Ilustrado (an untrue, honest story about us, Filipinos)
Believe it or not, instead of reading or writing a review, the first thing I did after reading Ilustrado is add the author on Facebook to look at some of his photos. Whatever happened to my academic dignity and literary principle, the author is dead. (The dead accepted the friend request anyway)
“honesty before glory”
What a shame, too, that only last month did I read Miguel Syjuco’s novel, Ilustrado. Its sarcasm and frankness and brutal honesty and beautiful, sexy language had me at first page. It won handsome awards four years ago–Man Asian Literary Prize and the Palanca Award Grand Prize. Pretty cool awards to put on the cover of your first book, huh. Such awards are like halo on the canonized novel, which has been translated to French, Catalan, Italian, Japanese, German, Czech, Serbian, and Brazilian Portuguese.
In my comparative literature classes, Ilustrado was always mentioned as a classic postcolonial example (or a text that problematizes identity/nationhood and power struggle). I really had no time to read it; almost all my subjects in masters were in PhD level, and I was forever stressed out as I keep up with my classmates (and I could come up with 10 more excuses).
But that’s the truth. I was always working on my “novels” of papers.
Sometimes though, reading a novel for pleasure is better than reading it for a literature class (especially comparative literature classes). So, somehow, there is less regret in reading Syjuco’s novel after I left the academe. And, there is so much pleasure reading him now that I am usually away from the Philippines–putting things into perspective.
The story talks mostly of diaspora, or the great migration and departure of millions of Filipinos–whether they’re OFWs, migrating families to Canada, or intellectuals pursuing further studies abroad. It also deals with the pains of Filipinos abroad who are denied their right of being considered as Filipinos on the grounds of geography and language.
The story: Miguel Syjuco (author names the protagonist after himself) flies back home to the Philippines to investigate on the personal life of his university professor and personal mentor who died in his New York apartment. In the Philippines, he finds himself confronted by people who have issues with Filipinos leaving the Philippines, especially Filipinos writing about the Philippines from faraway, or Filipinos writing in English–for others, this is unacceptable. For Miguel Syjuco, this is baffling.
I speaks [sic] English
Indeed, I have read and heard tirades against Filipinos writing in English or Filipinos writing about the Filipinos from abroad. One particular scholar known for his searing opinions on this issue is Dr. Zeus Salazar, a prominent Filipino historian who taught at prestigious universities in the Philippines and around the world. His “pantayong pananaw” promotes history writing by Filipinos for Filipinos in Filipino (In return, some call him and his followers “nativists” in stealth or outright–said one of his pals who introduced me to the Zeus Salazar at his house in Katipunan). One unforgettable experience I had in this battle of linguistic power and privileges was during an international conference where Dr. Salazar was promoting the use of Filipino in the academe; a young scholar from the Visayas stood, criticized what Dr. Salazar was saying, and delivered a fiery speech on the unjust privileging of Tagalog/Filipino over other languages, including English, which our Visayan kababayans are more fluent with (than Tagalog). It was a tense, awkward moment, which Dr. Salazar simply capped with, sorry na lang, after saying something about the history or the inevitability and necessity of Tagalog becoming the national language.
Once in a while, too, issues on the use of so called “conyo” English is brought up in national media or in small circle conversations, like the one I recently overheard in a coffee shop in Laguna when I was in the Philippines some weeks ago:
Girl 1: bakit kailangan nyang mag-English? [why does she have to speak in English?]
Girl 2: oo nga, nag-i-english yun lagi. May accent pa. [right, she always speaks in English, and with accent]
Girl 3: Oo! Ang arte talaga! [yeah! so uppity!] (then they all laugh)
My paranoid self thought, it could’ve been me they’re talking about (but what can I do, many people I work with don’t speak Tagalog; even all my Skype conversations are in English–except one or two friends–we speak Martian). Truth is, some of us are used to speaking in English (with accent of course! Tagalog accent, American accent, British accent, Ilokano accent–I can’t think of English or any language that has no accent) and some of us are used to code switching; unfortunately, others think this is some showy, pretentious kind of talk–to which I shall reply Dr. Zeus’ repartee: sorry na lang.
And, rather than looking at it as uppity (well, depending on the context), it’s cool to see it as the Filipinos’ skillful bilingualism. Like many Filipinos, I’ve also been asked by an amazed American (one of my ‘teammates’) why I don’t have an accent–which I took to mean, my English sounds neutral and it doesn’t divulge my birthplace right away. My answer: (neither proud nor sorry) well, thanks to you our dear conquerors and the pop culture you feed us?
Ilustrado discloses more issues on English speaking in the Philippines, so look for a copy now.
Will the real Filipino please stand up
Some of my favorite scenes in the novel are when Miguel Syjuco is invited to an awkward family dinner by a cutesy well-to-do girl he met at Balay Kalinaw bookstore (and who will give him an amazing blowjob in the middle of a storm and political riots in Metro Manila–which is typical. the storm and riots, I mean) and when he talks with two forgettable literary persons in the same Balay during a book launch at the University of the Philippines. I know that feeling: when you are an outsider in specific circles such as literary ones, you won’t have difficulty feeling it since everyone in the circle can help you feel precisely that way: that you do not belong, especially if you are living outside Manila, if you did not graduate from the top 3 universities, and–let’s not mince words–if you’re poor.
In the Balay scene, it’s funny when the works of Miguel’s mentor were judged as not Filipino enough. Readers, at that point, may frown together with Miguel while thinking: so, okay, what is Filipino writing? What is authentic Filipino? Is there such a fucking concept anyway?
To somehow show how ridiculous this is, it was mentioned rather jokingly somewhere that for stories to be exotic enough, there has to be a a tropical fruit and boiling rice. So in a sort of parody, Miguel Syjuco (the author) puts a paragraph or two on boiling rice and a tropical fruit (balimbing) as if to say–there, Filipino enough?
As the protagonist pieces together his mentor’s life story, you may find yourself reading into the stories of the Philippines’ troubled past and struggling present, centered on the most influential circles in the developing Asian country. Jokes and stories within the story intersect the text. At first, it can be a confusing read since the story seems to be too crowded (when you just wanted to focus on Miguel Syjuco), but then somewhere in the middle, they’re all there to support Miguel’s angst, frustrations, and hopes, which some Filipino readers may easily empathize with–I don’t even want to start with the political aspects of religions in the Philippines, or religion per se.
Did this actually happen?
Now, given the so many reference to real people and events, one may ask: is this a true story? The prologue’s footnotes almost got me, but I don’t really care which parts are true or if any of it is real. What is fiction anyway, but the retelling of reality. More than a chronology of events, literary pieces can be an enabling space for the articulation of that which has been silenced in the historians’ notebook. One scholar once said, literature (like history) is a discourse, hence, it’s not to be talked in terms of truth, as much as “whose truth.”
What Ilustrado‘s world shows us are realities of power by birthright, the push/pull factors of leaving the Philippines, who matters to whom in this country, and how we Filipinos expand our home in this global village.
As for me, the novel reminded me of a former teacher, E. San Juan, who’s a prominent international scholar in cultural studies, and with whom I used to exchange emails (we rarely do now). If I must mention, he got his PhD from Harvard (check this link out for a long list of achievements that can make you proud as a Filipino).
When I was taking up lit theory subject, Sir Sonny visited the Philippines (he lives in Connecticut) and was invited to teach our lucky class for about 4 months. I remember reading and scanning his so many books on culture, social classes, and history among others–most of which are about the Philippines, and so some of our emails are about Filipino exile, diaspora, and the Filipinos’ cultural/historical uprootedness; I remember asking him a silly, private question: E Sir, what are you doing there, outside the country? His reply in Tagalog is, it’s a long story–but I remember him mentioning that it’s basically because of unavailable opportunities in the Philippines and some political conflicts in the country (this part was kindof mysteriously said, but somehow Ilustrado gave me scores of possibilities for the”long story”). Needless to say, E San Juan reminded me of the novel’s Crispin Salvador, whose opinion in literature, history, and so many political affairs in the country are hard-hitting, yet, not so many Filipinos (or Filipino scholars) actually know him or care to know about him. I could’ve done a dissertation about him (investigating his life ala-Miguel Syjuco, but, alas, I shifted careers and went the opposite paths of the corporate and scientific world).
Now that I’m always in Singapore–I have this haunting feeling that people question my decision of working abroad instead of staying in UP, teaching the next generation. One honest answer to that is, I need space. Like in complicated relationships, some expectations are not met, so after fighting for it, and it still just doesn’t work, and disappointment is just too much, you let go.
The novel ends with a hopeful air about it (clue: homecoming), which again reminds me of Sir Sonny who, every year, would visit the Philippines as if to reconnect something that has been uprooted.
Singapore, Summer 2012