Meeting Miguel Syjuco

Syjuco

I finally got to meet the most successful Filipino writer in the world.

Miguel Syjuco was disarmingly friendly, as he had always been online. Perhaps it was the death threats.

The Man Asia prize winner came to Davao at a very politically charged time: a consistent critic of the Duterte administration, he has been very vocal with his concerns about the many victims of alleged Extrajudicial killings in Metro Manila and other urban areas.

When he confided on social media that friends were warning him about his safety as he entered the baluarte of a politician he publicly criticized, Syjuco received a barrage of death threats, which only seemed to confirm his friends’ concerns. I had assured him there was nothing to fear, and he went to Davao anyway.

I met and hosted him as a Duterte supporter, as one who has been so since I was young (I had urged our then mayor in this blog to run when he was not even making national news yet), and whose family is passionately pro-Duterte.

But above all that, I met him as a genuine fan: I had read Ilustrado some years ago, when the Cebuano writer Januar Yap gave me his copy, and was floored by the skill of its writing. I still believe it is the closest anyone has come to a Great Filipino Novel, and ought to be taught in all schools instead of Rizal.

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My now missing copy of Ilustrado. I lent it to someone and I forgot to whom. I had a shaky hand with this photo!

Miguel came over for four main reasons: to see Davao for himself (he had not been here since the 90s); to lay the groundwork for a possible project with Ateneo de Davao; to give a workshop to my old club in Ateneo, SALEM; and to chat with my ninong, DCPO director Alexander Tagum.

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Miguel with SALEM

In between excursions we would chat about politics, the Philippine literary scene, and some humorously bad jokes. He’d share personal struggles, his family’s not always successful foray into politics, and having to overcome the mob of pro-Duterte netizens who gang up on him.

In the lobby of the Marco Polo while he, I, and Nal had a drink on his first night, I joked that I hope he stayed safe, who else would win the Nobel for the Filipino people. He laughed it off with a National Artist’s name, though I was dead serious about him getting it. The only flaw Miguel Syjuco has as a writer is that he hasn’t written enough yet.

He has been saying he enjoyed Davao, though I feel he didn’t see as much as he should have. I’m hoping he finds time to return and see the Philippine Eagles.

Did we disagree while he was here? Surprisingly not much. What we learned early on online was that nobody is ever really entirely pro or anti anything. He wasn’t entirely critical of everything Duterte, as I was not entirely supportive of everything the President does.

We both agreed that the current climate of polarization, of painting everything black and white, is not productive for both sides and is unleashing a mob of hateful fanatics. Where the Duterte administration can improve with feedback, it turns a blind eye because all negative feedback is viewed with violent suspicion. Where it does good, the critics refuse to see because they only see the EJKs and a man who speaks nothing but murder.

And we both saw that while we stood on opposite sides of a political divide, we are linked together by a renewed passion for our country and its people.

On his last night while we lounged in the Marco’s lobby, a gunshot pierced the busy Davao evening. It turned out a guest who was surrendering his pistol to the guard accidentally fired a blank.

I asked, jokingly, if he thinks RJ Nieto had meant that as a warning.

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