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Miguel Syjuco at his home in Montreal

John Morstad/The Globe and Mail

Montreal writer Miguel Syjuco admits he got the career boost of a lifetime when he won the Man Asian Literary Prize for the manuscript that would become his debut novel Ilustrado.

But that early acclaim may have set expectations so high for his resulting book - a sprawling historical analysis of the Philippines and an indictment of its pampered elite - that satisfying the critics was impossible, he suggests.

Syjuco, 33, says he's disappointed to be shut out of Canada's three major book prizes and posits a variety of reasons for the snub, ranging from Ilustrado (Penguin) being too political, not Canadian enough, or just plain inadequate.

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"There are so many theories that anyone could come up with," Syjuco says from Vancouver, where he is attending the Vancouver International Writers Festival this weekend.

"Essentially, the judges have their own tastes and opinions and it does become something of a lottery. The novelist Julian Barnes called the (Man) Booker Prize, for example, 'posh bingo.' And in a way, it is. I got very lucky with the Man Asian Literary Prize and I'm happy with that. Prizes are important, I think, to writers because they push your work to more readers and that's ultimately what we want..... (But) it is a little disappointing."

Syjuco exploded into the spotlight in 2008 when he claimed the $10,000 prize for his ambitious manuscript, marking an auspicious start to a fledgling career that had until then been marked by rejection letters.



But his name was notably absent among the Canadian writers who appeared on the recent nomination lists for the Governor General's Literary Awards, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Syjuco is among the finalists for a Quebec Writers' Federation Awards, to be handed out Nov. 23.

The soft-spoken writer, who was a copy editor at the Montreal Gazette when he submitted Ilustrado to the Man Asian Literary Prize, says the intense publicity that followed the win made him nervous about his prospects as a published author.

"The book hadn't come out yet and I thought, 'Well, I'm worried about all of this hype. It can't be good for it.' I would rather the book came out and people decided for themselves rather than the book comes out two years after I won a prize so everybody's thinking, 'This is fantastic, it must be a masterpiece,' and then they see it as a flawed, baggy first novel by somebody who's trying to reach beyond his own capacities and grow as a writer," says Syjuco, who appears at Toronto's International Festival of Authors next week.

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"I'm still new to the Canadian writing scene. I'm still something of an outsider and I think my book is different from some stuff out there and maybe it just takes a little bit longer for people to enjoy it, if ever they do.

"Or maybe the book just isn't good enough. I have good days, I have bad days."

Syjuco's first novel is a complex and ambitious work.

Ostensibly, it's about the death of a Filipino literary hero and the student who investigates his mysterious demise. Woven throughout are snippets of the hero's novels, essays and newspaper articles, leading the reader across centuries, continents, and generations that defined the island nation.

Reviews have ranged from glowing celebrations of the book's unique blend of genres as a way to piece together a fragmented life and country, to derisive for a difficult, complex structure that some felt was overwrought.

"I've learned that I have to be happy with creating discussion and debate and that I shouldn't be trying to write a book that appeals to the consensus," says Syjuco, who moved to Canada at age one, returned to the Philippines at age 11 and settled in Montreal three years ago.

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"It took me a while. At first I was disappointed that the book wasn't flying off the shelves in the U.S. or Canada or elsewhere. It's doing OK, it's doing fine, but it's not one of those bestselling books and that's really because there are those people who love it and there are those people who hate it or don't get it or give up on it. And that's great. because it creates discussion and it's a great book for book clubs, I'm told, it's good for lively conversation."

He's particularly disappointed that major newspapers in the Phillipines largely ignored the book, noting that "less than a handful" of articles appeared upon its release.

"It was a big deal when I won the prize," he notes.

"So it's not about the book - it's about winning. It's about succeeding and that's really quite troubling. But maybe it's just that people read the book and didn't like it or maybe they found it too confronting, I don't know."

Syjuco says he's completed the draft of a second book that will focus on a minor character from Ilustrado - Vita Nova, a buxom actress mired in a presidential sex scandal in the first book.

Syjuco says, I Was the President's Mistress is written as a series of interview transcripts being used for a tell-all memoir.

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"Through these interviews we get a portrait of a Third World society and we also chart a big swindle that kind of illuminates how corruption does work in the Third World."

Syjuco appears at the Vancouver authors festival on Saturday and Sunday and is set to hold a reading at the Toronto festival on Tuesday.

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