody has asked me for any political endorsements.

In fact, I would imagine that I’m more famous abroad then at home. It was only through the Man Asian that people in the Philippines started to read me. So there’s still that colonial mentality, in that sense.


asia!: You come from a well-off family, and could, we presume, have been able to live comfortably while writing your first novel. Instead, you decided to strike out on your own. Can you tell us a bit about that?

MS: Yes, I struck out on my own. Everyone strikes out eventually; it was just that for me, it came abruptly, jarringly. I was going to Australia, of all places. My family didn’t understand why I wanted to do that. My father and I didn’t speak for years.

I am very similar to an overseas Filipino worker, like a contractor or a domestic. They need to go abroad to earn their keep. I’m doing the exact same thing. It just seems different because I’m a writer. People think I’m taking long walks or something. But I’m at my desk for long hours, every day. I’ve lived in relative poverty for years, before I won my prize. And even after my prize – with the award money, I used it basically to pay of debts that I had accumulated over the years

My book is a bit like a jeepney. In the Philippines, a jeepney is made from the different parts of old US army jeeps, cobbled together. That’s how I see my novel. It’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that. It’s what I could put together to make it work along the terrain that I have to traverse.


Miguel Syjuco will be speaking to the journalist Maya Jaggi about his new book, "Ilustrado", at the Festival of Asian Literature at London’s Asia House on June 2.

Asia House is a non-profit, non-political organization that aims to foster closer ties between the peoples of Asia and Europe. Read asia!’s interview with its director here.


clarissa tanClarissa is a journalist who focuses on travel and the arts. As a desperately hopeful author, she writes short stories and is working on a novel. Clarissa won the Spectator’s final Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing.

Contact Clarissa