Author Miguel Syjuco finds himself in Ilustrado

close up view of Cwip Miguel

Earlier this term, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author Miguel Syjuco reading from his latest book, Ilustrado (Hamish Hamilton, 2010). Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.

In response to the warnings received while researching this book, the author hereby states that all perceived similarities between characters and people living or dead are either purely coincidental or a skewered nerve in your guilty conscience…


from Ilustrado
by Miguel Syjuco

If he hadn’t appeared in the flesh for the Canadian Writers in Person series, one might wonder if Miguel Syjuco truly exists.  The winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize likes to blur the lines between fact and fiction, to the extent that he named his rather unreliable narrator after himself.

In his debut novel Ilustrado, “Miguel Syjuco”, the book’s central character, returns to the Philippines to investigate the mysterious death of his mentor and literary lion, Crispin Salvador. Syjuco had previously authored such a believable fictional account of Salvador’s exploits that many readers believed that Salvador was, in fact, a real person. (Salvador even had his own Wikipedia entry.) The first literary agent to read the manuscript told Syjuco that they couldn’t publish it because half of the novel was copyrighted to Salvador. When he tried to explain that Salvador didn’t Canadian Writers in Person presenter Miguel Syjucoactually exist, the agent retorted, “Of course he exists! I read about him on the Internet!”

Miguel Syjuco

Ilustrado reads like a collection of fragments: fictional news clippings, interviews, e-mails, blog entries, jokes and melodramatic movie scenes. Citing our multi-tasking lives, Syjuco believes that a straightforward narrative doesn’t accurately reflect the way “we read, see, and think now.” He also wanted to breathe new life into Filipino history, without being “inhibited by history.” As such, historical events are blended with fictional ones and he uses humour to treat the heavier issues more lightly, making them more approachable.  Weaving in elements of popular culture, he acknowledges that “this is a part of who we are as Filipinos.”  By tilting his readers off-balance and leaving them to wonder what is truth and fiction, Syjuco provokes intriguing questions rather than easy answers.

Just as his self-titled narrator struggles to come of age, Syjuco had no easy answers on his way to publication. At university, he failed mathematics and wasn’t able to pursue his father’s recommendation of economics. However, he liked to read, so he chose to study literature instead. Thinking a creative thesis would be the “path of least resistance”, he discovered how difficult yet rewarding it was to write short stories.

cover of Miguel Syjuco's book IllustradoFailing to publish and feeling lost, he pursued a PhD, developed a website, bartended, painted houses and sold pink Ralph Lauren handbags. To support himself while finishing his novel, he volunteered to be a “medical guinea pig” for a study on erectile dysfunction.  As he watched pornographic nature clips through goggles, stripped from the waist down, while grad students monitored the thermal-imaging camera pointed at his groin, Syjuco had to ask himself: “Do I really want to be a writer now?”

Writing still called to him and the constant rejection spurred him to continually revise and reinvent his novel. The end result was finally rewarded with the Man Asian Prize. The process of writing his self-titled narrator’s quest helped him understand himself and to believe the old cliché that the best way to find one’s self is to be lost. His work also casts a humorous yet critical eye on some of the politic corruption in the Philippines.Though Syjuco has no wish become a politician as his father was, he nonetheless feels that writing is a political act even though “the ripples it makes take longer to spread out.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, are also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts.  Readings take place on Tuesdays at 7pm in 206 Accolade West Building.  For more information and a detailed schedule, visit the Canadian Writers in Person website.