Interview with Miguel Syjuco

Article By: Carlos Po


Born Miguel Augusto Gabriel J. Syjuco, he is the son of Representative Augusto Syjuco Jr. of the second district of Iloilo in the Philippine House of Representatives, and Judy Jalbuena.

Syjuco graduated from high school in 1993 from the Cebu International School. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the Ateneo de Manila University in 2000 and completed his MFA from Columbia University in 2004.


In early 2011 he completed a PhD in literature from the University of Adelaide. Early in his career, he was a fellow of the 1998 Silliman National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete, Negros Oriental.


-from’s page on “Miguel Syjuco”




Dear Students,


For those interested,  Miguel Syjuco is scheduled to meet with any students and teachers interested journalism or involved in Bamboo Telegraph, Newflash, Kawayan, or other prose non-fiction publications.  The meeting place will be Ms. Thompson’s classroom, 2055, starting at 3:00 O’clock today and ending at 4:30 PM..  The session is an open Q&A that will speak to Mr.  Syjuco’s experiences with freelance journalism, the state of journalism today in the Philippines and elsewhere, matters to do with freedom of speech and more.  


At the same time and same place tomorrow–Ms. Thompson’s Classroom 2055 3-4:30 on April 15–Mr. Syjuco will run a session for members of Liham and any interested creative writers in the high school.  This is an open Q&A about creative processes and may also include engaging students in some creative writing activities.  




Robert Butcher

Program Leader High School English

International School Manila


“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”  Mark Twain.





When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer? How did your family react?



When I got kicked out of my Econ course because my math was terrible and I had flunked out. The administration said, “You have to choose a major,” so I thought, I like reading, so I chose English lit. It was the path of least resistance, the easiest thing for me. When I came to senior year, they told me I had to write a thesis. It could either be academic, scholarly, or creative. I was young and dumb and didn’t want to do much work. I’m not gonna do an academic thesis with all these citations and footnotes. I’m gonna make s–t up. I’m gonna write short stories. My teacher said, “Your short stories aren’t that good, you should do an academic thesis,” but I found that I enjoyed writing them, so I stuck with it.


After I graduated, I didn’t know what to do with my degree, and some friends were putting together an online travel guide/magazine, and they needed someone to produce content, an editor-in-chief. So I had to teach myself how to write features, profiles, interviews, news stories. I didn’t know how to do it. I had only wrote short stories. So I learned by reading. I read a lot of newspapers and magazines, and saw how other people did it. I also had to learn editing, how to work with other writers to make their stuff better, and that’s where I learned from other people, and my mistakes, the skills I needed to later work at a newspaper.


Ultimately, I just wanted to write a novel. I had it in me. I come from a country where there are many interesting stories, so many crazy characters, so much complicated issues and problems, and I see fiction as an interesting and powerful tool to look at these issues and see how these big complicated issues affect individuals, or characters. That’s why I decided to write a novel. I see myself first and foremost as a novelist, even though I dabble in writing op eds and essays, and analytical, opinionated journalism. The reason I do that is that writing a novel takes 3-4 years to complete, compared to journalism, which is almost immediate. You’re out there, meeting people on the street, interviewing people, looking at things, and you publish it and there’s a reaction from everybody.


-Interview with Bamboo Telegraph, April 14 2016




I meet my friends in front of the English classroom, a few minutes before class starts.


Me: “You read it? I didn’t really get it.”

Lukas: “Yup.”

Me: “So what happened at the end of Chapter 8?”

Lukas: “There’s a flood, and something happens.”

Me: “But the book goes on for 2 more chapters.”

Lukas: “I know.”

Me: “Is he still narrating?”

Lukas: “I think. I’m not sure.”

Me: “Did he actually, you know?”

Lukas: “Yes. No. Maybe.”

Jason: “God, I hate this book.”


Jason grunts and makes an exaggerated motion of tossing the book out the window. We all silently agree.




Miguel Syjuco is quite a bit of a character here in Makati, and not just as a writer. As the winner of the coveted Man Booker Prize for Asian Literature, and occasionally appearing on the news to discuss the country’s political scene, having him at our school, in our classrooms, to have friendly chats with us, is bizarre.  He is also a self-avowed parkour trainee, in what he calls, “a martial art without conflict”.


Syjuco has the exam grades of half the class of 2017 riding on his book, Ilustrado. We’re supposed to discuss at great length, the themes, symbols, dualities, conflicts, in the novel. The meaning of an offhand remark by a minor character, or the significance of someone’s name, or an obscure literary allusion to Greek myth. He probably realizes this. Maybe he likes it.


I meet with Mr. Syjuco in my Literature classroom. He has just finished a quick workshop on being a journalist, discussing freedom of speech, and the power of writing.


His face is familiar. I think I’ve seen him before. Maybe playing badminton at the Polo Club, or maybe eating at a cafe in Fort Bonifacio. I think he looks a bit like Ed Norton.





What, in your opinion, is the most important lesson for a writer or journalist to learn?



Asking questions, being courageous, tenacious. Those are really great qualities. It’s not just about the writing, it’s about the life, and your connection with the world. I think it’s exactly the same thing with creative writing, and being an artist. You can’t shut yourself in a room, unless you’re writing about being shut in a room. How are you going to write about the world if you’re not living it?


-Interview with Bamboo Telegraph, April 14 2016




“The instant before something comes into focus is more exciting than any sharp certainty. Photography, child, is about the passing of time. Capturing is the goal of literature. Timelessness is the task of music and painting. But a good photograph holds time just as a vase holds water. The water will evaporate and the vase becomes a memorial to it. What separates a snapshot from a masterpiece is that the latter is a metaphor of patience…”


from Page [227] of Ilustrado: A Novel, by Miguel Syjuco




-From Ilustrado User Reviews


-Dennis Shasha: Syjuco writes what seems to be a semi-autobiographical book about the discovery of his own and his country’s soul. The book is profound, funny, and supremely honest. His writing is both precise and poetic. He deserves all the prizes he’s won.

-Lazaros Papademetropoulos: Fails to measure up to its hype. Tedious story-telling a bit onerous, the jumps from one narrative to another end up being exhaustive. Storytelling seems contrived or tedious at time. This is a great talent that loves literal pyrotechnics but ultimately fails to engage the reader in a meaningful and sustained manner.



The class is in awe as we complete the book’s epilogue in unison. Some people look like they’re still trying to work out what happened. Others are amazed, still shocked at the abrupt twist. A few look like they want to throw the book out of the second-story window. My reaction is a mix of all of these. Finally, a voice breaks the piercing silence permeating the classroom.

Mrs. Thompson: “So, what did you think? The whole time, it was actually…”

Jess: “So who was writing about what…”

Jason: “Damn it, Miguel Syjuco…”

Someone: “Wait, so what about the whole thing with…”

Someone: “…the subject of-wait no, but he doesn’t really exist, so…”

Someone: “…a person, or is it the name of an island, or a character in a book, or an allusion to something? I don’t even…”

Someone: “Is he alive, or dead, or in purgatory, or hallucinating…”

Someone: *pained groans*


Back to irritated silence. Soon, we all come to the grim realization that we have to know this book, inside and out, if we want to pass our Literature exams this year. I am crying internally, and so is everyone else.




“Live in the crux of the present. And write to explain the world to yourself and the others. Look forward only to the summer of your first convertible. Look forward only if what’s in front of you is a mirror. Because one day you’ll be so busy looking backward, and everything will feel like winter. If you still don’t get it, pare, let me make it abundantly clear. Just write, and write justly. Ezra Pound be damned. Poets lie, though beautifully. Don’t make things new, make things whole.”


from Page [209] of Ilustrado: A Novel, by Miguel Syjuco




How did you balance money and writing initially?



When I was first starting out I had all sorts of odd jobs. My father didn’t really agree with my writing, so we sort of clashed and didn’t speak for many years. I was completely alone in life and had to learn to fend for myself at a very young age. But it was also the best thing that ever happened to me. I proved to myself that I could do anything-I could stock shelves, I could work in paper box store, I painted houses, I bartended, I worked as a bookie, I was a medical guinea pig, until finally I got a stable job as a copy editor and staff writer in the newspapers.


Then I applied for a phD in creative writing and literature, which had a component where you wrote a novel or creative project, which allowed me to work on my novel. My parents always said, “Don’t get into writing, get into medicine or law or business or something more secure, and you can write on the side. I’m sure your parents say that to you. But I really believe if you love something and are very interested in it, you will excel in it. And if you look at the apprenticeship you have as a lawyer or businessperson, it’s very similar to my apprenticeship as a writer. As a lawyer, you have to go to law school for many years and live very frugally, because you’re paying for books and to study, and you work in a law firm in a junior position for many years until you build yourself up. If you look at that progression, that apprenticeship, that year of learning and instability and being at other people’s mercy is identical.


It just so happens that as a writer, you’re not working for a company, you’re on your own out there. The absolute freedom that comes with takes a lot of discipline. It’s exhausting, but you’re doing what you love.


-Interview with Bamboo Telegraph, April 14 2016




“There are only three truths. That which can be known. That which can never be known. The third, which concerns the writer alone, truly is neither of these.”

from Page 245 of Ilustrado: A Novel, by Miguel Syjuco



BT: What, in your opinion, is the most important lesson for a writer or journalist to learn?



Asking questions, being courageous, tenacious. Those are really great qualities. It’s not just about the writing, it’s about the life, and your connection with the world. I think it’s exactly the same thing with creative writing, and being an artist. You can’t shut yourself in a room, unless you’re writing about being shut in a room. How are you going to write about the world if you’re not living it?


-Interview with Bamboo Telegraph, April 14 2016




TEXT: “‘We’re all crabs pulling each other back into the pot. But Crispy, he thought he was a lobster” (163).


RESPONSE: Other Filipino authors criticize Crispin Salvador through dialogue, saying that he is inauthentically Filipino. They do this through metaphor comparing themselves to crabs, while Crispin is a lobster. A lobster is used as a symbol for luxury, emphasizing his pretentious nature. Additionally, crabs are more typically Filipino- further highlighting how they are truly Filipino and Crispin is not. Overall, through the juxtaposition and metaphor, the distinction between the authors’ perceptions of themselves and of Crispin is revealed.


-From Ilustrado: Group to Individual DNB-H




Who or what are some of the inspirations behind your writing?



I always go back to Jose Rizal. He wrote daring books. It was very courageous how he took on the government. He pissed off the leaders abusing the country, and that got him arrested and eventually shot, and I think every writer, when they sit down to write, will always be questioning, “Is my writing worthwhile? Are all of my efforts, these things being asked of me? Is it in vain?”


There are very few novels, I think, that have changed the world or society like Jose Rizal’s did. They were instrumental in the Philippine Revolution. He’s also really funny. Have you read his novels? Really, really funny! Really daring.


I also love Hemingway, he’s so simple, so disciplined, I love his quotes. “All first drafts are s–t.” That’s great, that’s so comforting! And he lived! That man lived, he drove ambulances in the war, he hung out with all sorts of interesting revolutionaries, he was a sport fisherman, very manly man, a larger than life kind of fellow. He lived, and he was flawed.


I also like this writer called Roberto Bolano. he’s a Latin American writer, and very audacious. He writes big thick novels where you think, “Where is this going? Why am I reading this?” but the characters are so intriguing and indelible that you just go with it and in the end it all makes sense.


So those are three good writers I always come back to.


-Interview with Bamboo Telegraph, April 14 2016




Miguel Syjuco sits at the end of a series of white tables pushed together. Our HL Literature class has been asking him questions for the past hour, questions about writing, about his book, and about his life. Over time, the flood of questions has trickled down to a stream. Suddenly, someone beside me speaks up.


Jason: “So, about your parko-”

Ms. Thompson: “Jason has been talking about your parkour video forever, and unless we get an answer now he’ll be talking about it forever. Could you tell us about it, please?”


Mr. Syjuco, who has certainly been asked about his infamous parkour skills in class after class by now, is surprisingly patient. He explains that he sees parkour as a martial art, but without conflict. He claims it gives him confidence, to know that he could, hypothetically, in an emergency, get over a certain wall or obstacle. He concludes by saying that, as he gets older, he needs to stay in shape, and thought parkour was an interesting way to do so.


Some of us are nodding our heads in agreement. Others will never be able to take a 39-year-old man jumping over fences seriously.




BT: Did you realize anything about the Philippines or yourself while writing Ilustrado?


MIGUEL: Ilustrado is about, to me, the failure of the elite over generations. We start with the ilustrado class, who were educated and had opportunities. Some were more successful at serving the country than others, and in the decades since, we’ve had all these elite, gifted individuals who acted selfishly. It happens in every generation and it’s happening now.


In Ilustrado, I look at my own anxiety in being part of this class, the privileged, educated class. I went to an international school, my parents had money and I had opportunities other people didn’t. I realized, in looking sympathetically at the class I come from, rather than just looking at it with two dimensional condemnation, by looking from the perspectives of my peers and relatives who wanted to help the country but didn’t know how, and maybe failed at every attempt because of the systems in place in this culture, this country, this world. We have these political systems that are hard to change, dynasties, self-serving institutions like certain churches and corporations.


I realize that many of our problems are systemic, but they’re also very subtle and nuanced. We can’t say, “The rich are at fault,” or “The uneducated masses are at fault.” We can’t exclude people from the conversation. It is incredibly unfair, and we have to look at things in a nuanced way. That’s what I learned from writing a novel. Your characters have to be nuanced, situations have to be complex for it to be interesting. I learned to see the world in  that way, I learned my place in it, and I learned what I could do as a teacher or writer, someone who engenders conversation. That’s my purpose, to write things that get people thinking, and that’s what I learned.


-Interview with Bamboo Telegraph, April 14 2016




  • To what extent can this novel be considered “postmodern”?  Consider how it might…
    • encourage the reader to distrust or question realism
    • “break the rules” in order to provide social commentary
    • reject fixed ideas about the form and meaning of texts
    • extend the boundaries of what can be expected
    • use new forms, formats, and perspectives
    • tap into forbidden subjects
    • have unresolved endings

-from Ilustrado Guide (use in conjunction w/ your DNB) – H




Crispin Narciso Lupas Salvador is a Filipino writer. Crispin Salvador is a main character in Syjuco’s novel Ilustrado. Crispin Salvador’s existence has been believed to be real by various readers of Ilustrado — a book comprising excerpted work “by” Salvador (memoirs, stories, interviews, essays, poems, jokes, etc.). This blurring between fact and fiction, aided by an earlier, ostensibly “factual” Wikipedia entry on Salvador, caused confusion amongst readers who, wondering at Ilustrado’s verisimilitude, consulted Google and were led to this Wikipedia page which, until September 2008, confirmed Salvador’s existence.

-from’s page on “Crispin Salvador”




BT: Do you have any advice for aspiring young writers or journalists?


MIGUEL: I think you should remember that nothing is ever lost or wasted. Everything you ever write becomes part of who you are, in the sense that it teaches you skills. Even the most menial thing is an interesting challenge. If you’re assigned by an editor, like I was, to cover something, you might think, “I want to cover politics! I want to write about interesting things, things I’m into!” I had to go write about some old lady who was retiring. She was sort of a fixture in her community. “This isn’t breaking news,” I thought, but it taught me a lot. It taught me how to find stories, and how to listen. That’s one thing. Nothing should ever be beneath you. You learn from it, and if you’re inventive, you’ll be able to use it later on. I think that’s why I was able to write Ilustrado, because I had used all sorts of different text types, wrote in all sorts of different genres.


You should think of writing not as the creation of a product, which all too often people do. That’s why they get so defensive about their work-short stories, novels, whatever, just churn them out. I don’t think that’s the way to think. I think the best way to think about it is, everything we are writing changes us. Whether you get it published or not, you learn from it, and that will help you in the future.


One thing you should always remember when starting out as a writer is that you learn best how to write by failing, by learning from your mistakes. Writing is a matter of experience. Instead of asking how to write, we should be asking why we write. What can we accomplish with what we’re writing?


It’s the same reason we shouldn’t be asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but “What problems do you want to fix when you grow up?” Have a sense of purpose, and know why you’re doing it. Knowing why you write will give you the discipline, the purpose, and the strength.


-Interview with Bamboo Telegraph, April 14 2016




I’m sitting in my Creative Writing classroom, waiting for the first appearance of the legendary Mr. Miguel Syjuco. I’m a bit nervous, to be honest. A published author? An award-winning published author? An award-winning published author leading a class? For us? There are probably some ridiculous Miguel Syjuco superfans out there, who are writing increasingly manic letters that he doesn’t respond to, and here we are, just having casually accepted that he visits every school year to just talk and chill. It’s crazy, when you think about it. You know Bill Murray sometimes just goes up to fans and says, “No one will ever believe you”? Like, he’ll go and steal their fries, or jump out of a bush, and-


“Is this the correct class?”


There’s someone at the door window. He has dark hair, a pink polo shirt, and a sweater tied over his shoulders. I think he has a pretty cool mustache, though it wasn’t on the book jacket.


“Mr. Syjuco?”




(Fellow Fans, help me get Ilustrado on Oprah by emailing the producers here!


– I have a fab idea for Miguel!!! I emailed him about it. I hope he’s interested! I’ll post more d33ts as I get them.

– Miguel Syjuco is going to be reading from his book, Ilustrado, at the Harbourfront Reading Series at the Brigantine Room on May 12, 2010 at 7:30pm, in Toronto, Canada!!!

– Miguel’s book, Ilustrado will be available in stores in Canada on May 4th, 2010!!!

– Just found some topless pics of Miguel on the ‘net. Check it out at this link.

– Thanks Shelley, Christina & Chelsea for all your help!

– I <3 Miguel.


from the domain




BT: What are some of your favorite quotes?


MIGUEL: I like Einstein’s, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.” I like Jose Rizal, who said, “There are no tyrants where there are no slaves.” But I particularly like this quote, it’s by the creator of The Wire. It’s a show about Baltimore, and each season examines it from a different angle so we’re able to see all the different facets of why Baltimore is such a troubled city.


He said,  “The ultimate act of reportage would be to really surround something that is endemic and complex, and to make it understandable so that more people could address themselves to solving that problem than ever before.” That’s what he’s done with The Wire, and that, as a journalist, or as a novelist, or any kind of creative person, is what I feel we should be doing.


We should be looking at all sides, understanding it, understanding people we disagree with, and presenting it in as clear and creative a way as possible so that other people can take part in that conversation.


-Interview with Bamboo Telegraph, April 14 2016




It’s almost 12. I haven’t moved from this chair in 4 hours. I have a Lit paper due in two days and I haven’t even read the book. I need 1000 more words on my psych EE or my supervisor’s gonna end my career tomorrow. I haven’t put anything in Managebac since freshman year. Why do I get the BT interview job? Can’t I just write the biography? All I have to do is copy, paste and paraphrase stuff off the internet.  That’s easier.


Instead I have to spend hours transcribing voice memos, and I have much better things to do, like look at internet memes and browse Reddit. You know what? Screw it. I’ll make it all up, all of his answers, to redeem myself. Yeah, I could do that. As long as it sounds real smart and writerly, they’ll never know anyway, right?
-My  internal dialogue at my     desk, April 14 2016