Today the National Transformation Council convenes its fourth assembly in the former Clark Air Base in Pampanga, after having gone to Lipa, Cebu and Butuan, in its effort to mobilize support for peaceful regime and systems change. As in the first three assemblies, I have been asked to facilitate the proceedings. This is always a welcome assignment.
However, this coincides with a once-in-a-lifetime cultural event. The Cultural Center of the Philippines is celebrating the 90th birthday of our most senior living national artist for literature, Francisco Sionil Jose. It would be unforgivable to miss either event, so if I failed to make it at the appointed time at the CCP, I hope my good friend Frankie would not think I had stood him up for the NTC; it’s just that the traffic from Clark to Manila is usually heavy.
At 90, F. Sionil Jose remains the most prolific Filipino novelist writing in English today. This is no mean distinction. He has outlived most of his contemporaries and out-produced them too. Although he is preceded, in his craft, by such great storytellers as his fellow Ilocano Carlos Bulosan (1911-1956), whose 1944 “The Laughter of my Father” and “America is in the Heart,” (1946), are now Filipino-American classics; or that other Ilocano, Manuel Arguilla (1911-1944), whose “How my brother Leon brought home a wife” remains a model in craftsmanship among aspiring young writers; or the famous Tiempo couple, Edilberto (1913-1936) and Edith (1919-2011), whose novels had won them stellar reputations at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop under Paul Engle, and who had come home to run the Siliman National Writers’ Workshop—the first in Asia—at Siliman University in Dumaguete; or the highly revered prose masters, N. V. M. Gonzales (1915-1999) and Nick Joaquin (1917-2004), both national artists for literature, in terms of sheer output, Sionil Jose has outpaced them all.
So prodigious is Sionil Jose’s imagination that back in college and his early weekly- magazine writing days, when the short story was the more popular genre among his friends, the joke among them, so one of them recalls, was that instead of knocking their brains to come up with an original story line, they would simply ask Frankie to sell them one of his. Of course, this is purely apocryphal. But it shows a largeness of heart, which became plain to all in 1997 when he withdrew from the short-list of national artist finalists, in favor of N.V. M., whom he had earlier nominated. Edith Tiempo, the other finalist, got the award the following year, and Sionil Jose got it only in 2001.
Sionil Jose begins to overwhelm us with his powerful quintet—the Rosales saga novels in honor of Rosales, Pangasinan where he was born on Dec. 3, 1924. Starting with The Pretenders (1962), then followed by My Brother, My Executioner (1973), Mass (1974), Tree (1978), and Poon (1984), he has woven a powerful drama about class struggle and colonialism, which spills over into the rest of his social commentaries outside the novel. To this quintet, he has added five other notable novels, Ermita, in 1988; Gagamba, 1991; Viajero, 1993; Ben Singkol, 2001; and Vibora, 2007. In-between, and while writing novels, he runs a bookshop on the old Padre Faura (Solidaridad), writes essays and columns, puts out a literary magazine (Solidarity) and also manages PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) International, Philippine Chapter.
Since its inception in the 1920s, PEN has been a major literary voice in human affairs. It used to be run by some of the biggest names in the literary world—- the English Nobel laureate John Galsworthy, the English novelist H.G. Wells, the French writer and academician Jules Romains, the American novelist Thornton Wilder, the English novelist E. M. Forster, the French Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac, the Belgian Nobel laureate Maurice Maeterlinck, the Italian novelist Ignazio Silone, the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, and the German Nobel laureate Heinrich Boll, among others.
PEN worked courageously to liberate writers in prison, like Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) in the Soviet Union, Mochtar Lubis(1922-2004) in Sukarno’s Indonesia, and the Filipino journalists in our martial law prison. Boll was the first to welcome Solzhenitsyn in Germany after he was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 by giving him refuge in his own home in Cologne. In Asia, Sionil Jose was uncompromising and highly effective in helping writers in jail. He hosted one highly productive visit of PEN International to Manila, which considerably eased the situation for the Filipino journalists in jail.
If memory serves, the delegation included Heinrich Boll, the English poet Kathleen Nott, the English writers David Carver, who was PEN secretary from 1951 to 1974, and Peter Elstob, who succeeded Carver from 1974 to 1981. As presidential spokesman and information secretary at the time, I met with this delegation several times. After this, Sionil Jose invited me to join PEN, and with the late short storyteller Alejandro Roces (1924-2011), who also became a national artist for literature before his death, we attended the PEN international conference in Seoul.
A few years after South Korea, Sionil Jose and I went to Hamburg to attend the same conference. In these conferences, we met an immense worship of world writers, including the talented Korean-American author Richard Kim, American short story writer John Cheever, American novelist John Updike, German Nobel laureate Gunther Grass, and many others. Through the years, Sionil Jose has maintained active correspondence with them.
So although some talented young Filipino writers have recently entered the international literary scene—Canada-based Miguel Syjuco won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 for his first novel Ilustrado, Jessica Hagedorn has written several bestsellers in the US, and my bosom friend, the almost still young Cesar Aguila has contributed “Between Two Worlds,” a novel, and some short stories from Sydney, Australia, Sionil Jose remains the Filipino novelist in English with apparently the most solid foreign audience. Most, if not all, of his novels have been translated into 22 languages, well ahead of Rizal’s Noli and Fili, which became accessible in Penguin only a few years ago.
Thus, aside from his being conferred the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts, and the National Artist for Literature award at home, he has also won the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres from France, even though he does not parle with Patrick Modiano, this year’s Nobel laureate for literature, and also the Pablo Neruda Centennial Award, even though his use of Spanish may be severely impaired. This only means that even if Sionil Jose may not have enough readers at home—which is always a problem for anyone writing in, and for, a nation of non-readers—— he could always count on an apparently growing foreign audience.
In the end, a writer’s success will be measured not always by the number of books he has written or sold, or the readers he has won, but by the courage with which he has expressed himself on life-and-death issues, despite an anemic or unresponsive audience. This is particularly true in a country where one who says he is a writer is usually asked, “what else do you do?” and some people think they should be able to access his professional skills, gratis et amore.
As the essayist and former Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham puts it, “the existence of a literature presupposes a literate and coherent public that has both the time to read and a need to take seriously the works of the literary imagination.” Where that public does not exist, the writer must have the courage to invent or imagine it.
We don’t have such a public here. Our public wants to be entertained all the time, and considers almost everything worthless which does not entertain. And it is usually coarse and vulgar entertainment. The challenge to the writer then is to create in such a yawning intellectual desert a constituency strong enough to stimulate and sustain the work of his imagination, and to resist the temptation of being cherished above his work. For as Milan Kundera once put it, “the minute Kafka attracts more attention than Joseph K, Kafka’s posthumous death begins.”
At no time has Sionil Jose ever called attention to himself. At his friends’ dinner parties, he sits quietly with his adoring wife, wearing his signature French beret, eating and talking moderately, unconscious of his own importance. He reminds you of Yevtushenko’s description of the man who sat in a bar looking like Hemingway; it’s only after the man had left and the curious observer asked who he was that he learned the man was, indeed, Hemingway. Indeed, it is his literature, not his politics, that has made Sionil Jose what he is, and it is what the nation has a right and a duty to celebrate today.