F. Sionil Jose: ‘How can culture grow if there are no critics?’

Illustration by Panch Alvarez (February 2022)

In the age of social media and cancel culture, National Artist for Literature Francisco Sionil Jose had been vilified for being brutally frank.

“It came to a point my wife told me ‘Huwag ka nang maingay, nauubusan na tayo ng mga kaibigan,” Jose told me in an interview a couple of years ago at his favorite corner at the second floor of Solidaridad Bookshop.

The interview was for a story not about Jose but about his friend, National Artist Nick Joaquin. I was writing about theater, arts and books for the Lifestyle Section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

In his twilight years, Manong Frankie, as he was fondly called in his circle, had become more known for his controversial stands on issues than his legacy as a man of letters.

I was never part of the circle of writers who occasionally dropped by for a drink or coffee at the bookshop but I managed to get an appointment through two former colleagues in the newspaper we used to work for.

“You are in your 40s?” he asked me on that late afternoon. I told him I’m in my mid-40s.

“You look younger than your age, hijo, hindi halata,” he said and I thanked him for the compliment.

 “You should have five books already.”

It’s the kind of awkward situation wherein, nowadays, you find yourself burping while having a zoom meeting with your boss.

I had none but newspaper and magazine clippings of a few old articles, most of which were lost or eaten by termites in the old house in my hometown in Quezon province due to neglect and super typhoons.

Book with autograph by the National Artist is the author’s favorite keepsake.

“Me, when I wrote my first book, I was in my late teens and I got published in my early twenties.”

He asked me where I graduated and his eyes lit up. He was an alumnus in the Far Eastern University.  “I graduated in 1949 at FEU high school then I went to college in UST,” he said.

He remembered Jesus “Jess” Cruz, my professor in all major subjects in literature and creative writing at FEU who had a book of short stories titled “Games”. Sir Jess, as we fondly called him, passed on nearly a decade ago and I thought “Games” was out of print.  Jose said about two or three copies were still available downstairs at the bookshop.

I asked him about Joaquin, who reportedly frequented FEU from the late ‘70s to early ‘80s because his sister-in-law, Sarah K. Joaquin, was a Speech and Drama professor and artistic director of the FEU Theater Guild. Joaquin was also commissioned by then FEU chairman Lourdes Montinola to write several books, including the biography of her father and FEU founder Nicanor Reyes Sr.

“Nick is about 10 years older than me,” Jose said.

I proceeded to the main purpose of my visit. It was about the first and only screenplay written by Joaquin in his younger years, a 1951 movie directed by Gerardo de Leon titled “Bagong Umaga.” There was no known surviving copy but based on magazine articles, it was a propaganda film against communist insurgency in the 1950s, then led by what’s left of the Hukbalahap movement.

Joaquin reportedly didn’t like the outcome. He wrote the original script in English but when it was translated into Filipino, he couldn’t recognize his work. It was a totally different story.

Jose, then associate editor and resident film critic of Sunday Times magazine, lambasted “Bagong Umaga.”

I was prepared and managed to bring a photocopy of his one-page review I got from the vast magazine archives of the Lopez Museum and Library, then located at the Benpres Building in Pasig City. I let Jose read the part wherein he described the film “plain, devoid of blood-and-thunder melodrama.”

Chuckling, Jose said, “I found it atrocious? Oh, if I did I stand by it.”

Recovering from laughter, he turned a bit serious: “Much of what I’ve written in journalism, I’ve forgotten. But Nick is my friend. We’d argue a lot. We’d start like this and then argue but we’re not enemies.”

In the 1950s, the offices where Joaquin and Jose worked were neighbors. At the time, Joaquin had begun working for the Free Press weekly magazine as staff writer. The Free Press and The Manila Times, as well as many publications back then had office-buildings along the Avenida Rizal area.

“The draft I’ve written for magazines and newspapers, I’ve thrown them all away. But drafts for short stories and novels, you go to La Salle where a room is dedicated to me and you’ll find how many revisions I’ve done for my novels.”

He was referring to the F. Sionil Jose Collections, a special room at the De La Salle University Libraries at DLSU-Taft, which was opened on July 11, 2014.

Our conversation veered into writing. I told him I’ve seen “Dong-Ao” at the CCP’s Tanghalang Huseng Batute in the previous years. It was part of the annual festival of untried, untested and yet-to-be staged plays called Virgin Labfest.

“Dong-Ao” is the final act of his full-length play titled “Balikbayan,” which concludes his five-novel opus called “The Rosales Saga”. Why he wrote it as stage play and not the sixth novel, I failed to ask.

When I asked him the difference between writing a play and a novel, he said it’s hard to write a play: “You are confined in a four-square space. With novels, you can go all the way what you want.”

We had dinner at his favorite Japanese restaurant, one of those establishments around the Remedios Circle in Malate. We were with his wife Manang Tessie and eldest son, Antonio, who also served as their driver.

“This used to be a cemetery, did you know that?” he said. I told him, while trying to savor the sushi and sashimi he ordered, I’ve read somewhere the Malate area was a massacre ground in the last few days of the Japanese Occupation.

Just like a theatrical cue, a middle-aged beautiful Filipina from another table approached us. She asked politely if she and her husband could have a “selfie” with the National Artist. She didn’t know him and strangely, she asked if Jose were Japanese?

The lady called her husband, a bald, portly Japanese guy who looked like the younger version of Jose.

“I’m sorry to disturb your dinner but my husband can’t keep his eyes away from you. He is Japanese and he said you looked like his older brother who died a long time ago,” the lady said in Filipino in an apologetic tone.

Jose gamely posed for a group photo and had a small talk about the hometown of his “long-lost younger brother.” It turned out Jose had been there when he was a young writer.

The couple left with wide smiles in their faces with a promise to visit Jose and Manang Tessie in the book shop.

While having dessert, Jose blurted out to me:“Mayaman ka ba? (Are you rich).”

In jest, I answered: “I’m only rich in books.”

“No, that question is important,” he said in a serious tone. “Because writers in our country, they get so little. Even in other countries now, they don’t get much.”

“When I was starting, I did my writing of short stories on the side. I was employed in Sunday Times Magazine but I have to do other things,” he added.

If he finished a story, he said Manang Tessie was always the first to read and criticize.

“When I write, I have to get out. I go to Baguio City in my younger years. When I had friends abroad, I took advantage of their kindness and stayed in their houses for free,” he said.  He mentioned the hometown of the Japanese guy who approached us a few minutes ago, where there’s a beautiful retreat house.

While having desert, our talk veered into theater criticism. He knew one of my editors back then.

“Oh, Gibbs (Cadiz)? He doesn’t write much, which is sad. He should write again,” Jose said, referring to the former theater section editor of Inquirer Lifestyle who was eventually promoted as Opinion editor. As of writing, Cadiz has retired from the paper.

Jose recalled the years he was writing profusely as a critic, not only of films but the visual arts and literature. He expounded on having a strong foundation, a wide knowledge of the arts, the humanities and all that before plunging on the lonely career of being a critic.

“We should create a tradition of cultural criticism. What I see now in newspapers are all political criticisms. Because how can culture grow if there are no critics, how can literature grow? Criticism is essential to the growth of the arts.”

He said he’s been used to the backlash. He mentioned some names of prominent visual artists like Fernando Zobel and fellow literary giants like Jose Garcia Villa, whose works he criticized heavily. Manang Tessie hushed him.

We parted ways in front of the Remedios Circle, the graveyard of massacred Filipinos and Japanese. He offered a short ride to drop me off the nearest LRT station but the night was young and I had an urgent need to walk around and have a few drinks at some old familiar haunts.

And that was the last time I talked to him.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, the 40th day after death is the time when the soul of the departed ascends to heaven after roaming around the world of the living for the last time.

On Monday, February 14, while Valentine’s Day was being celebrated by the young and restless, Jose’s 40th day of passing was celebrated with two tributes given by two institutions that loved him the most:  the De La Salle University on Taft Avenue mid-morning and the Cultural Center of the Philippines come late afternoon.

All the testimonials attested how good and nurturing he was as a colleague, mentor, friend, father, husband and was never a snob to young writers.

And he’s surely up there, perhaps asking the Maker to do something at once to enlighten and prevent many of his ill-informed countrymen in electing another thief.

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