There’s a Metaphor in There Somewhere

There’s a Metaphor in There Somewhere

There’s a Metaphor
in There Somewhere

MAY 2016

Dear Friend,

It should come as no surprise that I really, really, really like books. As soon as you saw this letter from me, you probably thought “I bet this is going to be about books”. Good guess.

We returned to the Platonic idea of each man having a specific nature in my Ethics class today, and I think my specific nature is more of the bleached-paper-and-PVA-glue type. I like books. I’ve bought too many books since coming to London, an undisclosed amount which should keep me up at night thinking of all the sterling pounds I’ve spent, but really doesn’t. Because I have the miracle/curse of having one class a day, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the city on my own. What I’ve discovered thus far is that the specific nature of London , or at least of my London, resides in its bookshops. I’ve probably been to every bookshop within a 30-minute walk from my flat in Russell Square. I’ve been to Skoobs—two minutes away and therefore a very tempting distraction when I can’t be bothered to write an essay—many times. The last time I was there I walked out with three books: one on Miles Davis, one on Jay-Z, and one about music in the twentieth century. All for 15 pounds (78.80 AED). Isn’t that insane?

Photograph by Gaby Flores

I can find my way to these bookstores well enough that if I were to be reincarnated into a pigeon I’d probably find myself flying to these same places every day. The funny thing is, though, that stepping inside them is different. See, the thing is that these bookstores are huge—or yuuuuuuuuuuuuge, as the next Republican nominee for President of the United States likes to say. Two floors seems to be the minimum, even in secondhand shops, with some shops having shelves that literally touch the ceiling. How the hell am I supposed to reach up there? These bookshops seem bereft of ladders, which makes me think that the sellers are saving all the best books for themselves at the top. I mean, there’s also the fact that the average height of a British citizen is a good 10 cm taller than my current height, which isn’t too bad but maybe 10 cm makes all the difference. You know how hopeless I am at estimating things, so it’s not like I would know. Part of the reason why I keep coming back to certain bookstores is to think of new ways to reach these hidden books. I’m not even sure if I want them, but just the simple fact of them being out of my reach makes me want them more. I mean, I could be missing out on the book that defines my life. My whole life! I suppose I could ask for help from these aforementioned 10 cm taller individuals, but I’d rather be left to my own bearings. My pilgrimages are very personal events, you know.

These bookshops, these quiet areas where I constantly lose myself, become markers through which I can find myself in a busy throng of people.

But in all honesty, I get lost every time I go in. Doesn’t matter where it is—Skoobs in the Brunswick, Foyles on Tottenham Court Road,Waterstones on Picadilly/Tottenham Road/Gower Street, London Review Bookshopon Bury Place, Libreria Bookshop in Brick Lane—I know how to get there, but I get lost the second I step inside. I don’t even know what I do, or how I decide what books to pick up … does anyone? I don’t know. I kind of just walk around, maybe sit down and have some coffee (a lot of these bookshops have cafes in them, which reeks of capitalism but I’m too deep in it to care). Sometimes I get a flat white, but sometimes I get a latte because it’s often 10 pence cheaper, which doesn’t seem like a lot but really does once you’re a budgeting college student like I am. Sure, I could take the tube to Chinatown instead of walking for 20 minutes, or I could use the 2 pounds and 40 pence to buy a Pelican book on the origins of plastic. I mean, it’s not even a contest.

My London bookshops have become part of my routine and I go to a different one each day. So that means that each day, you can find me pacing up and down the aisles, picking stuff up and putting them down again, and being a quiet nuisance who doesn’t even spend any money but will sometimes cave in and buy 5 new books in one go. Throw me into the city again, however, and that’s different. I don’t even need Google Maps at this point, I’m so well-acquainted with the area (area being an ambiguous term, by which I mean whichever Bookshop Area I am currently in) that I’ll even take the side streets home just for kicks. Isn’t it funny? These bookshops, these quiet areas where I constantly lose myself, become markers through which I can find myself in a busy throng of people. I guess that’s kind of ironic, considering that as I was leaving class I overheard these two girls finding directions for this, like, really good Korean place? that costs around 6 pounds? and is, like, really popular? and also super near?

FYI, the Korean joint she’s talking about is two minutes away from campus. Honey, you’ve been here for a little over a month. Get it together. I’ve eaten there at least four times in the past two weeks. It’s also a straight walk to the London Review Bookshop and the adjacent London Review Cake Shop, also known as the place where all time recedes into a vacuum.

But see, that’s what I’m talking about. I saw a play yesterday near Trafalgar Square and decided to walk back home instead of taking the tube, because it’s only a twenty-minute walk from Trafalgar to Russell Square. But in a bookshop, in my London bookshops, I get lost all the time. Not to say that getting lost is a bad thing, of course. When you walk around in a new city, getting lost is half the fun of it. Getting lost in a bookshop, however, is marginally better, in part because books can’t physically speak and are therefore quieter than the hordes of tourists in Piccadilly. Also, books don’t push you around when you’re trying to cross the street at a busy intersection.

I just came back from one, actually. I saw Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s The Time Regulation Instituteagain, this time on the tippitytoppiest shelf, making out with the ceiling, out of my reach. Most importantly, out of my credit card’s reach. Just as well, I suppose, because I’m still making my way through the other book I bought a couple of days ago. I tell myself I’ll be back eventually…maybe tomorrow. Okay, definitely tomorrow. And, as I stood there staring at The Time Regulation Institute—should’ve I took those growth pills as a kid — I thought of all my London experiences, which made me think of you, which made me write this letter. I hope you’re well.

Surprisingly enough (or not), I’ve still got a list of books I want to buy. Tanpinar’s is one, along with Han Kang’s Human Acts and Dickens’ Bleak House. I will only allow myself to buy one, though, so I’m giving myself a month to decide. I know I could go to a secondhand bookshop and save myself some cash while I’m at it, but I only go to the secondhand bookshops if I don’t have anything in mind in the first place, because most their charm comes from the search (case in point: Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera for 3 pounds, aka 10 AED – are you f***ing kidding me?). See, I already have a system devised for myself. It’s that bad. Furthermore, it seems counterintuitive to keep going back to bookshops while simultaneously banning yourself from buying anything, as if Alcoholics Anonymous were to have their weekly meetings in a wine cellar. I know that I could avoid going into a bookshop. I know how to avoid them, and I guess there are other things in this city worth exploring, but I can only go to the British Museum so many times before the stench of colonialism and oppression sears my scarf; at least in a bookshop, I can just forego any Kipling novel. Keep in mind that this city is expensive. Really, really, really expensive. You can go into a bookstore for free—and leave for free too, if you can manage to avoid buying anything. I can only visit a bookshop so many times though, before I end up convincing myself that yes I do need the biography on Basquiat, especially since I’ve glanced over it in the last five bookstores I’ve been to.

London has a reputation for being a literary city, but it isn’t really that evident when you first get there. I mean, I guess you can’t really expect people to be wearing “I LUV JANE AU$TEN” sweatshirts or whatever, but I like to imagine that Londoners know they’re walking around in a literary powerhouse. I suppose in reality, though, most people don’t care that much. That’s why I was delighted to overhear a conversation between two booksellers about who should have won the Man Booker prize last year. I’m still making my way through A Brief History of Seven Killingsmyself, so I refrained from jumping into the conversation. However, as I’ve just finished it, I think it’s high time that I go pay them a visit and give them a piece of my mind (that being that Marlon James did, in fact, deserve to win the prize). Then again, I haven’t read most of the other novels that were shortlisted, so I can’t make a sound judgment as of yet. Maybe they’ll have a copy or two of Francis Plug laying around.

I’m hopeless.

FURTHER READING
LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING
Interview with Charles Siebert (I)
LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING
Interview with Charles Siebert (II)

ON LOCATION

Shakespeare at the Olympics

A Justification for the Study of Literature

A Justification for the Study of Literature

OR, YES, I’M SURE I WANT TO DO THIS

Not everyone can be a Literature major. I don’t say that easily. I say that with the utmost resignation, as the bags under my eyes get pulled down by another 50-odd pages of Moby-Dick, my designated pleasure read for the semester.

When I tell people that I study literature, I’m faced with one of two responses: a) “Oh, that’s so cool, I wish I could pursue a major that I am passionate about,” which makes me feel like a neoliberal hippie, or b) “Wow, that’s super tough. Literature is tough.” I also get the occasional Starbucks-homeless jibe as one of those quasi-insults that get passed off as gestures of close friendship. I lump these kinds of Starbucks comments into the same category as response b), for the sole reason that being a barista is difficult. I myself couldn’t do it: there’s only so many custom orders I can take before wanting to throw a cup of custom, vegan, non-GMO, family-grown, baby-proof caffeine with a shot of water that is actually composed of baby’s tears and the saliva of a newborn puppy on someone’s expensive tie.

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Being a Literature major is hard. And it’s not because of the reading. One of the first things that people assume about literature majors is that we like to read and we must read a lot and reading must be the only thing we like to do — all of which is true. But it’s not the reading that makes it difficult. Anyone can read Ulysses in a day, probably, if you shut yourself in your room for 24 hours and gain sustenance from some kind of IV drip. The act of reading isn’t difficult; you read something everyday. You’re reading this right now. If reading were the only prerequisite to getting a literature degree, then we’d all be Literature majors, and I’ve been wasting my time for the past year and a half.

Literature is hard because of how vulnerable you become. When you’re a barista and it’s rush hour and you’re getting yelled at for putting in two pumps of syrup instead of the standard one and three-point-five pumps that Terry from the Starbucks down the street uses, you’re vulnerable. You’re vulnerable to your coworkers, the person yelling at you, and everyone else in the store. And despite all that yelling and that one guy in the corner secretly videotaping this in the hopes of putting up another Facebook rant on dismantling the throes of capitalism, you don’t bat an eyelash. I mean sure you feel bad, but look, Barista Man – you chose to do this. You signed up for it.

One of the founding ideals of the liberal arts curriculum is that each student, after having sampled every starter in the buffet of Intro 101s, will hopefully decide what they like the best. So, yes, I chose literature (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this article). But the problem with that is when I read books, I become vulnerable. I would go so far as to argue that even the author isn’t as vulnerable as I am, because at least the author has made peace with what is on the page. When I hold a book, however, am suddenly holding the author, like they’re right there with me. I recently read Jean Genet’s A Thief’s Journal for a class, and I quickly realized that I was reading “Jean Genet.” Whether autobiographical or not, a novel becomes part of its author’s life force. A lot of people say that they like to read because reading lets them lead different lives; I myself don’t get to live a different life when I read per se, but do I get another life handed to me. Every book I’ve read so far has given me a piece of its writer along with it, and God forbid I keep that soul anywhere else but inside the deepest, safest recesses of my mind. You’d think that it’s hard enough to make sense of your own thoughts, but all of a sudden you have someone else’s jumbled up with yours and you have to begin to sort through the mess.

I haven’t even talked about what happens when a book makes me uncomfortable. If a book makes me uneasy, then the issue for me becomes more complicated. Not only do I need to be able to digest what I’ve just read, to chew it slowly and wait for my intestines to absorb its nutrients, but I also have to deal with how it makes me feel afterwards. Sometimes it leaves me with a dull ache in the bottom of my stomach, my lower right side to be precise. It is in those moments of unease that I take a scalpel and examine the root cause, attempt to find out which proteins in my body are refusing to digest the food. It’s not an easy task; sometimes it takes hours, and sometimes when sleep becomes too elusive I get tempted to forego the operation completely.

It is important to see the operation through, however. Only when I get to interact with all the insides of me do I learn what makes me tick. Again I am vulnerable; but this time, I am vulnerable with myself. Being vulnerable in front of other people is easy, because at the end of the day no one remembers that you put in low-fat milk instead of skim. Being vulnerable with yourself, though, is hard: I’ve tried it, and I’ve quickly realized that I don’t accept any bullshit. You see, the author is better off because she has already undergone that process of vulnerability, otherwise there would be no book to begin with. I, however, go through it again and again and again every time I read a book. Because, at the end of the day, every author writes the world differently to how I see it. I can’t do anything about that, since its their words on the page. I have to be able to sit in this position of conflict between these two opinions and choose to resolve it on my own, because the words do as they please.

English classes in high school are well-known for the idea that you can write anything you want, as long as you justify it. That may be true, but there’s always another level to it. Justifying something well is difficult. Any sort of university student with enough desperation and 3 cans of Red Bull can write a quick essay about the subjectification of women in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but to sit down with a text and really be able to see what it’s saying is difficult. The text doesn’t help me at all. It doesn’t say anything, because it’s an inanimate object. Of course the texts say something, but books aren’t very good conversationalists. They’re kind of selfish, actually. Some of them think that what they’re saying is so blatant, so obvious, that to slave overnight to figure out what the elusive “it” is seems trivial. And sometimes even the best of us can’t get that message right away. Of course a text matters, but to figure out the whys and the hows and the whatevers entails a lot of reading, yes, but also a lot of thinking about how and why you’re reading the text the way that you are.

So no, you can’t just “say anything you want”. Life (and literature) isn’t that easy, and No Fear Shakespeare can only get you so far. I’d like to think that if someone has exposed her soul to you and has let you into the inner workings of her mind, it’s only decent to sit with those thoughts and really flesh them out rather than type any random mumbly-jumbly-hoo-ha on the page and think that you’ve fully understood the book under discussion. Maybe literature is about courtesy. You wouldn’t just walk away from a conversation, so why would you do that to a book?

The classic way to end this sort of article is to give a grand, sweeping soliloquy on why I choose to study literature despite these difficulties. A cop-out answer is to say, “I don’t know.”

I think I do know why I study literature, though, and in an odd way it’s because I don’t know: I don’t know who I am yet. I thought I knew who I was two years ago, but thinking back, I realize that I’m now a completely different person. I choose to study literature because I know that if I don’t get a handle on who I am versus who everyone else is, I’ll just keep swimming like a tiny little guppy. And the only way to really get a good handle on who I am is to allow myself to exist in this state of vulnerability, day in and day out for as long as I’ve got time. Maybe that makes me selfish, but it’s the only way that’s made any sense to me so far. Maybe the farthest I can get with my education is a manager at my local Starbucks, but while I’m serving you your regular IV drip of caffeine at least I’ll know that every add-on you ask for means something. It’ll be obvious to you, of course – only barbarians drink their coffee without a splash of rose water and the faint hint of a baby’s first laugh – but I won’t get it at first. But maybe after your fourth, fifth, sixth drink, I will.

Not Your Grandmother’s String Quartet

Not Your Grandmother’s String Quartet

Save for the six-year stint I had in my middle school and high school band, I never listened to any classical music. The closest I get to listening to any type of instrumental music now is the occasional jazz playlist that I pull up when I’m brooding about the miseries of life, but that’s about it. That explains why I didn’t have any expectations about Kronos when I got a ticket to their concert. All I knew about the Kronos Quartet was that their visit was extremely unusual — they’re world-class performers, and yet here they are performing in an intimate, two-hundred seat theater for free. Watching a string quartet isn’t something I would usually think about doing, but I’m learning never to say no to a performance at the Arts Center.

I attended the opening performance on Wednesday, September 16 and when I sat down in the Black Box Theater, I marveled at the dramatic transformation in the space: the last time I was there was for Theater Mitu’s production of Hamlet. As people slowly trickled into the theater, I browsed the program to see if any pieces would be familiar to me. None were, just as I expected. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was just how darn popular these guys were: according to the program, all the compositions they played that night were either written exclusively for them, or at least arranged to suit their quartet.

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The Kronos Quartet at NYUAD’s Black Box Theater
(Left to right: David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Sunny Yang)

 

After the lights dimmed down and Bill Bragin finished his customary speech, the concert began…except not in a way that I expected. Sunny Yang, the cellist, emerged from the back of the room, making her way towards the stage, where she played alone — but not quite. The other three members of the quartet (David Harrington, John Sherba, and Hank Dutt respectively) were playing outside, connecting music and space in a way I never really experienced. It was so simple. You heard them, but you didn’t see them. Despite its simplicity, however, this effect set the scene for the rest of the performance: the spotlight was clearly on the music, and the musicians were secondary.

Bill Bragin’s introduction revealed that the set list for each performance wasn’t going to be the same. The performance I went to was entitled “Good Medicine,” with the music predominantly coming from Central Asia and the Middle East. If it hadn’t been clear to me that Kronos wasn’t just any string quartet, it became clear as soon as they started playing: rather than opting for classic pieces by dead white composers (dead white men seem to build the canon in almost any aspect of art), they played music from composers they worked with specifically to create that piece. The best part of the set was the world premiere of a piece by Fodé Lassana Diabaté, with the Malian composer himself accompanying the quartet on his balafon. Quick aside — imagine the balafon as a kind of wooden xylophone, except much bigger than the plastic ones you used to play with as a kid. I know, I didn’t know those existed either … at least not until I attended this concert. Like I said: Kronos isn’t your grandmother’s string quartet.

The only word that kept coming back to me as I listened to that piece was joy: rather than trying to find an intellectual reaction that I could later write about, all I had was a gut feeling. I couldn’t think of anything to say — all I could focus on was how happy the music sounded.

One of my favorite things to do is to ask people what they are most passionate about. Seeing their eyes light up and their hands start getting into a frenzy as they try to explain what their next research project/installment piece/novella-film-painting is about is a beautiful thing. That’s what struck me the most about watching Kronos play; they were so engulfed into the music that their bodies swayed with every beat and their eyebrows wrinkled in pure concentration. Watching them gave me flashbacks to my band professor, who got so into his conducting that pools of sweat would start to gather on his forehead and you would think that he was directing the New York Philharmonic rather than a bunch of teenagers.

After Kronos stood up for their final bow — after coming back for an encore performance of a fun, poppy Egyptian tango — I realized that I’ve seen them somewhere before. I saw them a few days back, in an elevator in the Campus Center, as I was making my way to the library to finish the homework I was supposed to have finished. I remember some fragments of conversation to do with some kind of listening event with some kind of crowd, but I didn’t make the connection that it was Kronos in the elevator with me. After seeing them perform, however, all I could think about was that brief moment in the elevator. They were so unassuming, I didn’t know any better, and yet there they were right in front of me. Little did I know that these same people would eventually come together in a performance that would make me shift my understanding of what it means to make music, all without saying a word.

An Article about a Play about a Play

An Article about a Play about a Play

Hamlet_UR Hamlet Photo

In case you missed Theatre Mitu’s production of Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet that premiered at NYUAD’s Arts Center on 16 April, here is—not a review, but more of a reflective program guide to a theater experience unlike many others.

HOW TO EXPERIENCE HAMLET/UR-HAMLET:

  1. Show up to the Arts Center 30 minutes prior to the show. Not fifteen, because by then the line gets ridiculously long and if you haven’t gotten your ticket by then – tough luck.
  2. While lining up, go through the pamphlet and notice the 6-page bibliography. Silently question (or out loud, depending on whether or not you want to make small-talk with the stranger in front of you) whether or not you’ll be able to understand the play without knowing any of the works cited. Find the N-Sync song within the bibliography, and laugh because maybe you’ll be okay. Silently/out loud curse yourself for not being as worldly and intellectual as the bibliography clearly expects you to be. Maybe if you took that one theatre class with that one professor from that one Ivy League school, you would’ve been more prepared. Stupid class registration.
  3. Continue lining up. Realize that you don’t know what to expect.
  4. Make a lame joke about how this play-slash-theatre piece will “exceed your expectations,” partly because you don’t really have any.
  5. Hamlet is the one where the guy’s wife goes “UNSEX ME HERE,” right?
  6. Listen to director Ruben Polendo’s opening remarks, and then be ushered into the theatre in groups. Realize you’re not going to a conventional play. You’re not going to be sitting down for the next hour and fifteen minutes.
  7. Walk around the set pieces at your leisure, trying not to bump into people while also appreciating each individual piece while also keeping in mind that you can’t stay in one exhibit for too long because at one point rock music will play from a plastic box in the middle of the set to signal the staged performance.
  8. Hear the rock music and gather to the centre of the theater. If you’re early, watch as people slowly trickle into the front. Feel a sense of collectivity as your pulse quickens to the beat.
  9. Watch as Aysan Celik and company dominate the glass stage. They’re elevated above the rest of us, they’re caged and yet clearly in charge. Everyone is in awe.
  10. Repeat steps 7 – 9 two more times.
  11. A female voice, almost like a robot, says “the installation is now closed”. There is no curtain call. You clap anyway.The performance ends.

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Before I went to this Theater Mitu production of Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet , I had to admit something to myself: I am sick of Hamlet. God forbid, though, that a literature major should say that. What many others saw as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, I saw as a play about an arrogant (but, I will admit, really witty) teenager who messes everything up because he feels like he can – as if seeing a ghostly apparition is the same as getting supernatural powers.

None of that mattered, though, because Theater Mitu’s production has very little to do with being a faithful representation of the Bard’s play. When you walked into the theater space, you were greeted by a scrolling synopsis of the play, where certain words change on screen in a way that completely alters the meaning of the text (ie. Horatio as Hamlet’s friend/lover/buddy/soldier). If we take the opening piece as a sort of introduction to the rest of the installations, it becomes very clear from the onset that whatever the audience believes Hamlet to be won’t necessarily be seen for the next hour and fifteen minutes. I suppose that’s the problem that Theater Mitu’s production wanted to tackle: when everyone thinks they know what Hamlet is, who’s to say what the right interpretation is?

This epistemic dilemma is at the heart of the production. As the audience waited in line to enter the installation, Ruben Polendo encouraged everyone to take their time with the exhibit and experience the pieces in whichever order they please. This wasn’t a play to see with your group of 20 friends, where your opinions become heavily influenced by what your current crush thinks. You’re encouraged to be on your own and revel in your isolation. In a way, I suppose, the isolation makes you like Hamlet: with all the deception surrounding him, only Hamlet can say what it’s like to be Hamlet.

I guess that makes Hamlet (the character) like us. No one can really know what it’s like to be you except you yourself: the experiences you go through, the choices you make on what influences you is all a matter of subjectivity. Aysan Celik plays a minor role in the individual set pieces – standing in a corner with her back to the audience while an old reel of Hamlet plays on her naked back – but onstage, as Hamlet, she mixes with the flurry of it all. As soon as the rock music stops, the actors perform alongside videos looping on the monitors attached to the cage. All the while, audience members shift around the cage, hoping for a better look. It’s very chaotic, but also very funny. At one point Celik/Hamlet performs a piece where she stands trial while mimicking the gestures of a 60’s singer (think Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) on the screen. The famous “to be or not to be” speech gets re-imagined as a playground rhyme-slash-tap dance piece.

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Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet was a lot to take in. If I were to sum up the piece, it would be about Hamlet’s struggle to find himself – or herself, for that matter. The video pieces that cut into the onstage performance, coupled with the diversity of the installation pieces suggest aspects of our experiences: what influences us, as well as what we choose to influence. Although each installation piece seemed utterly detached from everything else, each piece draws from Shakespeare’s play. Everything is influenced by Hamlet, but onstage Hamlet is influenced by everything. The beauty of Theater Mitu’s piece stems from the very fact that it does not resemble the original play, and you could easily get away with a marginal knowledge of the original text. As I was walking around, I noticed people of all ages experiencing the show. I’d bet that only a handful of people could recite the whole play by heart, and that some people in the audience have never read Hamlet at all.

At the end of the day, though, the “true meaning” of Hamlet doesn’t matter. We may argue about the merits of deconstructive theater and how much a play should resemble the original text, but with Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet, everyone’s a winner. When I saw the show, I tended to focus on ideas of psychology and the self, but that’s not to say that that’s the only thing I noticed. In fact, I could’ve written this article about the portrayal of sexual relationships, the idea of love in general, the role of gender…the list goes on. What I think of Hamlet may not be what you think of Hamlet, but it doesn’t matter.

Oftentimes when we approach a canonical piece of literature – especially with Shakespeare – we get obsessed with finding out what the “correct” interpretation is, what the “true meaning” of the text is, and what Shakespeare meant the play to be. While we should take into consideration all these things, the beauty of studying these literary texts also comes from the idea that we inject our own meaning into it. Different readers will approach Hamlet in a different way, and that’s what Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet strives to achieve. It’s not a theater performance meant to represent Hamlet in the years to come, but rather an invitation for the audience to re-experience what it’s like to construct meaning for themselves.

[Photos courtesy of Theater Mitu]

Interview with Miguel Syjuco

Interview with Miguel Syjuco

Miguel Syjuco (center) with NYUAD students (L-R) Patrick Wee, Gabrielle Flores, Seongyoon Kim, Miraflor Santos  Photo Credit: Bryan Waterman

Miguel Syjuco (center) with NYUAD students (L-R) Patrick Wee, Gabrielle Flores, , Seongyoon Kim, Miraflor Santos
Photo Credit: Bryan Waterman

CONVERSATIONS WITH AUTHORS

Miguel Syjuco won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 for his first novel, Ilustrado. Born in the Philippines, Syjuco earned an MFA from Columbia University in New York, and subsequently a Ph.D. from the University of Adelaide, Australia. He gave a talk and a workshop at NYUAD in February 2015, which is when Gabrielle Flores, a second-year NYUAD student, conducted this interview. “Ilustrado,” which means “erudite” or “learned” in Spanish, was a term used to describe the educated, middle-class Filipinos who had been educated in Spanish and exposed to European nationalist ideals during the late nineteenth century.

Gabrielle Flores: What was the writing process like for Ilustrado?

Miguel Syjuco: Ilustrado was a book that had many distinct goals. I wanted to write a book that found inventive ways to address some of the issues that I have with writing Philippine writing specifically in English.  And while I was doing my master’s Columbia in New York, one of the things I did to make extra money was be a fact checker for the Paris Review. So one day I found myself in the Butler Library stacks there in Columbia, surrounded by all these books.  As I was reading all of this material, I was thinking, “Wow, this is a very interesting way to look at the life of a character, through all of these things written about them, all of these different texts.”

And so this idea that I wanted to write this book about looking at Philippine history, especially from the point of view of the role of the elite– and the failure that they had ever since the Ilustrados– this kind of came together, that, “Okay, I’m gonna write this book about this author named Crispin Salvador, and I’m going to address all of these issues.  I’m going to look at Philippine history all through his work and he will be the window into that world.”

But rather than write the way we normally do when we come across a word like “bibingka,” right, and italicize it even though to us it’s not foreign–where you say “he cut into that bibingka–”

GF: Where you have to explain–

MS:  ” … that delicious rice cake much enjoyed by Filipinos during Christmastime,” right? [Laughs.] Instead, I thought, “Okay, well, why don’t I write using– naturally didactic forms?  Essays, email– memoir so that whereas before we used to have to explain our culture and explain our history I don’t need to anymore, right?  I can use things that are naturally explaining to do that.

I think the book took three, four years, constantly working on it, trying to find an agent. I was wondering if anyone would ever want this book.  I had some very close friends reading it.  They were saying, “It’s good,” and, “But you need to do this.”  I was editing it all the while.  Then in 2007 they announced that the Man Asian Literary Prize would accept manuscripts.

So I submitted, hoping that I would just get on the long list so that agents would stop rejecting me, because they were, left and right. [Laughs.] In 2007, I didn’t even make the long list.  So I spent the next year revising, and then in 2008, I submitted it again, hoping to get on the long list.  And in the end, it ended up winning.  And everything changed for me.

GF: I see how the novel encompasses Philippine history, but also Philippine society.  It’s so hard to explain, even simple questions like, “Oh, what’s Filipino food like?” because Filipino culture is such a mix of different things.

MS: Exactly.

GF: Did you come across that difficulty when writing your book? How did you know which parts of society to look at specifically?

MS: I was really focusing on this coming and going that we Filipinos have, which I believe started with the Ilustrados and has continued today. I believe the OFWs of today are the new Ilustrados.  Going abroad, learning all they can, working hard, and then returning with an awareness, and their savings, and sometimes children who, you know, are learning about the culture for the first time and wanting to engage.

I came from a very comfortable background.  My parents were in politics and my classmates, you know, they’re good people.  They love the country. But society is such that– family, and duty, and politics are just so hard to change. These  well-meaning, idealistic young kids, you know, they’re not able to do as much as they would have liked to benefit the society. You know, we call them conyo. We call them whatever.  They’re spoiled brats.

But not all of them are like that and I wanted to write a book that was sympathetic in that regard and fair.  One of the issues that I’ve always had with Philippine writing is that it’s always– we’re always looking for a savior and  the elite are always the villains.

I wanted to write a book that was a lot more nuanced than that.  Not an apology for the elite; I think I definitely take people to task in Illustrado. But I wanted to write a book that was fair.

GF: When you were writing the book, did you have a target audience in mind?  Were you aiming for the book to be more for the Filipinos as a Filipino text or for a foreign audience who doesn’t know anything about the Philippines? Or do those two audiences overlap for you?

MS: I think so. I’d like to think that a good writer can write a book that reaches everyone, that they can make it rich enough and in a way maybe dense enough so that some things will reach their home audience, in my case the Filipinos, and some things will reach only the foreign audience.

GF: You’re reading tonight from your new novel I Was the President’s Mistress!!! How is this book different in some ways – or maybe the same in some – as Ilustrado?

MS: There’s an old cliché that you have your entire life to write your first novel, then 18 months to write your second novel.  All of the short stories, all of the anecdotes, everything went into Ilustrado. But I hope this new book will be out next year, before the Philippine election.

GF: Oh, okay.  Right.

MS: President’s Mistress uses certain character from Ilustrado, Vita Nova, the starlet. She’s involved with– some scandal, where she’s kind of spilled the beans on the president who she was seeing. She’s swept up into this big political thing and wants to write a a celebrity tell-all memoir.  The book is a series of transcripts, of her talking about all of her 12 lovers and the 12 lovers all talking about her and each other.

It’s sort of like a she-said, he-said type of thing. Ilustrado was a bunch of different forms that the reader had to put together, like a collage or like a puzzle, President’s Mistress is sort of like a deconstructed book where it’s only the materials that a ghostwriter would use to write a celebrity tell-all memoir.

GF: So it’s kind of like that tabloid show back home, The Buzz, except deconstructed.You said that you did a Master’s at Columbia.  In your mind is there an ideal sort of creative writing curriculum? I know that when I told my parents I wanted to go into literature, they were like “Oh, why don’t you go to business?”

MS: Yeah, of course.

GF: You know, doctor, medicine, or–

MS: I’m a big believer in that if you love something, you’ll be good at it.  And if you’re good at it, you’ll succeed in it. You have to pay your dues to be a lawyer or a doctor.  You have to pay your dues to be a writer, too.

Being at Columbia–it was a very rigorous way of looking at making fiction. Workshopping particularly.  It’s not just about beautiful writing; it’s about the form, and the structure, and everything.   Now, teaching creative writing– going back to your question about what would be the ideal–I enjoyed my time at Columbia, but it was very focused on literature in the sense of style, in the sense of creativity within the craft of fiction. When I worked freelance as a journalist, I learned how to find stories.  And my ideal is really a program that fuses– I guess–journalism, some people would even say activism, with storytelling.  Writing journalism teaches you so much.  How to write to deadline, how to write to length, how to take criticism, how to revise, how to redefine the story, how to position information or withhold information, which is a very important thing; and the distinction between news and art.

So I would want a creative program with outreach programs.  I would like a mentorship, fieldwork– questioning, of course, how we write, how to write.  What sustains a writer in the end or at least what has sustained me is questioning why we write.

Personally, I don’t like writing.  It hurts my back.  It’s lonesome.  I sit at the desk all day…I don’t like writing.  But I like what writing can do.  I like how it can examine things, and unpack things, and share insight, and be part of a conversation, and really be of this world.

GF: You kind of answered my question already a little bit, but I’m going to ask anyway. It’s a simple question but maybe not so simple: what’s your favorite part about being a writer?

MS: The hours are pretty good. [Laughs.] They’re pretty flexible. It’s a very involved work.  Anybody who’s ever written a novel, be it, you know, someone as great as a Nobel Prize winner, down to or up to young writers who are doing NanNoWriMo, we’re all learning how to engage with the form and how difficult it is. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had.  And I guess that’s kind of why I like it.  I’m very lucky that it’s allowed me to go all over the world, and meet people, and meet other writers, and be part of this conversation: Who are we?  And why are we here?  And what can we learn from each other?  I’m a political person and one of my tools is writing. I may not change the world through my one book, or two books, or how many books.  But I’m hoping that those readers who read it will be the people who will.  So it’s a long game, that the people who are questioning our society, questioning what it is to be Filipino through my work and the works of other Filipino writers, those are the future captains of industry, and politicians, and activists, and social workers, and professors, and parents.

I’m hoping that I can kind of say, “Hold on. Wait a second.  Let’s stop and think.  Is this right?  Is this wrong?  What should our country be? How do we hold our leaders accountable?” Because if they’re asking those questions, then I’m doing the job that I wanted to do.

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