If you ask creative writers, especially those who started their careers before the turn of this century, who among their peers are the most celebrated and the most influential, chances are that many of them would include Renato “Rene” Villanueva.
They would have good reason to. In his almost three-decade career, Rene wrote prodigiously in three genres: drama, fiction for children, and creative nonfiction. Not only that, he helped educate an entire generation of Filipinos with the children’s television show Batibot, which reached its peak in the 1980s, when he was its head writer and creative force.
Rene also established two notable dramatists’ groups: the Telon Playwrights Circle in the early 1980s and, with the late playwright Carlos “Charley” de la Paz Jr., what’s now known as the Writer’s Bloc in 1989. The latter group is one of the driving forces behind the Virgin Labfest, an annual festival of one-act plays that has introduced a new generation of talented playwrights—and helped revitalize Philippine theater in general—since its launch in 2005.
For his astounding contributions to Philippine literature, Rene received numerous accolades. He won an impressive 27 awards at the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, regarded as our country’s counterpart of the Pulitzer Prize. Of these, 12 are first prizes—more than enough for him to be among the first to be inducted into the Palanca Hall of Fame in 1995.
He also received five National Book Awards from the Manila Critics Circle, for the play collections May Isang Sundalo: Limang Maiikling Dula and Apat na Dula, the children’s books Nemo, Ang Batang Papel and Ang Pambihirang Buhok ni Lola, and the essay collection Personal: Mga Sanaysay sa Lupalop ng Gunita.
The Junior Chamber International named Rene as one of the 10 Outstanding Young Men of the Philippines in 1991 and one of the Outstanding Young Persons of the World in 1993. The Unyon ng mga Manunulat ng Pilipinas bestowed on him the Gawad Balagtas for lifetime achievement in 2000, and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) named him its Gawad CCP Para sa Sining recipient for literature in 2004.
The list of his accomplishments is endless.
All these are being remembered 10 years after Rene passed away on December 5, 2007 at the age of 53. Those unfamiliar with him as an individual may get to know more about him through Personal and [Im]personal: Gabay sa Panulat at Pagmamanunulat. But those who did know him—those he had mentored and befriended—remember a Rene whose intellect and personality were as sharp and vivid as his works, if not more.
One of them, prize-winning poet and Telon member Romulo “Joey” Baquiran Jr., attested to Rene’s continued influence, particularly in creative nonfiction. He said Rene’s “Personal is an ideal I strive to emulate,” noting “the grit, the truth, the honesty, [and]even the casual tone” of the book.
The playwright and children’s book author was especially known for his cutting remarks, a fact that wasn’t lost on Joey, who said the late writer’s “evaluation of one’s talent is harsh, but it’s the real one.”
Another Telon (and Writer’s Bloc) member, acclaimed playwright and poet Nicolas “Nick” Pichay, remembers Rene as “a generous teacher; an engaging raconteur; a person with genuine, thought-out insights; and a trusting friend” whose “legacy is not confined to his literary output.”
For his part, Nick’s fellow dramatist and Palanca Hall of Famer Jun Robles Lana—now best-known as the director of such films as Bwakaw (which was dedicated to Rene and whose cranky protagonist was named after him), Barber’s Tales and Die Beautiful—said “Rene was my writing mentor. And as a writer who directs—because I’m a writer first—ultimately my work as a filmmaker is inspired by the core values Rene had instilled in me.”
He also said “screenwriters today can learn about characterization, voice and motivation from reading Rene, since most of his plays are brilliant character studies.”
As examples, Jun cited Hiblang Abo, about four men spending their twilight years and being haunted by their past in a home for the elderly; Kumbersasyon (for which Rene won his first Palanca award), which focuses on a college professor’s subtle attempt to seduce a student; and Botong, about the celebrated National Artist for Painting Carlos Francisco that’s set in the afterlife.
Joey said what made Rene’s works, like the abovementioned plays, distinctive was how “well-made” they were, adding that the themes he employed “were almost always relevant to contemporary Filipinos.”
Nick noted the speed in which Rene penned his works, as well as his “gift for snappy dialogue.”
“[Rene’s] plays were usually realistic [and]dealt with contemporary dilemmas. He was very good at encapsulating the political concerns of society reduced to personal situations,” he said.
Among fellow writers whom Rene had influenced, it’s novelist and essayist Luna Sicat-Cleto and children’s book author and essayist Dr. Luis Gatmaitan whom the playwright seemed to have made the most impact.
“Si Rene ang nagturo sa akin—sa amin—na sumulat ng dula,” Luna said. “Malaking bagay ang ibinigay niyang mga leksiyon. Panahon iyon na hindi ko pa talaga alam kung ano’ng gusto kong isulat, pero nagabayan niya ako at nabigyan ng hamon.”
Like fellow Telon member Joey, Luna also noted Rene’s brutal frankness, describing it as “nananampal,” or like slaps to the face. She added, however, that you would understand why he would say things that way, and that is to wake you up.
“First real critique sa akin ‘yung simple niyang tanong na: Ano ba ang vision mo? You may have the talent, but without vision, para ka ring bulag, Luna,” she recalled. “Marami raw akong mga linya na malulutong, maangas. Pero tulad ng blusang ginantsilyo, hindi mo ito isusuot dahil sa butas-butas. In other words, kailangang magkasangga ang dialogue at plot. Kailangan rin na may sense ka of a bigger story, of a bigger picture, ‘yung discourse na tunay na source ng dula.”
“Orihinal ang kanyang sense of humor. Dark—perverse—pero natatawa ka,” the novelist-essayist said when asked what set Rene apart from other writers. “May ruthless honesty siya. I mean, wala siyang romantikong nosyon sa mga ugnayan ng tao. Pero minsan ubod siya ng corny, ubod ng sentimental. Kaya siya epektibo bilang mandudula kasi marami siyang nakikita sa tao, lalo na sa mga kalilibliban ng mga emosyon at iniisip ng tao. Walang masama na ubod nang sama, walang mabuti na santa/santo.”
“Hate niya ang mga ipokrito. Mahilig rin siyang magbasa, makipagdebate sa history, sa culture. He’s extremely well-read, pero hindi pedantic,” she added.
“Nakilala ko siya noong 18 ako, pumanaw siya na 42 na ako. Twenty-four years ko na siyang kaibigan, at kaibigan pa rin. Hindi lang siya mentor ng dula. Life coach rin siya,” Luna said.
For Luis, Rene’s name is always synonymous with Philippine children’s literature.
“Just the mere mention of his name would evoke images of Batibot, theater and children’s books. He had written some of the most interesting stories in local children’s books, like Ang Unang Baboy sa Langit, Nemo, ang Batang Papel and Ang Pambihirang Buhok ni Lola. He had created some of the most memorable storybook characters in the country: Emang Engkantada, Butsiki, Carancal, Nemo, Tiktaktok and Pikpakbum,” he explained.
“Malawak ang naging kontribusyon ni Rene sa larang na ito, patunay ang higit 50 aklat-pambata na nasulat niya. Pero ayon kay Rene, aksidente lang na nagustuhan ng mga bata ang kanyang mga ginawang libro. Actually, he was writing for the child in him who died young because of life’s harsh realities,” Luis said.
“Naging editor ko si Rene noong ginagawa namin ang isang set ng librong pambata na kinomisyon ng Unicef (United Nations Children’s Fund) Philippines sa Tahanan Books. Doon ko narinig sa kanya na kapag gagawa ka ng dialogue, ang dapat ay maiigsi lamang ang mga linya,” the writer-pediatrician recalled.
“‘Para mas interesante, mas biting! Isipin mo ang mga linya sa isang palabas sa entablado. Hindi mahahaba ang pangungusap nito. Sa totoong buhay, ganyan naman mag-usap ang mga tao,’” he quoted Rene as saying then. “Hanggang ngayon, kapag gumagawa ako ng dialogue sa aking mga kuwento, naiisip ko ang mga payo ni Rene.”
“Among the books he had written, my personal favorite is Ang Unang Baboy sa Langit. Nandoon lahat ang mga elemento ng isang mahusay na akdang pambata: may siste (humor), maganda ang ginamit na mga salita, nakaaaliw,” Luis said.
“Paborito ko rito ang chant na sinabi ng mga anghel habang umaakyat sa langit ang kaluluwa ni Butsiki: ‘Walang silbi ang baboy na di naging litson. Walang halaga ang baboy na di naging chicharon. Ipahayag sa lahat, si Santa Butsiki ang unang baboy na patron!’ Klasiko na itong maituturing,” he added.
“Maraming manunulat ang sumunod sa yapak ni Rene. Binuksan niya para sa amin ang genre na ito,” He inspired a lot of writers to take writing for children seriously,” Luis said.
“Karapatdapat parangalan si Rene bilang Pambansang Alagad ng Sining sa Panitikang Pambata,” he asserted.
With such testimonies from some of those who knew him best, it’s only a matter of time—and luck—before Rene would be proclaimed as such. And it would be so well-deserved.