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Tom Sykes Explores the Manila of the Mind

The writer talks about his upcoming book, a look into the writings concerning the Philippine capital.

The City of Manila is an intriguing destination and the forthcoming book of Tom Sykes attests to this even before one opens its pages.

One can glean this through its premise. Entitled “Imagining Manila—Literature, Empire and Orientalism,” this book brings together the novels, memoirs, travelogues and reports British and American authors have written about the place. It is set to be published April next year and its ultimate goal is to examine these extensive writings to build a picture of Western attitudes towards the city and the country it belongs to.

This isn’t the first time Sykes dedicated a book to the Philippines. Having visited the country many times, the man (who now resides in Portsmouth England) has previously published something about the Philippines entitled “The Realm of the Punisher: Travels in Duterte’s Philippines.” And, while he is known for writing satire, essays and a number of other things, it is here where his capacity truly shines.

Although the title would suggest that he was going to cut the strong man a new one, readers may be very surprised that it’s really mostly about his travels, interviews, and ruminations about being a Western stranger in a strange land. Sykes also doesn’t have a particular beat on the pages and is comfortable almost everywhere discussing diverse subjects. He’s talked with fringe, marginalized sectors through encounters with a transgender rights campaigner, an 86-year-old former sex slave to the Japanese in WW2, a public artist who must work while under attack from NPA rebels, and slum-dwellers resisting violent eviction. He even went to Davao to try and secure an interview with President Duterte himself. 

He has engaged a lot of topics throughout his career as a writer. And, come April, 2021, he’s bound to engage more. But before we get there, we managed to talk to the man about his work. We also discussed why he spent over a decade traveling around the land he once called “the Realm of the Punisher.”

KARL R DE MESA: On your book, “The Realm of the Punisher,” you seem to be comfortable everywhere and you don’t seem to have a particular beat or specialty subject like most travel writers. How does one put it all together?   

TOM SYKES: In the various parts of the Philippines I went to I spoke with a very diverse range of people. But I suppose there are some underlying themes or interests that sort of unified these encounters. I’m particularly interested in politics, and that’s what drew me to the activists and writers that I interviewed and hung out with.

I met with [National Artist] F. Sionil Jose who’s unashamedly polemical in his fiction and other writings. His novel “Dusk” is about a group of Filipinos around the time of the 1896 revolution and one of them murders a Spanish priest who has been horribly oppressing their community. These Filipinos are then forced to leave their home and go into the countryside, which becomes a kind of Romantic metaphor for Philippine independence or Philippine anti-colonialism. These themes of nationalism, identity, and resistance came up in other interviews I conducted for that book.

KDM: Take us back to 2010, your first time here in Metro Manila, and how you ended up staying for nearly a decade.

TS: It was kind of accidental and some of it has to do with luck. But I’d always been interested in the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

That started with my grandfather who would tell me these stories about visiting Manila when he was in the Royal Navy just before he ended up fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific in WW2. And he had this romantic colonialist idea of the place – it offered a Westerner a very enjoyable time.. He’d be sitting on the balcony of a colonial bar, drinking Tanduay, smoking cigars—I believe at that point in history Philippine tobacco was more respected and enjoyed than its Havana counterpart.   

So I had this picture in my head from my grandfather, but when I went to school and college, I studied Asia and Southeast Asia, and the picture necessarily became more nuanced. Fast forward a little bit to the mid-2000s when I traveled through SEA but unfortunately never made it to Manila. After that trip, I had a yearning to come back to Asia since it had changed my life in many ways, including giving me a lot of subject matter as a writer. I thought, I’d like to live there and I’d like to go to the Philippines this time because I’ve been thinking and reading about it for so long now.

By this point, I had started working for this magazine in Malaysia called “Quill” and they said, “Why don’t you do a column about being an Englishman in Manila?” So I moved to Quezon City and lived there for three months.

KDM: You also detail how you came to be a regular of the Katipunan road bars and hangouts.

TS: I lucked out by happening to live near that legendary Katipunan bar called Ride and Roll. Another really important part of the story is meeting you guys there, the artists and writers and intelligentsia of Manila. I went into the bar that first time and I thought, “Wow, this is great, there are all these literary types.” That was a huge education for me and a lot of their insights made it into the book.

KDM: You also meditate on the role of stereotypes per character and nationality and how those are spread for misuse. 

TS: I’m very interested in stereotypes and myths, how they come about, how they are sustained, how they can be interrogated. I think that’s quite important now in the current political climate across the world. It’s necessary for this age of “fake news”, a term I don’t actually like. I prefer “propaganda” because I’m a bit old-fashioned maybe and I feel ”Fake news” tends to be applied in quite a narrow way that doesn’t take into account the hierarchies of disinformation that’s out there. I’ve been on the receiving end of abuse from Duterte’s trolls, who mobilize fake news in quite horrific ways as you know. A lot of people critical of Duterte have been targeted on the basis of half-truths and false assumptions.   In fact, I got threatened with libel when I did an interview with a Britain-based Filipino activist for a magazine here. It was scary because this had never happened to me before. As it turned out, the accuser didn’t have a leg to stand on, because the article checked out factually. That experience is now something I wear as a badge of pride!

KDM: On a lighter note, you seemed to have a great time discussing the stereotypes that Filipinos had about the people in the UK, especially regarding cricket.

TS: Yes, one evening in Ride and Roll these Filipino athletes and coaches started asking me about cricket. Understandably these guys didn’t know the rules of the game and when I tried to explain them they suddenly seemed absurd to me too. But the good thing about that was that it made me think about my own assumptions.

That was a learning experience. All of a sudden, you see your own culture in a new light, from a new point of view. That’s an absolutely essential process for all kinds of reasons. Hopefully it makes you a more thoughtful, empathetic person and  helps you to avoid prejudice or impatience towards “otherness”.

KDM: Traveling and comprehending other cultures is a legitimate way to engender tolerance and kindness?

TS: If you don’t experience other things, if you don’t expose yourself to difference, then you become, I think, complacent and possibly arrogant about who you are and where you come from. For instance, talking to a lot of Filipinos with at least some knowledge of the UK, I realized that I come from a country that has a reputation for being polite and understated. But, actually, I think [that] we, as a society, can be quite angry and combative. It’s quite normal here [for] people [to argue] in the streets whereas that would be deeply uncool in a place like the Philippines.

KDM: It seems like you have a special place for the Philippines. Would you say you’re a traveler, who also just happens to be a writer and a journalist, or was it the other way around?

TS: I think probably the other way around. I’ve written about Malaysia and about other parts of Asia, as well, but the Philippines I find the most interesting for a number of reasons. For me, reading up about destinations and traveling to them to get some lived experience of a very different place, a very different situation, is always inspirational. These two things complement each other: the more academic type of research and the more hands-on reporting.

I remember being inspired by meeting Kublai Millan, an artist in Davao who does these extraordinarily brave acts. He goes out into the middle of NPA territory and erects these beautiful works of public art that deliver a message of peace and unity. He told me that, while making these pieces of art, his colleagues have been shot at by snipers but they carry on with their work regardless. 

KDM: From the title of [The Realm of The Punisher] alone, people would think this a political book. It’s easy to see why they would mistake this but they may be surprised to discover it’s mostly about your travels, interviews, and reflections.

TS: Yes, it is an autobiographical travelogue driven by lived experience but there are moments of reflection, as you say, on issues such as how British and American journalists and academics report on the country. One of my criticisms of that discourse is that it tends to look at the rise of Duterte in a way that’s not very nuanced. It doesn’t put this event into a wider context.

That wider context is actually provided really well by a lot of Filipino commentators. Prof Walden Bello (who wrote the introduction to ”Realm”, and is something of a legend, in my view) is very persuasive when he outlines a number of deep historical and material reasons for why we have someone like Duterte in charge now.

For Bello, some of the blame must be attributed to theglobal financial institutions, like the IMF and the World Bank, which are generally run for the benefit of the richer Western nations. These institutions imposed  “structural adjustment programs” starting under Marcos in the 1970s. . Bello writes about how these programs were intended to help the Philippines with issues like poverty and low productivity, but in fact imposed all kinds of damaging policies of privatization, deregulation and austerity. This sowed immense alienation and discontent amongst poorer Filipinos and so, years down the line, you start to see these people turning to someone like Duterte as the authoritarian strong man who promises, “I’m going to sort all these problems out.” And of course he doesn’t because the problems are too severe and structural to be solvable by angry rhetoric or by slaughtering shabu addicts.

My critique of most Western coverage of Duterte and the Philippines is that it doesn’t talk about these wider factors. It doesn’t address things like systemic flaws in global economic systems because it makes the West look bad, implies that the West might have to take responsibility for its negative impacts abroad (this of course includes the legacies of colonialism and imperialism in the Philippines).  This is stuff I get into in much more detail in my new book.

KDM: Your new book, “Imagining Manila” will be out in early 2021. Since it’s more of a critical review of literature about Manila, did you have a decidedly less stressful and less hazardous time writing it? 

TS: Sitting in a library and reading about other guys who’ve written about the Philippines is less dangerous, yes! “Imagining Manila” came out of my PhD studies during which I realized that a number of Western writers have helped to form the West’s idea and image of Manila and the Philippines. More recent examples include Alex Garland’s crime novel “The Tesseract” and the nonfiction of James Fenton, James Hamilton-Paterson and Jonathan Miller. I also discovered a number of British and American writers of the 19th century. One of the oldest Anglophone Western texts I could find that at least briefly engages with the Philippines was “A New Voyage Round the World” by Daniel Defoe, which was first published in 1724.

My analysis owes something to Edward Said’s “Orientalism” (1978) which showed how19th century European poets, novelists and philosophers constructed a one-sided and ideologically partisan “imaginative geography” of the Middle East that tapped into all kinds of Western prejudices about the non-Western world’s supposed lack of civilization, culture, education, justice and so forth.

Obviously, the Philippines is – and always has been – very different from the Middle East in many ways, so the coordinates of the Western depiction of it are different too. One dubious “Manilaist” trope that has survived over the centuries is this fetishization of poverty, overcrowding, and other Global Southern urban challenges. The latest instance of that is Dan Brown’s execrable potboiler “Inferno” (2013) which offended a lot of Manileños with its partial and simplistic descriptions of  “Six-hour-long traffic jams, suffocating pollution and a miserable sex trade.” It’s the development, function, and political significance of these sorts of representational models that “Imagining Manila” tries to grapple with.

The Realm of the Punisher can be bought on Kindle

Imagining Manila can be pre-ordered from Bloomsbury Publishing 

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