Thursday, January 13, 2011

Lunch with the Business Standard: Miguel Syjuco

(Published in the Business Standard, January 2011)

Among the spotless white mundus and crisp cotton saris of visitors to the Hay-on-Thiru festival held earlier in the year, one writer fitted in, keeping his cool despite the Kerala heat. Miguel Syjuco, the young winner of the Man Asian Prize for Literary Fiction 2008, had spent much of 2009 and 2010 in a quietly triumphal tour of literary festivals; he is now something of a veteran, his polish and assurance on stage belying his 34 years.

He fits seamlessly into the Hay-on-Thiru programme; along with Mexico’s Jorge Volpi and India’s Charu Nivedita, Syjuco brings with him stories less often told. He won the Man Asian prize for his dazzling first novel Ilustrado, and he opens up about it as we share an excellent lunch of kappa-fish curry, mutton fry and appams, in the open-air tents pitched at the Kanakakunnu Palace.

“It was a Cinderella story for me,” says Syjuco, digging in with some happiness into the three delicate vegetable thorans—home-style Kerala food at its best. But he’s quick to add that it wasn’t the overnight success story reported in the media. It was in 2001 that Syjuco joined a creative writing programme; by 2006, he had the rough draft of Ilustrado; in 2007, he submitted it for the relatively new Man Asian Prize, then open to unpublished manuscripts. It didn’t make the shortlist. It didn’t even make the longlist.

“I had spent years trying to find publishers and literary agents. I was getting rejected all the time,” he says. “I kept meeting failure and disappointment, and I didn’t give up. I told myself I’d give myself ten years, and if in ten years I didn’t make it, then I’d quit.” Syjuco had three years left of his allotted decade when he finally made his mark.

When he didn’t make the Man Asian’s 2007 cut, he revised Ilustrado, and resubmitted it in 2008. “For its first three years, they really had this goal of wanting to find unpublished talent. Authors would rush to finish their novels, because now they had a bridge between them and publishers in the West.” Ilustrado was shortlisted: “Winning the Prize got the book on the desks of agents and publishers,” he says.

After his years of being an observer of the literary scene, Syjuco is now an insider; his reading at Thiru, for instance, drew writers like Sebastian Faulks. “I don’t really care about prizes,” he says, “the biggest motivation for writers is that prizes have taken the place of book reviews.” The shrinking space for book review pages, and the proliferation of amateur reviews online has meant, he explains, that even good critical reviews are “drowned out by the plenitude of noises”. In that scenario, prizes like the Man Asian or the DSC South Asian prize, or other regional literary prizes offer a stamp of approval, and access to readers and publishers in the West.
We take second helpings of the kappa and fish curry—the sole swims in a thin but perfectly spiced red gravy, the kappa is freshly pounded. At the next table, Simon Schama, Peter Florence and William Dalrymple hold court, with rising literary stars Basharat Peer and Manu Joseph just a table away.

Syjuco has moved on to the craft of writing. Illustrado spans contemporary and past Filipino history through the stories of two writers, one young and filled with passionate conviction, the other, Crispin Salvador, dead in mysterious circumstances. The illustrados of the title are the “learned” or enlightened ones—the privileged intelligentsia of the Philippines, but in Syjuco’s retelling of history, the illustrados have also betrayed their country, by their lack of engagement.

“You learn craft through trial and error, by writing; but a good creative writing programme will teach you how to read,” he says, moving his chair back from the strong winter sun. “You write the books you want to read—I think many writers write because they want to get published, or write for approval, and that is limiting.” For Syjuco, becoming a writer also brought him to grips with his country’s history, and with the weight of the colonial past.

“I didn’t want Illustrado to be an explanation of Filipino history,” he says. “I wasn’t out to explain, or to represent. The book is an indictment of the ruling elite of a generation—they did not make the difficult choices, and the personal histories I focus on is part of that larger history.”

We skip the rich desserts; I don’t have the palate for kheer, and the humidity, despite the cool breezes and the occasional drift of rain, has taken away Syjuco’s appetite. It’s time to shift inside, to the author’s green room, which is a grand, formal room speckled with chandeliers. Local celebrities—Shashi Tharoor, NS Madhavan, Mamooty—eddy in and out of the room, each with a small retinue of fans, as if this were a medieval court rather than a literary festival.

The similarities between the Filipino, or the Indian, or the Mexican writer are striking in some ways, despite the very different local culture; we have a history of colonialism in common, we have the experiences of corruption and insurgencies in common. “The anger—the anti-intellectual backlash—you see in the US or the Philippines or perhaps India comes from the sense of betrayal,” says Syjuco. “But I also wanted to take a compassionate look at the frustration that the privileged classes feel—we were born into wealth, privilege, influence, but the system is so complex and so rigged, that there’s no place for us.”

It delights him that readers in the Philippines have responded to the novel, though most of the reviews have focused on the success of Illustrado, rather than its content. Even the experimental form, which places Syjuco alongside playful post-modernists like Roberto Bolano, Junot Diaz and David Mitchell, hasn’t deterred readers, though it’s a departure from the traditional Filipino novel.

“The problem is that a lot of people do feel the perfect Filipino novel is about the rich versus the poor, socially relevant, the struggling classes—the story takes a backseat to the message—and we also like to exoticise things, we do write for the West.,” he says. I ask if that’s becoming an increasingly difficult choice for writers like him: does one have to write for the reader elsewhere rather than the reader at home, or is there room for both?

Syjuco pauses, to allow the film star Mammooty’s more enthusiastic followers to pass: “I was writing for everybody—I don’t think we should have to choose, I think a book can be both, it can work for readers at home, and readers elsewhere. Just work harder, don’t be in such a hurry to get published.”

His next book, a novel he began writing in the rejection-slip years, is written in the voice of a Filipino woman who has been mistress to a very powerful man. Through the stories she narrates of her lovers, Syjuco says, he wants to convey a view of a society in change. “It’s an examination of power, of corruption. Fiction is a very powerful way of understanding your society and history.” A political way, I suggest. “I do believe that writing should be political. Another family saga? Really, we need that? Another failed marriage and meditation on what it means—we need that?“

Syjuco, always polite in his personal style, is warming up now to a rant. “This might be provocative, but because the publishing world is centred on Western reading, it doesn’t have the same issues we have. If Philip Roth—whom I admire greatly—if he lived in Africa or the Phillippines, he would have to write differently. Writers who have witnessed the disparity, the poverty and the corruption of the world they live in—they can’t revisit the same family stories, the same quotidian lives.”

Nor does this, he says, have to be poverty porn. And this Filipino writer demonstrates his claim to be a citizen of the world by quoting the great non-fiction writer Ryszard Kapuscinski. “Kapuscinski spoke in a Paris Review interview of how he’d been all over the world, lived through coup d’etats and revolutions, poverty and famine. And he said, everywhere I go, I see journalists and soldiers and aid workers, but I don’t see poets, or fiction writers, even sociologists. Where are they? They should be there.”

That is what Miguel Syjuco, writer, illustrado, is trying to do, away from the literary festivals and the podium: to listen, and to tell it straight. As he leaves, a dapper figure in the Thiruvanthapuram sunlight, I’ll make a prediction you can’t always make about debut novelists, however good their debuts: Syjuco will have a long career ahead of him, as provocateur and teller of tales.

Speaking Volumes: Tampering with Twain

(Published in the Business Standard, January 10, 2011)

“Well, if I ever struck anything like it, I'm a nigger. It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.” (From Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain)

It’s impossible for those outside the US to understand just how loaded the “n-word” is, and how much weight it carries. It may be the one word in the English language that has become truly unsayable; what was an uncomfortable pejorative at the turn of the 19th century is now the last (and perhaps the only) truly taboo word in the American lexicon.

For teachers and parents, the use of the n-word in one particular American classic has caused intense debate and anguish: Mark Twain used the word 219 times in Huckleberry Finn, each casual, offhand instance a reminder of how deep prejudice ran in the Old South.

So when Dr Alan Gribben, a Twain scholar, released a new edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, he knew he would cause controversy with his decision to bowdlerize Twain’s works. “Far more controversial than this reuniting of Twain’s boy books will be the editor’s decision to eliminate two racial slurs that have increasingly formed a barrier to these works for teachers, students, and general readers,” he writes in his Introduction to the NewSouth edition. The other excised word is “Injun”; in Gribben’s edition, the n-word is replaced by the word “slave”, and “Injun” by “Indian”.

Gribben’s reasons are solidly practical, and are similar to the reasons why Charles Lamb, several centuries previous, cleaned up Shakespeare’s plays and rendered them into sanitized prose so that they would reach a wider audience. And Gribben explains, “The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups. There is no equivalent slur in the English language. As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact.” His aim, by editing Twain, is to return the books to school syllabi and to readers who might be made so uncomfortable seeing taboo words in print that they would rather not read these two classic American novels at all.

The problem is not with Gribben’s reasoning, but with the general principle—and with the precedent he might set. In the subcontinent, we are perhaps more aware of the dangers of sanitizing the past than readers in America might be. By excising the n-word and softening the “Injun” word, Gribben is making the classics more accessible—but at a significant cost. In order to ensure the comfort of a set of readers, he is in danger of eroding the historical past; of creating a cozy set of books where the full impact of racism as it operated in Twain’s times is lost.

Back in the day, when Amar Chitra Katha released its series of the Indian classics in comic book form, it set up an interesting contradiction. The comic books allowed far more readers to access Indian history, literature and mythology; but Amar Chitra Katha freely bowdlerized their versions, and added in their own biases. The skin colour of characters was a glaring, tell-tale sign: rakshasas and demons were dark, gods and goddesses fair, reinforcing one of the uglier Indian prejudices.

With abridged editions, some readers are led back to the originals at a later stage. I remember my shock, after reading the sanitized, children’s version of Gulliver’s Travels, at discovering the full breadth and scatological vitriol of Jonathan Swift’s satire. The abridged version of the Travels and the original were so far apart, as with Lamb’s version of Shakespeare’s tales, that they might have been written by two completely different authors. The original was always accessible; but how many readers will bother to access the original?

Here’s what Gribben, and his defenders, are missing in the course of the Twain debate. Discomfort, even acute discomfort, is not a reaction that readers should be protected against; literature that makes you flinch, or that might even seem repellent, is almost always literature that makes you re-examine your own entrenched prejudices. And as many supporters of the unexpurgated Twain editions have pointed out, the abridged version can rapidly replace the original, leaving only the most academic of scholars with a faint trace memory of the power of the original to offend.

And here’s a final argument against sanitizing Twain. It took about three decades in the US, and almost seven in the UK, for the n-word to acquire its present status as the ultimate unspeakable epithet. All of us, including Gribben, are very much the prisoners of the prejudices of our time. There’s a difference between speaking out against the use of an offensive word or term, and in releasing an edition that changes the writer’s intent. Gribben is cleaning up Twain in deference to the sensibilities of readers of this decade; but in another five decades, those sensibilities may have changed. Make your protest as an editor and reader in the appendices and forewords; but don’t tamper with the text.

Speaking Volumes: The Jaipur Litfest Primer

(Published in the Business Standard, January 3, 2010)

Perhaps the only way to understand the Jaipur Literature Festival is to think of a traditional mehfil crossed with a darbar. Over six years, the JLF has grown from a sleepy, intimate local festival held on the lawns of the eccentric Diggi Palace to Asia’s largest literary festival, packed with authors and celebrities (the two sometimes, but not always, overlap) from around the world.
Here’s a quick look at what to expect between the 21st and the 25th, and at some of the questions that the JLF raises:
1) The Visitors: Jaipur insists it doesn’t have stars, but every year brings a raft of celebrity writers from India and elsewhere—Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Wole Soyinka, UR Anathamurthy and Simon Schama have shown up at the Diggi Palace in past years. JM Coetzee, the South African writer and Nobel laureate, is expected; so are Orhan Pamuk and perhaps Martin Amis.

I’m looking forward to Richard Ford, Jim Crace, Jung Chang and Ahdaf Soueif; also Patrick French, James Kelman and Irvine Welsh, the latter notorious for his adrenaline-spiked readings, are also expected. Among the younger writers, keep an eye out for the brilliant Junot Diaz, for Nam Le, author of The Boat, and for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

2) The Home Team:
Along with Vikram Seth and Kiran Desai, expect to meet some of Asia’s most interesting writers. Bant Singh, the Dalit singer, is an iconic figure of resistance in Punjab; the agricultural labourer is now an activist celebrated for his poetry of protest, and has survived a vicious attack on him in 2006 after he sought justice for the rape of his daughter. His session should carry on the JLF tradition of encouraging voices of protest, from Bama to Om Prakash Valmiki, in earlier years.

Among the list of Indian writers in English, keep an eye out for Rana Dasgupta, whose Solo was one of the most rewarding novels of 2009, graphic novelist and artist Sarnath Banerjee and “cancer biographer” Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of Maladies. A focus on Kashmiri writers and Urdu writing looks promising, and make space on the programme for activists like Aruna Roy and water maven Anupam Misra.

3) The Sideshows:
In line with Margaret Drabble’s complaints that Hay-on-Wye had become less intimate and more crowded with celebrities, the JLF is very different from its first, quietly literary avatar. Old hands complain, with some justice, that the music performances every evening and “star” writers of the Chetan Bhagat variety have turned Jaipur into a tamasha. As one of my friends from the fashion world discovered to her delight last year, it’s possible to be at the Jaipur Literature Festival and have a grand old time without attending a single session on writing or reading.

This year packs in a ton of stuff: a small showcase on children’s writings, the announcement of the winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, performances by some of Asia’s best musicians and performance poets. As with Hay, and increasingly, Edinburgh, it’s up to the individual festival-goer to craft his or her programme. Go for just the music and to hang out with the Beautiful People at the bar behind the speaker’s venues, and Jaipur will be just another extended party; choose your sessions carefully and this could be the feast of ideas it was originally meant to be.

4) The Celeb Factor:
Is the JLF all about the celebrity writers, as more than one media columnist has suggested? The problem with this perception is that it doesn’t match the experience on the ground. A recent piece talks about how the importance of the festival lies in the big names that it draws from the world of Western publishing, and to some extent, that’s true—people will queue up this year to listen to Coetzee, as they had in previous years to hear John Berendt on Venice and Savannah or Anne Applebaum’s impassioned discussion of gulags. But what the criticism omits is that the breathless focus on just the McEwans and the Rushdies is entirely a media creation.

For those who’ve been to several years of the festival, some of the best sessions have had massive audience support, but little press: the debate between Dilip Simeon and Nandini Sundar last year on the Maoist insurgency, for instance, or Anupam Misra’s spellbinding talk on the drying up of Indian rivers, or Sheen Kaaf Nizam’s standing-room-only poetry reading.

That’s another thing the media doesn’t report. There was the year the slam poets rocked Jaipur, with Jason doing his beatbox thing while poet Jeet Thayil unleashed his blues side, the year Gulzar and Javed Akhtar held an overflowing audience captive, the year that Tenzin Tsundue read his protest poems on Tibet. If there’s any group of writers the Jaipur Literature Festival belongs to, it’s not the celebrities—it’s always been the poets, in the end.

(The festival schedule is up here.)
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