There has never been anything like Nick Joaquin’s voice—literally. Whenever friends recall the late National Artist for Literature’s words, they launch into an impersonation that’s so spot-on it verges on the uncanny. “Darling (pronounced daah-ling),” they would say, breaking into a growl that’s sweet and improbably loud. It sounds like Joaquin is speaking through that person. It’s a voice that thunders through the years. It echoes through distinct points in our history. That voice—explosive, garrulous, unforgettable—made Nick Joaquin immortal.
Most people have heard of Joaquin’s legendary words—or perhaps his prodigious ability to drink beer. But 10 years after his death in 2004, Joaquin had risked becoming lost in the shuffle as Filipino readers moved on to other reading material. But a new book published and an upcoming exhibit highlights a revival of interest on Joaquin in the three-year run-up to his birth centenary in 2017. Aside from a perfect opportunity to revisit his trendsetting work, it is also a chance to get to know the complicated, sometimes conflicted, man that Joaquin was, from the people who knew him. He remains the greatest Filipino writer in English—and much more.
The book on the life of Nick Joaquin swings open to a page on May 4, 1917 in Paco, Manila. Nicomedes “Nick” Marquez Joaquin was born the fifth of ten children born to lawyer-rebel strategist Leocadio Joaquin and his teacher wife Salome Marquez Joaquin. Joaquin was only 13 when his father died, which might explain why he developed a life-long devotion to his mother.
Joaquin devoured books but did not enjoy school; he dropped out of V. Mapa High School after only three years. An early testament to his talent was his first poem published in the Tribune when Joaquin was only 17; it was chosen by the paper’s literary editor, the astrologer/writer Serafin Lanot.
Serendipitously, Joaquin’s essay “La Naval de Manila” won a contest in 1943 and allowed him to study under a scholarship at the St. Albert’s College, a seminary, in Hong Kong in 1947. The devoutly Catholic Joaquin had wanted to become a priest. But he would leave the seminary and return to the Philippines in 1950. “He was too much of a free spirit,” says Antonio “Tony” Joaquin, the writer’s oldest nephew and co-author of the 2011 biography “Nick: A Portrait of the Artist Nick Joaquin.”
The next big stage in Joaquin’s career occurred when he joined Teodoro Locsin Sr.’s prominent Philippines Free Press as a proofreader, later becoming a regular writer under the pseudonym Quijano de Manila. It was as Quijano de Manila that Joaquin would champion literary journalism in the Philippines. As Nick Joaquin, he wrote poetry, fiction and drama—works that would become known as the best of their class, in particular the short stories “May Day Eve” and “The Summer Solstice;” the novel “The Woman Who Had Two Navels,” and the iconic play “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.” He received almost every award available in his time, the most prominent being named National Artist for Literature in 1976 and recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Literature, Journalism and Creative Communication in 1996. He would author more than 30 books and become the most sought-after and most expensive biographer in the country.
To his family, however, Joaquin was the generous, beloved uncle. “He was our Santa Claus,” remembers niece Rosario “Charo” Joaquin Villegas.
“He was very happy, very jolly and he loved children.” Every Sunday, the nieces and nephews would have Sunday lunch at the house on V. Agan Street in San Juan where Joaquin lived with his mother, Doña Salome. He would have the children line up and give each one a peso. “At that time (the 1950s) that was worth a lot,” his niece says. A member of the Board of Censors (what is now known as the Movies and Television Review and Classification Board or MTRCB), Joaquin would bring all the children to the movies. Tony, who as the first nephew was much closer in age to Joaquin, describes Joaquin “as a kind of playmate, for he was more childlike and childish in many ways, who grew up with my family even before he became famous.”
Charo remembers having “vacations” at Joaquin’s home where she was tasked with bringing Joaquin his elixir—San Miguel Pale Pilsen. “Darling, get me a beer,” Joaquin would tell her.
“The best part was that we were friends,” she says. “And he was friends with our friends.”
Joaquin was thoughtful, always remembering birthdays. Charo’s favorite memory of her uncle involved her husband Bing Villegas’ birthday. Joaquin had come with a bottle of cognac and lechon. “He had wanted to bring Bing a turkey and he looked all over town for one but couldn’t find any. We weren’t even home but found out later that Tito had been here and had left the lechon and cognac. He was very generous and sweet,” Charo says.
She also remembers her uncle as being very filial and devoutly looked after his mother. “He would talk to her in Spanish and would write letters to her in Spanish, beginning always with ‘Mi querida mama.’” When she died in 1970 at 88, he was heartbroken. “He wrote a poem about my Lola and thought the world of her.” He lived in his mother’s house at V. Agan (now Gen. Sotto Street) until he died.
He was a transcendent, transformative figure who changed writing in the Philippines and changed forever the lives of the writers who read him–and the writers who knew him.
Joaquin had many writer friends through the years and was notably close to fellow National Artist for Literature NVM Gonzalez and Gregorio Brillantes, among others. Perhaps more than any people outside of his own family, Joaquin was close to the Lacaba family.
Jose “Pete” Lacaba met his future wife Marra PL. Lanot at the University of the Philippines National Writers Workshop in 1965. Joaquin had written about the workshop, and had identified Pete as one of the writers to watch for. “I was amazed, because Quijano de Manila wrote about me,” Pete says in Filipino. On a drinking sortie at the Free Press cafeteria, Pete finally met Joaquin. Later that year, Pete joined the Free Press as a proofreader, with his desk just strides away from Joaquin’s office. It was a thrilling time.
“Before I joined the Free Press, I was already reading Nick, Greg Brillantes and Ding Nolledo, but more Quijano de Manila than anything else,” Pete says. “I was a regular Free Press reader and knew it came out every Thursday. I always bought a copy.” Now he was working there. “As a journalist, Nick was one of my models when it comes to what we now call literary journalism. At the time, it was called New Journalism. I was also reading Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, but Nick was one of the earliest writers who showed that this kind of literary style can be used in journalism. It was a big influence.”
Joaquin liked to host young writers in the Free Press cafeteria after hours, where he paid for the beer. Pete remembers that Joaquin liked to sing songs by Frank Sinatra, fully expecting that none of the young writers could follow. “You don’t know that song,” he would shout. But Pete and some of the others knew the songs and would sing along, to Joaquin’s amazement. “Why do you know that song?” he would snarl, as if no one else should know the lyrics aside from himself.
A poet, screenwriter, journalist and activist, Pete was working at the Asia-Philippines Leader with Joaquin when martial law was declared on Sept. 21, 1972. Pete’s name was on the list of those wanted by the law, but he managed to evade the initial sweep of arrests and went underground. In 1974, he was arrested in Caloocan and was brought to Camp Crame, where he was detained and tortured. Amnesty International tried and failed to free him and his comrades. Marra kept working the channels to see her husband.
In 1976, Pete and some of his fellow detainees had been moved to a different part of Crame because they were supposed to be released soon. But despite their best expectations, nothing happened.
What happened next remains one of the best stories told about Nick Joaquin.
Fittingly, for a man who crafted so many stories, there are as many great stories about this literary icon.
Joaquin was declared National Artist for Literature in 1976, and Pete’s release was rumored to be a condition he had set for agreeing to the honor. As Pete recalls it, Joaquin despised President Marcos’ declaration of martial law and was loathe to receive his award unless he got it on his own terms. But writer Carmen “Chitang” Guerrero-Nakpil suggested that Joaquin first accept the award and then ask for Pete’s release. Joaquin agreed.
During the cocktails after receiving the award, Joaquin approached Marcos and said, “I have this officemate, a writer who is detained at Crame. Maybe he can be released already?” Marcos, Pete says, replied, “OK, Nick, his release will be part of your award.” So saying, Marcos called for Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile. The next day, Pete was released from detention.
“I didn’t know he was going to do this,” Pete explains. “I heard about it when I got out.” At a party celebrating Pete’s return, Joaquin explained what had happened. Pete would also visit Guerrero-Nakpil to thank her for her part in his release.
Just as thankful was Pete’s wife, Marra Lanot, whose links to Joaquin go even further back. Marra’s father Serafin, was the first person to publish Joaquin. After the 1965 UP Workshop, Marra had gathered the courage to go to the Free Press in person to submit a poem to Joaquin. “I was so nervous,” she recalls. Joaquin told her to wait while he read the poem. He loved it. Then Joaquin asked, “How are you related to Serafin?” When Joaquin found out who she was, he said, “Darling, where do you live? Wait for me. I’ll take you home.” He summoned a taxi and brought Marra to her Quezon City home. There, Joaquin asked, “Serafin, do you remember me?” Serafin said, “Of course, why shouldn’t I?” An abashed Joaquin said, “You are my discoverer.” Serafin shot back, “I am not a discoverer. I am not Magellan.”
That began a long series of regular visits by Nick to the Lanot home. Marra tearfully remembers how Joaquin mourned when her father passed away in 1993. “There was a Mass going on and he came in quietly. When I looked for him, I saw him standing alone by the window, crying. He was really crying. It was the first time I ever saw him cry. It was like there was nobody else there,” she recalls.
Marra’s other memories of Joaquin were much less sorrowful. Aside from inviting her to the Free Press drinking sessions, Joaquin would take her around town, to places such as director Ishmael Bernal’s restaurant When It’s a Grey November in Your Soul.
“He would push the chair and then say, ‘Come, let’s do the tango,” Marra says. “Then he would dip me, and burst out in laughter because I would be surprised. He loved that.” Whenever it struck midnight, Joaquin would stop whatever he was doing and say, “It’s midnight Cinderella, time to go home.”
This was because Marra was on a very tight leash. “My mother was very strict. I couldn’t even go to parties,” she explains. So she came up with a plan. “Every time I had a party, I would say that I was going out with Nick.” Joaquin became her alibi. “So I would tell Nick, hey, you’re supposed to be out with me yesterday.”
Nick Joaquin loved to party—but only with those he knew well. At the end of every workday, Joaquin would get dressed to go out on the town, a habit partly enabled by his unusual approach to hiring taxis.
For his convenience, Joaquin would flag down a taxi near his home in San Juan. Then, wherever he went, whether it was to a bar or to a friend’s home, he would tell the cab driver to wait, with the meter running, until he was done with whatever he was doing. Joaquin never owned a car or learned how to drive. It was the taxi passenger’s life for him.
There are many funny Joaquin taxi stories. Pete recalls that Joaquin would bring him home to Pateros in a taxi packed with the latter’s good friends from San Juan. In the taxi, an inebriated Joaquin would start singing. At one point, he began singing “New York, New York” from the 1944 movie musical “On the Town,” but instead improvised with “Pateros, Pateros, a helluva town.”
At a later point, when Pete already had a car, he was bringing Joaquin home to San Juan one night when the older writer fell asleep. Upon arriving at Joaquin’s house, Pete shook him awake. “O, driver, how much?” Joaquin asked. “Nick thought he was in a taxi,” Pete remembers.
Along with the taxi stories are tales of Joaquin’s generous tips. Tony remembers Joaquin being “so insanely generous, giving 100 peso tips to waiters who served him his beer.” He liked tipping messengers and janitors profusely, but when managers would come up, he would swat their hands away. Ironically, Joaquin did not always manage his own money well, and would stash cash in all places. “Sometimes, he would pull out a book and money would fall out,” his literary agent and Pete’s brother, Billy Lacaba, recalls.
Joaquin was never good with handling his money, admits his nephew Tony. “He was immaturely reckless with his funds,” he says, adding that he gave indiscriminately to those in need. He should have managed his generosity better, Tony says. “Because in the end, he didn’t have any money left for himself.”
Joaquin loved going to places with good music. He enjoyed the standards, particularly Sinatra and Cole Porter. He would take his friends out to see singer Merci Molina, or a favorite blind pianist, or Carmen Soriano, who sang at Bulakeña. Another place he liked visiting was Calle Cinco. Later, he would hang out at Cherry Blossoms Hotel, a bar owned by his good friend, businessman and diplomat Antonio Cabangon Chua. In his last years, he frequented the Manila Hotel because he enjoyed listening to a young singer named Girl Valencia. “She was a favorite of Nick’s,” confirmed Billy. Joaquin would say it was because Valencia was the first singer he heard who could sing “Someone to Watch Over Me” with the correct intro.
Marra has memories of Joaquin contentedly singing along to Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” His favorite classical composition was Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune,” and he would often ask Charo to play it on the piano. Marra even remembers piano great Cecile Licad playing at their home, only to be interrupted by Joaquin after a couple of bars. “Darling, ‘Claire de Lune,’ play ‘Claire de Lune,’’’ he requested loudly.
Perhaps the most unusual trait that Nick Joaquin had was his debilitating shyness. “He was uncomfortable with fame,” Charo says. There is perhaps no writer with such a clash of achievement and such reticence; it’s a relationship that seems inversely proportional. “That’s a contradiction in Nick,” Marra explains. On the one side, he enjoys the company of friends. Once he is around strangers, he retreats.” Earlier on, when Joaquin would encounter someone claiming to know him, he would greet that person with a loud “Darling,” and then turn to Marra and say, “Who the hell was that?” Later on, he would answer greetings with “Darling—who the hell are you?” In fact, Joaquin would even stop hanging out with people once those people became famous or elected into office, Marra says. Joaquin would even shield his face with a hankie when photographers were around taking shots.
This shyness would abate when he drank—with side effects. “The problem was, the more beer he drank, the louder his voice got, even in a public place. I just hoped that when people hear his loud voice and recognize him they would just resign themselves to the quirk of this Filipino literary genius and give him due respect,” Tony says.
He explains that Joaquin’s intense shyness can be traced to his childhood. His father and siblings were prominent and talented but were also peace-loving. “They were not the aggressive or violent macho type of males,” he says. “No one ever had any kind of firearm in the house. Nick was as peace-loving as the siblings who were artists in their own right. But, yes, among his brothers Nick was the most introverted and reflective which, I thought, was brought on by his nature as a writer: contemplative, introspective, deep.”
“People think he was arrogant, but he was not,” Marra says. “He was gentle and nice but he could also be brutally frank. He’d tell you what he honestly thought of your work. When he liked it, he liked it to the max.”
Because he died unmarried and had no children, there has always been speculation that Joaquin was gay. Tony says: “Yes, he was, but a closet one controlled by his devotion to his faith. He was able to live with it with difficulty I might imagine, but he channeled his energies to creative writing.”
Others say that Joaquin always treated his personal life with the utmost dignity and discretion. He never talked about it. His intense belief in his Catholicism pervaded much of his work. He knew which saint had their feast on any given day, and would often greet loved ones on their birthdays, with the name of their patron saints. He prayed the rosary every day.
Nick Joaquin loved drinking. There is nobody else in Philippine history so closely identified with beer as him. Tony suggests a reason for this: “He discovered that beer was a good ‘cover,’ because the alcohol relaxed him and helped him overcome his shyness.”
Joaquin was capable of drinking enormous amounts of beer without getting drunk. Charo and Bing Villegas estimate that Joaquin would finish almost an entire case of beer a day, drinking seven bottles before lunch. He would drink while he worked and then go out drinking in the evenings. “But the next morning, he would be perfectly fine,” Charo remembers.
Billy recalls going to Joaquin’s home and being promptly served beer with breakfast. “I was still in my early twenties, so I didn’t drink much,” he recalls. Billy would return to the Mr & Ms offices where Joaquin was then a contributor, and would promptly fall asleep. Mr & Ms founder Eugenia Duran Apostol would walk by and ask, “Did Billy just come from Nick’s house again?”
Charo confirmed that Joaquin was a functional alcoholic. “Definitely,” she says. In fact, many would say that Joaquin needed beer to function. He needed it most when he was writing—and when he was speaking in public.
Whenever Joaquin was asked to speak in public, he needed beer to keep going. It was like watching a transformation. This quiet, unassuming man would arrive and not say a word until he was served beer. Then, as he was drinking, he would open up, his voice becoming louder and his stories more expansive. Teachers at schools such as the Ateneo and the University of Santo Tomas bent their own rules to serve Joaquin his favorite elixir at their events though this was usually not allowed on campus.
The beer should also keep coming. Billy had warned the organizers of the booklaunch of “Palacio de Malacañang: 200 years of a Ruling House” in 2002 that Joaquin would only come and talk if beer was served. The book launch was a grand occasion, with three Philippine Presidents present: Corazon C. Aquino, Fidel V. Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The relatives of former Presidents were present as well. To accommodate Joaquin, he was served beer in a glass. “When that beer stops, something else will happen,” Billy had predicted.
During the event, Joaquin got up and read a prepared speech. “All these prominent families were in stitches,” Charo says of Joaquin’s speech.
But then the beer stopped coming. When it was time to start signing copies of the book, Joaquin gathered Billy, Charo and his company—and promptly left for Cherry Blossoms. “He walked out of the book signing,” Billy said. “Well, they had been properly warned.”
On the other hand, Charo says that Joaquin was the only person officially allowed to drink at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. She discovered this when they all went to watch a concert and there was writer Virginia Moreno with a six-pack of San Miguel. She would pass Joaquin the beer as the music rose and fell.
Beer was Joaquin’s work drink. He would steadfastly keep to a daily routine that combined three things he treasured most: religion, words and beer.
Every morning, Joaquin would rise as early as 4 a.m. and go to Mass. Upon returning, he would have breakfast and read the newspapers. Then he would start writing, drinking all the time, Charo says. Marra remembers that Joaquin would scribble on notebooks, nonstop, from start until end. Then he would transfer what he wrote onto his Underwood typewriter. (Joaquin was never trained as a touch typist; he used two fingers, one on each hand, colloquially known as the “tuldok system,” Charo says. “But he was so disciplined.”)
Joaquin would even drink when he was interviewing. Drinking did not faze him in his younger years. He would remember what was talked about. Billy, who helped Joaquin arrange interviews and assignments, recalls that Joaquin would chuck the notes he had prepared for him before the interview. “His subjects described Nick’s interviewing style as tabula rasa,” Billy says. “In his later years, he would sometimes fall asleep. I would tell his subjects not to take it to heart. He was just getting old by then.”
Billy’s first remembrance of Joaquin was when he was 10 (Pete and Billy were born 10 years apart). “It was Pete’s first birthday after joining the Free Press. That morning Nick came to the house with two cases of beer.” That began a friendship and what would be an enduring business relationship.
When Billy was still working with Mr & Ms Magazine, Apostol asked him if they could get Joaquin to write for them. Joaquin agreed, writing an article about the month of December. Apostol liked it and asked Joaquin for another article, this time about the history of January. Joaquin wound up writing essays about the history of the different months. Later, in 1979, the essays were gathered in what became one of Joaquin’s signature books, “Almanac for Manileños.”
Joaquin continued to write for Mr & Ms, this time a series of stories for children. This would also be gathered in 1979, famously re-titled “Pop Stories for Groovy Kids,” and released in the Red and Green series.
Apostol would later ask Joaquin to write for her again, the product being “Pinoy Agonistes: A History in Two Epochalities,” Joaquin’s last play, staged in 2001.
One of the stranger circumstances in Joaquin’s life was that only two of his works were ever adapted for the big screen. His plays were constantly being staged, and his best, “Portrait,” would even be translated into Filipino as “Larawan” and staged as a musical. The two film adaptations span a lifetime. The first grand Joaquin film was director Lamberto Avellana’s 1965 “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino,” starring Daisy Avellana, Vic Silayan and Naty Crame-Rogers.
There were some near misses. After Marilou Diaz-Abaya directed “Jose Rizal,” she chose Joaquin’s “Larawan,” the Filipino version of “Portrait” as her next project, according to Billy. Cesar Montano would be Tony Javier and everything was set. But Billy says that everything changed when Joaquin found out about Montano. “He’s too old for the role,” Joaquin said. “You can see how stubborn Nick could be, because the movie didn’t push through when he objected to the casting. I really regret that not happening,” Billy recalls.
Later, Joaquin even wrote a script for Armida Siguion-Reyna to adapt “Larawan” for the screen. That didn’t happen either. The only other Joaquin work that was made into a movie was Tikoy Aguiluz’s 2001 adaptation of “The Summer Solstice.” Titled “Tatarin,” the movie starred Dina Bonnevie, Edu Manzano and Rica Peralejo.
The future may hold more filmic possibilities. “We’ve had two different groups talking to us about doing indie films,” Charo says. “There’s a revival. Viva is talking about a musical version of ‘Portrait.’” We may yet see more Joaquin in the movies, something he loved.
The latter part of Joaquin’s career was marked with a great many biographies. If you wanted to have the best biography in town, you got Nick Joaquin. He certainly was not cheap. Commissioning Joaquin to do a biography meant paying him P1 million as a minimum, with the price going up depending on the project. “During the martial law years he didn’t want to write about the Marcoses. Malacañang kept on calling his house. He refused to have anything to do with the Marcoses. He figured, I don’t want to write about current events. Let me do biographies. That’s when he started doing biographies,” Charo explains.
Joaquin wound up doing biographies on an astonishing range of subjects: Ninoy Aquino, Salvador “Doy” Laurel, Rafael Salas, Jaime Ongpin, Damian Domingo, Leonor Orosa-Goquingco, Dakila Santos, Alfredo Lim, Celestino Dizon, D.M. Guevara, Nicanor Reyes, Estefania Aldaba-Lim, Jaime Cardinal Sin, Manny Manahan, Edgardo Angara, Ruben Torres, Antonio Cabangon Chua and Alfonso Yuchengco, among others.
The writer never considered commissions to be a mercenary form of writing. Charo says Joaquin turned down subjects he didn’t deem substantial enough even if they offered to pay his fee. “He chose carefully,” she says. “He had integrity. He did his own research.” He turned down a persistent socialite because there simply wasn’t enough to write about. It was never a cash grab.
“That’s not how he saw it, he looked at it just like he wrote about history. For him, it was like a longer literary profile,” Billy says. For every book, Joaquin required 12 two-hour interviews with the main subject. Those interviews were done while Joaquin was drinking, of course.
When Joaquin died, he left one biographical project unfinished: the book on Yuchengco. Billy later asked Alfred “Krip” Yuson to finish the book. “To Leave a Good Name: The Legacy of Alfonso T. Yuchengco” by Nick Joaquin and Krip Yuson was published in 2005. Several biographies by Joaquin would be published later, but those had been finished before the Yuchengco book and simply released later. “He finished them all,” Billy says, noting that the last two bios Joaquin did prior to his death were “Ed Angara: Seer of Sea & Sierra” and “Abe: A Frank Sketch of E. Aguilar Cruz,” both published in 2006. Marra likes saying what Joaquin said at the Magsaysay Awards: “You know, actors say that there are no small parts, only small performers. So I say: there are no hack-writing jobs, there are only hack writers. If you look down on your material, if you despise it, then you’ll do a hack job.”
There are more Joaquin biographies out there. Charo says there are at least three more finished biographies by Joaquin that have yet to see print for some reason or other. That should give us hope that there will be more original Nick Joaquin work to read in the future.
In a way, Nick Joaquin had never been sick. He was never diagnosed for an illness. He simply refused to go to the doctor. In 2004, he stopped seeing visitors almost entirely, usually just Charo and her older cousin Ed. Charo realized that Joaquin was getting ready to go.
Two years before he died, Joaquin had started telling Billy: “Billy, I’m ready to go. I’ve made peace with my God. I’m ready to go anytime.” But then he would burst into laughter, so it was hard to tell if he was serious. “He’d say, when he dies, he didn’t want any tributes. Just wrap him in a banig (straw mat) and throw him in the Pasig,” Pete recalls.
By now Charo could see Joaquin was visibly weakening. “Everyone was pressuring us, ‘take him to the doctor already.’ But he didn’t want to go see the doctor. One of his nephews, a doctor, said ‘You have to respect his wishes. He’s 86. That’s how he wants to go. He wants to die in his house.’ So we respected Tito’s wishes.”
The book on Nick Joaquin’s life closed on April 29, 2004, a week before he would turn 87. Joaquin woke up to what seemed to be just another day. He asked his home companion Jojo Sumarago for the papers and for breakfast. Sumarago left and returned with the breakfast tray to find Joaquin slumped in his seat but still breathing softly. He left but returned shortly after, only to discover that Joaquin was no longer breathing.
Joaquin had been working almost up to the very end. His Underwood typewriter still had the last page he ever wrote, his unfinished draft of the Yuchengco bio. Charo says that the house still had entries for the Philippine Graphic (now Philippines Graphic) literary contest. “He was serious about the Graphic. He himself would screen the entries. It didn’t matter that he was already National Artist.”
As per his wishes, Joaquin was cremated. At his wake at the Santuario de San Antonio in Forbes Park, Makati, his urn was kept company by his typewriter and a bottle of San Miguel Pale Pilsen.
Charo says that she remembers one particular visitor at the wake: Nora Aunor. Joaquin had famously championed Aunor when she was new, defying those who had considered her to be too showbiz and bakya (déclassé). His essay on her became the lead piece in the excellent nonfiction collection “Nora Aunor and Other Profiles.”
“There was a mass going on and Nora Aunor came in very quietly, staying at the back of the church. Later, one of my siblings got to talk to her. I was wondering, why did she come? She said, my uncle had made her famous. She was not bakya any more. She was the Superstar. She felt that Tito legitimatized her. It was Tito who recognized she was a star. For me, here’s one person who will never forget him,” Charo says.
As befits a National Artist, Joaquin’s ashes were interned in the Libingan ng Mga Bayani.
In the aftermath of his death, Charo and the Joaquin family had hoped that the government could preserve the two-storey wooden house in San Juan as a shrine for Joaquin, but this did not happen. “It was in disrepair,” she says. They had to let it go, but they saved as many things as they could. Joaquin’s aparador is now in the Villegas backyard, still holding his favorite guayabera shirts and his size 9 leather shoes. His writing desk is also there, as is his typewriter.
The Philippines Graphic Literary Awards were renamed the Nick Joaquin Literary Awards. Today, the Graphic is the only mainstream Philippine publication still publishing poetry and short fiction. The Graphic remembers their great editor by annually recognizing the best literary offerings from its pages. Joaquin would surely approve.
Ten years after his death, Nick Joaquin has begun to be remembered again.There had been concern that the readers who grew up after his death would not know him. Marra worried about this when she was teaching at UP. “I would ask them do you know who Nick Joaquin is, and they could hardly answer,” she recalls. “Beer drinker, some would say, he’s a novelist. OK. They didn’t know he was a playwright. They thought he was screenwriter.
Nothing else. I would tell them to read him and they would go, oh, this Nick Joaquin, he’s so good! Imagine!”
Charo said that she and Bing would quiz people they met under the age of 30 and they would be disappointed. “They don’t know him anymore. That’s the saddest thing.”
Fortunately, Joaquin is now the subject of renewed interest. One of the more interesting tributes came in 2009, when the clothing company Freeway began its National Artist Collectors Series with a line of clothing inspired by Joaquin’s works, including a yellow hoodie imprinted with lines from “May Day Eve.” Sheree Gotuaco, Elite Garments (Freeway’s parent company) CEO explains they “had a discussion with my team on who they would like to pay tribute to, and Nick Joaquin came up top on their wish list. This was influenced by their exposure to the works of Nick Joaquin as part of the school curriculum. In addition to that, his stories are impressive and interesting to read.” The seven-style line did well, enough for Freeway to feature two National Artists yearly. By now, 11 National Artists have been featured, the latest being National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera. With Joaquin’s birth centennial coming up, Freeway is thinking of releasing a new line or re-issuing the line honoring Joaquin. “Yes, that may be a possibility,” Gotuaco says.
While many of his books have long been out of print, work has began in terms of reprinting some older material. Joaquin’s books can be found on the shelves again.
Anvil Publishing, Inc., had been reprinting Joaquin’s books in his last years and continued to do so after his death. His nonfiction collections, “Reportage on Lovers” and “Reportage on Crime,” were re-issued. “We want every generation, whether on their own or in school, to know him and to actually read his works. We want to keep making him available and accessible,” says Anvil publishing manager Karina Bolasco.
On May 4, 2014, what would have been Joaquin’s 97th birthday, Anvil launched something different: The first collection of Joaquin’s uncollected short stories for children since his death. “The estate wanted to continue to keep Nick’s work in print and Anvil made an offer, one book at a time,” Billy says. In her introduction to “Gotita de Dragon and Other Stories,” fictionist Cyan Abad-Jugo identifies this collection as the spiritual sequel to the “Groovy Kids” series. More books are in the pipeline; discussions are ongoing. Bolasco looks forward to “a definitive poetry book” and re-issues of “Almanac for Manileños,” “Devil’s Advocate and Other Controversies” and “Language of the Street and Other Essays.”
This dovetails nicely with the new Nick Joaquin plan: a series of activities leading up to Joaquin’s 100th birth year in 2017. “Gotita” was not originally intended as the first stage of the plan, but it certainly worked well as one. Bolasco introduced Charo to Jonathan Chua, the literary scholar and assistant professor at the Ateneo de Manila University and noted curator of a previous exhibit honoring National Artist for Literature José Garcia Villa.
The result of that meeting is the upcoming “Nick: An Exhibition in Memory of Nick Joaquin (1917-2004),” which will be held at the Ateneo Rizal Library’s Pardo de Tavera Room from July 11 until the end of September. On display will be books, papers, and Joaquin-related memorabilia and art.
“Material come from the family, the Rizal Library, friends, and other institutions like CCP, UP and De La Salle University,” Chua explains. “The audience will be students of ADMU and other schools, writers, and anybody who’s ever interested in the works of Nick Joaquin.” This will be followed by a series of talks at the Ateneo and a symposium on teaching Nick Joaquin at UST. Also slated to have its own event is the CCP.
“Right now I’m so happy because somehow it’s snowballing,” Charo says. “My goal is to somehow make a difference in getting people to know who Nick Joaquin is again.”
Marra believes there’s so much today’s writers can learn from Joaquin’s example: “Correct grammar. Flair. His inspired, passionate writing. As much as possible he would write the good side of the person. I liked that about him. He was very human. He was very caring. He tries to understand the subject from the subject’s point of view.”
Bolasco strongly believes that Joaquin has much to offer today’s readers as well. “Reading Nick Joaquin is a real mind-blowing experience every young Filipino should have. ‘Candido’s Apocalypse’ written in the early 1960s for example, was sci-fi, magic realism, or spec-fic, or whatever it’s called today. It’s ahead of its time.”
Indeed, Charo says that “among other things, there’s a young group that wants to do a comic book about ‘Candido’s Apocalypse.’ It’s great because as far as Tito is concerned, he wrote this and we want it read and to be out there.” Tony says you will find, “after reading most of Joaquin’s works, short stories and plays, that here is one true Filipino nationalist and hero of the first order whose weapon was the pen and not the sword, and that we as Filipinos can only thrive and succeed if we dedicate ourselves to hard work and working as a team, never forgetting our historic past and what we have learned as colonized individuals.”
Without a doubt, Nick Joaquin—darling Nick Joaquin—surely ranks among the greatest of the great Filipino writers, perhaps equaled only by José Rizal and Francisco Balagtas. He succeeded in following his credo of singing and remembering. His work is the midnight mirror in which we see reflected our identity as a people. The book on Nick Joaquin is open anew and it may be May Day Eve forever. There are so many more stories waiting to be told.
Charo Joaquin Villegas says she is thankful to her beloved uncle for many things. “Most importantly, I thank him for being Filipino. He made us understand who the Filipino is. That’s precisely what we want the kids to read and see. This is our history. This is our culture.”