(November 6, 2021 marks the 40th day of the passing of National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera.)
Pardon the irreverence, but I was never intimidated in the company of literary giant and icon Bien Lumbera, notwithstanding his Magsaysay Award and National Artist honors. But let me explain. To our close knit group of English Majors that includes Cynthia “Shayne” Nograles from St. Scholastica’s College, Bien was a warm, friendly figure who was just one of the boys, just Shayne’s husband.
I first knew Bien as my comparative literature teacher while at the Ateneo and I, totally awestruck then, did worry about trying to do well in his class. His fine intellect was so impressive and his mild-mannered ways so charming, it was inevitable that our class would have a collective crush on him. And it was exciting to know who our rivals on campus were, professors vying for Dr. Lumbera’s attention—may they all rest in peace now. Perhaps if I did less swooning, and more in-depth reading and writing, I would have excelled in his class. Too many more pressing juvenile concerns distracted me, and I completed my thesis only after two babies.
But it was he who encouraged me and the other graduate students to research and write on Filipino writers waiting to be discovered and appreciated. He would have been my adviser as I struggled with my thesis on Casiano T. Calalang, one of the first Filipino writers, newly taught English by the Thomasites, to write short stories in English. Of course, I lost my adviser to the perils of Martial Law, vacillated between a replacement adviser in Rolando Tinio who never taught me and Eric Torres, my modern poetry teacher who gave me an A for a paper on Emily Dickinson (teachers, see what students never forget?), and finally completed the thesis with the more predictable Edna Manlapaz.
My friendship, mischief, making and sharing of secrets with Shayne were even further strengthened when we were graduate students at Ateneo.
During the years of Martial Law and living dangerously, distraught about how our personal lives had been so adversely affected by restrictions and detentions of those near and dear to us, we were in irregular contact. Of course, by then Shayne had become the most avid of Lumbera fans and had even won his heart. A striking memory I have of the period Bien went underground was of their clandestine meetings in Divisoria in a restaurant with the most lyrical, the most poetic name, Kandungan.
Doreen (Fernandez) would do anything for Bien
When they married on March 19, 1975 at the Archbishop’s Palace in Mandaluyong, the intimate reception was held in the designer home of Doreen and Wili Fernandez, on First Street, Acacia Lane, just a short drive away. A beautiful home rich with art, just two doors away from the family home I grew up in, a home whose five-star comforts we all loved to take refuge in.
Doreen, a first cousin of mine, as our mothers are sisters, was one of the most outstanding students of Bien’s, and she was very fond of Bien and Shayne. She would host at a moment’s notice any of the many cultural research meetings Bien led and facilitated.
Doreen would do anything for Bien, whom she held on a pedestal. Bien influenced her not only in scholarly research but also in her nationalist beliefs. Doreen’s MA thesis was on the British playwright Christopher Fry, but upon her return for her doctoral studies at the Ateneo, it was Bien’s influence that led her to a dissertation on the Iloilo zarzuela. Theirs was a special friendship mutually valued.
Between our Ateneo years and her marriage, Shayne had entrusted me with a Glenn Bautista painting to hang in our first apartment while she did not have a more or less permanent home yet. It was a prized acquisition from her work with Eric Torres at the Ateneo Art Gallery, which meant much to her. I was only too sorry that once she and Bien had settled in their first home, she remembered to claim it.
My relationship with Bien slid from the professional to the personal when he and Shayne married
So my relationship with Bien slid by circumstances from the professional to the personal when he and Shayne married after his release from detention. He and my husband Elfren enjoyed talking politics, ideology, and Philippine society, and worked together for one Manunuri awards night and a few Manila film festivals while Elfren was Metro Manila governor. Elfren is baptismal ninong (godfather) to one of the twins, Sining, and Shayne, ninang (godmother) to my daughter Aina.
While I was starting to do freelance writing and needed a subject, any subject to interview, Bien was always a willing interviewee and I thoroughly exploited his being just a phone call away—whether it was on education, literature, or parenting his daughters. I also dared ask him to write me a message, a short poem in Filipino that I could use for our family Christmas card.
At Bien’s recent birthday milestones, I was amused to discover what an ardent Glock9 fan he had become. Earlier, I knew he was a Sting follower, and so, I was only too happy to send him all the Sting memorabilia I found at home. I recall sharing his excitement over Sting’s concert in Manila. On his 85th birthday, a warm April summer night, for love of Bien, I bravely wore the non-cotton Freeway top that carried his signature, the fashion line, that his poetry inspired. That night, the Women Writers in Media Now presented him with a framed iconic photograph that one of us, Ceres Doyo, took at Bantayog ng mga Bayani, with Bien passing on a torch to a young boy. It is especially symbolic with Bien leaving us at this time.
At Bien’s recent birthday milestones, I was amused to discover what an ardent Glock9 fan he had become
It was also in recent years, during my tenure with the National Book Development Board, that I would happily see Bien more often. The English Majors who trooped to the National Museum at one National Book Awards Night because Bien would be keynote speaker and it would be a chance to see Shayne, have not forgiven me for doing an introduction to Bien that was longer than his keynote. All I said in weak defense was that I never volunteered to do the introduction. But yes, I did get carried away. And who does not when talking about Bien?
Bien was always gentle, kind, and encouraging. It was he and my Ateneo experience that opened my eyes to the wealth and beauty of Philippine literature—truly a brown heritage to be proud of. His mentoring was still there during my last consultation with him in his home in 2019—conversation was as lively as ever as Shayne joined us and Bien served me tsokolate in the batirol, even sending me off with packs of tablea.
As a hopeless romantic in college, Shayne dreamt of a house on a hill with yellow curtains and six children. The English Majors, on our out-of-town all-girls’ trips to Lian, San Fabian, or Baguio, would tease Shayne about that, knowing how her marriage has given her more than just that house with yellow curtains. Our women talk would give glimpses of our present lives, of domestic scenes. Shayne talking about Bien savoring and finishing the bottles of jams at Christmas time, (but his absolute favorite was a simple pineapple upside down cake), his forgetting to staple the pages of his speeches despite her nagging reminders so that he did not get confused, her threat to report him to the women’s groups he supported for some trivial this and that. She calmed down when one of us said half seriously, “Okay, in that case, I am claiming Bien.”
At other times, the mood would turn tense because of political issues and those of us merely listening wished we could jump out of the car window. But because the English Majors have journeyed in life together for so long, the next moment we would be back to our old silly and familiar selves.
Bien never minded that we would be out that long with Shayne because I guess he himself was always out, a kaladkarin, as his own daughters called him.
When Bien was proclaimed National Artist, a long ardent male admirer of Shayne’s who continues to be my friend because of the Shayne link undoubtedly, got in touch. Of course, I rubbed it in and said, “How can you ever match Bien’s award?”
Bien has left us with a rich literary legacy, and for many of us who had the privilege of knowing him beyond his distinguished titles, many precious memories—all to be cherished.