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‘Manong’ Frankie: ‘I write for my countrymen, that they may be lifted from apathy….’

The National Artist wrote till the end. He once believed that the elite may profess love of country when convenient but will easily take flight

National Artist F. Sionil Jose playing 'Auld Lang Syne' at the PEN closing ceremony in 2019

National Artist F. Sionil Jose, wife Tessie and the author at his 85th birthday celebration

It was actually my husband Elfren who is an unabashed admirer and big fan of the writings of National Artist F. Sionil José.  That was why it was such a thrill for him to receive letters from Manong Frankie who took note of his columns since they both agreed on one thing:  the elite in this country may profess love of country when convenient, but will easily take flight to where their money will take them when the going gets rough in the native land.

Such concern for the less privileged Filipino was a recurring theme in his novels. He had said, “I write for my countrymen, that they may be lifted from apathy and ignorance.”

I also began to receive handwritten and typed messages from him when I was appointed chair of the National Book Development Board (NBDB).  He gifted me with what are essentials to a writer—a  set of pretty pocket-sized notebooks meant for every season of the year. Notebooks I could not bear to write on till years after, as it was memorabilia I could flaunt. I now regret I didn’t just leave them in their pristine state.  He would also send me copies of literary journals from Japan, concerned that NBDB was not doing enough to promote reading and writing.  He would write to say he agreed with what I had written on teaching and teachers and the last letter I received from him suggested what I should try to write for my next book, related to education.

I love recounting this childhood memory of his about discovering reading, despite his not having his own library.  In fifth grade, one of his teachers introduced him to the novels of Jose Rizal, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck. The Noli made him cry, because the acts of injustice were familiar to him.  And what a strong influence and recurring motif  that sense of injustice has been in his novels.

For the past two prepandemic years, we had been arranging a Saturday merienda at Solidaridad, as he wanted to exchange ideas with Elfren at length. So, we missed being part of Manong’s historic round table where anyone who mattered spent time in conversation with him. We had arranged a date through his faithful longtime assistant, Cesar Quinagan, for a Saturday afternoon in March 2020.  Our date had to be moved to the next Saturday as Manong’s schedule was tight.  Unfortunately, the next Saturday was already after the lockdown.

Manong would entice us—as if any such lure was necessary—with talk of ensaymada and other sinful stuff from nearby Hizon’s that I was sure were not allowed on his diet. He loved talking (and feasting on them, too) food, even told me the diplomatic reception with the most sumptuous fare—Japan’s, of course.  He and wife Tessie had regular dates with his good friend, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Vince Gomez, a doctor we shared.

The last time I saw him was in January 2019 in an intimate gathering of publishers and friends after I ended my tenure at NBDB.  When he began to speak at length and meandered so that he seemed to have forgotten I was the evening’s honoree, it was his  Tessie who, in her typical quietly and gentle gently manner, helped him find his way back.  I did not mind, because their presence was privilege enough.

In recent times, it was sad that his brutally honest comments were often hurtful and went against the prevailing sentiments of the literary community.  This was upsetting to many of us.  As usual he was speaking fiercely and fearlessly.  But Manong’s contributions to Philippine literature and the role the Solidaridad Bookshop played in our cultural and intellectual life cannot be denied nor diminished.

I would like to remember the sacred place, almost a shrine that Solidaridad, with its well-curated collection, has become.  I cannot forget feeling so empowered and so literate just being lost in its bookshelves and that special framed Thomas Kempis quote in one corner that beckoned to all, “Everywhere I have sought rest and found it not except sitting in a nook with a little book.”

He would always say that the bookshop thrives only because it is rent-free 

He would always say that the bookshop thrives only because it is rent-free on property the Josés own, a property of the family of his wife Tessie they had bought years ago.  And the special literary conversations upstairs in his office. How well he remembered his job decades back in the Manila Times, asking me how I was related to the daily’s day editor, O.O. Sta. Romana.

He was so happy that as he long dreamt, the Philippine chapter of PEN which he founded, was able to host the in 2019, 85th PEN International Congress, the first in Southeast Asia made possible by the patronage of Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda and the NBDB. At the final dinner, we were all wondering at the table we shared why Manong was fussing so much about a bag he brought.  He did not give a speech, but was warmly applauded when he brought out his harmonica to play Auld Lang Syne.

With his blessings of longevity abruptly ended, there went our own dreams of making him our poster boy for the grand Philippine Guest of Honor participation in Frankfurter Buchmesse, a few more years down the line.  Not a total loss though, for he lives on in his body of works.

Speaking of himself as a writer, he has said, “I write to please myself—of course, that is a given. But beyond this reach for pleasure, I know that. I write because of a compulsion to make something out of the nothing that is my own life.”

Manong was truly a writer to the end even from his hospital bed—writing to his brave heart in gratitude, meeting a deadline for his column and in true Sionil José fashion,  writing on his beloved hometown, Rosales.  A most eloquent way to end a life so richly lived.

F. Sionil Jose with the author and behind, PEN director Karina Bolasco

Read more:

F. Sionil Jose: ‘Our most important asset is memory’

F. Sionil Jose came at the right moments in my life

About author

Articles

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is founding director of the creative writing center, Write Things and was former chair of the National Book Development Board.

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