Two charities collaborated to introduce to literary enthusiasts a young Filipino writer whose debut novel bagged prestigious awards in the Philippines.
Asia House and Philippine Generations organized a book launch for 33-year-old Miguel Syjuco in Marylebone, London last March 11 that drew a crowd of curious literary aficionado.
Syjuco’s semi-autobiographical book called "Illustrado" was the highlight of the event, which was part of Asia House’s upcoming Festival of Asian Literature.
Syjuco won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize and a Palanca award for the book, a mystery thriller conveying a socio-political message that spans across 150 years of Philippine history.
The story, told in fragments, begins with the discovery of a dead body in New York’s Hudson River belonging to veteran Pinoy writer Crispin Salvador. His protégé, Miguel, then embarks on a journey to the Philippines to unearth the truth behind his mentor’s death and the disappearance of a manuscript exposing corruption within rich Filipino families.
The book will be published next year.
Alongside Asia House’s Adrienne Loftus Parkins, Syjuco shared his experience in writing the book, saying his aim was to offer the masses a modern and realistic outlook on the Philippines by tracing past events.
Syjuco also wanted to challenge perceptions and capture the Filipino's overseas experience.
“The Filipino identity is an international one and I wanted to explore it”, he said. “It’s not all carabaos and planting rice and Amorsolo portraits. It’s about living abroad, feeling guilt about being abroad, and wondering what we can do to help our country. My characters have that feeling as do I,” Syjuco added.
The Ateneo de Manila University graduate currently lives in Canada, and although he was born in Manila, Syjuco has spent much of his life away from the Philippines. However, despite the distance and his inability to speak fluent Tagalog, he is still eager to make a positive impact on his motherland through literature.
Using fictional characters, Syjuco created a parallel universe in Ilustrado where the corrupt are exposed. And he is fully aware, that once his novel is released, it may ruffle a few feathers particularly among those in the upper echelons of Philippine society.
Speaking about the congratulations he received from the Senate and Congress after winning the literary awards, Syjuco jokingly said: “It’s wonderful, it’s a great honor, but I can’t wait for them to read it, because we’ll see if I get that again. I hope so.”
Due to the title of the novel, Syjuco is also conscious some may assume the book refers to elitism because the term Ilustrado was given to a group of rich Filipino intellectuals who were educated abroad before they returned to the Philippines.
However, Syjuco says the title of his book refers to the modern day Ilustrados, who he identified as the overseas Filipino workers that continue to support their families and the nation through things like remittances. He added anyone abroad with the capacity to help the Philippines, in whatever little way they can, is potentially an Ilustrado.
Syjuco is excited about the release of his novel and is happy to take on the mantel of being the Philippines’ latest literary talent.
“There are some people that believe this has placed a spotlight on Philippine literature and I don’t know if that’s true… I hope so”, he said.
At the same time though, Syjuco hopes it will live up to all the attention it’s getting and inspire more Filipino writers to step to the fore on the world stage.