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Close, but no cigar

KRIPOTKIN By Alfred A. Yuson
November 24, 2008 12:00 AM
Philippine Star

Those fateful three days and nights in Hong Kong before the previous weekend were alternately relaxing and suspenseful, the latter only a bit. Good thing I’ve had minimal relations with luck of late, so that hoping for a big turn was hardly in my agenda.

When the shortlist for the Man Asian Prize for the novel was announced on Oct. 22, it started a dizzying ride — from pleasant surprise to pride of place, seeing as how it meant honor not really for oneself alone, but for country. International literary agents and at least one notable publisher were quick to initiate communications, asking for a copy of the manuscript.

It was just as buddy Butch Dalisay recounted when he gained the finals in the contest’s first edition last year. He levitated for weeks, all the way to the ceremonial awards dinner in Hong Kong. Same here. Congrats were rife, and the honor was doubled because there was a fellow Pinoy in the list of five — someone much younger and who happens to have been a dear friend all these years.

Miguel “Chuck” Syjuco completed his studies in Ateneo just as I was coming in as a lecturer, so we never really shared space in a classroom together. But book launchings, poetry readings, a Dumaguete summer, and sporadic e-mail kept us in touch.

I could just be making this up as putative urban legend, but I recall that Chuck had to be “exiled” abroad after a run-in with a Jinggoy Estrada convoy around Greenhills one sultry night seven-eight years ago. It even landed in the papers, how the young Chuck was pushed around by bodyguards intent on road rage, and only escaped a pummeling by pulling out his own political card. His father Augusto “Buboy” Syjuco was then a Congressman.

Chuck wound up enrolling for a creative writing course in Columbia University in New York. All those lonely nights up in a Trump Towers unit produced tons of literature. Chuck would send poems and chunks of narrative, occasionally betraying the need to hear avuncular assurance that he was on the right track.

At some point he said he had to take a stint in photography at Sorbonne in Paris, and before I knew it he had landed in Australia. Next thing I heard, when he sent me a soft copy of his novel manuscript titled Ilustrado, he was already in Montreal, where he said he had followed his lady love, and was now working as a copy editor for a local paper.

That was about the time last summer when Tony Hidalgo and I sat down for a whisky-fed conversation at the garden of the UP Executive House. He probed if I had joined the Palanca contest in the Novel category, which he had just helped judge. I said no way; I had already won that once, “dyahe naman, pa-judge-judge na rin lang tayo.” Tony kept marveling over the quality of the chosen one for 2008. We both wondered if it could be the genius handiwork of one Greg Brillantes. Tony recalled the opening paragraph and premise. I said I didn’t think it was Greg’s.

Then the Man Asian longlist of 21, out of over 200 entries, was announced last July, with Lakambini Sitoy, Ian Casocot, Miguel Syjuco and myself in there. The brief synopses the entrants had provided gave me a clue as to the Palanca “mystery entry.” I asked Chuck for a soft copy of his draft novel. Thus did Tony and I gain advance knowledge that the young Syjuco would be declared Palanca Grand Prize winner for the Novel in English.

It was great to see him back home last September at Palanca Night. Chuck recalled that I was first to congratulate him by e-mail. I asked him and Sylvia Palanca Quirino to guest in my Talk News TV program over Destiny Cable’s GNN Channel 3, after which I disclosed that I had begun to entertain some hope that his beauteous girlfriend Edith, half-Filipina, might have a sister. Why, Chuck even showed Sylvia and me the intricate tattoo he had on his right arm that served as a visual paean to Edith. I took photos, thinking they might come in handy sometime.

Wouldn’t it be nice to meet up again in Hong Kong in case we make the Man Asian shortlist? We bantered and joked as we whistled in the dark. Six weeks later, we congratulated one another by e-mail. Indeed we had both made it.

Meeting up with Chuck and Edith again at the Kowloon Hotel lobby on Nov. 11, we laughed over how I had to “perish the thought” anent my request that they bring along her sis. Edith only had a brother. Drat. To think that I refrained from handing over his tattoo photos to a shaman in Siquijor. I just couldn’t have a hex applied on a young buddy; darn the Greg Brillantes influence re Christian values.

As we sat down for drinks at the Fringe Club, courtesy of dear friend and fellow poet Dave McKirdy, I took advantage of a media interview that pulled Chuck away and just had to confirm with Edith if her only sibling was as her boyfriend alleged. Alas, yes. Oh, well, I said, there goes my consolation prize. I just know it, I told Edith, you’ll have further reason to be proud of Chuck, as I’m certain he’ll win the Man Asian.

She probably thought the vodka sour had gotten to me. We left it at that, and proceeded to engage in camaraderie with the Indian rivals, Kavery Nambisan and Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi. The fifth finalist, Yu Hua of China, was said to be coming all the way from Mongolia by way of Xiamen, and so would arrive only the next day, the eve of the awards ceremony.

Poor fellow. And he had the least chances of bagging the prize, too, I thought in my usual wizened manner — accrued from over half-a-century of experience in geopolitical reckoning of the characteristic balance of terror between the law of averages and regional socio-political considerations.

A Chinese novelist had already won it last year. It can’t be another translated work this year. That left the Indians and us Filipinos. Our individual chances just increased from 20 to 25 percent. But an Indian writer just won the Man Booker Prize, the big one in London. It can’t be a Bollywood sweep. That left Chuck and me. One chance in two. The rest of the forecast process was easy.

Fate and I, we’ve had our quarrels, but for over a year now it’s obviously had the upper hand, and I can’t quite escape its headlock umbrage. If I thought that it would be now, it would only be a mark of desperation. Taking a page from Michael Jordan, one can’t show that one’s hurt or hurting; best to pick oneself up from the floor and give sporting chances the finger.

The young Siddarth, fop to Chuck’s dandy, was said to be Mumbai’s literary enfant terrible. He dressed elegantly, looking like a prince. And in conversation he entertained with a litany of namedrops, how he had spent a weekend at John Berendt’s Manhattan flat, and once hosted Salman Rushdie till 4 in the morning. When he returned home, he’d be looking forward to a party with Lindsay Lohan as guest. Surely, all of that counted him out for the prize.

Kavery was such a nice, lovely lady, a surgeon, who like myself knew exactly where she stood. She showed me two pages of an excerpt she would read in public; it had all kinds of revisions penned in on the margins. “It’s still a work in progress,” she admitted of her draft. “Same with mine,” I allowed. “A lot more work, and some more time for all that.” Quietly, tacitly, I believe we agreed to simply vie for the Congeniality Prize.

That left Chuck. Oh, okay, unfair, it might be said of this kind of cynical reckoning. Well then, consider these as addenda to the main contention. I’ve only read his draft in parts. But it has obvious heft and historical sweep, spanning 150 years of Philippine (literary) history. My concern was that the judges might think it too literary, with a writer as the main character investigating a senior writer’s mysterious demise, and in the end becoming a mentor to another, junior writer. Epic torch-passing? Bricolage also figures much in his experimental novel, as Chuck has acknowledged. I could then only fear for the judges’ possible stance on what could be too much of an in-bred thing.

Thankfully, there was no such stance. On the night of Nov. 13, Miguel Syjuco was adjudged the winner of the 2008 Man Asian Prize for Ilustrado.

In the wake of our high fives, quite sadly, my proposition made the night before was all but forgotten. I had suggested that we all pledge to take a ferry to Macau the morning after the awards rites, once the winner had encashed the $10,000 check, to give the also-rans a chance to bite into that prize money. Or maybe one of us would get even luckier and win much more. Oh well, now all we can do is count our blessings. We all got close to it, but no cigar.

Let’s still light one up for Chuck. Mabuhay ang Pinoy!

Honestly, how can anyone begrudge Miguel Syjuco, ever the humble one, as shown by the following remarks he’s posted in response to several e-group threads?

“Dear Krip, and all the rest of the esteemed writers on these lists,

“For a long time I’ve been a quiet observer on these threads and discussions, following your work, idolizing your achievements, dreaming of one day being able to publish a book and maybe teach creative writing, as so many of you have done before. For 15 years I’ve written stories and poems and for three years I’ve worked slowly on this, my first, novel, drawing insight from your discussions, collecting details from the online editions of our dailies, calibrating my perception of the reality of our beloved country by scouring the myriad blogs.

“Due to my frequent but never-frequent-enough trips home to Manila, the work you’ve all done, and all the encouragement I’ve received from those of you who’ve known me and my literary aspirations, I have suddenly, overnight, found myself with a very imperfect book that was lucky enough to be almost-ready and likeably enough at the right time and place.

“Often, recently, when people have been congratulating me, my response has been, ‘I’ve been lucky.’ And people would usually scoff, and say that I’m being modest (while inside they’re likely thinking me yabang). But what they don’t understand is that I don’t mean so much that I’ve been lucky to have won (though, admittedly, lit prizes are tsambahan); what I mean is that I have been so lucky to have had such support and encouragement from my Filipino teachers at Ateneo, at UP, at the Dumaguete National Writers Workshop, at Columbia. I’ve been lucky to have had the encouragement of writers like Paul Go, Rofel Brion, Danton Remoto, DM Reyes, Clinton Palanca, Marianne Villanueva, Jing Hidalgo, Mom Edith Tiempo, Sir NVM Gonzalez, Jessica Hagedorn, and so many others — too many others to list here. And that is in terms of direct experience. Indirectly, I’ve learned so much from all of you who have written such amazing and inspiring stories and poems, even if I’ve not yet met you.

“So forgive me for sounding hokey, or emotional, or even maybe grandiose, but please accept my heartfelt gratitude. For inspiring me, for encouraging me, and for accepting me as a writer. The premise of my novel Ilustrado is that we can all be ilustrados, and I could not have won the Palanca nor the Man Asian Prize without all that your words and work have enlightened.

“And now, the hard work truly begins. Salamat. Salamat. Salamat. Yours, — Miguel ‘Chuck’ Syjuco.”


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