Award-winning author Miguel Syjuco treats readers with a hilarious, insightful, playful, and provocative novel about Vita Nova–the famous movie star in the Philippines and a former paramour of the country’s most powerful man. For the first time ever, she bares herself completely in a tell-all memoir that puts the sensational in sensationalistic.
I Was the President’s Mistress!! hurtles headlong into love, politics, faith, history, memory, and the ongoing war over who will tell the stories the world shall know as truth.
We chatted with the grand prize winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize for his debut novel Ilustrado to know more about I Was the President’s Mistress!!, his life as a writer, and books he always recommends.
1. Describe I Was the President’s Mistress!! in three sentences for those who might not know of it yet.
1) A bold, bawdy, baduy boddice-ripper about the famously infamous artista slash influencer Vita Nova.
2) A celebrity tell-all memoir that exposes our era’s latest taboos and the enduring absurdities of Philippine politics.
3) A satire, a parody, a polemic, a puzzle, a deconstructed tale that readers must now assemble to decide for themselves the truths of our day, what they mean, and what we’re each going to do about them.
2. Your forthcoming title tells an uninhibited and unflinching satire about controversial topics: politics, corruption, sex, and power. Why did you choose to write about these themes in your novel?
Literature is both the Story of Humanity and the Great Conversation between readers and writers, across eras and borders. Yet what are those stories we’re taught not to converse about in polite company? Sex. Politics. Religion. (And the power and corruption inherent to them.) But as our world burns, maybe it’s time we stopped being so polite? Maybe it’s time we stopped avoiding such conversations? Maybe it’s time we took those stories head on.
I believe that to have a voice is to have a vote in the future of our world—it’s why I write and why, as a professor, I teach others how to write. Yet sex, politics, and religion aren’t just topics we’re told not to discuss; Sex, politics, and religion are often used to silence any discussion at all.
That’s the irony of those things most often silenced—they’re the stuff of life. Inescapably so. There’s nobody more obsessed with sex than a puritan. Nobody more critical of religion than an atheist. Nobody more affected by politics than a citizen who won’t vote out of disgust for the broken society our rulers have given us.
And underlying these important, complicated themes of sex, politics, and religion are the most vital universal aspirations of humanity—freedom, agency, faith—and the truths about them that can empower us all.
How can those not be my topics, in my efforts to write about life and its possibilities?
3. I Was the President’s Mistress!! has a “grabbed from the headlines” aspect to its narrative. How did you navigate the referentiality of the story and how readers might connect it to various real life scenarios?
I Was the President’s Mistress!! is the tell-all memoir of one Vita Nova, who some would say is as real as any Instagram profile, or hashtag-blessed humble-brag flex; as authentic as her smile as first-runner up, and that tearful hug for her frenemy who beat her at the sash and crown. (You can see it now—or is that an actual memory?)
Vita, clearly, is as real as Tupperware—and her story’s just as durable and capacious. That’s the joy of narrative fiction, in which we, as readers and writers, can fit the biggest, sharpest things: our feelings, desires, dreams, and inventions. Abracadabra!—the magic of a novel. You’ll pay your piso to ooh and ahh at its tricks.
Because a novel is a vessel for the imagination of others. By definition, as fiction, it never purports to offer any facts. Instead, through its honest artifice, it invites us readers into the narrative, and in doing so makes us complicit. In other words: a novel only works if we participate. And while reading and writing are indeed both private acts, each depends on not just our own action but that of another person. A writer writes and is read; a reader reads what has been written.
It’s that trusting relationship—with all its faith—that allows us to be whisked away to Hogwarts or to root for Darna. It’s that implicit collaboration—with all its hope—that speaks to the same individual human agency that is necessary in building an equitable society. In fiction, as with democracy, we must be complicit in imagining possibilities; we must be free to choose what to believe, whom to believe, and how we’ll act on our beliefs.
And that’s exactly what obsesses me about the novel form: its rejection of facts alongside its pursuit of shared truths; its individual intimacy and its potential for collective action; its constant proof throughout history of its potential, in works of fiction that somehow changed history’s course—helping abolish slavery, or inspiring revolutions, or setting legal milestones, or flooding streets with protests, or prompting nations to issue earth-shaking fatwas, warrants, or rendezvous with firing squads. Such novels you surely know: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Noli Me Tangere, What Is To Be Done?, Max Havelaar, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Satanic Verses, to name but a few that changed the world—all imagined to life by an individual like you and me, armed only with a pen, with readers moved to action, in fact, by fiction.
In the case of I Was the President’s Mistress!! (this clear work of absolute, total, unalloyed fiction), if readers similarly find resonance in its setting turned upside down on the page, its parallel dimensions, its obvious archetypes, concoctions, parodies, amalgamations, and other myriad bald-faced fictions, who am I to deny them their agency? Who is anyone to deny them that freedom?
4. Has being away from the Philippines changed your perspective on writing about the country and Filipinos? If yes, how did this shape you as a writer?
As a member of our millions-strong diaspora, my place in the global Philippine experience is not at all unique. Like most Pinoys abroad, I miss home, I long for its its flavors, scents, comforts, familiar frustrations, endearing annoyances, and the family and friends who make it what it is, unique and universal, to each of us. But having lived in the United Arab Emirates for almost six years now, I’m surprised to find that I’ve felt closer to home than ever. Closer, in fact, to other Filipinos than I ever did at while living in the Philippines—because here, in the UAE, the regionalism and stratification among us kabayans are less pronounced; we’re all in the same boat, all trying to make a living, all guests of a country in which we’ll never be fully at home. (Which is vastly different from living in North America, where assimilation absorbs us into a new culture and puts us on separate paths from one another.)
In fact, it’s been here in the Middle East where my long belief was made even stronger: that all of us Filipinos, wherever we are in the world, are potential ilustrados—enlightened by our experience away, our skills and perspective sharpened through years abroad, and our longing ever stronger for both home and an opportunity to contribute towards improving life there so that so many of us will no longer need to leave it in order to survive or thrive.
I’m luckier than many Filipinos that the flexibility and requirements of my profession, as a writer, bring me back to the Philippines regularly. Maybe that’s why Manila still is, and always will be, my home. I’m nothing if not a Manileño, and am proud to consider myself as only Filipino.
But one day, one wakes up and discovers that what felt like only a few years abroad have turned into two decades. As a Filipino, this shocked me; as a Filipino writer, it inhibited my writing, especially when I was living in North America. After struggling there with my manuscript for so many years, IWTPM!! only started flowing in earnest after I moved back to Manila in 2015 and continued returning several times a year to write about the violence that began skyrocketing in 2016.
All these perspectives, from abroad and at home, have greatly shaped my writing, and my sense of urgency in using it—as my sharpest tool—to contribute in my own way.
5. How does your journalism background play into your fiction?
The journalism that I did for the NY Times, the Guardian, and other international newspapers, starting in earnest in 2016, brought me home to the Philippines on a deeper level than when I previously lived there. It brought me into places most Filipinos usually avoid—to crime scenes, morgues, wakes, mass burials, jails, protests, drug rehab facilities, slums—and allowed me countless interviews with police generals, human rights lawyers, voters, politicians, and members of our most vulnerable communities living in fear.
All I saw, all the stories I heard, all the suffering I witnessed, changed my perspective forever. It also pushed me to reassess the importance of writing—especially given today’s encroaching threats to free speech, and the efforts to silence dissenting citizens and the journalists we task to gather the hard facts that help us all discern the inconvenient truths that our rulers don’t want us discussing.
Not only did all that offer me material and perspective for my work (along with a greater sense of urgency and responsibility), it galvanized my concerns about the shifts between public and private, and the lies of disinformation that are increasingly hindering society’s ability to glean the truth.
As we all increasingly, and voluntarily, give up our privacy as regular citizens (posting about our current whereabouts, meals, and almost every aspect of our lives), our rulers are building ever higher their walls of privacy (from whether they paid their taxes, or how they use taxpayer funds, to their medical fitness or their statements of assets, liabilities, and net worth).
Meanwhile, constant attacks menace ever more journalists—those private citizens whose job it is to scrutinize our public officials so that we can all hold them accountable in the courts and ballot boxes.
Isn’t it clear to you who benefits from the misinformation, disinformation, and constant propaganda pickling minds by the thousands by manipulating facts, perverting truths, and rewriting our nation’s history?
It’s clear to me. And those concerns have shaped my writing of fiction. It’s also made me a more deliberate reader, as I go back to the real accounts that bore witness at the time to the events of our history—rather than the recent efforts to rewrite it online in slavish service of those clamoring for power.
6. What are you currently reading?
For the history—some contemporaneous journalism from right then and there: Delusions of a Dictator: The Mind of Marcos as Revealed in His Secret Diaries, which charts the despot’s 1000-days leading from his final legitimate re-election in 1969 to his gutting of democracy in 1972.
For the facts—an insider’s tell-all memoir: The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, by Primitivo Mijares, the dictator’s trusted aide who soon after publishing it disappeared during Martial Law. (And whose son, shortly after, was brutally tortured to death.)
For the truths—a novel: State of War, by Ninotchka Rosca, which masterfully threads together the traumas of our nation’s violent history that led to our long dictatorship.
7. Share three books you always recommend to others.
Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, for its historical significance, insight, humor, and proof that a novel can indeed change the world.
James Wood’s How Fiction Works, for its eloquent and learned lessons on the technical and artistic evolution of the novel form, as well as his invitation to readers to embrace what literary fiction offers us.
Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, for its taut and tiny size that makes manageable its hefty lessons from the darkest moments of human history—and how we must, and can, guard against their being repeated.
8. What’s next for Miguel Syjuco? What can readers expect from the last book in the trilogy?
With Ilustrado about the past, and IWTPM!! about the present, the final book in my Manila Trilogy will of course be about our future. And what’s in store in those times to come? Climate change, hard choices, and our very human tendency to fail in making the right ones. But implicit in that, of course, is hope—and I, being me, will likely hold on to that with white knuckles.
9. What are your hopes for Philippine literature?
Fear is the opposite of hope; My hope is that we Filipinos will be able to always write, read, and speak without fear.
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