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Interviews

The City and the Writer: In Manila with Miguel Syjuco

Miguel Syjuco on life and literature in Manila, Philippines.
A portrait of writer Miguel Syjuco

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Can you describe the mood of Manila as you feel/see it?

Mega Manila is a million moods. In this city there are cities—in those sixteen cities, more cities, twenty-one point eight million cities walled high and crowned with broken glass, barbed wire, safeguarding oily pressure cookers and shared beds and gasping karaoke machines that minister to this city’s endless cities: thirteen million four hundred eighty-four thousand four hundred and sixty-two, every day making even more, out of love, desire, need—each filled with chaos and solitude, worry and yearning and long commutes to dreams that may never be reached (but that’s okay—the radio’s always on, playing something familiar and sweet).

In the daylight this city boils like it’s rushing before night, preparing for a party or an apocalypse (because to us they should feel like the same thing). In the darkness the city dances like it’s arrived, like this is what it should be: a celebration before rest then toil again through the hurtle and grind of another day—except holidays, pandemics, and when a champion fights on our TV screens from a world away to make us proud that we each stand up again every time we fall.

Faith, surrender, like in all other religions—these are the currents of this one, Manila, cradle, creed, cremator.  

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The boy my students’ age slumped against a wall by the sea, hole in his head leaking black-red. A living room scattered with brass shells and splattered with brine-reeking blood streaked and pooled around shopping bags stuffed with prenatal essentials and toys for a couple’s first baby. A jail so stuffed with sweat and humanity and the hundreds of innocently guilty that they must take turns just to sit down. The wakes and the eyes too exhausted to weep, and plexiglass, above yet another dead beloved’s face, under favored candies, photos from happy yesterdays, and pecking chicks placed there to chirp should the killer ever dare come close. The mass burial of unclaimed bodies stacked into niches in a paupers’ graveyard, crumbling tombs relinquishing skeletons, and dogs with bones in their mouths running for safety in a city that offers none. The stories of addicts recounted desperately, too generously for my notebook to keep up, there in that basement of a church run by a Tagalog-speaking Italian priest who’d offered sanctuary against the police and their president-protector. In the shadows of the ruins of this Pearl of the Orient, decimated by the stubborness of the Japanese and the bombs of the Americans and the pillaging of a despotic dictator and the ongoing neglect of us Filipinos, this drug war claimed tens of thousands, only a fraction of which I could see or fathom or bear or hope to ever forget.  

 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The sea, of this seaside city with its famous bay, and its celebrated sunset sinking into the sea each day. Yet to most Manileños, Manila feels landlocked. We forget the sea is there, its presence and absence both extraordinary.

 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Jose Rizal: ilustrado, polymath, fictionist, revolutionary, martyr, who wrote novels that believed readers could save our country and change our world.

Nick Joaquin: newshound, novelist, stylist, gadabout, hard-drinking San Miguel lover who revolutionized Philippine letters through the energy of his prose and the poetry of his vision.

Jose Garcia Villa: poet, emigré, dove-eagle-lion, son of Manila’s Singalong district, proto-Pope of Greenwich Village, whose company the less-significant likes of W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Marianne Moore, E. E. Cummings, and others had the honor of keeping.

“Manila is palimpsest whose layers become one, and efforts to tear off any risk rending the whole.”

F. Sionil Jose: bookseller, novel-writer, student of history, saga-maker, whose deep dedication to social justice was so profound that his crepuscular years saw him even rationalize the sins of a murderous populist whose promises of change proved, to the principled author, too convincing. 

And of the living, who are still defining themselves through their work: Gemino Abad, Alma Anonas-Carpio, Mia Alvar, Gina Apostol, F. H. Batacan, Lualhati Bautista, Merlinda Bobis, Igan D’Bayan, Jose Dalisay, Carlomar Daoana, Adam David, Patricia Evangelista, Marjorie Evasco, Luis Francia, Eric Gamalinda, Jessica Hagedorn, John Labella, Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, Chuckberry Pascual, Paolo Manalo, Resil B. Mojares, Charlson Ong, Han Ong, Bino Realuyo, Danton Remoto, Maria Ressa, Randy Ribay, Ninotchka Rosca, Joel Pablo Salud, Lakambini Sitoy, Grace Talusan, Meredith Talusan, Lourd de Veyra, Alfred Yuson, Jessica Zafra. To name but those on my shelf here in my scriptorium.  

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

The Manila Polo Club—with its embarrassment of riches, everyone clamoring to get in (all the strivers, fakers, old-rich failures, cruelly fortunate matronas, deft mistresses, fattened legislators, new-money Chinese, and the silent, resolute staff over whom I always marvel how they do it without hawking into the food or tearing away their uniforms or taking up arms). Variations of its stories are the stories I live to tell.

Polo, as those who can have nicknamed this place: with its privilege of green amidst the concrete and traffic and skyscrapers and smog that over the decades towered around what was once a cheap, provincial spit of land far beyond where any Manileño wished to travel.

It’s here—in the world’s most valuable per-square-meter plot for riding ponies (or pretending you’re rich enough to)—that to me lives, writ large, the tragedy of the potential glory of this city, this nation, this culture, this race, this idea of who we are and should’ve been.  

It’s the entire crackling, fought-over skin of a roast suckling pig injected into an ailing heart—and that’s why I come, again and again, to see it. 

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The La Solidaridad bookshop, founded 1964, in Ermita, Manila, and named after the newspaper run by Rizal and his fellow ilustrados to represent Filipinos in the minds and parliament of our Spanish colonizers. Birthed and led by the National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose, this bookshop is renowned as one of the last standalone booksellers in the country, standing alone in its stalwart dedication. Downstairs, you’ll find what’s convincingly claimed to be the widest selection of Filipiniana works in the Philippines. Upstairs, if you’re lucky, you may still find some of those great authors gathered around noodles, neon-colored soft drinks, fractious gossip, and shared purpose.

 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Manila is palimpsest whose layers become one, and efforts to tear off any risk rending the whole. Once the grandest dame of Asia, that continent of so many tragic grande dames, Manila bears its dereliction and decrepitude with the defiance and insousciance of a child at heart. Sacked, conquered, colonized, many times over, the artifacts of its storied history must be unearthed, most hiding in plain sight.

A river runs through it like lifeblood, but polluted and clogged like a heart abused. Architectural gems crumble on street corners, shrouded in grit till they’re decreed too ugly to save and are demolished after years of litigation we all knew would fail. And monuments weather in the sun and rain till their history fades and their purpose becomes only what they offer in shade.

“Manila, Philippines, has burst its borders and is now everywhere as we Pinoys conquer the globe.”

Manila’s hidden cities are districts of the past, most standing now only in memory: Malate, once seaside, once suburban, once quiet, once bohemian, once raucous with the hippest music, now caters to Koreans craving bright lights, cheap booze, friendly women, and familiar food. New Manila, the erstwhile haven of the well-heeled after old Manila’s wartime decimation, has now its graceful mansions divied up into condominium developments for white-collar commuters. Quezon City, the modern would-be utopia and new seat of government, is now choked with gridlock, malls, pleasure palaces, entropy, and resignation.

Every corner, every community, shares those similar arcs, that same injury. But in Manila’s neighborhoods life prevails, kids play in the streets, neighbors backbite but have each other’s backs, and the call of vendors loping past with their snacks and wares can still be heard like a reassuring promise that you’ll never be alone, not ever, not in this city that we all love.

 

Where does passion live here?

In song—ubiquitous, heartfelt, seeking solace or love or joy or worth—over cheap wheeled karaoke contraptions in circuitous lanes in slums, or over gilded cordless mics in glitzy private videoke rooms; Manila lives in the songs we sing, each different, all the same in what they hope for. 

 

What is the title of one of your works about Manila and what inspired it exactly?

Ilustrado—my novel about the tides of departures and returns—belongs to Manila. As my protagonist explains and asks: “You can’t bring an unwritten place to life without losing something substantial. Manila is the cradle, the graveyard, the memory. The Mecca, the Cathedral, the bordello. The shopping mall, the urinal, the discotheque. I’m hardly speaking in metaphor. It’s the most impermeable of cities. How does one convey all that?” Indeed. Yet Manila inspired me to try. I’m trying still.

 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Manila does an outside exist?”

Manila, Philippines, has burst its borders and is now everywhere as we Pinoys conquer the globe, colonizing the colonizers, building their cities, teaching their children, comforting their sick, running their ships, caring for their old, all of us rising, relentlessly rising—proving to humanity, many millions times over, our grace and humor and pluck; signed, sealed, and delivered, with love from the Philippines, via our undisputed, contentious capital: Manila.

The kind of city that inspires songs. (For not every city does.) Perhaps its most iconic the yearning, groovy, cheesy, rollicking “Manila,” by those seventies icons of Manila Sound, the band Hotdog. Singing in our polyglot vernacular, Taglish:

“I’ve walked the streets of San Francisco
I’ve tried the rides in Disneyland
Dated a million girls in Sydney
Somehow I feel like I don’t belong
I’m always looking for you, Manila
Your noise is delicious to my ears
Your jeepneys at the roadside stopping by
Your women showing off with their beauty
Take me back in your arms, Manila
And promise me you’ll never let go
Promise me you’ll never let go.”

That’s my city: lost, unforgettable, everywhere now, dying in the past, living in eternity. I fucking love Manila. Its songs I’ll forever sing.

 

Miguel Syjuco (www.syjuco.com) is a Filipino author, journalist, civil society advocate, and professor at New York University Abu Dhabi. His debut novel, Ilustrado, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won both the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Grand Prize at the Palanca Awards, his countrys top literary honor. His follow-up novel, I Was the President’s Mistress!!, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in April 2022.

Syjuco has worked as a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times, written for many of the worlds most respected publications, and spoken on Philippine politics and culture at the World Forum for Democracy and the World Economic Forum. He currently serves on the advisory councils of the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, an international arts residency program, and the Resilience Fund, a project by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime to empower communities most threatened by criminality.

 

© 2022 Miguel Syjuco. All rights reserved.

English

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Can you describe the mood of Manila as you feel/see it?

Mega Manila is a million moods. In this city there are cities—in those sixteen cities, more cities, twenty-one point eight million cities walled high and crowned with broken glass, barbed wire, safeguarding oily pressure cookers and shared beds and gasping karaoke machines that minister to this city’s endless cities: thirteen million four hundred eighty-four thousand four hundred and sixty-two, every day making even more, out of love, desire, need—each filled with chaos and solitude, worry and yearning and long commutes to dreams that may never be reached (but that’s okay—the radio’s always on, playing something familiar and sweet).

In the daylight this city boils like it’s rushing before night, preparing for a party or an apocalypse (because to us they should feel like the same thing). In the darkness the city dances like it’s arrived, like this is what it should be: a celebration before rest then toil again through the hurtle and grind of another day—except holidays, pandemics, and when a champion fights on our TV screens from a world away to make us proud that we each stand up again every time we fall.

Faith, surrender, like in all other religions—these are the currents of this one, Manila, cradle, creed, cremator.  

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The boy my students’ age slumped against a wall by the sea, hole in his head leaking black-red. A living room scattered with brass shells and splattered with brine-reeking blood streaked and pooled around shopping bags stuffed with prenatal essentials and toys for a couple’s first baby. A jail so stuffed with sweat and humanity and the hundreds of innocently guilty that they must take turns just to sit down. The wakes and the eyes too exhausted to weep, and plexiglass, above yet another dead beloved’s face, under favored candies, photos from happy yesterdays, and pecking chicks placed there to chirp should the killer ever dare come close. The mass burial of unclaimed bodies stacked into niches in a paupers’ graveyard, crumbling tombs relinquishing skeletons, and dogs with bones in their mouths running for safety in a city that offers none. The stories of addicts recounted desperately, too generously for my notebook to keep up, there in that basement of a church run by a Tagalog-speaking Italian priest who’d offered sanctuary against the police and their president-protector. In the shadows of the ruins of this Pearl of the Orient, decimated by the stubborness of the Japanese and the bombs of the Americans and the pillaging of a despotic dictator and the ongoing neglect of us Filipinos, this drug war claimed tens of thousands, only a fraction of which I could see or fathom or bear or hope to ever forget.  

 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The sea, of this seaside city with its famous bay, and its celebrated sunset sinking into the sea each day. Yet to most Manileños, Manila feels landlocked. We forget the sea is there, its presence and absence both extraordinary.

 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Jose Rizal: ilustrado, polymath, fictionist, revolutionary, martyr, who wrote novels that believed readers could save our country and change our world.

Nick Joaquin: newshound, novelist, stylist, gadabout, hard-drinking San Miguel lover who revolutionized Philippine letters through the energy of his prose and the poetry of his vision.

Jose Garcia Villa: poet, emigré, dove-eagle-lion, son of Manila’s Singalong district, proto-Pope of Greenwich Village, whose company the less-significant likes of W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Marianne Moore, E. E. Cummings, and others had the honor of keeping.

“Manila is palimpsest whose layers become one, and efforts to tear off any risk rending the whole.”

F. Sionil Jose: bookseller, novel-writer, student of history, saga-maker, whose deep dedication to social justice was so profound that his crepuscular years saw him even rationalize the sins of a murderous populist whose promises of change proved, to the principled author, too convincing. 

And of the living, who are still defining themselves through their work: Gemino Abad, Alma Anonas-Carpio, Mia Alvar, Gina Apostol, F. H. Batacan, Lualhati Bautista, Merlinda Bobis, Igan D’Bayan, Jose Dalisay, Carlomar Daoana, Adam David, Patricia Evangelista, Marjorie Evasco, Luis Francia, Eric Gamalinda, Jessica Hagedorn, John Labella, Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, Chuckberry Pascual, Paolo Manalo, Resil B. Mojares, Charlson Ong, Han Ong, Bino Realuyo, Danton Remoto, Maria Ressa, Randy Ribay, Ninotchka Rosca, Joel Pablo Salud, Lakambini Sitoy, Grace Talusan, Meredith Talusan, Lourd de Veyra, Alfred Yuson, Jessica Zafra. To name but those on my shelf here in my scriptorium.  

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

The Manila Polo Club—with its embarrassment of riches, everyone clamoring to get in (all the strivers, fakers, old-rich failures, cruelly fortunate matronas, deft mistresses, fattened legislators, new-money Chinese, and the silent, resolute staff over whom I always marvel how they do it without hawking into the food or tearing away their uniforms or taking up arms). Variations of its stories are the stories I live to tell.

Polo, as those who can have nicknamed this place: with its privilege of green amidst the concrete and traffic and skyscrapers and smog that over the decades towered around what was once a cheap, provincial spit of land far beyond where any Manileño wished to travel.

It’s here—in the world’s most valuable per-square-meter plot for riding ponies (or pretending you’re rich enough to)—that to me lives, writ large, the tragedy of the potential glory of this city, this nation, this culture, this race, this idea of who we are and should’ve been.  

It’s the entire crackling, fought-over skin of a roast suckling pig injected into an ailing heart—and that’s why I come, again and again, to see it. 

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The La Solidaridad bookshop, founded 1964, in Ermita, Manila, and named after the newspaper run by Rizal and his fellow ilustrados to represent Filipinos in the minds and parliament of our Spanish colonizers. Birthed and led by the National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose, this bookshop is renowned as one of the last standalone booksellers in the country, standing alone in its stalwart dedication. Downstairs, you’ll find what’s convincingly claimed to be the widest selection of Filipiniana works in the Philippines. Upstairs, if you’re lucky, you may still find some of those great authors gathered around noodles, neon-colored soft drinks, fractious gossip, and shared purpose.

 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Manila is palimpsest whose layers become one, and efforts to tear off any risk rending the whole. Once the grandest dame of Asia, that continent of so many tragic grande dames, Manila bears its dereliction and decrepitude with the defiance and insousciance of a child at heart. Sacked, conquered, colonized, many times over, the artifacts of its storied history must be unearthed, most hiding in plain sight.

A river runs through it like lifeblood, but polluted and clogged like a heart abused. Architectural gems crumble on street corners, shrouded in grit till they’re decreed too ugly to save and are demolished after years of litigation we all knew would fail. And monuments weather in the sun and rain till their history fades and their purpose becomes only what they offer in shade.

“Manila, Philippines, has burst its borders and is now everywhere as we Pinoys conquer the globe.”

Manila’s hidden cities are districts of the past, most standing now only in memory: Malate, once seaside, once suburban, once quiet, once bohemian, once raucous with the hippest music, now caters to Koreans craving bright lights, cheap booze, friendly women, and familiar food. New Manila, the erstwhile haven of the well-heeled after old Manila’s wartime decimation, has now its graceful mansions divied up into condominium developments for white-collar commuters. Quezon City, the modern would-be utopia and new seat of government, is now choked with gridlock, malls, pleasure palaces, entropy, and resignation.

Every corner, every community, shares those similar arcs, that same injury. But in Manila’s neighborhoods life prevails, kids play in the streets, neighbors backbite but have each other’s backs, and the call of vendors loping past with their snacks and wares can still be heard like a reassuring promise that you’ll never be alone, not ever, not in this city that we all love.

 

Where does passion live here?

In song—ubiquitous, heartfelt, seeking solace or love or joy or worth—over cheap wheeled karaoke contraptions in circuitous lanes in slums, or over gilded cordless mics in glitzy private videoke rooms; Manila lives in the songs we sing, each different, all the same in what they hope for. 

 

What is the title of one of your works about Manila and what inspired it exactly?

Ilustrado—my novel about the tides of departures and returns—belongs to Manila. As my protagonist explains and asks: “You can’t bring an unwritten place to life without losing something substantial. Manila is the cradle, the graveyard, the memory. The Mecca, the Cathedral, the bordello. The shopping mall, the urinal, the discotheque. I’m hardly speaking in metaphor. It’s the most impermeable of cities. How does one convey all that?” Indeed. Yet Manila inspired me to try. I’m trying still.

 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Manila does an outside exist?”

Manila, Philippines, has burst its borders and is now everywhere as we Pinoys conquer the globe, colonizing the colonizers, building their cities, teaching their children, comforting their sick, running their ships, caring for their old, all of us rising, relentlessly rising—proving to humanity, many millions times over, our grace and humor and pluck; signed, sealed, and delivered, with love from the Philippines, via our undisputed, contentious capital: Manila.

The kind of city that inspires songs. (For not every city does.) Perhaps its most iconic the yearning, groovy, cheesy, rollicking “Manila,” by those seventies icons of Manila Sound, the band Hotdog. Singing in our polyglot vernacular, Taglish:

“I’ve walked the streets of San Francisco
I’ve tried the rides in Disneyland
Dated a million girls in Sydney
Somehow I feel like I don’t belong
I’m always looking for you, Manila
Your noise is delicious to my ears
Your jeepneys at the roadside stopping by
Your women showing off with their beauty
Take me back in your arms, Manila
And promise me you’ll never let go
Promise me you’ll never let go.”

That’s my city: lost, unforgettable, everywhere now, dying in the past, living in eternity. I fucking love Manila. Its songs I’ll forever sing.

 

Miguel Syjuco (www.syjuco.com) is a Filipino author, journalist, civil society advocate, and professor at New York University Abu Dhabi. His debut novel, Ilustrado, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won both the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Grand Prize at the Palanca Awards, his countrys top literary honor. His follow-up novel, I Was the President’s Mistress!!, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in April 2022.

Syjuco has worked as a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times, written for many of the worlds most respected publications, and spoken on Philippine politics and culture at the World Forum for Democracy and the World Economic Forum. He currently serves on the advisory councils of the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, an international arts residency program, and the Resilience Fund, a project by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime to empower communities most threatened by criminality.

 

© 2022 Miguel Syjuco. All rights reserved.

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