Remembering Franz Arcellana (Part 1)

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I first met Franz in late 1949 when Silvino “SV” Epistola introduced me to him in campus. The Literary Apprentice of 1949-50 edited by SV together with William Pomeroy and Reuben Canoy had just come out with my story “Growth.” Franz told me he liked my story. SV told me that Franz had said I was one of the writers “who could see”—a big encouragement for me. I knew he lived in one of the cottages in U.P. Diliman—having read Emy Arcellana’s piece in Armando Manalo’s Literary Apprentice about their quonset abode close to the hills in a once cogonal campus.

Diliman then was a cool place (literally) and the Balara Filters close by was a resort. Halili buses plied between Quiapo and campus through the circuitous route of Kamuning, Cubao, and East avenue. I imagined Franz commuting (like most of us who lived in Manila) to one of the universities in Manila to teach every weekday.

One time we young writers chanced upon him driving a sedan that had seen better days. We asked him if his car could take us to U.P. Los Banos. Yes, he said, all it needed was a new set of tires. We never got around to making that “excursion” to UPLB in his car.

Before then I had been reading Franz’s column “Through a Glass, Darkly” in a Sunday supplement and stories in the anthologies put out by T.D. Agcaoili and Maximo Ramos together with Florentino Valeros. In time I would learn about the Veronicans to which he belonged and their publications Story Manuscripts and Expression.

One story of Franz that left a deep imprint in me was “Mats” about the grief of a father over a lost daughter.

“The Flowers of May” also had the same impact on me. It was a lyrical elaboration of “Mats,” this time, with the mother importuning the grieving father to forget past sorrows. “How to Read” and “Writer in War” evoked memories of the Pacific War.

Another story that I like and has been a favorite of anthologists is “Divide by Two.” But let me digress a bit.

Franz and I started teaching in the U.P. English department in 1953, and whenever I mention this to younger writers they would ask me if I was one of the Veronicans. I would say I belong to the post-war Ravens whose spiritual fathers may well be the pre-war Veronicans (including Franz, Hernando Ocampo, NVM Gonzalez, Narciso Reyes, Armando Malay, Delfin Fresnosa, and others).

For Franz, it was certainly more convenient to live and teach on campus. He could have been an assistant professor like his contemporary Gonzalez who was taken in by President Bienvenido Gonzalez who challenged those who opposed the appointment if they could write as well as NVM who had no university degree. By 1953 the rules for incoming faculty were more stringent. That year Franz (already an experienced teacher and established writer) and I started out as Instructors in English, and were required to enroll for an M.A. by department head Prof. Cristino Jamias. We sat side by side in our Victorian Novel class under Prof. Mona Highley. One time as I was taking down notes on Highley’s lectures I noticed Franz writing in yellow pad in what appeared to be mostly dialogue. In subsequent classes I would see Franz with his yellow pad going over what he had written earlier. I did surmise then that it was a story.

Weeks later “Divide by Two” appeared in the Collegian literary supplement along with a critique of the story by Prof. Leonard Casper. It was easily the talk among writers at the time since the story also appeared in an off-campus periodical.

I like the story for its crisp narration using, as Casper noted, mostly dialogue. It is one of the few stories about the academe. SV Epistola would also write stories using academic people as characters as in “The Beads” and others. Their stories of course transcend the academic milieu and deal with human dilemmas, sometimes echoing Prufock’s “Do I dare? Do I dare to eat a peach?” The confrontation in “Divide by Two” is not in the manner of T.S.Eliot, but one of seeing oneself in a ridiculous or humiliating situation.

I remember Franz became part of the administration of President Vidal Tan in the 50s. Among the things he did was to write a one page newsletter which became a model of lyrical expression. I would use this for my Freshman English classes for them to emulate. One of my sections, now made aware of the literary legacy of Franz and the Veronicans, put out their own newsletter called Impressions. Petronilo Daroy and Epifanio “Sonny” San Juan, Jr. were among my students who developed as writers during this period and put out their own little magazines like Blast and Fugitive Review. Then entered Jose Maria Sison and the liberal atmosphere of the 50s changed to a radical one.

Sonny recalled in a memoir about his class ‘58 that Franz assigned him to write a review of a little magazine Signatures edited by Ravens Rony Diaz and Alex Hufana. Apparently Sonny criticized the poems of Oscar de Zuniga who later threatened him with a libel suit. I was already in Madison, Wisconsin when I heard that Franz had Sonny suspended for a semester from writing in the Philippine Collegian for a poem titled “Man is a Political Animal” that used profane words.

Despite the age gap, the Ravens in U.P. (including myself, Raul Ingles, Rony Diaz, Alex Hufana, Andy Cruz, Pic Aprieto, SV Epistola, Virgie Moreno, Armando Bonifacio) and the Veronicans on campus (Franz, NVM, and Armando Malay) always got together in U.P. Writers Club events. It was a congenial group, with lots of bonhomie. Sometimes a Raven would win the first prize in the Palanca literary contest while a more experienced Veronican would get a lesser prize; it was one of those things. The intellectual life on campus (including workshops on the craft of writing and discussions of books we had read) was stimulating. Inevitably lines were drawn out of conviction in what was called the sectarian strife on campus.

One such demarcation occurred when Fr. John Delaney was able to get the support of the older colleagues in the faculty in his crusade against atheism and communism on campus.

Franz remained loyal to President Tan who believed in Fr. Delaney’s work and NVM himself begged off from signing the manifesto of the Society for the Advancement of Academic Freedom which the younger writers formed along with older colleagues like Dr. Agustin Rodolfo and Dr. Pascual Capiz. Dr. Alfredo V. Lagmay then was adviser to the Collegian when it issued a special book on academic freedom. By 1958 Franz took over as Collegian adviser.

I was abroad from late 1957 to February 1963 and so I missed the controversies of the period like Sonny San Juan getting suspended, Homobono Adaza as Collegian editor getting expelled and Jose Maria Sison being blacklisted by the military for an anti-imperialist essay “Requiem for Lumumba” published in the Collegian.
One time, at the height of the sectarian conflict, we the younger writers talked about the positions taken by Franz and NVM. We noted they seemed to have become distant. We could no longer meet together and talk freely. One of us, Rony Diaz, explained the difference between our allegiances. He said in effect, as I recall, Franz had an “intrinsic” sense of loyalty because it was to a person (Vidal Tan) while our loyalty was to something abstract like separation of church and state or academic freedom which we upheld.

I would return in February 1963 to see a department of English torn between two warring camps—an extension of the schisms of the 50s. The conflict now was centered on ideological differences and it manifested itself in what I call the battle of the books, particularly the readings for English 5, the Expository Writing course.

The protagonists of the 50s were basically the same in the 60s and the students themselves were up in arms because of many things—“terror teachers”, the upsurge of nationalism/radical politics, and the Vietnam war. I became chairman of the department, on the clamor of students for change in their first demonstration under the incumbency of Salvador P. Lopez.

In 1965 President Carlos P. Romulo appointed me first director of the newly established University of the Philippines Press which absorbed the office of publications headed by Franz . He stayed on as member of the Press board of management. We worked fruitfully together in the U.P. Press with Franz endorsing the literary works like Jun Lansang’s book of poems Black or Otherwise, Larry Francia’s Poems, Narciso Cordero’s “To While Away the Hours”, and several of Ricaredo Demetillo and Alex Hufana’s books of poetry. Franz was also named the director of the first institutionalized U.P. Writers Workshop in Baguio—which caused Nick Joaquin to write his famous Free Press article “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Moreno?” about the antics of a few writing fellows whom Franz threw out of the workshop.

I was absent again during the whole period of martial law. I came back in late 1985 and when things normalized I joined with others like Amel Bonifacio and Vivencio Jose and later Gemino Abad to initiate moves to have literary icons Franz and NVM to become honorary doctors of humane letters and eventually National Artists for Literature.

With strong endorsements from the academic faculty and students, both of them received their honorary doctorates, with NVM receiving it first, Before Franz’s conferment, I suggested to him in a light-handed manner to make an impact with a “searing” acceptance speech. I am still wondering in what context I made that suggestion. Perhaps it was the times, the series of coups during the Aquino administration or the “low intensity conflict” waged by the military against the people’s struggles during that period.

At the commencement, I was in awe when I listened to the speech Franz gave—a kind of descent into Hades describing the horrors of incarceration of captured freedom fighters of El Salvador. I could see a few on stage—in their academic gowns—wince at the graphic language used by the witness as quoted by Franz. That speech stands as a most eloquent statement made by Franz for the cause of human rights.

To be continued…

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