Author Miguel Syjuco is helping to change the way the world thinks about Filipinos. His debut novel, Ilustrado, won this year's Man Asian Literary Award and was awarded the Grand Prize at the Philippines' top literary jamboree, the Palanca Awards. But despite the prizes, Ilustrado was slow to be picked up by publishers. 'The Philippines is well known but in a negative way,' says Syjuco, a few days before his 32nd birthday. 'People say, 'I have a Filipino nanny,' [or] 'I love Filipino nurses.' No one thinks of Filipino intellectuals or writers. 'And when they do, they want a Filipino version of the sari sagas. Books that describe earth the colour of tamarind, sunlight the colour of mangoes. This kind of writing shows a lack of confidence. 'I asked myself, why try to be exotic when there is so much profound drama and struggle here? Why go for the exotic when you can dig just a little deeper and get universal and human?' While publishing in the Philippines now lags in the shadow of China and India, this was not always the case. 'A lot of journalists cut their teeth covering the Philippines during the US era. [Former Philippine president Ferdinand] Marcos and Imelda were such fascinating characters,' Syjuco says. 'A lot of Filipino writers were published in the west by major publishing houses. But after the late 1980s, those writers stopped getting international deals.' It is the tale of those jaded Filipino writers, once lauded, now forgotten, that Syjuco used as part of the inspiration for Ilustrado. 'Ilustrado is the name given to the young Filipino students who went to Europe to study science and society in the late 1800s,' he says. 'They came back to enlighten their home country and started the revolution that threw out the Spanish. My book is a murder-mystery that revolves around the death of once-lauded [fictional] Filipino writer Crispin Salvatore.' Syjuco tried to make Salvatore even more real, writing an entry for him in the online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia. Further, the novel is shot through with excerpts from Salvatore's novels and academic works. Then 'I found that someone had cut this entry [on Wikipedia] into chunks - early life, works, etc - and catalogued it with links to all the other Filipino writers,' he says. 'One agency in New York loved my novel but they asked me why I was citing so much work from this writer. I told them, 'I made him up! He's a figment of my imagination.' 'I patted myself on the back and thought I was going to get a great deal. Unfortunately, they were not amused.' Syjuco says Filipino writers have suffered under the shadow of their national hero, Nick Joaquin, who is said to have been writing magical realism long before Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 'At school we are told that Nick Joaquim's magical style is Filipino literature, and I tried to think, why? 'I tried writing like that when I was young, but I wanted to go beyond and against what went before. I think my writing has more similarities with the spare writing of [South American] Jorge Luis Borges or modern writer [Roberto] Bolano, who integrates pulp fiction and mystery and car chases and guns. 'There are similarities between Filipino and South American writing. Sure, the Philippines is a magical place. And there are similarities in the sense of alienation. I am more like other Latin American writers, peripatetic and lost. 'I discovered Bolano's The Savage Detective after I started writing Ilustrado. It's a story told in a series of fragments and interviews. And I thought, 'fantastic!' I am not alone and I can learn a lot from this fellow,' Syjuco says. Ilustrado is no sari saga: it's a mosaic of love and loss that spans generations. Syjuco sees it as a book of fragments that together try to tell the story of the country. 'It is like taking a vase and smashing it, taking those fragments and putting them together again,' he says. 'When I started writing Ilustrado I was reading a lot of Saul Bellow, and I loved the ideas and I wanted to write something like that. 'I had 10 Word documents all open at the same time with different threads of the story, then I started weaving them together and cutting them back, like a bonsai tree,' he says of the writing. 'It's a difficult process, because this book does not have a linear progression. But as I wrote, I started to see patterns emerging, like in jazz or classical music, and it can be the themes rather than the action that keep you going.' Ilustrado has many characters: Salvatore and the younger Filipino writer who tries to solve the mystery of his death; hip hop Philippine-Americans; Bastos, a Punch and Judy figure of fun; maids returning home; immigrants and returnees. Syjuco himself typifies the internationalism of his homeland. Born in Manila in 1976, his parents decided to move the family to Canada after a trip to Disneyland. 'I was just a baby, and my parents turned up with suitcases and whisked us all to Vancouver,' he says. 'They decided Canada would offer their children a better lifestyle.' Those first 10 years were spent in Vancouver, but with Marcos gone, the family returned to the Philippines and his father went into politics. Syjuco, who graduated from Cebu International School in 1993 and went to the Jesuit University, Ateneo de Manila, describes himself as coming from a privileged background, from a family who ran a soft drinks bottling company for three generations. 'I spent my summer vacations on the campaign trail. It was a profound experience for someone who had such a privileged background,' he says. 'Going from wealth to being immersed in the poor, but it was a good experience. 'I thought I would be a businessman like my father but at university I failed maths, so I took English literature,' he says. 'I didn't think I would be a writer, rather a literary critic. But in my senior year I started a creative writing thesis, which gave me the writing bug.' The internet bubble was good for Syjuco, co-founding localvibe.com, which he describes as a 'Time Out Manila', an entertainment guide. He sold out before the bust and used the money to move to New York, where he ended up in the creative writing programme at Columbia University. 'I moved there in October 2001, just a month after September 11,' Syjuco says. 'It was a strange atmosphere, but Columbia was a wonderful experience, even though I was very different from the other students. 'At first I felt insecure being surrounded by East Coast Ivy League kids. I felt I had something to prove, and I played with being exotic and brash and brazen. 'I didn't go to readings or try to publish in journals, just spent those years focusing on craft - while others went to the clubs,' he says. After graduating, Syjuco worked temporarily in the fiction department of The New Yorker, helping to choose fiction from the slush pile. 'There were hundreds of manuscripts in the pile and I was the first level of rejecting or accepting stories,' he says. 'I felt like a fraud. Basically I only read the first few paragraphs, then copied and pasted rejection letters. It was very discouraging and put me off trying to get published.' Syjuco has modest plans for his future. 'Well, back to copy-editing the sports page of the newspaper, The Montreal Star,' he says. 'It'll be sobering - after talking high literature I'll be writing about the Montreal Canadiens [ice hockey team] and the Toronto Maple Leafs. But I hope that my winning this prize will help open up exposure for Filipino writers. 'Personally, it means I've been getting attention from agents. 'Winning the prize has assured me that I'm not completely crazy doing what I'm doing. 'There were times I couldn't even get my close friends to read this, and now judges and others are saying, 'I'd like to read your book.'' Last year's winner, Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem, went on to sell more than 80,000 copies worldwide. There could be high times ahead for the second winner of the Man Asian Literary Award. Writer's notes Name: Miguel Syjuco Age: 32 Born: Manila Lives: Montreal Family: fifth of six children; single Future projects: another novel and a collection of short stories Work: Ilustrado, a novel, to be published in 2010 in Canada by Penguin and the US by Farrar, Straus & Giroux What the judges said of Ilustrado: 'Brilliantly conceived and stylishly executed, it covers a large and tumultuous historical period with seemingly effortless skill. 'It is also ceaselessly entertaining, frequently raunchy, and effervescent with humour.'