What do Australians know about Filipinos? That they’re exotic, dusky-skinned babes, or smart, obliging nurses with American-inflected English?
And of the Philippines?
Beaches with endless sun and none of the life-threatening Aussie critters. Traffic growing denser and thicker by the year. The smiles of unattractive, corrupt politicians plastered on billboards all over town, especially during elections.
Usually these and little else.
Enter Miguel Syjuco: 38-year-old Filipino novelist and journalist. His first novel Ilustrado, which was written while undertaking a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide, won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 and the New York Times Notable Book of 2010, among a host of other accolades. His latest work ‘Beating Dickheads’, is a punchy, polemical defense of the right to call a spade a spade, to speak critically, and to even make a mockery, of politicians and public institutions, published in the Griffith Review's 2015 special edition: New Asia Now .
It may seem strange that a writer has to argue for the right to use direct, blunt and perhaps bad language when, in Australia, describing politicos in such terms is commonplace. Yet Syjuco might have something to offer here, and not just for Filipinos waking up to shitty headlines. Former Labor leader and Australian Financial Review columnist, Mark Latham, appears to assert similar rights to speak without a filter, to publicly utter “Fuck, cunt, poo, bum” (– as he would in a western Sydney pub) – without fear of reprisal, especially from “green left feminist” types. Meanwhile, in Darwin, a Magistrate has reportedly told a grieving Aboriginal woman whose son was run over by a non-Indigenous man that she would be “arrested if [she didn’t] shut up” as they were in “a court of law, not a pub.”
Surely it should be the case that either we’re all allowed to use pub lingo and pub voices to express our grievances, or we can't. But for many around the world, this is not the case and doing so could cost them their lives. Syjuco's home country, the Philippines, is the third most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist after Syria and Iraq – 77 reporters were killed since 1992, 32 of them in one day, in the now infamous 2009 Maguindanao Massacre. Journalists must be very careful how they phrase their work and of the terms they use.
With “Dickheads,” Syjuco shows off not just the literary gifts that won him awards, but more importantly, the moral courage of one who could avert one’s eyes from reality but chooses not to. The cost of calling out the dickheaddery of wealthy, well-connected, potentially criminal public figures who might be the parents of one’s childhood friends, politicians with far more platforms to get back at you in a nation where spaces for free, critical speech are ever under threat, is certainly higher than to merely cuss one’s lungs out at a western Sydney pub, or on a deniable Twitter account.
Miguel Syjuco recently presented at the MWF 2015 sessions: Writing and Censorship and Capital: the Beginning of the World. His award-winning first novel Ilustrado can be purchased online through Australian booksellers; a Kindle version is available immediately through amazon.com.au. His second novel, I was the President’s Mistress!! is forthcoming.