The Kerima I know | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

She was a stranger when she took me in at Focus. It was Johnny (Tuvera) I knew first in the Varsitarian years at the University of Santo Tomas, and later at Manila Times. But, of course, her fame had preceded her.

At about the time they got married, Frankie Sionil Jose said Johnny’s wife was sexy. That was interesting addition to what I had known from reading her works—that she was an excellent writer, a rather formidable personality it was not prudent to provoke in any way.

I was forlorn and jobless for months after martial law closed down Manila Times, when a phone call from her secretary said Mrs. Kerima Tuvera wished to  speak to me. Kerima on the line  told me she had put up a magazine and her husband Johnny had suggested me for the staff, and if I was interested, would I come to her office the following day for an interview?

She had the rich, full-throated voice one would associate with a singer. I liked her voice. It was the first thing I liked about her.

Someone had told me  Kerima took off her shoes in the office and put on slippers. That day she was even more casual, you might say, and walked the length of the carpeted room on her bare feet to greet me. That was the next thing I liked about her, followed closely by another, because I was hired that same day.

Legendary grammarian

Her strictness with grammar and colorful judgments on submitted manuscripts were legendary. I know people, respected writers themselves, who developed diarrhea awaiting her assessment of their works.

I guess it was sheer good fortune on my part that, in the four years of my Focus stint, whatever adjectives my works deserved Kerima kept to herself and never altered a single word. How’s that for kid-glove treatment?

One person Kerima considered master of syntax was the late Vicente Rivera Jr., the soft-spoken, chain-smoking Focus copy editor, the quiet, dependable Vic whose phenomenal patience and skill transformed raw material into readable, even elegant prose.

You could not help but wonder how those contributors felt upon reading “their” articles. Wow! Did I write that? Galing ko ah… No matter, humbled or deluded, surely terribly amazed.

Kerima had a select circle of close friends. Among these is Jules Cruz, for some time managing editor of Focus. It must have been a sad day when Jules had to leave because of an incident that caused a furor in the tightly censored publishing world of martial rule.

While the Tuvera couple was abroad, a poem came out in Focus whose first letter of every line formed the words “MARCOS HITLER DIKTADOR TUTA.” Kerima and Johnny being out of the country at the time were absolved of the crime, and Jules took the fall and left.

And Focus survived. Kerima helped many young writers gain the experience of being published by welcoming them in the pages of her magazine.

I credit her for recognizing the blossoming talent of my daughter Diana, whose poems she often published and on whom she conferred the annual literary award for poetry. She also sponsored Diana’s fellowship in a Silliman literary workshop just a year before Diana drowned in the sea off Vigan.

Shortly after I joined Focus, the staff was moved to Solana Street in Intramuros, where an old building was refurbished for us. I was allotted a small room all to myself, with several amenities, including a divan which Kerima had ordered made so that, she said, I could take a nap after lunch.

I was not yet so very old at that time, so it could not have been a concession to age. In any case, such consideration I had never known from an employer and never again knew thereafter.

Dramatic side

Was it this same consideration that made her take particular care not to expose me to the more dramatic side of her personality?

I usually left the office around 5 p.m., but one afternoon my departure was delayed. I heard her loudly berating the advertising staff as I shut the door of my room, which, being somewhat stuck, made a quite loud noise.

At the sound of the closing door, Kerima stopped short in her tirade, looked in the direction of my room, and, as if aghast, said, “Is she still here?”

Informed that I was, indeed, still in the premises, she continued the dressing down, but in a much lower decibel and less colorful language. I was told this curious tale next day when the ad staff thanked me for saving them.

In one of her columns, Kerima wrote that I was sort of her touchstone for the day. I never fathomed just what she meant, but noted that she tapped my desk upon arriving and walking to her room.

I thought it was her way of greeting me. Perhaps being a touchstone entitled me to a kind of touch-me-not immunity?

Kerima often took some of her staff out to lunch at Army and Navy Club where Johnny enjoyed some privileges. One time, a new driver was at the wheel of the company vehicle, a Land Cruiser that had seen better days. Was it a nervous driver, or the vehicle needing a checkup, that led to a series of stops and starts?

Kerima told the driver to stop; she jumped out of the passenger seat, took over, to the driver’s open-mouthed shock, and proceeded to drive us to our luncheon venue.

She was a skilled, experienced driver, that incident proved, and I recalled her telling me that, years ago, whenever Johnny got into some serious drinking sessions with colleagues at the National Press Club, “I would drive us home with one arm on the wheel and the other arm propping up my husband on my shoulder.”

I must write about my first foreign trip. Kerima found out I had never traveled outside of the country. She had a bloodhound’s instinct for finding out things I had never done, that woman.

Foreign trip

She set about getting me a passport, a US visa, and an official errand to San Francisco for the company. Everything was arranged, including side trips to New York, Washington, DC, and Chicago, places to stay in, people to meet me at the airports, the works.

I was not exactly jumping for joy at the prospect of traveling alone, my first abroad yet, but she assured me I would be all right, I should just enjoy myself, perhaps encounter an adventure or two. She harbored this conviction that my life was too limited and needed perking up.

So I went and came back and wrote of my US adventure in three Focus issues. I did have interesting experiences to narrate, but, alas, not nearly as perky as my editor had wished for.

One thing I never told her. In Chicago, Eddie Monteclaro, who held a high position at Chicago Tribune, offered me a job and tried to persuade me to stay and not return to the Philippines.

I told him I had to go back. I had eight children waiting for me back home, and no job offer anywhere in the world was attractive enough to separate me from them. Kerima knew very well how safe it was to gamble on sending me abroad.

One summer, I was sent to the Silliman Writers Workshop in Dumaguete—not as a fellow but to lecture on, of all things, censorship! What did I know about censorship? The things Kerima made me do!

I stayed at Hotel El Oriente, owned by a friend of hers. She called up one of her closest friends, Teresita Anover Rodriquez, who resided in Dumaguete, to watch over me.

I don’t recall a single sentence of that supposed lecture—so forgettable it must have been—but I do recall enjoying the workshop sessions by the sea, the merciless dissecting of the fellows’ works, some bruised egos, some temper, some tears; the evening soirees at the Tiempo home where one of the entertainment features was a pool with singing frogs.

I did not get to meet Edith Tiempo but her husband Ed handled the workshop efficiently, including the soothing of ruffled feelings.

One subject that couldn’t be avoided was the (in)famous poem that got past martial-law censorship. For reasons of his own Gilbert Centina, then an Augustinian seminarian, offered the information that he was the poem’s author.

When I told Kerima about Gilbert’s avowal, she didn’t react at all. Perhaps she simply didn’t believe him. After Edsa, it was established that the real poet was Pete Lacaba.


After Johnny died, Kerima led an increasingly reclusive life. Once in a while she called me up to invite me to lunch at Manila Hotel’s coffee shop.

One time we chanced upon old friends there—Frankie Sionil Jose, A. Oliver Flores and Greg Brillantes. Asked what we were there for, Kerima answered, “Reminiscing.”

Of more recent vintage was the book launching of a collection of Johnny’s writings at UP, a happy occasion about which I wrote in one of my columns for Woman’s Home Companion. Of Johnny, I wrote:

After all the years, what most easily comes to mind is Johnny’s smile, always slow and shy, and eyes which bore a twinkle and gleam as if there was something more than the words he said, or that he knew something more than what you thought he knew. Yet to me his words were ever kind and affable, although with others he could be stern, even frighteningly so. It amused me that he liked to call me a poet, and when the Focus staff made a call on President Marcos he introduced me by adding “she is a poet” to my name and Marcos reacted with polite interest.

Focus employees said they would rather face “Ma’am’s” (Kerima’s) ire than “Sir’s” (Johnny’s) displeasure. “Tahimik, pero cuidao ka, ’pag nagalit…”

They were the perfect foil for each other—Kerima the voluble, Johnny the quiet. I trust they are happy together now.

“Fairfarren,” the Mad Hatter said to Alice when she left Underland to return to the upper world.

Fairfarren, Kerima. Perhaps we shall meet again, as a song goes, somewhere, somehow.

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