Bien Lumbera, our family’s mentor and nurturer

Our relationship had always been familial and personal

National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera with Mario Miclat

The author with National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera and her book ‘Soul Searchers and Dreamers’

When Tales of the Manuvu was restaged by Ballet Philippines at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) in 2009, my daughter Banaue Miclat took the role of “First Woman” and sang Bangon sa Silangan and the duet Noong Unang Panahon, which National Artist Bienvenido “Bien” Lumbera wrote, with music by Nonong Pedero. It was a groundbreaking performance in 1977, staged by National Artist for Dance Alice Reyes, and restaged by Paul Morales in 2009. Banaue sang again the last song as a solo popularized by Kuh Ledesma when the UP Press gave a tribute to Bien in 2016.

Bien Lumbera—poet, critic, and dramatist, National Artist  for Literature, and a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communications—has been receiving tribute after tribute since he passed away on Sept. 28, 2021 at age 89. And rightly so, for the exemplary life  he lived, writing, teaching, mentoring, and giving service to our nation and people.

Our family was a recipient of Bien’s inherent kindness and generosity of spirit. In his Foreword to my husband Mario’s book, Taong Yungib ng Peking (UP Press, 1999), Bien wrote: “Dalawang pinto ang binubuksan ng salin sa Filipino ni Dr. Mario I. Miclat ng dulang Taong Yungib ng Peking ni Tsao Yu (Cao Yu) ng China…Tunay na mahirap pantayan ang mga tagumpay ni Dr. Miclat sa kanyang ginawang pag-aaral at pagsasalin kay Tsao Yu—tagumpay sa paghawak sa wikang Mandarin at tagumpay sa pagsusuri at pag-unawa sa kultura ng China sa kabuuan at sa kultura sa panahon ni Tsao Yu… At narito rin ang halimbawa ng pagsasalin na hindi lamang naging masining at malikhain sa paggamit ng wikang Filipino upang makalikha ng katumbas sa ating wika ng dula ng isang dakilang awtor ng China.” (Dr. Mario I. Miclat’s Filipino translation of Cao Yu’s play, Taong Yungib ng Peking (Peking Man) opens two doors.…It is truly difficult to match the success of Dr. Miclat in his study and translation of Cao Yu’s (considered one of the most important Chinese playwrights in the 20th century) work—success in handling Mandarin and success in analyzing and understanding China’s culture in general, and culture during Cao Yu’s time…Here also lies an example of translation which is not only artistic and creative in using the Filipino language to create a play by a great Chinese author written like it was like our own.) (The author’s translation)

The book was one of the publications of UP Press’ 100 Taon, 100 Akda Project in 1998 headed by its director, Laura Samson, and the University of the Philippines’ contribution to the commemoration of the Centennial of the Philippine Revolution.

Mario dedicated the book to Bien Lumbera, among others, as his “tagapayo at nagsilbing doktor habang isinasamaysinapupunan ang aklat na ito (adviser and served as a doctor in birthing this book).

Our relationship with Bien had always been familial and personal, even as with Mario, it was also professional. Like our other National Artist friends Virgilio Almario and F Sionil Jose, he almost never missed our Maningning Miclat Awards and other events. His support was most heartfelt, and it seemed there was never an obstacle that hindered his coming to our cultural activities.

One event that is forever etched in my mind’s eye was the surprise party Mario gave me on my 50th birthday. It was just three months after my daughter Maningning passed away in September 2000. I was consumed with grief, and all I wanted was to go visit her tomb and not to see anybody. But Mario had it all planned, in cahoots with some of our friends and my siblings. I cried when I opened the door and was greeted with a birthday song. Bien was the first one I saw, followed by our other friends and my siblings and family who came all the way from my hometown of Orani, Bataan.

In 2014, when Ateneo de Manila University staged Contra Mundum, a one-hour reading of excerpts from Nick Joaquin’s original text of his Portrait of the Artist as Filipino with Filipino translation by Bien, and singing of selections from the musical version by Ryan Cayabyab and Rolando Tinio, Banaue sang Candida in the musical version, while Delphine Buencamino sang Paula. After the show, Bien sidled up to Banaue and whispered, “Ang ganda ng boses mo!” He would tell me later that he was thinking of Banaue for one of the librettos he wrote. Unfortunately, she was in the United States when the musical was staged.

Bien would be poetic in his nationalistic Christmas greetings: Pasko ay salita / na ang lumang diwa’y / kay gandang balita

Bien would be poetic in his nationalistic Christmas and New Year greetings, like this one: Pasko ay salita / na ang lumang diwa’y / kay gandang balita / sa nagdaralita. / Sana ang salita’y / maghatid-biyaya / magkalat ng tuwa / na mapagpalaya. – BIEN, SHAYNE, at iba pang LUMBERA.

An interregnum of sorts, however, came when Mario’s semi-autobiographical novel, Secrets of the Eighteen Mansions, came out. Writer Elizabeth Lolarga wrote in her Philippine Daily Inquirer article “18 Mansions and Countless Controversies” in March  2011: “How often does it happen in the Philippine literary scene that a title, more so a thick novel in a second language like English, gets launched and re-launched over and over again, creating a snowball effect that serves as a constant irritant, like a pebble in a shoe, to the real persons behind the thinly veiled characters in the book?”

At the Philippine Center of PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists) board meeting and general assembly in February that year, another launch of the book was hosted at Solidaridad Bookshop in Ermita, Manila. Bien, who was a PEN Board member, walked out when Mario was just starting to talk. He would not be able to hear what Lolarga wrote, thus: “Coming home from exile on the wings of the first Edsa Revolt, Miclat has seen that there are other ways to help bring about change. The same revolt ‘inspired other voices in the world.’ And Mario said, ‘We must not be afraid to write and read about ourselves. Writing the truth has set me free, and I am unafraid.’”

Mario’s controversial book had made us some enemies, including some who we thought would understand his principled stand. A vicious blog written by a cowardly man who chose to hide behind a pseudonym threw aspersions on Mario’s character and invented a host of lies about him and our family. Mario even got a death threat, which he just ignored, for what could be more threatening than the host of medical conditions he had? A good friend, a well-respected writer, divulged to us that he was asked to write a review and denigrate the book. He just shrugged it off.

And truth stood the test of time. Even those who initially shied away from us eventually made their comeback. Robert Frost said it succinctly: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

Bien eventually came back to us and would grace almost all our Maningning Miclat Awards, concerts, book launches, and other events. I could feel that more than his support as a National Artist to our artistic, literary, and cultural activities, he really liked and enjoyed attending the events, more so when Banaue was on stage.

Just as he warmly supported Mario as his advisee in his doctoral dissertation at the University of the Philippines, he also lent support to Banaue as a panelist in her bid for teaching tenure at UP Diliman. I believe Banaue made him proud for being a passionate and dedicated professor in the same way her father did, too. What could be a better tribute to a mentor like Bien?

About author


Alma Cruz Miclat is a freelance writer and president of the Maningning Miclat Art Foundation, Inc. She is the author of deluxe books Soul Searchers and Dreamers: Artists’ Profiles and Soul Searchers and Dreamers, Volume II, and co-author with Mario I. Miclat, Maningning Miclat, and Banaue Miclat of Beyond the Great Wall: A Family Journal, a National Book Awardee for biography in 2007.

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