Remembering the writers under martial law

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Last November (2007) , when we were finalizing plans for the 50th anniversary conference of the Philippine Center of International PEN, I thought of convening the founding members particularly those who were at the PEN National Writers Conference in Baguio in 1958. I did not have to consult the list; when I told Virgie Moreno, the first treasurer of PEN, she said I may have to count Adrian Cristobal out because at that very moment, he was at the Makati Medical Center and very ill.

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 F. Sionil Jose. PhOtO By eUdeN VAldez

F. Sionil Jose. PhOtO By eUdeN VAldez

I have known Adrian since the 50s when I was with the old The Manila Times. He used to drop by at Florentino Torres and we would have coffee or pancit bijon at those greasy Chinese restaurants in Santa Cruz.

I am older than Adrian but like those in my generation, he was matured by World War II. He was an affable show-off and liked to brag about the books he read, some of them esoteric. At that conference in Baguio, he definitely flaunted his politics like epaulets and never took them off.

The last time I saw Adrian was at the coffee shop behind my bookshop; he had urged me to write for the Graphic which I had done earlier but had stopped. We compared notes about our diabetes; he had just the suggestion of a paunch and he joked about my barrel belly.

I had written to him to compile his essays on our heroes. I know he kept a fastidious journal and had hoped that someday, because of his closeness to Ferdinand Marcos, he would also write about those years, an intimate insider’s view from which, perhaps, all of us could learn.

And so one evening early this December, before we celebrated the 50th anniversary of PEN, my wife and I paid him a visit. I brought a copy of my latest novel Sherds. I was shocked to see him so frail and wan, surrounded by all that shiny medical paraphernalia. His wife, Tessie and children and younger brother were there. We reminisced.

I told him I got to know so few of the young writers. Unlike us in our youth—we got to meet our elders, SP Lopez, Fred Mangahas, Leopoldo Yabes, Joe Lansang.

Adrian said, they were different—they did not patronize us. They did not condescend—an attitude, he said, which some of the older writers— have towards the young. “Remember?” he said, “They even argued with us, got angry with us.
They treated us as equals because we are writers like them.”

Now, Adrian is no longer with us. A generation is going. As Nick Joaquin said at Franz Arcellana’s necrology at the Cultural Center, “Franz. I will be joining you soon.”

So Adrian, wait for me. I will join you soon, too.

The country’s intellectual elite is Manila-based because the major newspapers and universities are here. This elite is also very small. When Marcos assumed power in 1965, we were a scant 30 million. The intelligentsia was compact unlike in other countries where each major city has its own circle of thinkers.

Many of them were my contemporaries, Blas Ople who worked with The Manila Times, Cesar Virata who was teaching at the University of the Philippines, ditto with Onofre Corpuz who was also teaching there, Gerry Sicat, the economist, also at the University of the Philippines. Francisco “Kit” Tatad was then a young reporter and a graduate of the University of Santo Tomas.

Marcos did something which his successors did not do. He identified them then got them to work for him.

As I told Blas Ople, they could have ascended to prominence even if Marcos did not pick them up. Whatever barriers class and society impose in their path, brilliant young people can break through to fulfill themselves.

First, Francisco “Kit” Tatad. Some of the writers were surprised to find him at the PEN conference. I have known Kit since he was a reporter covering the Department of Foreign Affairs which was then in Padre Faura. He is very talented, a poet, a polished short story writer, an accomplished essayist who was suddenly thrust into national prominence when Marcos named him Press Secretary. We are familiar with how he appeared on TV on that fateful morning after Marcos declared Martial Law, and there was the youthful Kit reading the Marcos decree.

At the open forum, Kit spoke about the writer’s need for freedom, much to the chagrin of some. I was asked who invited him and I said I did; after all, Kit is an early member of PEN and had been with us to several PEN meetings, among them the Congress in Seoul. During the Marcos years, like Joe Aspiras and Greg Cendaña, he was most approachable and when International PEN members came to plead for the release of our writers in prison, he facilitated their entry to Malacañang. He helped me get my passport back after four years that I was not allowed to travel so I could go to London to attend a PEN Congress there. He assisted writers whenever he could. Indeed, in those dark and gloomy days, there were writers and there were writers, some drank with power and vicious towards their fellow writers.

A few years before he died, I met Blas Ople for coffee at Za’s. For a decade in the 50s we were together in the old The Manila Times. He was a very good writer, an unabashed leftist and had difficulty holding his drink. In those squalid coffee shops in Florentino Torres, we argued over politics, culture, nationalism and all those manifold questions which bedevil the young.

I told him. “Blas—you are now a senator. This is the highest public position you will get. You are going on in years. As a poor boy from Bulacan, you have gone very far. I am very sure that even if you didn’t join Marcos, because you are excellent, you would have gotten to the top. Isn’t it time that you now tell us everything you know about that dictatorship? You owe it not only to your children and your grandchildren but to the country as a whole to tell us now what really happened.”
Blas embraced me and said, “You haven’t changed!”

I told the same thing to Gerardo Sicat in the same place where I talked with Blas; Gerry was head of NEDA. He was instrumental in economic planning. When Marcos fell, he left the country to work with the World Bank. Like most of the superb technocrats who backstopped Marcos, he has great talent. I know he did not enrich himself. He assured me then he would think about what I told him. I hope we may get to know the answers soon.

And Onofre Corpuz, Secretary of Education under Marcos—my compadre, a Harvard Ph.D. scholar and writer equipped with superb intellect—he was in the inner sanctum of Malacañang, too. On that Sunday that people had massed at EDSA I, I had lunch with him and the other UP scholar, Serafin Quiazon in Angono. We post-mortemed the regime and discussed the future of Filipinas. OD had by then quit the Marcos cabinet.

OD has written that magnificent study of our history—The Roots of the Filipino Nation, but he stopped at that period—the Marcos dictatorship. How I wish he would go on, now that he is in seclusion, and write about how Marcos came to be, and how he was destroyed. After all, OD had told me way back to trust the man because “He is Ilokano (and therefore industrious) and that above all, he has a sense of history.”

Even the late Doroy Valencia who lorded it over that coffee clutch at the Intercontinental Hotel, who was labeled the most influential journalist during the Marcos years, he was never vicious. He helped many, among them those loud mouthed personalities who opposed Marcos. He assisted them whenever he could.
And finally, Cesar Virata, outstanding technocrat—surely he knew a lot. He did not amass wealth, he continues to be useful. If only he would now open up so that we will all know, so that we will be able to move on and away from the sordid morass of the present which is an extension of the malaise that Marcos had cursed this country with.

I can understand the hesitation of these writers, even their refusal, because they will then expose themselves to self mockery, even to ridicule, particularly those who stayed with Marcos to the very end. This, again is understandable for Filipinos are also a grateful people and ingratitude is one of the most grievous sins any Filipino can commit.

But a generation has passed since Marcos had gone and a new leadership is coming up, a leadership that must exorcise itself of the tenacious stigma of the past, and this can only be done if those who knew can stand up and say with great humility, and courage, this is what really happened. Don’t repeat it.

It was those bleak years of the Marcos regime that was uppermost in my mind when it was my turn to speak at the PEN conference. I remembered Adrian’s observation about the generation gap among our writers. But most of all, I remembered how, in spite of the graciousness of writer friends, that regime was oppressive, malignant and murderous—and I pray it would never recur.
This is my valedictory:

Those of us who have reached this rickety age—who have written this long, we all know that our most important asset is memory, the capacity to remember, to know history, our past and to retrieve from this treasure trove those artifices which we then shape so carefully, so lovingly. Then we hope our puny creation is literature.

Fifty years—to use that tired cliché, is a lot of water under the bridge. What does this half a century tell us, if it tells us anything at all?

For those of you who are oh so young, so eager and so hopeful, let this old man repeat what he had said again and again, that half a century ago, we did not wallow in the muck of corruption, this squalid political moro-moro. We were then the leading nation in Southeast Asia, with a high standard of living next only to Japan.

How I strutted then when I visited our backward neighbors. We had the best schools, the best professionals, yes—because we were the best. But what happened?

And so, what has the past taught us—if it did teach us anything at all? What now can you who don’t know ever retrieve from it?

These five decades taught us to know ourselves, our weaknesses so that we may vanquish them, and our strengths so that we can walk toward the light with firmer steps.

As writers, we know we are not a people who read although our national hero was a novelist.

And if we have slipped behind, it is because my generation failed. Mea culpa, maxima mea culpa! We did not transcend ourselves.

Alas, we are still Moros and Christians and ethnics. We are Ilokanos, Cebuanos, Maranaos. In all these years, although we have become a modern state with all the institutions of a state—we have not become a nation—and as cultural workers, we should always keep this in mind, that we are the nation builders, although many of us do not recognize this, although our own people do not look at us as the creators of that identity on which a nation is built.

Yes, we are the creators of tradition, and the memory on which that identity rests. I have always said, what is Spain without Cervantes, England without Shakespeare, Greece without Homer, Germany without Goethe. Do you realize now how important we are even if our countrymen do not recognize us?

Those of you who are academics know how transitory literary fads are. In the 50s it was the New Criticism, followed by Existentialism, Structuralism, Deconstruction. Now the fashion is post colonialism.

But is colonialism really over? We all know that it is not, that its more pernicious variety is domestic colonialism. McDonald’s, Toyota, Harry Potter—we may not be aware of them as such—but these are the cloying harbingers of domination and control. Listen—the logic of colonialism is exploitation and therefore, no matter what guise it takes when it beguiles us—to spread Christianity, to make the world safe for democracy, civilization—forget these, colonialism is immoral.

Nick Joaquin was a dear friend, the most decent Filipino writer I know. He was, perhaps, our very best but I fault him with being an apologist for Spanish colonialism. I like America and Americans but nunca—I will never be an apologist for American imperialism.

And so I do pray that we do not become apologists for any form of colonialism, Spanish, American or the domestic variety.

What does Rizal teach us? That all those who leave this country, whether it is our powerful businessmen who send their money abroad, or as writers and teachers who seek greener pastures, all must come back to the native land, to be welded with the soil, for in the end, this is what nationalism truly is—to be with this earth and people.

Rizal wrote in Spanish—not in his native Tagalog; he knew that most of the Filipinos did not read Spanish, that it was the Spaniards and the ilustrados whom he addressed. And why novels? As a propagandist shouldn’t it have been more effective if he simply wrote manifestos and spoke directly to the populace? He chose literature because literature would live long after the event, literature because it would touch the heart.

We will always have coteries, cozy groups bonded by college, ethnicity. Such groupings give us social and emotional comfort. But the generational gap is now very wide and we must close it. I would ask the older writers to reach out to the very young, to do this without condescension, without flaunting your achievements, your Ph.Ds. And for the young, I would ask you to venture out of your brave, new world and know your elders, to learn of their demons, the mountains of rubble they had to scale. Do this to form that granite continuum, that community, the shared purpose with which we build the future.

We know we are not heard or appreciated, that this country starves its writers. But even so, we must not give up, we must not stop. Even if we may not know it, accept it, or believe in it, what we write in its entirety, in its enduring integrity—contributes to the foundation of our nation. The young Filipinos and those who are yet to come—we owe them this responsibility

All of us are egoists with deeply rooted convictions. May I quote a philosopher who said, convictions are prisons. We regard other writers as opponents, but most of all, it is our own selves that we will always wrestle with.

The creative life is harsh. We have no economic or social base; we are often condemned to penury. Do not despair—the insecurity, the anxiety, the suffering—these form the real matrix of creativity.

A few months before he passed away, Nick Joaquin asked my wife if she can invite the young writers so he can meet them. They came; he looked at them, had pictures with them, then he drifted away with the comment—they are all so young and I am so old.

And looking at all the young faces today, I would say the same. And I would add—and you are all so good. With you, I know our literature will flourish and, hopefully, this unhappy country, too.

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(This piece was Jose’s valedictory at the 50th anniversary of Phlippine Center of PEN International, and first appeared in his Phiippine Star column, December 10, 2007—Literary Editor)

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