The Loneliest Thing on Earth

Reviewed By

Miguel Syjuco’s novel, Ilustrado won the Man Asian Literary Prize while still in manuscript. A Filipino American reviewer considers the fate of Filipino writing in the American literary world.

**
If you’re only reading this review to find out whether Miguel Syjuco’s novel, Ilustrado, is worth your time, here’s the short answer: Yes. If you enjoy a good murder mystery, or a multigenerational family saga, or a love story, or a hero’s journey in search of something lost, or an inside look at how the elite of a former U.S. colony live—or even if you like texts conducive to lit-crit discussions of the metanarrative, the postmodern, the postcolonial, or the political—you will find many things to admire in Syjuco’s debut.

When was the last time you read a novel by a Filipino about any aspect of a Filipino experience? Have you ever wondered about this former colony, the stories its people might tell?

If you’ve never read a novel about the Philippines, then read Ilustrado. If you’re dismayed at how few books are written and published by Filipinos, then buy twenty copies.

Ilustrado is an exuberant, complex, and fascinating ride through 150 years of Philippine history. In the Prologue, a young writer, the fictional Miguel Syjuco, describes a body floating in the Hudson River. The body is identified as Crispin Salvador, a.k.a. “The Panther,” the protagonist’s literary idol. The story that ensues details Syjuco’s attempt to piece together what happened to Salvador and to find The Bridges Ablaze, Salvador’s final manuscript, a rumored masterpiece.

The novel is comprised of fragments of texts written by different authors, but mostly taken from Salvador’s oeuvre, which includes about a dozen novels—and including essays, novel excerpts, short stories, interviews, blogs, blog comments, jokes, and unpublished manuscripts. The reader must work to make the connections between the fragments, but I was never confused. Syjuco’s writing is playful, smart, and confident. The pacing is quick and the last third of the novel hums with energy. I felt fully immersed in this world, and though the novel’s final pages frustrated me, I admired the previous three hundred.

That’s the end of the short answer.

Here’s the long answer: Despite the ugly stereotype that Filipinos are like crabs in a barrel pulling down those who get too close to the top, my experience is that we love when one of us succeeds. If a Filipino is singing on Oprah or replacing Steve Perry in Journey, we contact every Filipino in our address book. When my father, whose music collection is rich with Kenny Rogers and Chuck Mangione, asked if I’d heard about the Filipino in the Black Eyed Peas rapping about bebots, I knew the hive’s communication system was highly efficient. When I was a little girl, a Filipina appeared on our first color TV in a shimmering mermaid dress; my parents roused us out of bed to see a sight as rare as Halley’s Comet. All night long my parents’ phone rang, Filipinos congratulating each other as if Rosario Salayan, runner-up in the 1980 Miss Universe pageant, were their own daughter. We wore yellow during the People Power movement of 1986 and framed the front page of our local newspapers when Corazon Aquino was elected President.

The converse is true, too. We shake our heads in shame when one of us makes bad news—such as Onel de Guzman, who may have created the “Love Bug” virus that caused causing an estimated $10 billion in damage, or Andrew Cunanan, who killed Gianni Versace, before killing himself. “But Cunanan was only half-Filipino!” we insist.

There are so many of us living far away from home—about 8 million overseas Filipino workers. Remittances make up 10% of the total Philippine economy, and yet we hardly see evidence of our existence. Filipinos are integral to operations in the cruise ship, hotel, hospital, and other industries—but we often work in the back, invisible, taking care of what others don’t want to do. Take for example, the U.S. Navy, which has hired Filipinos since 1898 as stewards and mess boys: By 1970, there were nearly 17,000 Filipinos in the U.S Navy, many performing cleaning and cooking duties on the ships.

So two years ago, when a Filipino’s unpublished novel won the Man Asia Literary Prize, for weeks I heard about the news from multiple sources. Now that Farrar, Straus & Giroux has published Ilustrado, I can’t get through my day without someone forwarding an article or stopping me in a parking lot to tell me about it. People in my community have been encouraging each other to buy Syjuco’s book and attend his events. His success is a success for all of us.

As an aspiring Filipino novelist myself, I have an interest in Ilustrado’s success. If one of us moves books, publishers may be more inclined to publish Filipino novels in the future. The problem with this, of course, is that if a Filipino’s book doesn’t sell well, publishers may be less inclined to take a risk.

Perhaps my theory is too cynical. Perhaps if Filipino novelists just write books that are good enough, they’ll be published by major U.S. presses. Perhaps, in the end, publishing decisions are solely about craft, story, and the writing.

Or not. Before winning the Man Asia, Syjuco could not publish in American literary journals and was rejected by many agents, despite his attempts to participate in the literary community, moving to New York to study creative writing at Columbia University, working entry-level jobs at The New Yorker and The Paris Review. After rejecting his work, one agent recommended Syjuco read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, a detail that makes its way into the novel.

Syjuco’s struggles inspired me to research how Filipino novelists in the diaspora had fared in mainstream U.S. publishing. Everyone I know in the book world talks as though the novel in general is on its deathbed—but what I learned about the plight of Filipinos writers was even grimmer. In the past twenty years, Random House imprints have published several novels written by Filipinos that were either set in the Philippines and/or featured central Filipino characters, including Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters (1990), Arlene J. Chai’s The Last Time I Saw Mother (1996), F. Sionil Jose’s Dusk (1998) and Don Vicente (1999), Bino Realuyo’s The Umbrella Country (1999), Tess Uriza Holthe’s When the Elephants Dance (2002), and Merlinda Bobis’s The Solemn Lantern Maker (2009).

The Penguin Group published two novels by Filipinos, a decade apart: Cecilia Manguerra Brainard’s When the Rainbow Goddess Wept (1994) and Jessica Hagedorn’s Dream Jungle (2004). Philippine national hero and novelist Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) , first published in 1887, became the first work of Filipino literature published by Penguin Classics (2006). W.W. Norton published Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War in 1988 and Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son in 2001. HarperCollins published Sophia G. Romero’s novel Always Hidingin 1998.

At smaller presses, Noel Alumit published Letters to Montgomery Clift (MacAdam/Cage, 2003) and Talking to the Moon (Carroll & Graf, 2006). The University of Washington Press published Peter Bacho’s Cebu (1991), which won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and Linda Ty-Casper’s DreamEden (1997). Dalkey Archive republished Wilfrido D. Nolledo’s But for the Lovers, which was first published by Dutton in 1970. Temple University Press published Carlos Bulosan’s The Cry and the Dedication in 1995. Bulosan died in 1956. In his autobiography, America Is in the Heart (1946), he wrote, “Do you know what a Filipino feels in America? He is the loneliest thing on earth [surrounded by] beauty, wealth, power, grandeur. But is he a part of these luxuries?”

Farrar, Straus & Giroux published MacArthur Fellow Han Ong’s novels Fixer Chao (2001) and The Disinherited (2004), before publishing Ilustrado.

According to Bowker’s Books in Print, there were 240,000 adult fiction hardcover titles published in English in the US from 1990-2010, or roughly 12,000 every year. If we interpret the above numbers generously, every year about one novel featuring Filipino characters written by a Filipino in English is published in the US. One out of 12,000. Over time, you can see how little literary production that is. In the past twenty years, twenty novels out of a quarter million have passed through the needle’s eye to find a U.S. publisher?

This isn’t because there aren’t enough Filipinos interested in the literary arts, or because we don’t write in English. The first Filipino novel written in English, A Child of Sorrow by Zoilo M. Galang, was published in 1921. About 93% of the Philippine population over the age of ten is literate, among the highest literacy rates in the developing world. The language of instruction in schools is English. And there is a sizable population of literate, English-speaking Filipinos in the U.S.: According to the 2000 Census, there were 2.4 million Filipinos in the U.S.—18.3% of the Asian American population and the second largest Asian ethnic group after the Chinese.

We’re here, but like many people of color we don’t see ourselves reflected in books or movies or TV programs. If we are referenced in pop culture, it’s Joan Rivers making another joke about us eating dogs, or characters on Desperate Housewives disparaging Filipino medical schools. Otherwise, we’re invisible.

In 2001, when Roley published American Son, his first novel, he asked, “Given our numbers and status as formerly colonialized subjects, why are we so invisible to other Americans? Why do many Americans seem so much more interested in people from just about any other Asian country—Japan, Korea, Tibet, and now India? Could it be that after being forcibly Westernized, we no longer appear Asian enough to be viewed as exotic? Could it have something to do with America’s colonial past not fitting in with its idea of itself as a democracy?”

And it’s not just American readers who don’t want to read Filipino novels. In The Philippine Star, F. Sionil Jose, celebrated author of dozens of important works, recently commented that “many Filipino writers don’t consider themselves anointed until their work is published in the United States.

This then is one of the greatest obstructions in the building of a nation—the colonized mind… And this servility is accepted, in fact encouraged by our major bookshops. Their front windows display foreign titles and bestsellers—not our books, as is done in all other countries.

Jose criticizes Filipino readers for being more interested in John Updike and Philip Roth,

these Western writers who wallow in the arid trivia of suburbia, who do not really say anything of much importance to us. Nobility, heroism, forbearance are absent in the work of most writers in the Imperial West today… this about sums up some of the literary ejaculations of such authors who we read with so much attention.

Of course, there are other options for Filipino novelists besides “anointment.” We can create our own opportunities, as did Eileen Tabios of Meritage Press, which publishes Filipino literature under the BABAYLAN imprint, and Cecilia Manguerra Brainard of Philippine American Literary House (PALH). Or, if you can’t publish in the U.S., you can publish “back home.” New York residents Gina Apostol published Bibliolepsy with the University of the Philippines Press (1997) and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata with Anvil (2009); and Eric Gamalinda has published three novels in the Philippines, including Empire of Memory with Anvil (1992). They have published here also, most recently collaborating with fiction writer Lara Stapleton on The Thirdest World: Stories and Essays by Three Filipino Writers (2007), with Factory School, a small U.S. publisher.

Maybe the biggest reason we haven’t read more novels by writers of Filipino ancestry is the novels haven’t been written yet. Writing and publishing a novel is incredibly difficult. Many people want to write a book, but without encouragement, resources, and opportunities to develop, I imagine many aspiring novelists of Filipino descent eventually give up. If Miguel Syjuco hadn’t won the Man Asian Literary Prize, how long could he have persisted despite the constant rejection?

I don’t usually want to read a novel about writers, but the scenes in Ilustrado about literary life were funny because they were spot on. Take, for example, this description:

Rita Rajah, the Muslim poetess from Mindanao; her eyebrows are as thin and carefully drawn as her verse, her makeup applied in the generous manner of one who was nearly a great beauty and still savors wistful memories of being so darned close. Her literary fame is based on five poems she wrote in 1972, ’73, and ’79.

Syjuco introduces us to “the literati of the Philippines: the merry, mellowed, stalwartly middle-class practitioners of the luxury of literature in the language of the privileged” with a hilarious scene at the University of the Philippines’ literary center, where a young poet reads earnest poems at a podium while Rita raises her voice to make tsimis, gossip, about Salvador with the fictional Syjuco and Furio, another writer:

Rita: “Autoplagiarist’s problem was it was more about Filipinos than for Filipinos.”

Furio: “It’s the sort of book Americans love and Filipinos hate. We have to write for our countrymen.”

Rita: “Countrywomen.”

Me: “Then why couldn’t he get it published abroad?”

Furio: “The same reason the rest of us Filipinos have hard time.”

And:

Me: “Did any of you like anything Crispin wrote? What about his masterpiece—Because of–

Furio: “Dahil Sa’Yo? Not authentic enough. It didn’t capture the essence of the Filipino.”

Rita: “The trouble with that book is that in its obsession with the new, it was really just being old.”

Furio: “I preferred his work when he was merely trying for approval.”

Syjuco, the author, pokes fun at himself, too. The fictional Syjuco struggles with writing a novel in a locked room in the apartment she shares with his girlfriend, who asks what the mysterious crying noises are. He admits he was watching pornography and lets her into his writing room.

Like a connoisseur pointing out the levers, gears, and jewels that fascinate within clockworks, I showed her the top-shelf videos on my hard drive. I introduced her to my favorite strumpets: Jenna Haze, Belladona, and the Filipina-American Charmane Star. I told her my dream of writing about them in a book that would get published by a major literary house.

Grace Talusan

Syjuco reveals that Salvador, when a young writer, also won a prestigious prize for the unpublished manuscript of his first novel, The Enlightened, which “could not live up to the fairy-tale hype.” The term ilustrado is synonymous with “enlightened,” and refers to the Filipino educated elite under Spanish colonial rule. The most famous ilustrado in Philippine history is another novelist, José Rizal, whose novel Noli Me Tangere criticized Spanish colonial rule. Before Rizal was executed by the Spanish in 1896, he left a final poem, “Mi Ultimo Adios,” my last farewell.

Reading fiction should be an emotional experience, and there were many moments in Ilustrado when I felt. For example, the scene at a funeral when a coffin is opened one last time and the protagonist watches his uncle’s wife holds her husband’s hand for the last time. And the family-meal scene in which the protagonist’s father oppresses a caged tiger stayed with me long after reading. I also felt delight in recognizing cultural references and details. Syjuco wrote about people and places that I knew. Ilustrado is a Filipino novel and presents the complexity and vibrancy of the Philippines that I know. I enjoyed, for once, being on the inside of a joke.

Aside from the extended joke that features a recurring cast of characters who appear throughout the novel, there are other pieces of texts that aren’t attributed. There are fragments in italics, like this one, which I admired:

Our nostalgic protagonist sits on the bed… where did my own life go? he thinks… So many unfinished story collections. Epic novels that reached chapter two. And those damn confusing experiments with style. The thing is to write a straight narrative. That’s the trick, no trickery. Go back to basics. Emulate A Passage to India. Write Crispin’s biography. Spin the yarn, follow it home… Maybe maturity—he thinks—is merely accepting the tally of all the finite and disappearing options of life.

There’s a danger in using so many different texts in a novel—can one writer convince us of so many different writerly voices in one work? There are even fragments within a fragments—the fictional Syjuco quotes Salvador’s sister’s girlhood diary in his biography-in-process—but these fragments add up to something meaningful and satisfying, and make Ilustrado an inventive and exciting debut.


Grace Talusan teaches writing at Tufts University and Grub Street. More from this author →