Salacious Celebrity Tell-All as a Vehicle of Truth
Miguel Syjuco hopes to change the world with his new novel, I Was the President’s Mistress!!
I Was the President’s Mistress!! (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022) reads like a slap in the face with the force of its critique. The novel is an uncensored exploration of contemporary issues including but certainly not limited to political and religious corruption, sexism, racism, poverty, drug abuse, and economic exploitation, all whisked together. The narrative is told through an unusual medium: 24 transcribed audio recordings that are fodder for a celebrity tell-all memoir.
Syjuco began writing President’s Mistress 12 years ago, as a sequel to his first novel, Ilustrado (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), and worked on it while a Radcliffe fellow in 2013–2014. It’s difficult to believe that such an irreverent, raunchy story could come from someone as polite and humble as Syjuco, but that’s part of the point: Syjuco believes that writers “should be able to inhabit everyone.”
Syjuco believes the goal of any serious novel is and should be to change the world in its own way. Having studied and taught a course on works of fiction that tangibly changed history, he is “amazed and enchanted by the fact that . . . anybody can sit down, write a book, a work of imagination, and enough people will read it and say, ‘Oh, my God, this is terrible. We need to get together and act, moved by what we’ve read.’” Yet he’s also become disenchanted with the idea that “we could write something that will be true enough that it will punish or rein in these terrible leaders who are abusing us, abusing our societies.” Satire then, was the only viable option: “If we can’t defeat them through writing the truth about them, then we sure as shit should mock them.”
Radcliffe Magazine: What drives you to write?
Miguel Syjuco: Initially, I started out because I wanted to tell stories and I wanted to participate in them. In grade five, I wrote a terrible sequel to The Lord of the Rings after I read it and was so upset that it ended. That started me off, this idea of willing into being these stories that I was enchanted by.
Eventually, it became about my wanting my voice to be heard, which is I think essentially why most of us write. But that ultimately evolved into an understanding of the power of our voices and the importance of individuals—citizens, human beings—being able to participate not just in narratives but also in the world: in what ails society, in what the world should and could be, and in imagining for it a future that is better than the present. Now I write because as a concerned citizen it’s become my sharpest tool.
I also write to figure out my own place in this world. I write to be able to understand different perspectives, which I think is quite clear in President’s Mistress. But really, I write the books that I wish existed, given everything I’ve read and seen, thinking “I wish somebody would write this kind of book.”
And as a Filipino writer from the margins of international literature, from the margins of current events—because we Filipinos aren’t often as considered as other cultures—I write to say, to be able to say: “Hey, hold on, we’re here.” I’m certainly not the only voice from the Philippines, but I’ll keep working to highlight issues and angles that we in the world should all consider.
RM: I Was the President’s Mistress!! is written as a series of recorded interviews, 12 interviews with Vita Nova, the protagonist, and one with each of her 12 lovers. Why choose this form?
MS: For many reasons. I believe that literature, art, challenges us to tell familiar stories in different ways and in that way they become new. I wrote President’s Mistress in an attempt to take the celebrity tell-all memoir, with all of its shortcomings and its strengths—it’s sexy, it’s juicy, it’s easily digested—and use those strengths to go deeper into human politics, whether it’s democratic politics or gender politics or interpersonal politics.
I also wanted to take a familiar narrative and deconstruct it. So President’s Mistress is fragmented. The component parts each tell a story, but more than that they invite the reader to participate, and demand that they do, puzzling the perspectives together and assembling the narrative themselves. Because fiction is like democracy: it requires every individual to participate in making it. Unfortunately, as we’re seeing even with our democracies, we’ve gotten so used to being controlled, being told what to feel, think, and do. So we crave silver-tongued fiction that grabs us, moves us, then leaves us with a feeling imprinted upon us, imposed there by the author. (I call that “author-itarianism.”) But a passive reader, I believe, makes for a passive citizen.
So I wanted to write a book that pushed back, that demanded that the reader try to unpack what is true from a variety of convincing perspectives. To actively ask: Whom do I believe in this book? What do I agree or disagree with, from all its conflicting opinions and so-called alternative facts? And what are the values I, the reader, adhere to? In doing so, hopefully the reader reconsiders, then affirms, their own values. Then asks themselves how they can act upon them.
That’s why my books demand that the reader participates in the narrative. I’m obsessed as a writer—as a journalist, as a civil society advocate, and as a novelist—with this idea of agency. I wanted to write a book that offered such agency to its readers.
RM: You’ve said that each of the 12 lovers represents a certain facet of Filipino society. How did you go about inhabiting the perspectives of the 12 different lovers? Did you find certain ones particularly challenging?
MS: It wasn’t just all the lovers, it was our protagonist herself, Vita Nova. All their 13 voices were challenging because in one regard they were aspects of me, certainly, my own worst tendencies or my own hopes, but they’re obviously not me. I had to, in a great sense, be an actor, inhabit them. What was challenging was that I disagreed with a lot of them. But as the author, I had to resist the very human urge to judge them. Because if I judged them, then I wouldn’t be able to understand each character’s political and philosophical evolutions, and the nuanced social issues raised by each of them. I had to understand them, then represent them via voice, character development, plot, narrative—all the stuff of writing fiction.
Of course, perhaps the greatest challenges was my writing, as a male writer, a female protagonist. But I felt it was worthwhile because as artists, as novelists, we should be able to inhabit all manner of characters. That’s not just an artistic imperative. It also embraces the raison d’etre of writing literature, which is to create understanding and empathy for characters who are not like us. I’m concerned and quite dismayed by this contemporary sense that writers cannot write identities other than themselves. We should be able to try, but we should also always try to do so responsibly. That’s what I tried to do.
RM: To me, your novel is a sort of collage of pop culture, sprinkled with slang, song lyrics, references to celebrities, and popular sayings (often mangled). What was the role of pop culture in your writing process?
MS: As the second in a trilogy of books in turn spanning the past, present, and future, the focus of President’s Mistress on our current world meant I had to draw a lot from pop culture. But when you’re writing about the present, it almost immediately becomes the past. And over this last decade while I was writing, some of the sayings that were current then become inevitably passé. So I had to create characters who themselves played with that, with irony, will implicit self-awareness of shifting cultural trends. I admitted, tacitly, that I’ll never be at the cutting edge of what’s in, however cool I used to once aspire to be. I’m a 45-year-old male writer from the Philippines. I no longer have social media. I don’t scroll TikTok or go to music festivals. I had to draw from whatever I knew, and from research, but also from how pop culture always becomes a conflict between those who know, are in, and those who are outside of it.
I wanted to take the language of now, that’s so influenced by social media, and write a novel that plays with colloquialisms, but in writing that is literary, that is musical, that is structurally interesting, while still seeming informal and colloquial.
RM: How do you think of the relationship between pop culture and politics?
MS: I think pop culture says a lot about our society, about who’s privileged in it, who is no longer privileged in it, who will never be privileged in it, who is dominant and who is dominated. Pop culture can also be used as a tool, as we’ve seen in the Philippines with the latest election, where the son of the corrupt and disgraced dictator used Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and the latest forms of mass communication in the same way that Joseph Goebbels did back in the 1930s when he used radio, to influence people. Pop culture can be used to grab and dominate the narrative, to gain power then control the population—and, as we’re now seeing, begin to even rewrite the facts of history.
RM: You created a Wikipedia page for Crispin, the protagonist of your first novel, Ilustrado, and a Facebook page for Vita Nova. Why? How do you think creating this “evidence” of Crispin’s and Vita’s existence in the real world affects the reading of the story?
MS: What it is did was affect the writing of the story, which at a certain stage of creation was important to me. It made it all more real to me. I created these online artifacts without any expectation that anyone would discover them. I just wanted to will my characters into life. That people eventually found these artifacts became amusing, interesting—a bonus for me. But it also taught me that narrative doesn’t exist just on the page. That after I’ve written a book, it’s no longer mine; it becomes the readers’. This realization changed the way I write. As you know, the particular ending of President’s Mistress is not about the author’s vision anymore—it’s entirely about the reader. I’m challenging the reader to make the narrative theirs. To me, [the Wikipedia and Facebook pages] are not essential to the narrative, but I think [their creation] recognized the way narrative works organically.
RM: What do you want readers to take away from President’s Mistress?
MS: First and foremost, that it’s a difficult book. It’s technically, aesthetically, perhaps even morally, challenging. And I built it that way to show respect for the reader, as a reader and as a fellow citizen in our very troubled societies, faced with complex, difficult problems that need us all to participate in addressing them. There’s value in difficult novels, and I hope that readers will come out of this book with a sense of being challenged, sure, but also with a sense of having found greater agency. And whether they like my book or not, I hope they’ll go off and discuss, engage with, and take on the many vital issues my novel deals with.
I hope that readers will also shift gears and embrace the length and depth of such books, such conversations in a world where exchanges are often as quick and as shallow as a tweet. There remains huge value in difficult discourses. I’d like Filipino readers to see these issues my novel unpacks as a plea to participate in fixing them. And I’d like international readers to see these issues as universal, urgent, but also fascinating for their cultural specificity.
To me, what’s happening with the Philippines is the canary in the coal mine for global democracy. My country is Asia’s oldest democracy, patterned after the United States. And we’ve witnessed its capture by corrupt criminal dynasties who have been so successful in perverting it into what I call a dictatorship of dynasties. I hope readers will see my book as a warning for what could happen to American democracy and democracies everywhere else if we’re not vigilant.
I think literature and democracy are fascinatingly intertwined because they’re both the stories of the societies that we are and that we want to be. And I hope my readers will realize how vital it is for us to participate—actively, steadfastly—in that story that together we’re telling about ourselves.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Sam Zuniga-Levy is the communications coordinator at Harvard Radcliffe Institute.
Join us on Tuesday, July 19, for our virtual Book Talk with Miguel Syjuco.