‘Use our sharpest weapons, our pens’
Even if his reputation as the 2008 Man Asia Literary Prize winner for his historical novel “Ilustrado” precedes Dr. Miguel A. Syjuco, here he was at the recent National Book Development Board’s Philippine International Literary Festival “Gunitâ: A Pursuit of Memory,” speaking as a teacher. At his session “Citizen, Writer: How Words Can Change the World,” he began by asking about the role of literature in our lives—a specially relevant and useful discussion in the light of the constant debate on the importance of the humanities in the curriculum (should that even be a question at all?). What books have touched you? What books have changed the world?
Our stories define not only who we are as a people, but also what our nation can be. Freedom of expression is an important human right that must be constantly upheld, even if buffeted by attacks from autocrats.
It’s clear that timeless works such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1973 short philosophical fiction “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” belong to a distinct category. Closer to home, of course, we have Jose Rizal’s 1887 novel “Noli Me Tangere” and the 1891 “El Filibusterismo,” both written in Spanish.
As visiting professor in the literature and creative writing department at New York University Abu Dhabi, Syjuco makes his lessons current and relevant for his students by posing these two major questions at the start of the course. What is the current problem in the present setting that you want to fix? The answers could range from pollution to climate change to growing populism to income inequality. The second, more demanding question: What specific skills do you need to fix that?
The ultimate goal is to use one’s citizenship to be more helpful as a citizen of one’s country and the world. And constantly striving to be better readers and writers is the road toward achieving that.
For the opening panel discussion with acclaimed writers like National Artist for Literature Dr. Resil B. Mojares, Lualhati M. Abreu and Joel P. Salud, Syjuco paid moving tribute to his recently departed good friend, the talented writer Clinton Palanca. On Palanca’s life, he spoke of the “darkness of forgetting,” and that “we write so that we do not forget.”
He also asked: “How could we help as writers using our skills and resources? How could we use our sharpest weapons, our pens?” Books and stories will last, will endure. Syjuco ended his eulogy by asking the audience to rise and toast to all that Palanca was, clinking imaginary glasses in our hands.
“I transform fiction into memory” is a line from Syjuco’s acclaimed novel, “Ilustrado.” The novel manifests his love for Philippine history and the story of our people. “Ilustrados” means the enlightened, the erudite, first used in reference to the Filipino middle class during the Spanish colonial period in the late 19th century who were educated in Spanish and exposed to Spanish liberal and European nationalist ideals. Today, Syjuco considers the Filipino overseas workers as the new ilustrados who are, in a sense, colonizing the world with their places of work all over the map.
On his much-awaited second historical novel, Syjuco humorously said: “It is said that you have your whole life to write your first novel and 18 months for the second.”
It is long past the 18-month period, and Syjuco admitted struggling through this second one, due this year. But he said he was amazed that coming home to Manila, he felt renewed enough to continue writing it. It has to be because of the Manila he describes in “Ilustrado”: “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?”
This ambitious novel in English has been translated into over a dozen other foreign languages but has yet to have a Filipino edition, to be better read and appreciated by the majority of our citizens. Let us celebrate Filipino authorship by reading our homegrown authors.
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.
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