Portrait of the artist — Miguel Syjuco, Ilustrado (Interview)

Portrait of the artist — Miguel Syjuco, Ilustrado (Interview)

Miguel Syjuco entered the international spotlight in 2008 when the manuscript of his debut novel, Ilustrado, won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, awarded to the best unpublished English-language book by an Asian author. The novel, published in Canada in May, tells the story of a young Filipino writer living in New York, also named Miguel Syjuco, and his mentor, lion of Philippine letters Crispin Salvador. When Crispin dies mysteriously and the elder writer’s long-awaited manuscript goes missing, Miguel suspects foul play and returns to Manila to investigate whether the death was tied to Crispin’s latest work, rumoured to pillory the Philippine ruling elite.

Told partly from Miguel’s perspective, partly through fragments of Crispin’s fictional writings, as well as blogs, news reports, and interviews, Ilustrado examines the responsibilities of the artist within the corruption of Philippine politics.

Raised in Manila and Vancouver, the 33-year-old author currently lives in Montreal, where he is completing the thesis work for a doctorate from the University of Adelaide. The Varsity met the author over brunch while he was in town for the International Festival of Authors.


The Ilustrados of your title: who are they?


Well, on the surface they are the young men, the young expatriates who left the Philippines in the late 1800s to become students, propagandists, and reformers in Europe. These are a group of middle-class scholars, the educated elite, who left, studied all they could in Europe — warfare, the liberal arts, sciences, medicine, philosophy — and then came back and were a central part of the Philippine Revolution. When you talk about the Ilustrado class, that’s what it refers to.

But I use it in two other ways. One way I flip the meaning, I use it somewhat ironically in the book, because it’s an indictment of the elites who made the wrong decisions or selfish decisions throughout the generations. These are the ruling elite who have let the country down.

The third way that I use it is as a potentiality. The Filipino diaspora is huge: 10 million, maybe more. These modern, contemporary expatriates are all around the world, and they have the potential to follow in the footsteps of those first expatriates who studied all they could, experienced all they could, and came back and contributed to the country — so some sort of social revolution. What happens all too often with the brain drain right now is people go away; they don’t come back.


Crispin has aspirations to belong to that original Ilustrado class, or at least to have that political engagement.


He does belong to that tradition, yes.


But he’s frustrated that his writing hasn’t had the political effect he would like. Is that something you ascribe to, this idea that books, words, can have that political effect that Crispin is reaching for?


I think every writer — every serious writer — when they write, wants to have some sort of effect. Ilustrado is an examination of this question, whether or not writing or art can be political, whether it can have some sort of engagement or not. Or even just the broader fact that educated, upper-class, well-meaning Filipinos aren’t given the opportunities by the system, by the government, to make any difference whatsoever. So I wanted to play with that idea.

I do subscribe to this idea that literature can be a political act, but I have no illusions that it will cause huge waves. I do believe it could cause ripples. It’s not going to be read by the masses who will rise up and revolt and create a new, utopic society, but hopefully it will be read by those people who are in positions of governance, education, public policy, and will do a few things. Number one, remind them that they do have a social responsibility. Number two, that they are not alone in their frustrations. And number three, that somebody out there is watching and trying to tell stories that are meaningful, that are connected with the harsh realities of the country.


If serious literature aspires to some sort of effect, would you say that Ilustrado has a moral?

Every writer — every serious writer — wants to have some sort of effect. 


No, but it is a book about morality. It is a book that tries to dispel these facile absolutes of good versus evil, rich versus poor, corrupt versus not corrupt, or honesty versus dishonesty. In a country like the Philippines, like any third-world country — like any country — it’s not about that. It’s about the in-betweens, the hidden agendas, the right thing sometimes being convenient. Unless the voice of the people pushes the people in power towards the right thing, they’re not going to do it. So it does look at the morality behind social engagement, behind religion, behind being part of a national experience or deciding to tune out. So there’s no moral. It’s a book without answers, but it’s a book filled with questions.


You talk about the Philippine diaspora, which is massive. Is there something specific about that diaspora that you wanted to address?


I wanted to write a book that would appeal to both Philippine readers and international readers. I don’t see any reason why a book can’t be both if it’s deep and rich and wide enough. But I wanted to discuss this idea of coming and going, I wanted to show that experience as something that has happened over generations and over classes, and that’s why I have so many narrative threads. I wanted to speak to the frustration we have that through generations, nothing has changed in the country. I hoped that the book would do okay abroad, that people would read it and that the act of publishing, the act of being read abroad in a way becomes a source of pride for the Philippines. More often than not, people haven’t read a book by a Filipino writer.


And I’ll admit I hadn’t.


Exactly, right? Most people haven’t even heard of a book by a Filipino writer, and we’ve got a hundred-year history of writing in English. So by the book’s content I wanted to address things about the diaspora and the Filipino experience at home and abroad. But by the book itself also, I hope it does represent this idea that we can tell our story if we work hard at telling it, and that people are interested, and they want to read it and want to listen to this culture that is all too often dismissed as a bunch of preconceptions such as maids or prostitutes or Imelda Marcos. We’re all of those things and far more, and I wanted to express that and help explain to ourselves and to the rest of the world why we have these problems. In charting 150 years of Philippine history, I’m able to look at the road that we had to take to get to this troubled position. We’re not just some screwed-up country.


It came from somewhere.




That desire to cover these subjects: was that the jumping-off point for writing the novel? How was the book conceived?

I didn’t do these literary games for the sake of literary games. 


I wanted to write about a character, a portrait of an artist, a frustrated guy who, having enjoyed some success when the world was watching, when the news cycle was focused on us, then fell into obscurity and frustration later on, and anger and resentment, and the hope that we could come back. He’s an archetypal character I think for any third-world experience and that’s why I made Crispin Salvador. I thought it would be interesting to create a portrait of an artist through his work. But what happened was, in creating the work, I found that this is a great window into Philippine history and society. So I wanted to create this character and then found that the problem, or the challenge, with discussing culture or history through fiction is that it can sometimes be didactic. The act of narrating it sort of feels like, “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, now I’m going to tell you about my country.” It doesn’t feel organic to narrative. But I found that through his work, by using those sorts of didactic forms — essays, interviews, articles, blogs, memoir — I could quite elegantly be didactic without the reader feeling they’re being fed some sort of sugar-coated, potted history. I liked that, and that’s why I chose the form I chose for Ilustrado. I know it’s unconventional and some people say challenging, but that’s fine. I didn’t do these literary games for the sake of literary games. I did it because I had an aesthetic and artistic purpose.



In other interviews, you’ve bristled at the word “postmodern” when it’s been applied to this novel. In a way, it’s understandable why people might apply it to Ilustrado, in that it’s fragmentary, and for a lot of people, that’s shorthand for postmodernism. But you don’t think that label applies?


No. I mean, postmodernism was a reaction to modernism, the modernism of the ’60s or ’70s. That was 30, 40, 50 years ago. And I think it’s a shorthand word, you’re right, but I don’t think it’s a precise word at all. I don’t think it’s an applicable word. I think this book is contemporary. The way we look at our reality is fragmentary. Our sources of information come from many places. You look at movies, you look at music: we have a lot of sampling, a lot of influences. HBO TV: they cut scenes and they follow different characters. It’s no longer just one or two cameras following the action. And yet, in fiction there’s a resistance to that sort of move to processing narrative or experiencing narrative the way we do elsewhere. I just see it as a contemporary novel, whereas other novels that stick to older conventions are more traditional. That’s all there is to it. I don’t consider it postmodern at all.

You look at the movies, you look at music: We have a lot of sampling, a lot of influences. And yet, in fiction there’s a resistance to processing narrative the way we do elsewhere. 


There seems to be this paucity of language to describe contemporary novels, you know?


I do, and it’s almost used pejoratively.


What are you doing your degree in?


English literature.


English literature. Contemporary stuff?


It’s a survey of Philippine literature with a focus on the tradition of writing in English. And it was meant to position or define where Ilustrado fits into that tradition.


So is that something that you also struggle with? Trying to describe what’s going on in contemporary literature?


Yeah! I’m struggling with contemporary literature, period, you know? I’m distressed by the fact that, when something is considered different, innovative, people say it’s “postmodern,” it’s “clever,” it’s “pretentious,” all these things. I don’t know why.




Yeah! I was on a panel at the Vancouver festival with Paul Harding, who just won a Pulitzer, Eleanor Catton, who wrote The Rehearsal, and Pascale Quiviger. It was a panel about books with different or innovative — or, yeah, “too clever,” whatever — plot structure or narrative structure. But it was interesting to be on that panel because I suddenly felt not alone. Here were other people going through the same frustration that I was.


I interviewed Eleanor yesterday, and yeah, she had the same sort of complaint, because some critics have said her book is too theoretical.


When did we become like that?!


I don’t know! I think there’s this expectation that a book should be mere entertainment —


That’s right.


Or this beautiful sleight of hand —




I guess? Which — it’s wonderful if a book can be those things, but it’s like we ask too little of books.


And we also ask too much of them.


Well, there’s something to be said for being entertaining.

I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t assume that readers are smart. 


Yeah, and that’s fine, but it’s almost funny because there are people who, you know, you think David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Roberto Bolaño: these are writers who people know they’re going to have a challenging time reading, but that’s fine, they understand that. But it’s almost as if they established themselves earlier on in an age when, I don’t know, when it was okay to do those things. But nowadays …


But, you know, people do enjoy being set a challenge. You sit down to read David Foster Wallace and you know what you’re getting into and you look forward to that.


Exactly. And the thing with David Foster Wallace is, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t assume that readers are smart. But a lot of books out there — and it frustrates me — a lot of books out there feel like they’re kids books for adults. Also, a lot of North American writing has gotten very domesticated.


How so?


It’s about failing marriages. It’s about the death of a loved one. All these things are important; this is part of the universal experience. But where is the tradition of going out there and seeing the world and writing about people? That’s why I think North American non-fiction is amazing. But North American fiction sometimes, people are always worried that it’s dying, and I think it is stagnating in the topics we undertake.


It doesn’t aspire?


No. It’s easy. It’s easy to say, “Oh, I’ve gone through a failed marriage,” or “Oh, I know what it’s like to lose a husband and so therefore I’m going to meditate on that, write a book, and publish it as a work of fiction,” rather than saying, “You know what? I’m going to do something critical. I’m going to go to Africa or I’m going to go to see the world and then write about that.” You look at someone like the graphic novelist Joe Sacco. He’s amazing! He’s a war correspondent, and he’ll go somewhere — Sarajevo, Palestine — Safe Area Gorazde is the one that I’ve recently read. But that’s what he does: he goes out, he comes home, and he writes a graphic novel.

I want to write big books that were destined to become failures because they bit off more than they could chew. I want to see more of that. 

But if one were to take a look at a lot of the books out there, a lot of the novels out there, you would only find a small percentage, a quarter maybe — they’re all about the same thing. It’s all about looking inward and, well, you can look inward, but you also have to look outward. It’s about the human condition, right? Books can be psychological, but we do live in the world, and we need to go out into the world a little bit more, such as Sacco does. Maybe it’s the marketing, maybe it’s the industry. But that’s not the kind of books I want to write. I want to write big books that were destined to become failures because they bit off more than they could chew. I want to see more of that. That’s my frustration with reading.

We need people trying to do things differently. It took me a while to come to terms with this idea that my books aren’t going to fly off the shelves. It’s not going to be universally loved. It’s going to be divisive. There are going to be people who get it, enjoy it, some people in some cases love it, there are going to be people who don’t get it whatsoever, dismiss it, say, “This is crap.” But then there’s that faith, there’s that description: “It’s a good book for a book club.” Like, it’s even taught in schools. I like that. I mean, publishers want to sell books — writers do, too — but this idea that you can write books that people feel passionately about: that’s the most important thing.


A couple people feeling passionately about it rather than a lot of people feeling okay about it.


Exactly. I don’t want a middle-of-the-road book. My readers — people say, you know, “So who was your intended reader?” It’s anyone who likes this sort of stuff. And if they don’t like it, that’s fine: go read something else.


So tell me about your thesis, then. I don’t know anything about Philippine writing.


It was a PhD in English and creative writing. So it had two components: the creative part, writing Ilustrado, and the academic part, my thesis, which is something of a survey/exegesis. But I had to situate where Ilustrado comes in, and I wanted it to be a reaction or an extension of this tradition. I had a lot of work to do that, because Philippine literature all too often is either magical realism, social realism with a Marxist bent, or self-exoticization pandering to the Western view of what Oriental writing should be. I wanted to write a book that satirizes all of that, calls that out, you know, “We can be more.” That’s why there are passages in my book where I have writers saying this.

If I wasn’t trying to satisfy the PhD or trying to situate Ilustrado at the end of a tradition, I think I would have written it a bit differently. There were several pages of Miguel and Crispin talking about Philippine literature. If I was writing for the press, for popularity, that’s not something I would dare do. But I wanted it also to be a call to arms for Filipino writers and readers.

So my survey charted the importance of language, the peasant language, throughout Philippine literary history: we were a Spanish colony, and then we were an American colony, and then later on we had this post-colonial reaction to the colonial experience where we rejected these languages and tried to bring back Tagalog, tried to bring back all of these things. To this day, there are people in the Philippines who believe that we should be completely “nationalistic” in rejecting the traditions that we have — go back to writing myths, go back to writing in Tagalog. It’s ridiculous! So I spent a lot of time trying to make the point that the Philippine tradition — not even just Philippine literature, but Philippine history — the colonial experience has helped define us, and that our culture is strong enough to not need the impetus of things like, “We should be writing in this way, we should be making these copies.”

We have 80 languages and dialects, and English is one of them. Why don’t we write in all of them, and translate each other so that we can be read at home and published abroad? But no. People would rather sit at home or at their offices in the university, and bitch and moan and say, “That’s not Filipino enough, that’s not authentic enough.” “Authenticity,” “post-colonialism”: these are jargon words that have been around for 40 years, and they do not say anything about what’s being done now and what must be done. These are people who went to school 30, 40 years ago; it’s what they learned in school and it’s what they’ve been writing all their lives, and I’m sorry, they’ve just got to get out of the way.


When you were choosing which fragments to use/write, did you have a subject you wanted a section to cover, or did it come out of where you wanted the plot to go?


Well, in the book I didn’t map out, “Okay, I want to talk about the immigrant experience, I want to talk about land reform.” I wanted to create a book that did touch on different aspects of the people and culture, and it just organically grew with the plot, in a way. I knew that because I was writing different narrative threads, I needed to create a way to keep everything together or else it would become this big jumbled mess. So I took from music — jazz and classical music — and I looked at motifs, like when you listen to a jazz piece, the motifs are what keep it together. So with all these narrative threads I do have a framework in the book: I’ve got revolution, social engagement, politics, the relationship between father and son, literature. Thematically, that’s what I tried to do. In doing that, I determined what statement to put on what page. One of the things I wanted to do was write genres that don’t exist in the country.

Dominador’s face is fierce. His teeth, filed into points, make him look like a wolf. Antonio points and tells him: “Ay, punyeta! Look behind you!” Dominador just laughs. “The oldest trick in the book,” he says. Antonio replies: “Not in this book,” then jumps off the overpass and into the water. When Antonio surfaces, he sees eight policemen chasing Dominador. His nemesis, however, is surprisingly quick for a man of his bulk. “I’ll get him in a following chapter,” Antonio mutters before diving, lest the fuzz spot him.

from Manila Noir, by Crispin Salvador

“Where?” Dulcé asked. “That one,” Gardener told the girl, over there, the one with roots for branches. If we’re not careful, we’ll return there before our time.” Thick branches drooped sinewy tendrils around its trunk and deep into the ground. Its hanging limbs reminded Dulcé of curtains, its roots like Gardener’s knotty toes. A teacher at school had taught Dulcé the native names for the trees in their region — narra, bakawan, almaciga, kamagong, molave — as well as their foreign names. This tree was the blaete, or moraceae, also known as the strangler tree. The name alone sent shivers down Dulcé’s spine.

from Kapatid, Book One of Crispin Salvador’s Kaputol trilogy

Late that evening, long after the guests have left and his wife and children have gone to sleep, he writes in his diary: “The developments in the provinces around Manila make me both fear and long for trouble here. This is what we’ve been working for so long! It is close and I’m strangled by fear. I awaken weeping, alone in my room. Suddenly it is bigger, as if I’m in a strange field. The shadows are friars, soldiers, traitors, streaking through underbrush just beyond my seeing. If I suffer such nights, what must that final one have been like for my poor old friend José [Rizal]? Only upon entering Maria Clara’s room, to hear her and the children’s breathing, do I find the bravery to shirk my ideas of independence.

from The Enlightened, by Crispin Salvador


There’s no Manila noir?


No. There’s none.


But it’s so much fun!


It was fun writing it! But we don’t have that. We don’t have science fiction, YA, the seafaring novel, we don’t have writers trying to write big memoirs. It’s starting to change now, but not really. We have lots of romance novels, that sort of stuff, but it’s either melodrama or social realism, and it’s ridiculous. So I wanted Crispin to write — what he wrote was kind of my commentary about my frustration. Seriously, Philippine literature is very often about the poor or farmers or labour organizers or families — but there’s so many different aspects [to the country]. I’m clearly a frustrated, angry man. [laughs]

If I’ve got this book crucifying everyone else, I’ve got to crucify myself. 


We haven’t really talked at all about your other main character, and the murder mystery he sets out on investigating, the major plot of the novel. Why did you give your main character your name?


If I’m going to satirize, criticize other people, other archetypes, or other groups in the book, I felt it was only right that I started with myself. So the Miguel Syjuco character represents my worst tendencies or the possible mistakes I could make if I’m not careful. He’s somewhat unlikeable, unreliable, lost. So I thought, well, hey, if I’ve got this book that in a way is crucifying everyone else, I’ve got to crucify myself. I’ve got to have the guy with my name represent a lot of crap. It’s not an apology at all, it’s laying myself out there.

But I also wanted to dispel this separation between fact and fiction. I wanted the reader to think, “What is fact? What is fiction? This is Miguel Syjuco. Is it autobiographical? Is it not? If this is Miguel Syjuco and this is real, then maybe everything else is real and these other characters are real.” I wanted to keep the reader off balance a little bit, because when you’re off balance, you’re paying attention. So I do that with Miguel, but I cite newspapers that exist, and ones that don’t exist. I have politicians who are fictional constructs and I have real politicians. I wanted to dispel this notion that when we read fiction, we do it to be entertained, but when we read non-fiction, we invest it with all this credulity, we say, “This is important.” Why can’t fiction be that way, too? So I wanted people to wonder both if Miguel is real and if Crispin is real, and therefore if everything else in the book is real. Because ultimately, it doesn’t matter, does it? If it speaks to certain truths, and conveys them well, that’s the point of what I’m doing. Whether it’s real or not doesn’t really matter. I get asked that question a lot, and I find it funny.


Well, it is unusual. I see what you’re saying, but a lot of authors don’t do that.


Well, it’s very usual for them to write about their…


To write about themselves and put a different name on the characters?


Exactly. You know, the writer Wayne Grady, he teaches non-fiction in Vancouver. When he’s trying to teach fiction writers how to write non-fiction, he says, “The only difference is that you stop changing the names.” You know?




I wanted to do something different, something challenging, interesting to me as a writer and hope that readers would have the same fascination with those things.


Your character Miguel, his storyline is like this murder mystery in search of a murder.




What is he actually after?


The book is a novel that starts out as a murder mystery, or a mystery about a death, and then it branches out to cover the mysteries of life. So what Miguel is searching for is just that: some sort of handle on the mysteries of life that he’s going through. The book is a coming of age novel, but since you’ve read the end, you know it’s not a coming of age novel for Miguel. It’s a coming of age novel for someone else. I mean, what is a coming of age novel? A search for meaning, a search for purpose, a search for your place in the world. I think that’s what Miguel is looking for.


I enjoyed your depiction of public life.


Of what?


Public life.




There were three characters that particularly interested me.


Who are the three?


Wigberto Lakandula, Reverend Martin, and Vita Nova. You cover a range of aspects of Philippine society. Each of these characters seems to draw upon a facet of that for his or her celebrity status and political power.


Wigberto is a Robin Hood character: this idea of the rich versus the poor. Of somebody who stands up against the status quo and becomes a very romantic character. The Philippines is a celebrity culture. If you want to get into politics, you first become a boxer or an actor or a basketball player. It’s the same in North America, too. Maybe less so in Canada, but you have newscasters, Hollywood actors. In the Philippines, it’s celebrity culture pumped up on steroids. Our politics isn’t about idealism, it’s about how well-known you are. So Wigberto represents this idea that it is about idealism, and that we’re hungry for a hero, someone who won’t let us down. What happens in the Philippines, unfortunately, is that we think they’re heroes and then they let us down constantly. So I wanted to touch on that with him. He’s a reluctant star. He doesn’t want to be a hero.

In the Philippines, it’s celebrity culture pumped up on steroids.

Now, Reverend Martin is somebody who wants to be a star so that he can be a kingmaker, so that he can be rich, so that he can have followers, and the best way to do that in the Philippines is through religion. For generations, for centuries, it was always about the church. Our great national hero José Rizal wrote two books against what is now called the friarocracy: government run by friars of different denominations. And so Reverend Martin is I guess a look at religious leadership and how it is tied to celebrity and, again, it’s not about morals, it’s about popularity and finding power through that popularity.

Vita Nova — same thing. This is a woman who slept her way to the top of society. She’s used what she has, and in some people’s perspective, that’s a good thing: you use what you’ve got, whatever you have: she had her body, her looks, her talents, her showmanship, and that’s what she used to become one of the most popular actresses in the Philippines. Some people will see that as cheap, but a lot of people will see that as laudable. Again, I come from a country where corruption, at least certain levels of it, is applauded. People will say, “Oh, that congressman is stealing, but you know what? That’s okay. I would have done the same thing.” We think, “We’re poor” — if Vita Nova has her body and she has her looks, and uses what she has to parlay some sort of success and stability, that’s okay. So you have different facets of celebrity, and I hoped that I could touch on the different frustrations that the country has. So you have the reluctant hero, the religious leader, and the movie star.


Your next book is about Vita?


Yeah. She’s such a minor character in this book, but the next book is going to be about her life and how she slept her way to the top. In doing that, when I look at all the men she slept with, as she discusses them, you get a cross-section of Philippine society. I want it to be an examination of corruption and how it works in third-world society. Because I do believe that the only way we can posit solutions is we first have to understand the problem, and fiction is a very powerful tool to do that. You can write non-fiction, investigative journalism, but if nobody’s going to be reading that, or just a few people are reading that, it won’t create a general understanding. Fiction has a broader reach.


It’s also this social lab, fiction. You can throw together whoever you want, and see what happens, as long as it’s believable.


That’s a really good point. Yeah, that’s true. I guess I was just doing that intuitively, without thinking about it. I think about The Wire. Have you seen The Wire?


I’m in Season Two right now.


Alright. So I won’t give anything away. But you know the premise, how they investigate different aspects of Baltimore and how the system does or doesn’t work. And they do it really well. Essentially, it’s a crime drama, it’s a cop drama, that’s all it is, but it’s so much more. And that’s the sort of book I want to write: on the surface, Ilustrado is a murder mystery or my next book, I Was the President’s Mistress, is a celebrity tell-all memoir, but it’s much more than that. If I told you I’m writing a book about corruption, you’d think, “Okay. That’s interesting.” But if I’m writing a celebrity tell-all memoir, then you learn about corruption.

I don’t want to write the same thing, so even though I am using Vita Nova, even though I am setting it in the Philippines, to me it’s entirely different. The form will be different, the focus will be entirely different. That’s another thing that bothers me about a lot of contemporary writing. Some people get away with it — Philip Roth, Cheever — they write about the same thing because they want to refine it until it’s a masterpiece, but I don’t want to do it that way. Setting isn’t subject, characters aren’t subject. I look at Stanley Kubrick — that’s what I want to do. I want to be able write different things with the same depth, the same verve, the same style, always. So that’s why I’m writing about Vita Nova.

Rules of the locker room

There is one factor that every sports team out to win possesses: camaraderie.

Players need to be comfortable with their teammates, coaches, and trainers. This doesn’t mean that everybody has to necessarily like each other, but they should at the very least respect one another.

Sure, this mentality should be practiced by everyone, whether in the office, the living room, or Walmart, but have you ever seen the way athletes act with and around their teammates?

They take comfort to a whole new level.

As spectators, we think that players seem to have no insecurities when it comes to teammates and their personal space. We see players hugging in celebration, holding hands in anticipation, and smacking each other’s asses in congratulation.

In a typical work environment, this would be seen as harassment. But in sports, and excuse the Family Guy reference, “nothing says ‘good job’ like a firm, open-palm slap on the behind.”

Athletes do have boundaries, believe it or not, particularly in the locker room. There is a code, a certain etiquette that players must adhere to whenever they are in their sanctum.
alt text

On the field, personal space is non-existent, but in the locker room everyone has a piece of real estate, and there are limits to how players must conduct themselves.

From the depths of U of T’s locker rooms comes the following guide, and subsequent penalties for stepping out of bounds.

There are rules about violating another player’s safe-zone. Do not sit in another player’s stall, do not touch another player’s equipment, and most importantly, do not fart in the vicinity of someone else’s locker. Violations of these rules are not to be taken lightly.

A player once put a dead squirrel in a teammate’s locker. While some found it funny and others disturbing, this player had crossed the line.

How did the owner of the locker respond? By messing with the other’s equipment; he pooed in a cup, and then put the cup in his teammate’s helmet. Obviously, the instigator did not like this act of revenge, and a fight almost broke out.

Keeping in mind that it is a locker room and players will inevitably be nude at some point or another, there are a few laws regarding behaviour while exposed.

While it’s fine for two naked players to stand or sit talking to each other, once one player puts his or her leg up on the bench or spreads their legs, offside must be called. This is a locker room, not the set of Basic Instinct.

That being said, players must know what type of grooming is dressing-room appropriate, and what is not.

Do not shave or trim your pubes in the aisle. Sounds obvious, but it happens, and it’s not cool.

And if you have hemorrhoids, as shitty as it must feel, don’t apply your Preparation H in an open space while everyone is around you.

There is a sense of business within any given locker room, and it’s important for players to focus on the task at hand.

Park your personal problems outside the locker room. Whether it’s family issues, relationship problems, or academic troubles, the locker room is not the place to air them out. Sweaty balls, yes. Private matters, no.

There is also an interesting social dynamic in the dressing room, and it involves rookies and veterans. While hazing is illegal and frowned upon, there is still an element of it in the locker room, just not to the degree it once was.

Rookies don’t get sodomized with mop handles, sprayed with urine from shampoo bottles, or duct taped and then rubbed with feces and peanut butter — at least not any more.

It’s just about maintaining social order these days. Rookies aren’t to make eye contact with veterans, or laugh at their jokes.

If a rookie breaks the code, and say, decides to soak a veteran’s clothing, the consequences are severe. Once, the entire team pissed all over a rookie’s stuff, and put A5-35 in his gloves, helmet, and jock strap.

So while there are limitations to conduct in a dressing room, these boundaries seem unclear, or rather, are not set in a way that is… reasonable for a civilized society.

When you set foot in a locker room, you walk in with a clear conscience: no grudges and no outside distractions. When you leave the locker room, the slate is once again wiped clean.

What happens in the dressing room stays in the dressing room.

Welcome to Fordland

If you want to laugh, laugh. If you want to weep, weep. But it’s now done. Rob Ford, the right-wing Etobicoke councillor from Ward 2 who many of us rightly regard as a potential disaster, is now mayor of the city of Toronto. With his simple promise of “stopping the gravy train” he won the hearts and minds of thousands of Torontonians. His victory was of such a wide margin that even if Smitherman and Pantalone had put all their votes together, Ford would still be the new mayor. He got more than 383,501 votes, which equals 47.098% of the vote compared to 289,832 for Smitherman and 95,482 for Pantalone.

When Ford first entered the race in April, nobody took him seriously. Smitherman, one of the top Liberal provincial politicians, had thrown his hat in the race and was thought to be unbeatable. Pundits said that if there was a right-wing politician who could beat Smitherman it would have been John Tory, the former leader of PC Ontario who had lost to David Miller (and to a few other people in almost every election he ever took part in). Toronto was thought to be too “progressive” for somebody like Ford to win.

Right from the outset I repeatedly warned people about the chances of his victory. In September I wrote: “In absence of such a candidate (a labour candidate with socialist solution to people’s problems), they (the people) will flock to a right-wing populist candidate who nevertheless is angry with ‘status quo’ and ready to take on ‘elitist politicians’, a crew generally hated by the general populace.”

This is how Rob Ford won, and the blame for this victory rests directly on the shoulders of Joe Pantalone and the lacklustre campaign he ran.
alt text

Ford won by appealing to people’s hatred for the “elites” during this economic crisis. Pantalone could have appealed to people’s anger by promising a fight against the Harris legacy of downloading services. He could have offered real socialist solutions to people’s problems. This would have distinguished him clearly from the rest of the candidates. But all he offered was more of the same. People saw him as an insider bureaucrat who would just continue the Miller regime without any change in people’s lives (he would build a cricket stadium, though!). Ford, superbly, if demagogically, used people’s anger with wasteful politicians to come to power.

Shallow, superficial pundits might say so but Ford’s election actually doesn’t signify a general shift to the right in Toronto. During the election, some polls that showed Ford as the definite winner, also showed that if David Miller had run again, he would have been elected. It is true that a lot of Millerite leftie councillors were also ousted in what is clearly a rage against incumbents. However, some new left-wing councillors were elected. In my own riding, leftie Kristyn Wong-Tam was elected against the Liberal ex-cop Ken Chan. It was a general fight against the status quo and not an ideological shift to the right.

But what will Fordland look like now? What kind of Toronto will we have with Ford as mayor and a new council that, despite what some say, will probably end up voting with him on most of the matters?

Cutting waste and answering everybody’s phone calls might have been the loudest and most regular thing that came out of his mouth but his real plan is simply a wide-ranging attack on the working class in Toronto. It is not incidental that he started his victory speech by saying “Toronto is now open for business.” Ford might have presented himself like a member of the “common folk” to a lot of people with his football coach experience and modest mini-van. But his agenda, backed by his multi-millionaire brother, Doug Ford, who now replaces him as the Councillor in Ward 2, will be decided by the big corporations and Toronto’s Board of Trade.

Just take one of Ford promises that was also repeated in his victory speech: abolishing the Fair Wage Policy, which obligates the City to pay union wages to contract workers. Or his promise not to replace retiring workers and, perhaps most importantly, to outsource garbage collection, as was previously done in Etobicoke.

Each of these policies on their own are enough to justify months of strikes. It has been said that “four years of turbulence” is what’s upon us now. I say “four years of class war” is probably a more accurate designation.

I’ll end this article with an anecdote, in case you think this might be just one of my left-wing fantasies and unions will not stand up to Ford.

Stumbling on John Cartwright, from the Toronto & York Region Labour Council this past Wednesday I asked him what labour’s response to Ford would be. He said: “We’ll do to him what the Republicans are doing to Obama.”

Arash Azizi is the co-chair of U of T’s Marxist Discussion Group and a member of the
New Democratic Party.

The Dalai Lama’s visit

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet commenced his three-day visit to Toronto on October 22, beginning at the University of Toronto, where he participated in an exclusive four-speaker symposium on “Cognitive Science, Mindfulness and Consciousness.”

Among the 56 guests, some notable participants included Penpa Tsering, the speaker of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile and U of T Chancellor, David Peterson. Dr. Franco Vaccarino, Vice President and Prinicpal of UTSC, acted as the moderator for the symposium, which covered four areas of clinical and experimental research.

The biology of language

The first presenter, Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto, gave a talk on “Expanding the human brain’s processing capacity for thought and language: insights from neuro-imaging explorations of bilingual and monolingual brains.” Petitto is a professor in the Department of Psychology at UTSC, and director of the Genes, Brain and Mind Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory for Language, Bilingualism, and Child Development.

Petitto explained that biological mechanisms work in conjunction with environmental factors to allow humans to acquire and organize language in the brain. “Language is a signal in the form of neuro-chemical patterns,” she explained.

In her research, Petitto has tracked neural tissue as it develops in monolingual and bilingual speakers, and found that bilingual brains use a significant amount of extra tissue compared to monolingual brains. Petitto concluded that “the biology of language has evolved as a gorgeous adaptation to the infinite, expansive, and generative biology of human mind.”

Neural bases of the mindful self

Dr. Adam Anderson, a professor at U of T’s Department of Psychology and the Canada research chair in Affective Neuroscience, spoke about his research in mindfulness, the self, and its neural correlates.

He began by posing one of the most fundamental questions that has puzzled, intrigued, and garnered fruitful debate among scholars, scientists, and Buddhist practitioners: “What is the self?”

Through his own research, Anderson has been able to isolate multiple representations of the self: the mentalistic self, the judging self, and the mindful self. He explained that the mentalistic self is an amalgamation of all our physical and personality traits — for example, “I am male,” or “I am introverted.” The judging self is more critical of our self and our experience, and is associated with a part of the brain called the cortical midline structures. Anderson explained that the mindful self remains nonjudgmental, and experiences change from moment to moment.

In one study, participants practiced eight weeks of mindfulness based stress reduction, or MBSR, a therapeutic technique that includes meditation. After only eight weeks, participants demonstrated a higher attunement of the mindful self to body state, as well as relative reduction in the judging self, including reduced activation in cortical midline structures. Participants also showed neural decentring, meaning that there was more brain activity in the mid to right hemisphere.

Anderson concluded that when a negative mood is induced, the judging self — which is associated with depressive relapse — increases its activity. However, by developing the mindful self, individuals can disengage the judging self and greatly reduce their capacity for suffering while increasing their capacity for wellbeing.

Mindful awareness as therapy for mood disorders

Dr. Zindel Segal, the Cameron Wilson Chair in Depression Studies at U of T’s Department of Psychiatry spoke next about his work in mindfulness-based therapy for treating mood disorders. Segal acts as the head of the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Clinic within the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Segal presented on the clinical effects of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. MBCT is a therapeutic technique used to treat depression and prevent relapse which Segal developed with Dr. Mark Williams and Dr. John Teasdale, who also attended the symposium. Mindfulness involves the calm awareness and observation of one’s own body, feelings, and consciousness. Applied to therapy, it can be used to help patients become more aware of the kinds of thought patterns which often perpetuate depressive symptoms.

Segal explained that despite the development of effective treatments for depression, there still exists a high rate of depressive relapse. MBCT incorporates mindfulness techniques to help patients work with their own emotions and form a healthier relationship with them. This helps prevent emotion provocation from spiralling into relapse.

After evaluating the data collected from a six-year study with 160 participants, Segal and his colleagues found that in the post-treatment phase for depression, participants who continued preventative techniques using drugs like SSRIs, or therapy like MBCT, had a significantly lower rate of depressive relapse compared to patients who were assigned to a placebo condition. Segal concluded that using MBCT as a preventative therapeutic tool has powerful clinical outcomes to prevent depressive relapse.

What do meditators do when they meditate?

alt text
The final presenter, Dr. Tony Toneatto, is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry, and director of the Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health Program at U of T. He is a registered clinical psychologist and acts as director of the Toronto Institute for Mindfulness, Meditation, and Psychotherapy.

Toneatto’s presentation was titled, “What do mindfulness meditators say they do while they practice? A content analysis.” He explained that traditionally, detailed instruction from an expert teacher was vital and necessary to learn meditation and acquire its benefits, yet current research on mindfulness meditation does not usually include such guidance.

He asked if scientists could confidently attribute the positive benefits reported in mindfulness research to the practice of mindfulness itself, since the specifics of what meditators do while meditating is unknown. Thus, Toneatto sought to uncover what participants actually did while they meditated. Were they meditating, or were they fantasizing, or even sleeping? In a review of over 50 studies using mindfulness techniques as a main component of the methodology, not one reported what meditators were doing as they meditated.

When Toneatto introduced this line of questioning within his own research, he found that meditators reported feeling relaxed, observing mental activity without distraction, attended to the breath, and were aware of their thoughts. He also found that after a few weeks of meditation, participants reported lower depression and anxiety scores. These scores were associated with the cultivation of particular mindfulness skills such as being non-judgmental and having an accepting attitude.

Toneatto concluded that it is necessary to know what meditators actually do while they practice, in order to determine how well their mindfulness skills are being learned, and whether it is possible to draw a significant link between mindfulness and the benefits that we believe accompany its practice.

Buddhism and science

Following the four speakers’ presentations, His Holiness the Dalai Lama proceeded to comment on the symposium, mentioning how impressed he was with the wealth of information each presenter was able to generate. He stressed the importance of science and scientific inquiry, discussing that initially, science focused on studying what was external to human beings such as environmental phenomena and overt behaviours. Over time, however, this has changed dramatically, and scientists have turned their microscopic lenses inward to focus on themselves. Scientists have become the subject matter of their own inquiry.

His Holiness explained that by gathering knowledge on something, we learn how to manipulate it in such a way that that it becomes beneficial to us. Similarly, by studying our inner selves in depth, we wield the capacity to master our self, and harness our potential which may lead to the synthesis of a healthy body and a healthy mind. According to His Holiness, modern science is made more complete by combining both internal and external matters, and this amalgamation is creating a new field of scientific research that can benefit humanity.

In Dr. Franco Vaccarino’s closing comments, he noted the power of new tools and technology emerging within the field of mindfulness research. “We have developed new levels of reflection regarding the mind, consciousness, and what it means to be human,” said Vaccarino. “As a result, we are unravelling the complexity of the mind and brain to demystify it and create enough comfort for us to probe deep questions.”

He concluded, “Now we are bringing humanism and science together in a sophisticated way, developing a multidisciplinary nexus.”

eXpression Against Oppression Week Hits Campus

alt text
alt text
alt text

Canada ‘out of sync with humanity’

Last Thursday, Dr. Norman G. Finkelstein visited U of T and gave two lectures on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Organized by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, the event was titled “Israel and Palestine: Past, Present and Future” and focused on Gaza, the events surrounding the seized aid flotilla in May.

Finkelstein was born in 1953 and grew up in New York as a son of Holocaust concentration camp survivors. He has instructed at numerous universities in the New York City area and was an assistant professor at DePaul University before being denied tenure and placed on academic leave in 2007. He has since parted with the university and is an independent political scientist.

Finkelstein has authored seven books. His most recent ones, including The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering claim that Israel and Jewish-American organizations have exploited the Holocaust to deflect criticism on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and extort large sums of money allocated to survivors.

Finkelstein spoke at UTM in January 2009 as part of the campus’ Expression Against Oppression week. The academic is often criticised by prominent Jewish organizations, some of whom he openly accuses of corruption. The Varsity spoke with the controversial scholar a few minutes before his sold-out speech in the Bahen Centre.
alt text

The Varsity: What is your talk about tonight?

Norman Finkelstein: I’ll be speaking on what happened in Gaza 2008–9. I’ll be speaking about what happened in the Mavi Marmara [the aid flotilla] and I’ll speculate on where we’re headed.

TV: And where do you think we’re headed?

NF: I’m thinking it’s quite likely, judging from reports, that Israel will be going to attack Lebanon in the next year, year and a half. It’s going to be possibly really catastrophic.

TV: What motivates you to do the work you do?

NF: I’m 57 already and I first got involved when I was 29. I don’t really think much about motivation anymore. I’m much more on the matter-of-fact. That’s about a choice in life, and that’s what I do.

TV: Israeli Apartheid Week takes place every year on campus and tends to be quite divisive. U of T President David Naylor once described it as “the consistently worst week of a president’s life.” What are your thoughts on IAW?

NF: I think that the expression “Israeli Apartheid Week” is unnecessarily ambiguous. Because there is a broad body of authorities, experts, knowledgeable people, who say that Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian territories constitute a version of apartheid.

There are certain similarities. On the other hand there isn’t a lot of that broad consensus within, that within Israel itself there is an apartheid-like system. [It’s] discriminatory, there’s no doubt about that, but whether it rises to apartheid, I haven’t seen any convincing argument made.

It’s legitimate to characterize Israeli policies in the occupied territories as a form of apartheid. [Finkelstein lists Israeli scholars and politicians who have deemed Israeli policy as apartheid]. I wish that there were more clarity. Because when you say “Israeli Apartheid Week” there is an element of ambiguity of whether [you are] referring to Israeli policies toward the occupied territories, or [you are] referring to the whole of Israel as well. It’s ambiguous, what they’re referring to.

TV: What are your thoughts on the Gaza aid flotilla?

NF: I think that, first of all we have to start in the beginning. The blockade of Gaza is illegal under international law. The aim of the flotilla has been to breach the illegal blockade. I completely support it.

That blockade started in 2007, and for three years the international community was silent. And it was only because of the flotilla, and the nine martyrs on the flotilla, that the international community finally took notice of what everybody agrees is an illegal blockade.

TV: The Canadian Boat to Gaza is a similar flotilla project aiming to sail next spring. What’s your take on it?

NF: I support it. But I don’t have a lot of details on it.

TV: Two weeks ago, Canada lost its bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Some suggest this was because of the Conservative government’s support for Israel.

NF: I don’t think that’s correct. That was one element. But there’s been a whole list of policies [where] Canada is out of sync with nearly the whole of humanity: its opposition to the Kyoto agreement, it voted against the [motion in July to declare a human right to “safe and clean drinking water and sanitation”], it voted against the rights of indigenous people.

There’s a list and it’s kind of just, astonishing. The Israel issue, it has some salience. But apart from Israel… Canada’s record is just like Bush in Canada, but Bush is out. So now it’s just Harper.

TV: How do you think the international community can reach a peaceful solution to the conflict in Israel?

NF: The only way we can achieve a just settlement is to insist that all parties in the conflict respect international law. International law constitutes the best matrix for trying to find the right principles to resolve the conflict.

It’s everyone’s job, not just students’ job, to insist Israel obeys international law. And I think we’ll be well on our way to achieving a reasonable resolution to the conflict.

Victoria University broken into on Halloween

On Sunday night, a mail centre in the basement of Victoria University was broken into.

P.C. Lorne Bass of 52 Division said the incident took place sometime between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m., and that it was discovered by Rodney McEwan, CEO of the security company MCOR Group.

Varsity staff went to the basement at 10 p.m.. Four officers were on the scene, two from Campus Police and Toronto Police Services respectively. A green bench from a piano down the hall was overturned on the floor in front of the counter of Vic Express. The counter’s overhead rolling door was pried forward.

alt text
Bass said it is likely the alleged thief entered through the window and exited through the office door, which only locks from the inside. He said three metal cash boxes were stolen, containing bills of a value under $200. The much more expensive laptops and projectors were not stolen. There were no cameras inside the office.

“I’m shocked,” said VUSAC President Akash Goel, who first heard about the break-in from The Varsity. “I could never imagine anything like this happening at Victoria College.”

With files from Natalie Sequeira

A ROSIer picture?

Two recent U of T alumni are working to make planning a degree much easier. Project Augur (pronounced ‘aw-gur’) is an online application that will help students make better course choices by clarifying requirements, mapping one’s degree, and offering calculated suggestions.

The project is run by Joel Koroniak and Sean McIntyre, both 2010 graduates. Koroniak studied philosophy and manages the program. McIntyre majored in computer science and is the project’s lead developer.

Currently U of T completes degree auditing, where registrars evaluate a student’s credits and requirements to see if they have fulfilled their subject posts. With many rules such as prerequisites, corequisites, exclusions, and breadth requirements, students pour over timetables and calendars in an attempt to select the right courses.

The aim of Project Augur is to create what McIntyre describes as a “sandbox environment.” Students will have an application separate from ROSI in which they can simulate a timeline for all years of their degree. Courses are added to the timeline and appear as boxes. The application automatically checks requirements and shows if all the ules for the course are followed (blue box) or if it falls outside the rules (red box). The connections betwen all course requirements are linked and are re-checked as each course is added to the timeline.

“It doesn’t enrol you in courses. You go on and it simulates your degree for you,” said McIntyre. “So you can make a plan [for] your next four or five years at the university and [figure out what you] plan to take.”

He added that the program could be used as a counselling tool, imagining students going through their plans with registrars to be advised on the best choices.

According to McIntyre, the application differs from Degree Navigator because it uses a timeline and thus can tell if rules are being violated. He also said algorithms are under development to include course descriptions and information from timetables and anti-calendars. There are also calculated course suggestions in the works that advise students based on their academic history.

It is this idea of an academic advisor that prompted the program’s name.

“An augur was an ancient Roman priest, a prophet of sorts, who would predict the future by watching the flight patterns of birds,” said McIntyre. “The notion was that the system would be able to predict your future and help you plan your future by watching you, what courses you take, what POSts you take. That’s why the logo’s a bird.”

The project started before the summer of 2009, when the two were roommates.

“[Joel] had seen that I was working on a spreadsheet program. I was typing in my grades for various assignments and estimating future grades and how it would affect my overall CGPA,” said McIntyre. “He thought it would be a good idea to make it an application, and we had spare time so we said ‘let’s give it a shot.’”

Last academic year, the two completed some of the program’s coding. In May, they developed the program for four months while being paid by the university. The pair worked in the offices of Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration, the division that maintains ROSI.

“This had some obvious benefits, such as being able to use U of T servers and have access to up to date and accurate sets of data,” said Koroniak. “Currently we’re in the process of migrating the project to the Next Generation Student Information Services group, which will be able to give us access to the aforementioned data and servers with less red tape.”

Until the pair finds its space within administration, the two continue to work full-time on developing the project with no income. Nevertheless, they are glad to be working with the university, said McIntyre.

“The plan was to do it as an independent system. After a few presentations we got suggestions and realized there was actually a meaningful partnership to being established with the university.

“I was surprised, personally. It was really exciting to find out that they were really into the idea of having these kinds of progressive software deployed to students as rapidly as possible. It’s been a really enriching partnership.”

Prior to the university’s support, college councils contributed to the project. Last academic year, ICSS, UCLit, VUSAC, and WCSA each donated $500 and SMCSU held a fundraiser pub night. TCM did not contribute to the project. The councils were told the application would be available to students for the start of this academic year.

“Our plan is still to release this service to U of T students as soon as possible, as well as work with student councils to ensure any growth and maintenance is still focused on student’s needs,” said Koroniak. “Unfortunately, working within any institution as big as U of T, these things always take more time than anticipated.

“We hope to re-start a dialogue with the various councils which supported us within the next month or two. By then we should have a clearer understanding of how U of T’s IT groups will be able to support us, how much longer development will take, and how we can start getting students involved in beta-testing the program.”

The two hope to launch the project at the end of this academic year, starting with the Faculty of Arts and Science. In the meanwhile, they encourage students to visit their blog and contribute feedback.

“We want students to engage, give feedback,” said McIntyre. “We want to give people a sense of what they’re doing. We want people to know and be excited that this system is coming out.”

And why have the pair invested so much time and energy?

“I think it’s something that we both see as a way of giving back to a community that we were very recently a part of,” said McIntyre. “It’s something that always irritated us while we were [at U of T]. Because these things are not that difficult to build. And if you can do it, I say why not.”