'Ilustrado' Satirizes Politics In The Philippines

Author Miguel Syjuco speaks to Lynn Neary about the recent elections in the Philippines. Syjuco, a native of that country, was born into a political family. He writes about the politics of the Philippines in his new novel Ilustrado.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Political dynasties are not uncommon. In this country, think the Kennedys or the Bushes. In the Philippines, think the Aquino and Marcos families. Both have played a major role in the politics of the country in the past, and both once again flex their political muscle in this week's elections there.

Votes are still being counted, but Benigno Aquino III is well ahead and likely to become the country's next president, replacing the unpopular Gloria Arroyo. Several members of the Marcos family, including matriarch Imelda, won in smaller contests.

None of this comes as a surprise to Filipino author Miguel Syjuco. His award-winning novel "Ilustrado" satirizes Philippine politics and the families that dominate them. He joins us from Toronto to give us his perspective on the Philippine elections.

So good to have you with us.

Mr. MIGUEL SYJUCO (Author, "Ilustrado"): Good morning, Lynn.

NEARY: So to being, just could you give us a sense of just how much these families and a few others really have dominated the politics of the Philippines?

Mr. SYJUCO: Well, theyve dominated it very much so, for the past generations. Ours is not a political arena based on ideologies, but more so on character -almost brand. And with these last names: the Estradas, the Marcoses, the Aquinos, these are old names that have been around for decades. And in some cases, illogically they trust them somehow.

NEARY: How have they shaped life in the Philippines?

Mr. SYJUCO: The Philippines, it has a politics of patronage. Family and favors, in addition to the old clich´┐Ż of guns, goons and gold, really do still hold a lot of sway. And so what happens is that we have a very entrenched culture of corruption within our government.

NEARY: Whats interesting that you mention the Aquinos, because it seems as though Benigno Aquino III, who is likely to be the new president, that his parents were kind heroic figures back in the '80s. His father was an opponent of the Marcos dictatorship, he was assassinated. His mother Corazon led the People Power revolt that ousted Marcos and helped restore democracy.

So outside of the Philippines, they certainly have a pretty good image. Is that the image within the country, as well?

Mr. SYJUCO: Very much so. You know, there an aura of sort of saintliness around the Aquino name. He's the son of a martyr and the son of a beacon of democracy. And although Aquino hasnt really been tried and tested within the national arena, people still look to him as symbol of hope.

The real question, I think, is whether or not he'll be able to create some change within this culture of corruption that really follows everybody who is put into that position. We thought Arroyo, for example - another political dynasty - we hoped that she would be different. And yet we've had her for nine years and she's just as bad as the rest of them - the most unpopular president since our dictator, Ferdinand Marcos.

NEARY: Well, speaking of the Marcos name, I think a lot of people outside the Philippines might assume that that wouldnt be a helpful name in politics there. And yet, the family does seem to be making something of a political comeback. Is that just politics as usual in Philippines?

Mr. SYJUCO: It is, and we very short memories, unfortunately. The things we do remember are the good things. And Imelda and her children represent this glamour, this wonderful idea that they are parents and the people are the children. We see this evident also in the Estradas. Joseph Estrada, for example, was ousted in 2001, convicted of plunder. He was pardoned by the president, Arroyo, and he came back as the runner-up in this election - which is amazing, considering he's a convicted criminal, known to have stolen so much from the country.

NEARY: And you satirize all this in your first novel "Ilustrado." Why did you want to write about this in the form of fiction?

Mr. SYJUCO: Well, you know, fiction is a wonderful thing. I think of that line from Camus, where he says, fiction is a lie we tell to get to the truth. If I had just written this great nonfiction saga, perhaps I'd only be read by Filipinos or people interested in Philippine politics. But by writing this as a fictional account of the Philippines in a parallel dimension, Im able to talk about broader themes: revolution, exile, corruption, government - satirize all of these things and in doing so make them universal for readers all over the world.

NEARY: Now, your own family is part of the elite. Is it not?

Mr. SYJUCO: It is. I grew up with a very privileged background. My father served as one of the cabinet ministers in Arroyo's government, and he's been a congressman for many years and he's running again. But in the Philippines it is quite peculiar because politics isnt just a vocation; it is very much a family business. And so what happens is in a traditional family like ours, many children are pushed towards doing this and very often for the wrong reasons. And I think this just adds to the culture of corruption and patronage.

NEARY: Now, youve lived a lot of your life outside the Philippines, have you been criticized at all for taking aim at your homeland, when you have been an expatriate for many years?

Mr. SYJUCO: Well, I've lived most of my life in the Philippines. But yes, I have - I grew up in Vancouver until I was 11, during the Marcos years. I spent most of my life back home and then I left in 2001 to find better opportunities as a writer. But yes, I do get a lot of criticism in that vein.

But, you know, the Philippine experience is a global one; there are Filipinos everywhere. And I wanted to take a critical view and an honest view of the place in the Philippines where I come from and the privilege where I come from. And I think, perhaps, I wouldnt have been able to do that had I stayed in the Philippines.

NEARY: So living outside the country, you think, has sort of afforded you an additional insight into whats going on back home?

Mr. SYJUCO: Very much so. When you live in the Philippines or a country like that, you develop something of a very thick skin because you're confronted every day with all of the problems all around you. When I left the Philippines, that was only when I started engaging in discussions and debates with Filipino friends - we know about these things, and really understanding problems and issues.

And then also, living abroad, also, I feel like I dont have to censor myself. There's this constant idea, if you're living there that you might upset somebody through whatever work you're doing. But by being abroad, Im able to have both perspective and the freedom to be as honest as I can be.

NEARY: Miguel Syjuco joined us from Toronto, Canada. His novel, "Ilustrado," won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, which recognizes the best Asian novel written or translated into English.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. SYJUCO: It's my great pleasure. Thank you.

NEARY: And youve been listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Lynn Neary.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

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