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Over a Zoom call, I speak to Miguel Syjuco about his favourite Filipiniana titles, the merits of The Noli by Rizal, the role of honesty in writing & journalism, and much more. Read on to get the low down:

Miguel Syjuco is an assistant professor of practice, literature, and creative writing at the New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi, a contributor for The New York Times, and author of world-renowned award-winning novel, Ilustrado. Currently, Miguel teaches courses entitled 'Citizen, Writer' and 'Novels That Changed the World', where he discusses the role of literature in society and history alongside analysing the value of one's voice through storytelling.

What is your favourite book?

I always go back to the Noli (Me Tangere) by Jose Rizal. I was born in the Philippines but moved with the family to Canada because of Martial Law. I returned when I was 12, so I spent a good 10 years of my life abroad. This idea of going back to the Philippines, like Ibarra did, and this question of the Philippines being a global experience, are beautifully captured by this book written 100 years ago. I teach it in my class in NYU Abu Dhabi and I continue to marvel at not only its humour and the grace but its very purposeful design, construction and scope.

Any tips on how to be a good reader? Do you have to dissect a work according to the writer’s aims or is it better to read a book for what it is to you?

You can read a book in your own way and you can be entertained by it, of course, but one has much more appreciation for the work and for the creator and the craft if you understand how the work functions. The choices a fiction writer must make (are important), so you can understand why you like a certain work, why it’s successful or critically acclaimed.

What would be your elevator pitch for people to read more?

We are all engaged in storytelling more than we think. We’ve been receiving stories even before we could talk, from our parents who would read us stories as children. Stories are the stuff of life, whether they’re in songs, movies, the sermon, scripture, the stories we tell ourselves about our own personal identities and the identity of our society. If there is anything in the world that we are prepared for, it’s being good readers because we’ve been engaging with stories our whole lives. It’s how we understand ourselves and the rest of the world. If we’re only consuming stuff that is on the phone, what really is memorable? (Reading literature) will give us a solid thing to stand on, a weight that will keep us from being lost.

What do you take from writing literature that you apply to your daily life? 

I’m very lucky because my vocation as a writer has made me a better person; it really has [on] many levels. It has forced me to look at characters in a deep way. Therefore, I came to look at people in a sympathetic way. It allowed me to engage with the world even though I took to reading to escape from the world. 

It gave me comfort that anything the world throws at me, I can turn into something deep, hopefully, profound and beautiful so that I can share with other people. Therefore, whatever difficulty the world throws at me I can use that as fertiliser to create something beautiful. 

Anything that has translated from the world of Literature in the way that you approach, access, or experience life?

Writing also helped me understand that I am not powerless. That having a voice is having a vote in the future of our society, our country. It gave me a sense of agency and that is one of the reasons I teach creative writing so that I could help other people have that sense of agency. If they can have that strong confident, clever, beautiful voice, then they can also feel very comfortable in the world [and] speaking out. 

Any other Filipiniana titles you’d recommend for those who are just starting to get into Philippine Literature?

I had the great privilege of studying under NVM Gonzalez, so I love literature from that era—the likes of Bienvenido Santos, Carlos Bulosan (particularly his take on the global Philippine experience). There’s Gina Apostol with Insurrecto which I’ve been enjoying in the recent years.

The book that I’m actually reading now is Randy Ribay's The Patron Saints of Nothing. He’s a Filipino who grew up in the US, [who] came back to the Philippines. [The book] is his take on the violence—the drug war. It’s apparently a book meant for young readers but it doesn’t read that way. It’s very sophisticated and deep in its telling, so I appreciate that.

I’m [also] reading a lot of journalism these years—anything from the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) or Rappler—they're my great heroes. 

As a writer, how do you approach honesty versus 'toeing the line' (so to speak)?

I think it’s a personal choice for writers how much they’ll toe the line...for their own self-preservation [or] their own safety. But I think, inherently, writers are supposed to push the edge. If we don’t know where the edge of something is, how do we look over and see what’s beyond it, right? 

Writing is essentially antithetical to toeing the line. Particularly with journalism, speaking truth to power is very important. I don’t believe those in charge will do what they’re supposed to without anyone forcing them to do it, either via the press or via the vote. And that’s just the way it is in any democracy or any government. Our rulers or the powers-that-be, the first thing they’ll do is silence dissent; they understand how important that is.

So although I understand, very sympathetically, writers who will toe the line because they have their own vision of what the long game is. But I believe [in] fight[ing] tooth and nail—you have to.

[Whether it's] journalism, good literature, storytelling, sermon at mass, Netflix documentaries, TV shows, movies, all of these are opportunities to dissect how the world works and how people are implicated in that. Because if we can [see] the world—how things are broken, how systems are flawed and how we can fix it, who is in the way of us fixing it—we can all get together using our votes and our voices. We can participate in fixing it.

That to me is what’s important about not toeing the line, speaking out, storytelling, and conversing with everybody whether or not they are of differing opinions. It is important for us to be exposed to discourse not so that we’ll accept everything but so we’ll understand and find our role in society somehow.

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