Frankie, frankly | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

DAILY CREATIVITY: Jose at his work table
DAILY CREATIVITY: Jose at his work table

Surrounded by taller, decidedly more modern structures, the Solidaridad Bookshop stands along Padre Faura Street in Ermita, Manila, as welcoming as it did when it first opened its doors in 1965. The big glass windows usher you into a space filled with both foreign literary titles and a wealth of Philippine publications. By the cash register, one sees an impressive selection of Solidaridad proprietor F. Sionil Jose’s expansive bibliography. It’s wall to wall books. There is no Wi-Fi.

On the mostly wooden building’s third floor is a bust of Jose himself by sculptor Julie Lluch, and the resemblance is uncanny, particularly now that Jose himself – known to friends as “Frankie” – is standing next to it. Lluch even got Jose’s ubiquitous beret down pat.

Except that Jose says it’s not meant to be so ubiquitous. The beret isn’t an affectation, he adds, as he removes his headgear to display a bald pate. “I don’t have protective covering anymore,” he says, running his hands over his head. He catches a cold so easily that he needs to don a beret to ward off the chill, even at home. “I don’t wear it during the summer.”

But it’s kind of hard imagining Jose without the trademark beret, just as it is surprising to really get down to the truth about Jose rather than his larger-in-life reputation – though the bust itself is remarkably life-sized. Jose smiles and looks at the bust. “Maybe I should move it somewhere else,” he muses.

What we know about Jose depends on where one comes from. Students will be most familiar with the National Artist for Literature’s 30 books – his novels perhaps most notably – written as one of the country’s most prolific writers in English, though his work has been translated in over 20 languages. He is required reading in many schools, but his novels, often built around observations of social injustice, are far from being simply academic.

Jose himself was born into poverty in 1924 in Rosales, Pangasinan. Though he had a tough childhood on a farm, he looks back at farm life with nostalgia. Still, his big move happened, thanks to his mother Sofia who encouraged his love for literature.

It was as a child when he also encountered his first feelings of injustice. While reading Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere,” he comes across the chapter where Sisa’s children Crispin and Basilio are falsely accused of a crime. “I was so touched by that scene that I cried and cried,” he recalls. “That was a defining moment for me as a boy.” He remembers Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” as having the same effect on him as they “are insights into the inhumanity of man.” This informed his self-admitted obsession with social justice that has become synonymous with his work.

If you are an aspiring writer, you might be more familiar with Jose’s numerous awards, from the Palanca to the Ramon Magsaysay, from France to Japan. Or perhaps you know him as the founder of the Philippine chapter of the writers’ organization PEN (Poets and Playwrights, Essayists and Novelists). He is mentor to a long line of literary aspirants and an admirer of Filipino literary talent as well.

But some might know Jose for his reputation as a firebrand, as his pronouncements sometimes overshadow the man himself. As someone with powerful, often raging opinions, Jose says it like he sees it—even if it may not be popular.

A good example would be the last Palanca Awards, where Jose was keynote speaker. He began his address by describing the play staged right before his address – the first-prize winner of the one-act play in Filipino – as mediocre. He remains convinced of the righteousness of his actions. “It was rotten. I didn’t like it,” he says. Reminded that the play’s writer was in the audience, he responds: “I don’t care.”

Another instance was when he was asked about the controversial exhibit of artist Mideo Cruz at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. “If people had more sensibility and possessed a more critical eye, the CCP would never have exhibited that. I had an art gallery from 1967 to 1977. If he had come to me, I would have rejected it outright. It would not be because I am a devout Christian.  No, it’s just not art, pure and simple. You have to be more creative,” he declares.

Does he ever regret any of his statements about art and literature?  “No, never,” he exclaims. “Because that’s how I feel. Why should I regret it? I don’t regret those things because we should have a strong critical tradition – which we don’t have. Sometimes I hold back, because my wife tells me, ‘Tama ka na, wala na tayong kaibigan  (that’s enough, we’re losing all our friends).’ Because if I don’t like what my friends are doing, I tell them to their faces. And they are welcome to tell me the same thing! If I can dish it, I should be able to take it, too – which I do! And I don’t get mad at these people who tell me, ‘You’re a lousy writer.’ Wala sa akin yan (I don’t mind). But they cannot tell (me), you’re a thief—you’re a crook. Aba, mag-aaway tayo niyan. Baka kung may baril ako, mababaril pa kita (I’d get back at you for that, and shoot you if I had a gun).”

When he talks about the craft, he is 110 percent honest. “I don’t hold back.”

“All writers are mayabang [conceited] and I am no exception. You will not be a writer if you are not mayabang.  All of us are deeply conceited,” he says. “Yung yabang na iyan, we express it in different ways. Some have it under control; some have it in the way they act, they speak, even in the way they write. Some mayabang writers cannot write about anything except themselves.”

Mincing no words, he continues: “Objectively looking as honest as I can at myself and at other writers too, writers in this country have no influence, the way politicians have, the way wealthy people have. That is one reason why we are shallow, why our sensibility is very poor. This might be a wrong perception, I don’t know, I always felt that artists in general, and writers most of all – remember, literature is the noblest of the arts – have a deeper and more refined perception.  They are able to perceive more profoundly what so many people do not. People are surprised that what is actually being done by most writers is just emphasizing the obvious. But sometimes people do not see that obvious thing itself. That is one of the functions of the writer.”

Jose says he has lost friends through the years and frets about what he says on a personal level. “I care about what people feel. That is why sometimes I also lie. Nagsisinungaling din ako. Socially at least, but not in terms of art or that sort of thing. Like for instance, you are invited to a steak dinner and the steak is very tough. Ano sasabihin ko? So I found a way – just say, ‘It has character.’ You’re honest and at the same time you’re being diplomatic.”

It is very easy to over-think F. Sionil Jose’s reputation instead of checking out the details. A good 20 feet away from the bust is Jose’s sanctum sanctorum. Here he goes to work. Across a comfortable work chair is a busy table, where a glass plate protects photographs of loved ones. There is a statue of Mary and the Child Jesus. There is also a miniature replica of the Kremlin and, of all things, a small flag of Spain and a bigger flag of the United States. “Some people think I am anti-Spain and anti-US,” Jose explains.

The stories behind the artifacts are simple enough. The statue is a sign of Jose’s devout Catholicism. The shrunken Kremlin is a reminder that Russia was the first country to translate an F. Sionil Jose book. The Spanish flag is a gift from a Spanish economist friend, while the US flag is a keepsake from his grandson, who served with the US Marine Corps in Iraq.

The Philippine flag is behind him, tacked to a small bulletin board that hangs over a vintage Brothers GX-6750 electric typewriter that Jose actually still uses.  The man himself hasn’t touched a computer since wrestling with Wordstar back in the primitive PC years. “It was too difficult,” he remembers. So he sticks to the typewriter and his precious journals. He has three in all, one at home, one at work and a smaller one he brings during travels. In his pocket is a small daily planner and a fountain pen given as a gift by Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil.

But for all this old-fashioned writing method, Jose isn’t completely unplugged. He employs the web – in his own way. He says the Internet is an amazing tool for providing accurate details for writing, but he himself is unplugged. His secretary uses the search engines for him.

The writing goes on. Jose has just finished his 31st book, a novel called “The Feet of Juan Baknang,” published by his Solidaridad Publishing House, and his newest novel since 2007’s “Sherds.” He explains that in Ilokano, “Baknang” means a rich person, but teases that if you want to know more about the book, you’ll just have to buy it.

He writes everyday and already has the broad ideas for his next book. “The actual writing is fast. I wrote ‘Mass’ in one month. It’s the thinking, the rewriting, the infusion of some thought into the work that takes longer. Because this last one, I really gave it a lot of thought. It seems simple, but when you analyze it, there’s a lot of philosophical thought behind.”

This small but cozy space is also where a steady procession of students, writers and friends has visited over the decades. He considers it his apostolate, speaking at schools or talking to younger writers. Jose reads all the new literature that’s available. He goes out of his way to encourage writers he likes. He attended an event at the nearby Instituto Cervantes once because a writer he admired – fictionist Angelo “Sarge” Lacuesta – was speaking there.

His favorite writer is another fictionist, Charlson Ong. “He’s the best of the young writers; his prose is controlled, his characters are alive.” He also mentions enjoying the work of Menchu Sarmiento, Rosario Lucero and Francesca Kwe-Lacaba. He looks forward to the growth of even younger writers such as the essayist Miro Frances Capili. “I have my eyes on her because her prose is beautiful. But if you analyze, you can see immediately, she has to grow, to mature intellectually. I hope she does.”

What he does regret is not being able to spend more time with certain writers, such as the late Maningning Miclat. “She used to come here and we used to talk,” he recalls, just like Emmanuel “Eman” Lacaba, killed in Mindanao. “So when there are young people who come here, particularly writers, I give them as much time as I can.”

F. Sionil Jose just turned 87 – and he credits his wife, Maria Teresa Jovellanos Jose, for keeping him alive for so long. He has seen too many friends and contemporaries, such as fellow National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, pass away.

He points to the table and says that there were actually a lot more knick knacks there before, but he had started giving them away to friends. “I have an intimation about my condition, like Nick Joaquin, he just went to sleep and then he did not wake up anymore. I hope that’s what will happen to me. I am not scared of death; I am scared of pain.”

But for someone closing in on 90, Jose is active and his brain remains razor-sharp, except for the occasionally forgotten name from the 1970s. “I’m diabetic and I have a heart condition. But thank God no sign of aging dementia or Alzheimer’s.”

In the meantime, he has kept very busy. Aside from the writing and the speaking, he does what he can to further the Filipino intellectual spirit. Right after Edsa 1, Jose presided over the first Solidarity Conference in 1987.

On December 3 this year, Jose hosted the 150th Rizal Anniversary Conference at the CCP, featuring speakers such as Senator Edgardo J. Angara, Gilbert C. Teodoro Jr., Lourd de Veyra and Howie Severino.

Jose continues to wrestle with his agenda for the Filipino intellectual, particularly the writers. He believes that part of the writer’s role is to keep a people’s collective memory.  “To help make this country, to shape this country, into a nation—and you can only do that if people have memory. Yun ang malungkot—wala eh (It’s sad, because they don’t). Edsa 1 lasted only one generation. Nalimutan na (We’ve forgotten). And the Marcoses are back in power. Bongbong will eventually become president of this country. And he is glorifying his father.”

If people had memory, he says, Imelda Marcos would never have been able to come back. “That to me is one of the most important functions of the writer. Not only to have memory but to create a sense of a nation.”

This is F. Sionil Jose uncut. He still longs for a country untouched by oligarchs. He remembers that when he bought his first car, a Volkswagen Beetle, in 1957 (he now rides a Toyota Previa), he was the first one in his neighborhood in Project 8 to have a car. “Now if you look, almost every house has a car, but there are people sleeping on sidewalks.

“So can you call that progress? There are more people going hungry now because money circulates only in the upper reaches. Even our middle class is disappearing, so the gap between the rich and the very poor continuously widens.  And I am surprised that the Occupy Wall Street experience isn’t being replicated here. It should!”

Jose continues to believe in the “necessity of revolution,” but doesn’t believe it’s coming any time soon for the Filipinos.  And that makes him sad and angry because of all the missed opportunities for change. When he pauses, the sadness in his eyes suddenly makes him look all of his nearly nine decades of age.

But he perks up again when the discussion turns to Philippine literature and the writers. “Philippine literature is doing very well,” he says. “Ang mga bata, ang gagaling nila  (The young writers are great).”

Perhaps in that evolution, Jose will find the revolution he seeks. Perhaps the kids will do him right. Perhaps here, the young minds he speaks to and the aspirants who visit him will validate his faith in the Filipino thinker.

Sunset falls over Ermita, the shadows of the nearby skyscrapers growing to encompass the streets themselves. But Solidaridad Bookshop, like F. Sionil Jose himself, stands in contrast to the modern landscape threatening it. The bookshop guards its space with a cascade of light coming through the wide windows, believing that it can endure in this space and in this time forever. •

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.