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Award-Winning Author Miguel Syjuco on Writing I Was The President's Mistress!!, His Creative Process, and Hope for Philippine Literature

Award-Winning Author Miguel Syjuco on Writing I Was The President's Mistress!!, His Creative Process, and Hope for Philippine Literature

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.

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.

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 creative processes, and books he always recommends.

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. 

I Was the President’s Mistress!! is the second book in a trilogy that begins with Ilustrado. Where and how do these two novels meet?

My Manila Trilogy charts my take on our shared past, present, and future. 

Ilustrado was about the human failings of the supposed enlightened elite throughout our history and their inability to create a just, equitable, and free society for all of us. As a novel, it sought to challenge the way we read the form, especially in our multi-media age of fragmented perspectives. It took from various literary text types—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, interviews, academic writing, blogs, and even dirty jokes—to create a singular portrait that is open to interpretation depending on the angle you’re looking at it from. 

IWTPM!!, meanwhile, is about the use and abuse of power through perception, deception, fortune, and fame. As a novel, it seeks to challenge readers to participate, to choose which characters to believe and which values matter most to each of us. It takes from various aspects of contemporary pop culture—our viral-speed interconnectivity, colloquial language, ear-worm music, celeb interviews, tell-all memoirs, talking-head punditry, trashy novels, soc-med TL;DR oversharing, and the ramblings of our elders which we politely endure out of the respect and patience that they taught us are virtues. 

Where these two novels meet is through our current protagonist, Vita—now in her moment, spotlit, centre stage. 

In Ilustrado, my inadvertantly male-blinkered debut novel, she existed only as a minor figure in the background, reflected through rumor and judgment, defined by only what was said of her by the other characters. In IWTPM!!, I explore that further in an effort to examine, critique, and subvert that dynamic—as Vita now speaks for herself (or the self she believes, rightly or wrongly, that we want to hear), while the men from her past wield their privilege of defining themselves, Vita, and their roles in her life. 

IWTPM!! is the sequel to Ilustrado, but in many ways it’s in conversation with it—not just as its continuation, but its inversion. 

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?

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?  

The fictional world of Ilustrado features a globe-trotting writer named Miguel and his mentor Crispin Salvador. Did you intend your second novel to focus on a more feminine voice? How were this transition and its challenges?  How did you conceptualize Vita’s character and point of view? 

Ilustrado, as a first novel, was arguably semi-autobiographical, with its characters representing different sides of myself—my worst tendencies, my greatest aspirations, my warnings to myself against turning away from my country out of bitter disappointment. New writers are often advised to write what you know, because learning to write is hard enough—and so your writing mines material from your traumas and hopes (because what does any human know better about themselves than that?). Ilustrado was therefore a book about a young man, with all his limitations and blind-spots. 

But after that apprenticeship, writers must evolve into writing what we want to know—about the complications of both the world itself and the craft of fiction. And because novelists grow by learning from their characters, especially those most unlike them, I took on the great challenge of writing, as a cis male, a female protagonist. 

I had a lot to learn, and unlearn, having grown up in a very machismo society, which had warped my own sense of sexuality, self-esteem, and perspective of others. As a teenager in Cebu, I’d been relentlessly teased and defined as gay—although I’m not, and wasn’t, and didn’t know at the time that even if I were there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. So I’d spent my entire life trying to prove to the world my heterosexual masculinity, taking cues from a culture that too often includes objectification, disrespect, casual misogyny, and ostentatious infidelity as proofs of manhood. 

My challenges, then, with I Was the’s Mistress!!, were huge—both as writer and human being. 

 This new novel, this game of shifting mirrors, represents my working through that, because a book is always a snapshot of one phase in a writer’s development. I knew that I needed to be responsible about creating Vita as a character, yet for years I struggled under my own male gaze. Only when I truly understood that human beings are defined by not just our own perspective, but how we present ourselves to others—and how others perceive us, as well as perceive themselves—that’s when I realized that I had to, especially, cast a critical eye on the men in Vita’s life. And although it’s my duty, as a novelist, to create nuanced, three-dimensional characters, I hope it’s clear to readers that I Was the President’s Mistress!! is meant as an unpacking, a critique, and an indictment of our machismo culture, of which I’ve been both product and accomplice. 

To create and evolve Vita’s character (in a world that forces upon her the masks she uses as both defense and tools), I approached her the way I do all my characters—by letting them live, without my judgment, with only my openness to learn all they had to teach me (the good and especially the bad). 

What was your creative process like when you were writing I Was the President’s Mistress!!? How similar or different was it from writing Ilustrado?

To my mind, every novel is as difficult to write as the preceding one—otherwise the writer isn’t reaching farther enough. Each novel must be a theory—of itself, of the form, and of the world the narrative seeks to portray. And since writing isn’t just expression, it’s problem solving (as anyone who has ever done multiple revisions can attest), the problems I wrestled with in IWTPM!! were distinctly different from those in Ilustrado

In Ilustrado, I was teaching myself, through trial and error, how to write a novel, by learning my writerly tools, the effects of different narrative choices, and the years-long process of bringing a novel from conception to publication. 

In IWTPM!!, I undertook further experiments with form, focused particularly on voice, flow, perspective (and its unreliability), and the tensions between contradicting details and characters’ assertions and beliefs—to see how they might replace or evolve those conventional mechanisms for narrative movement: plot and character development. I wanted to reject the plotted arcing change in characters, which usually grabs our empathy as we watch their evolution; instead, I wanted the change at the end to be in the reader. 

Agency and participation, clearly, are important values to me, as both citizen and writer—and I wanted to engineer my novel so that the reader is invited, or even needed, to exercise their agency by participating in its narrative. In IWTPM!!, you must decide which characters you believe in and support, which values you share and adhere to, and what your role is in our society as we search for the larger truths of the human condition. 

This is also why I sought to explore our experience of all manner of human emotions, not just the usual beauty, melancholy, or elegiac ecstasy that are the most dominant notes in too many literary novels. So I included humor, disgust, anger, confusion, impatience, relief, joy, comfort, and, yes, kilig, gigil, and our manifold varieties of reacting to something baduy. 

Along those lines, I also experimented with the use of silence: where the deeper story is implied; where what matters most occurs between the lines—in the gaps separating chapters, in the blanks deliberately designed into the book. It’s in these silences, these blank spaces, where the reader has the most agency to participate. 

This is clearly important to me as a theory, yet it’s not so zany nor so unfamiliar in other artforms. You know how some movies or TV series (such as Inception, or The Sopranos) involve the audience, leaving them questioning, discussing, theorizing? I’m intrigued by such possibilities for literary fiction, even though the form’s inherent intimacy primes readers’ expectations for a satisfying closure at a novel’s end. Yet I can’t help but wonder: Is it possible to write a novel that successfully rejects that? Not just one that’s just open-ended—but one that relies upon active interpretation by you, the reader? 

Such were some of my challenges in writing this book; I hope its readers will, in turn, embrace their challenges in it—and judge it, ultimately, worthwhile. 

You had initially drafted Ilustrado using a linear narrative and also shared that you reworked the manuscript. Did you experience a similar instance while writing I Was the President’s Mistress!!? What challenges did you experience while working on the novel?

In many ways, Ilustrado and IWTPM!! are in conversation with each other, about their similarities and difference. My first book was a murder mystery that was about so much more—loss, identity, love of country, individual purpose, and the importance of storytelling to society. This second book is a celebrity memoir that is similarly about so much more—perception, power, truth, freedom, speech, and our personal responsibility in this world filled with problems. But what both books share is an ongoing experiment with structure as a way to weave all their complicated thematic threads together into a cohesive whole.

Ilustrado did, as you mentioned, use a linear narrative—in its first drafts. As an apprentice novelist, I initially tried to write it from beginning to end, but failed to give it the depth, texture, and energy I’d intuited my novel was meant to possess. But while watching a documentary on T’boli weavers, I had a eureka moment. To create the tapestry of Ilustrado’s multiple narrative threads, which number more than a dozen, I had to first spin each thread individually (allowing each of the stories to develop chronologically); only then could I begin strategically weaving them together throughout the book’s ten chapters. 

IWTPM!! similarly displays that weaving technique I’ve been developing these many years, both in my fiction and non-fiction (such as in my very personal essay for the Boston Review, “No Eulogy for the Living” https://bostonreview.net/articles/miguel-syjuco-no-eulogy-living/). But in IWTPM!!, its overall use of transcripts meant the weaving involved only the backstory and present story, which I made less like a tapestry than like the double helix of DNA. Watchful readers will notice in each chapter this architecture, with intertwined narrative threads (one chronological with the other in reverse chronology). You’ll also notice how I deliberately used basic narrative mechanisms—temporal tense, POV—to create movement and subtly delineate shifts between the intertwined threads in this novel. 

As with any good design, I hope it’s subtle enough to be seamless and not actually so apparent. But for those interested in the craftsmanship of writing, I hope they’ll find this intended design as cool as I do. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.

Stories go beyond the pages. Check out the blog on Fully Booked Online to discover more Author Spotlight features, book news, and recommendations.

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