Thursday, November 4, 2010

Reviewer Spotlight: Miguel Syjuco

Miguel SyjucoMarcos Townsend Miguel Syjuco

Miguel Syjuco, the author of the novel “Ilustrado,” makes his debut in the Book Review this weekend with his review of “How to Read the Air,” Dinaw Mengestu’s second novel. Both of these writers use the immigrant experience to explore themes of family and homeland, politics and identity. In an e-mail conversation, I recently asked Syjuco about his own writing, and the questions and subjects currently driving his work.

In your review, you note that Mengestu’s characters argue over the notion that the immigrant story is “just one story told over and over. Change the dates and the names, but it’s the same.” Can you discuss how, in your own work, you’ve addressed the question of how to tell a so-called immigrant story while avoiding the realm of cliché?

The immigrant story is universal, especially in today’s world; either we’re émigrés ourselves, or our ancestors were, or our descendants will be. Touching on universality is an important part of effective storytelling, but the problem with clichés is that they are tired and dull. And that’s where writers must try to be artful.

In my work, I tried to address this issue by exploring themes like identity and homeland across several narratives, generations and writing styles, using them as motifs, the way one would in musical composition. I hoped their recurrence across the different story lines would resonate, creating harmonies and a sense of universality. Another way of avoiding cliché was through parody and satire, which played a big part in my book, as these forms embrace, even require, cliché as a starting point. And a third way is to call attention to the familiar aspects of a story, then celebrate their nuances to prove they’re actually singular and important, as Mengestu did in his book.

Mengestu, like you, uses a fragmented narrative to tell his story. It strikes me that this kind of structure — though it can be called “postmodern” (a term I know you’ve said you don’t like) — somewhat aptly mirrors the immigrant experience: like a life, it’s broken into parts, a story of alternating identities and existences. Can you talk a little about this?

You’re right, I don’t like “postmodern.” Postmodernism was a reaction to modernism. Where modernism was about objectivity, postmodernism was about subjectivity. Where modernism sought a singular truth, postmodernism sought the multiplicity of truths. By that simplified definition, both “How to Read the Air” and “Ilustrado” are modernist in aim and sensibility, because their stated aims are to seek that truth, even if it’s elusive. Their structures may be fragmented, but that’s not so much postmodern as contemporary. Look at the way TV programs and movies are now made, or how we gather information from various news sources or multitask at our computers.

I had more in mind the idea of how we process contemporary reality than the idea of fragmenting the immigrant experience. I was more concerned with finding an organic way to react to aspects of the Philippine literary tradition in English — its didacticism, self-exoticization, postcolonial angst and social realism — than anything else. The immigrant experience in “Ilustrado” was only a small part of what I intended to be a broader look at the Filipino experience, even if that broader look was itself merely a specific perspective. To say “I’m going to write about the immigrant experience” means, to me, that one has to write about all the experiences surrounding that, to give it proper context.

Toward the end of your review, you express a desire to see Mengestu move beyond the subject of the Ethiopian-American experience. Meanwhile, I know you’ve sold a second book to Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Will we find you stretching beyond the subject of the Philippines?

I think “How to Read the Air” really snapped into focus when it journeyed beyond America and went to Africa, because by doing so it broadened the narrative and fixed the protagonist’s story into a larger one. What I’m hoping is that Mengestu will expand his scope, though that doesn’t mean he should abandon the very Ethiopian-American background that gives him such a unique perspective. Africa, like Asia, is a setting, not a subject. There are so many stories to be told from these places, and too few writers with a foot there and the opportunity to reach a large readership. Mengestu has an enviable vantage point from which to elucidate so much about the current and historical issues in Africa.

This ties in with a quotation that is my touchstone, from the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski:

Twenty years ago, I was in Africa, and this is what I saw: I went from revolution to coup d’etat, from one war to another; I witnessed, in effect, history in the making, real history, contemporary history, our history. But I was also surprised: I never saw a writer. I never met a poet or a philosopher — even a sociologist. Where were they? Such important events, and not a single writer anywhere? Then I would return to Europe and I would find them. They would be at home, writing their little domestic stories: the boy, the girl, the laughing, the intimacy, the marriage, the divorce — in short, the same story we’ve been reading over and over again for a thousand years.

So yes, my next book is also about the Philippines, and it will also use subtle parody and satire. But where “Ilustrado” was my attempt to present a compassionate indictment of the failure of the elite who have led the country for generations, my next book will be an examination of the different forms of power at play in a country like mine, and how each of those bump up against one another. I also want to provide a cross-section of Philippine society, so I can explore the anatomy of Philippine corruption (and, by extension, corruption in the Third World). I think of “The Wire” and how it used narrative to examine the problems of Baltimore, and how in doing so it suggested solutions merely by highlighting the stickiness of the problems.

What other subjects or questions interest you most as a writer these days?

I’m interested in the question of whether writing today can be political. I have no illusions that my work can rouse the masses to create change, because literature simply doesn’t have that power anymore in my country, if it does anywhere. But I do hope that it can be read by those who are in positions to create change, or that it can at least be part of that dialogue.

I’m also interested in the notion that to posit solutions one has to first understand the problem, and that writing has a role in working toward that understanding. “Ilustrado” reached back into history to try to examine the roots of the Filipino elite and the difficult choices they didn’t make that led to our current situation as a country. I think that writing can (and, perhaps, should) be instructive and provocative, entertaining and moving — though the trick is to find that balance without falling into propaganda or polemic.

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