Nick Joaquin and me


Ma. Isabel Ongpin

NICK Joaquin’s centennial was duly celebrated last May 4. Unfortunately, I was somewhere else, captured by the cascading events of the Present.

For Nick Joaquin, the Past explained the Present, History was personal, vital and rationalized our circumstances for a better understanding of ourselves. In effect, he was ever concerned with and elaborated on the Filipino identity. For many of us at the beginning of our lives, it can be a tenuous thing, sometimes so distant, it could be invisible. With Joaquin, we receive the glimmer of it that can become a definition.

But then this will be about Nick Joaquin and me, an egotistical memory jaunt that brings back all that I know about him.

Blown away by Prose and Poetry
And I did not know anything until I came to Manila for college and our English teacher at Assumption, Lourdes Padilla, introduced him to us via his short stories. The evocation of the historical past in these narratives that were also very contemporary with regard to themes and characters blew our minds. I remember the textbook, Prose and Poetry by Nick Joaquin, with a yellow cover (no dust jacket) and a font that was not quite user friendly. And that was the only Nick Joaquin publication that we knew of at that time. Next, I was in Professor Teodoro Locsin, Sr.’s class on modern poetry and he brought up Joaquin’s poems and the play “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino”. We wholly agreed as Professor Locsin called the play the greatest by a Filipino writer. We were so consumed by Joaquin that we decided to interview him for our school publication, Assumpta. We asked Professor Locsin to get us an appointment. He said, “If you ask him, he will say No.” At his suggestion, we just showed up at the Free Press office where he worked somewhere on Rizal Avenue. I can still remember the shock/surprise in his face when two girls in college uniform appeared and asked him for an interview. I remember him as tall and wearing a loose checkered polo shirt. He graciously invited us to the nearby canteen where we drank cokes and asked him what in retrospect were very banal questions which he seriously answered.

Not long after college, I went to graduate school at Mount Holyoke College in the US on a fellowship. When I graduated, I made the supreme gesture of appreciation by donating to the library Nick Joaquin’s book, my personal copy, already out of print.

By the time I came back, Nick Joaquin was writing major journalism pieces for the Free Press under the name of Quijano de Manila. It was reportage on crime, society, current affairs and I could not wait to get my weekly copy to read.

Meanwhile, I never saw him again up close and personal. When my husband died, his brother, Enrique “Ike” Joaquin, who was my husband’s friend, came to me and suggested that I ask his brother, Nick, to write his biography. The thought had not crossed my mind but when Ike suggested it, I decided to pursue it and asked for a meeting with the great Nick Joaquin, who asked what it was for. Of course, our first meeting had not left an impression in his memory. He told me we could meet at some event in Intramuros (San Agustin Church). He was always guarded about his personal life, where he lived and how he worked. So, I waited for him at the Intramuros event and thought he was not going to show up as it was about to end. Then suddenly out of the evening dark, he materialized and we sat together and he asked me a few questions, indicating that he would make up his mind whether to do the biography or not from the answers. It was brief and abrupt, he stood up and disappeared into the night. Nick Joaquin was like that, he favored taxis because he was the independent sort. No offers of rides were accepted.

Jazz, taxis and San Miguel
He decided to write the biography and set the time for interviews in the late afternoon, with a supply of San Miguel, a tape recorder and myself to arrange for the interviewees to come. And so, it went, promptly in the late afternoon he would appear at my house in a taxi, do the interviews with succinct questions, no note-taking, and drinking beer the whole time. Ramona, my house help, would set up the tape recorder and replenish the beer. Nick Joaquin was not a friend of machines or even the telephone. He was a writer of the old school but did not take notes. Ramona became a friend. When the tape recorder or the beer ran out, he boomed, “Ramona, Ramona” and she would come running and laughing. After each interview, a taxi had to be called as no offer of a ride would be accepted. I think he interviewed for less than six months despite the disparate schedules of the people who were interviewed. Shortly thereafter, chapters would come from him that he himself typed in an old manual typewriter. It was uncanny how he could nail down the vital points of each interview and illuminate them and finally weave them into the whole. Yes, he had the tape recorder but he also had the analytical eye, the genius of perspective and the unique, unforgettable writing style.

At the book launch in Makati, he arrived late probably because he could not get a taxi right away. I had finished my talk where I said I had begun to regret my generous gift of his first edition of Prose and Poetry to the Mount Holyoke library. I told him and he smiled non-committal. Fortunately, today long after he has gone, we have new editions of his unparalleled writing with the Penguin Classics edition putting one out for his 100th birth centennial.

Nick and I became friends, affectionate, familiar, happy every time we bumped into each other. “Dahling” was his address to one and all and me. He loved jazz, Cole Porter, riding taxis and drinking beer. Krip Yuson took a photo of him and me with his arms around me in one of our encounters. Yes, I got to know one of the greatest Filipino writers up close and personal. And would you believe that for his requiem mass, I fittingly arrived in a taxi as it was a Sunday and there was no one to drive me that day at that hour. That was my serendipitous homage to Nick.


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