Citizenship and the Novel

Ria Golovakova

February 2019

The Philippines, like many other parts of the world, is currently being torn apart by a populist president. Although its median age is 23, the government is filled with those over 60. In the face of corruption, poverty, and dynasty-dominated politics, Miguel Syjuco writes with hope.

Syjuco doesn’t want to remain on the sidelines: he sees his purpose in speaking about the situation, using his writing as a vehicle of political change. He writes for people who he believes “have the potential to be leaders of their families, communities, or country but are set back by larger institutions and powers that be.”

Last year, Syjuco kicked off NYUAD’s Faculty Reading Series by reading from the first chapter of his upcoming novel, I Was the President’s Mistress!!. Structured as a series of interviews, the book is a collection of source material gathered by a ghost writer to produce a memoir of Vita Nova, a fictional celebrity. The interviews include one with Vita Nova and twelve others with her former lovers. While the plot centers on a political scandal and a presidential impeachment, the book weaves in personal narratives in an attempt to humanize these media headlines through the personal.

Syjuco’s first novel, Ilustrado (2010), warns us to be aware of the sly, deliberate structure of his fiction. The work is a collage of texts: excerpts from history books, blog posts, manuscripts by the book’s protagonist, Crispin Salvador, and interviews with Salvador. Many of these texts deal with Filipino history, introducing that unfamiliar history to the world’s English-speaking audience. The deconstructed novel is therefore a tool of communication rather than artistic fancy.

Novelist Miguel Syjuco

Photo courtesy of Miguel Syjuco

I was the President’s Mistress!! similarly uses a non-traditional structure. Syjuco draws from his work as a journalist: the book is full of “material” that a journalist has collected; the story is for the reader to construct. When I met him to talk about the excerpt, Syjuco told me that the reader is meant to feel “as if they found a box of cassette tapes or a folder of audio files on a computer and decided to start listening to them.” The structure, he hopes, will provide a sense of discovery as well as agency, allowing for multifold interpretations of the story. Since no dominant narrative is present, the reader is left to “wrestle with contradictory facts” and take their own stance.

The reader’s agency is important to Syjuco. “It’s about figuring out how we, as citizens, can participate in this story that we all find ourselves in,” he says. I was the President’s Mistress!! is a loose sequel to Ilustrado, set in the same universe: while Ilustrado dealt with the past, however, his upcoming novel tackles the present. It seems appropriate that the novel, a snapshot of our current era, remain without authorial interpretation. After all, we cannot adequately analyze the present until it has become history, and its consequences have become clear.

But that does not mean that we should not attempt to make sense of the present moment. Syjuco tells me that the central issues—“corruption, power dynamic between genders, political inequality”—are already obvious. These are the realities of today, things that will continue on for as long as humans are engaging in the political, and democratic, process. Syjuco sees his writing as tackling the dynamic between individuals and the larger socio-political institutions that influence them.

The reading, although centered around the Philippines, happened halfway across the globe from it. Syjuco addressed our international and multicultural audience in Abu Dhabi, its desert landscape nothing like his native Manila. Although he has lived abroad for almost two decades, Syjuco does not believe that makes him less of a Filipino writer, contending that “the Filipino experience is a global one.” He, like many others from his country, has had “to expand to the wider world in search for work.”

Living away from the Philippines has presented challenges in writing about it. I Was the President’s Mistress!! has been in the works for eight years, and according to Syjuco, many drafts have been tossed during this time. Syjuco speaks of the difficulty he has had in grounding the novel in actual Filipino reality. After failing to connect to it from abroad, he decided to return to the Philippines for a year. Simply being there physically, though, was not enough. “A lot of people are in the Philippines but live in a bubble: going to the mall, to church, their jobs, and staying within their communities does not connect them to the country as a whole,” he says.

Both for his second novel and his many nonfiction pieces, Syjuco has made a conscious effort to leave the bubble for contexts that differed from his own. He visited “provinces, slums, and many dark corners of the country where people are experiencing great agony and inequality.” He has been at scenes of murder on Manila’s night streets and spent time in morgues, talking to the victims of Duterte’s drug war. All of these efforts, in his words, were necessary for him to have an informed opinion. An informed opinion, he says, “requires going out and doing the legwork, talking to people and listening to all sides.”

He hopes that his work will inspire and influence others. During the reading event, Syjuco shared prompts from his project Usapang ATIN, “Our Conversation.” This project, which he later presented at the Global Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg, is “a template for discussion that seeks to help people relearn civic conversation.” He hopes that the platform will allow his fellow Filipinos to speak about the truly important issues, and to find connections despite difference in political opinion.

This spring at NYUAD, Syjuco is teaching a class called “Citizen, Writer,” in which students “learn the skills that prepare them for the blood sport that is public discussion,” be it on an internet comment thread, a larger media outlet, or an in-person debate. His goal is to equip students with the ability to “make their pens mightier than swords” and to help them discover the agency that the act of writing can enable.

“We often turn to writing,” Syjuco says, “whether it is creative writing or just spewing on social media, because we don’t feel heard.” He sees a need for public discourse forums which provide an outlet for the human impulse to tell stories as well as influence social structures. Writing and speaking are acts of democracy. “Having a voice means having a vote.”

Syjuco admits that “one of the huge challenges of being a writer is that you are always an outsider,” but views that facet of the writing life as an advantage. “When you become an insider you start to live within an echo chamber,” he says. Outsiders bring new perspectives; they notice things worth sharing. If he can help others make just a little more sense of the world, be it through writing or teaching, then his own nightmares, anger, and hopelessness will be easier to deal with. If someone listens, it might all be worth it.

The NYUAD Faculty Reading Series returns on February 27 with a reading by Tishani Doshi, Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at NYUAD and the author most recently of the poetry collection Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods (2017).

Ria Golovakova is a junior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. She attended high school in Manila, Philippines, where she first came across Miguel Syjuco’s work.