When Vita Nova begins her first interview with a description of the president’s birdie and launches into a breathless monologue recapping her meteoric rise from nothing to star of the “Mr. Sexy Sexy” dance, recounting her lengthy string of lovers, and relishing her role in taking down the most powerful man in the nation with the old tape-recorder-under-the-bed ruse (hello, Dovie), we know we’re in for one whirlwind of a novel.
The acknowledgments at the book’s end, which I happened to read first, provides a sort of disclaimer-slash-preface to the entire project, where the author admits to his privilege and limitations, and also duty as a novelist to always try to “fully understand certain perspectives, ideas, and issues,” thus setting up the premise for the novel’s structure.
I was the President’s Mistress!! is laid out in 24 alternating unedited interview transcripts, half of them with the eponymous mistress as she narrates her life story to her memoirist “Miguel Syjuco,” the other half with each of her 12 ex-boyfriends, who often provide a self-serving rebuttal to her version of the events, like a she-said he-said recollected in the bitter light of hurt and regret.
To Vita’s credit, her memories of the time spent with them are always positive, seeing the best of what they shared together and how she grew from each one. The prose in these parts absolutely sings, perhaps because she takes a hot minute from her gangsta Fil-Am verbal stylings (does anyone actually say fligga?) and her woke rah-rah-rants about feminism and equality, corruption and power, sex, lies, and a video tape, to swoon about love in its many manifestations.
Writing from the side of Vita’s men is an exercise in putting one’s self in someone else’s shoes, stinky as they may be. First, we hear from the President Fernando V. Estregan, a caricature of several Filipino leaders but most particularly Duterte, with his unfounded drug war and unscripted ramblings that make for a hilarious (if it weren’t so true) chapter with more ellipses than coherent thoughts. Going backwards in chronology we meet Kingsley Belli, the president’s troll master who wooed Vita with single malts and DOM lines; Deepak Roy, a nerd-turned-bodybuilder and the closest Vita came to getting married; Nur Bansamoro, a Muslim senator with two wives and Vita’s future running mate; Bishop Baccante, who was less a paramour than a spiritual adviser who got too handsy; DJ RedCentre, a loud-mouthed Aussie who defined Vita’s partying days; Rolex Aguirre, an octogenarian provincial governor with a fondness for fine wine and 12-course meals; LeTrel, a Black American offering the escape and freedom of America; Furio Almondo, the journalist who introduced her to literature; Cat Jang-Salvador, the Forbes Park conyo who introduced her to porn; One-Mig Sontua, the Chinoy half of her early showbiz love team; and finally Loy Bonifacio the OFW, Vita’s first love and the only one who comes from the same hood.
Vita’s relationships with these men ran the gamut from paternalistic to dangerously toxic, but she had the cunning and guile to always keep one foot out the door in time to save herself from a situation gone sideways. An early reference to Proverbs 31:25 hints at her triumph, and towards the end we can almost envision her total transformation from poor Angeles City girl to variety show mainstay to Savior of our Nation.
While the novel beautifully plumbs the depths and limits of love, I Was the President’s Mistress!! is, on its face, a satire of Philippine politics, a sensational, scandal-ridden screed that confabulates real events and persons in the Philippines with so many winks and nudges that non-Filipinos will miss out on the nuances of our humor and history and gloss over the wild play on names and personalities.
Like, I couldn’t help but think Vita was partly inspired by a certain DDS blogger who was also variously famed or shamed for her career in sexy dancing, a Duterte supporter who was awarded positions in his government. During the first few years of the Duterte presidency, while Syjuco was teaching at NYU Abu Dhabi and contributed op-eds to the New York Times, he diligently battled local trolls and the insurgent disinformation army, getting himself involved in an unfortunate word war with the said blogger’s rabid and mimetic fans. The genesis of the fictional Vita predates the blogger’s political rise, however, Vita having appeared briefly, and briefly dressed, in Syjuco’s Man Asian Prize-winning first novel Ilustrado as a tabloid cover girl (Syjuco even made a Vita Nova FB page in 2010, which to this day receives birthday greetings from “friends”) but I would be surprised if the similarities between the two were merely coincidental.
Besides his protagonist, Syjuco also inhabits 12 other distinct voices that represent a cross-section of Philippine society. You’ve got the clergy, the media, the oligarchs, the politicos, the ethnic minorities, the proletariat, and the expats—each coming with a specific worldview that ranges from the Machiavellian (in the uhm, BBM sense of the word) to anti-vaxxing conspiracy-theorist cray cray, which makes the book swing between being a riot to read to feeling like you’re doomscrolling through the darkest holes of the interwebs. One of the more fascinating chapters, for me, is Cat’s—though over-the-top and indulgent, it felt the most personal and I suspect this is because it is also the most autobiographical.
“My characters, whom I refused to judge on the page so that I could consider all they had to teach from it—the good and especially the bad—will now be judged by you,” Syjuco writes in the acknowledgments. The unrelenting monologues are a credit to the author’s commitment to craft and his willingness to understand even the most noxious points of view. Still, the novel’s ending provides space for hope, despite the ominous omission of Vita’s final interview and the mention of a bombing right before the snap elections where candidates by the name of Junior and Farrah are running against a Fuchsia opposition. The timing of the release of this book is also no coincidence.
Vita’s a flawed character by her own admission and will strike some readers as unlikeable. I respect the honesty of her hustle and admire her enduring ability to see and take the good from even her worst boyfriends. “I’m grateful for those times, but I won’t let their gaze define me, or take credit for my growth while I was becoming more of who I am. On ne naît pas femme, on le devient,” Vita tells the interviewer, without crediting the quote to a postcard given to her by one of her more decrepit fellas. One is not born woman, one becomes. At this point, she’d probably break out into song, as they do: ♫ Thank you, next ♫