Philippines | 2011, 2015
Miguel Syjuco was born and raised in Manila. His debut novel Ilustrado won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, the Hugh MacLennan Prize, the Palanca Award; was a finalist for the Grand Prix du Livre de Montreal, the Amazon First Novel Award, and the Commonwealth First Book Prize for the Canada and Caribbean region. Ilustrado has been translated into more than fifteen languages. He has a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the Ateneo de Manila University, an MFA from Columbia University, and a PhD in literature from the University of Adelaide. He currently lives in Montreal.
I had never been on a writing fellowship or residency, so I didn’t know what to expect. And so much has praise has been heaped upon Santa Maddalena that I arrived with some scepticism. It is a testament to this life and place that Beatrice von Rezzori has built that, five weeks later, I leave cleansed of that tiresome, world-weary cynicism that I did not even realize had so long been calcifying within me. Beatrice, I think, would find hyperbole as boring as she finds sentimentality, but it is no exaggeration when I say I leave this place has profoundly changed me.
I was billeted on the first floor of the signal tower — a structure whose purpose for centuries has been, fittingly for the writers who alight here, to receive and transmit signals to and from beyond the horizon. Mine was the pink bedroom, filled with matching brass beds and other exquisite furniture whose provenance was the locus of an east and a west that no longer exist quite as these objects remember them. My studio, where I wrote, was the smallest of those offered to writers, and was therefore perfect for me: cozy, almost monastic, with etchings of four dead sultans watching with jealous, reprimanding eyes as I typed at the desk; here I was finally able to erode, then dissolve, then destroy completely the guilty procrastinations that had become so stalwart and familiar to me these last two years since I completed my novel Ilustrado.
In my first two weeks, I demolished the year’s worth of research that I had long put off wrestling with (it helped that my perch was a folding canvas chair that I could situate on a hill overlooking the valley and its sunset, or beneath a tree, or in a quite grove by walls of bamboo). One evening, having spent the day reading my four-year-old manuscript of what I’d intended to be my second novel, I realized that I had to discard the entire thing and start afresh. I’m certain that had I been amongst the distractions, exigencies, emails, demands, and clatter of the world outside, I would have taken the easy way out and pressed on with that lost cause of a manuscript that I’d written when I was a person I no longer know nor recognize. Santa Maddalena gave me the space to have the courage to start anew, and its spirit of cultivating the world’s best writers gave me the hunger to reach farther than I had ever intended or attempted. In my remaining three weeks, I wrote 15,000 words in five days, and then hammered out and polished not only the first chapter but also the last. By the end of my stay, I had hit 25,000 words, and I sketched out each of the book’s scenes, many of the big ideas, and every character, giving myself a roadmap to follow easily at home when I must take the journey on my own.
Speaking of journeys — I discovered that Beatrice’s Santa Maddalena is not merely a place to write, a task which is usually believed to be one of circumspection. This place that she and Grisha lovingly built is one where we are cajoled into coming out of our ossified shells, slowly, with every lunch by the courtyard, with every dinner beside the roaring fire. Applying yourself as a writer is about being open to the world, rather than simply going into yourself, and perhaps this place is not for those who believe otherwise. Strangely, nudged unknowingly by Beatrice and the other writers, and by spending a lot of time alone, I discovered (to my chagrin, and then relief) that the world is not all about me. I learned from Beatrice: that is better for a person to be eccentric or interesting rather than nice; that what would be gossip in lesser hands is, when aged properly and told with grace, stories that tell us something about humanity; that each language you learn doubles your world; that country living is idyllic (and all the bugs would agree with me); that pasta should never be eaten with anything but a fork and maybe a helpful piece of bread; and that I am not actually as well read as I once thought (luckily, in my five weeks here, I’ve been given a reading list to last me the next five years — the works of Gregor von Rezzori foremost on it).
These were happy days and nights. Breakfasts of butter and fig jam on peasant bread. My reward for a good day’s work needing to consist only of music from an iPod (Bowie! The Velvet Underground! Arcade Fire!), a cup of tea (mint!), and raised to the window sill my feet (bare!), while the rosy sunlight on the trees dappled and moved inside the room (like light reflected, as Beatrice says, off the waters of the Bosphoros). We gathered in the courtyard for coffee after lunch, talking of books, travels, and the nature of love. The old dogs farted with impunity, and we were polite enough never to laugh (though I think we all did inside). Pre-prandials were of Cynar (an artichoke liqueur), and post-prandials were good Calvados and great conversation. Some nights we read out Cheever stories, other nights the filthy love letters James Joyce wrote to Nora Barnacle. The wisteria, like sylvan chainmail hung on the walls, gave way to roses, like ivory chalices between the contorted branches of the olive trees. Then spring slid into summer, the pool was filled, and the axis of our days shifted to the pavilion beside that swimming hole, with dips and breathless laps solace from the white heat of the day’s productivity. One Sunday a storm descended, and we all took shelter inside, comforting the dogs and their fear of unexplained meteorology. In all the time I was here, Arrezo called, as did Florence, as did Siena, but I didn’t answer them, except for an occasional foray into the rare air of village life in Donnini or Rignano, for a bistecca alla fiorentina, or a pint of Moretti, or a cornet of gelato.
Two images will stay with me forever. The first came once, as I sat one cool late afternoon in my folding chair amidst the olive trees: the wind blew the petals of wisteria, and they fell around me, like flakes of snow keeping company with your solitude. The second came often, also while in my chair outside in the late afternoon: the dogs rushed one by one to greet me (the sheepish Paride, the broken-hearted Gulietta, the huffing good-old Teddy, and finally Alice the imperious little pug), announcing the arrival of Beatrice as she surveyed her home, garden clippers in hand, tending, with ferocious tenderness (or is it tender ferociousness?), branch by branch, detail by detail, this place that has given so many people comfort, acceptance, and inspiration.