Among contemporary Filipino writers, Jose “Butch” Dalisay straddles the realms of fiction and creative nonfiction with unparalleled ease, and equal acclaim.
There is virtually no major literary award he has not won, some multiple times: the Palanca Hall of Fame, the National Book Awards, the Cultural Center of the Philippines awards for playwriting, the Gawad Balagtas, the Catholic Mass Media Awards, as well as a number of international prizes.
Quite enviably among writers in English, he has also found an audience, and an attentive and appreciative one at that. The prolific author has published more than 40 books (some translated into Spanish, French and Italian). “Penman,” his regular newspaper column, is avidly awaited and enjoyed by its devoted readership.
He remains very much in demand for plum writing commissions for biographies, historical works and institutional texts, occupying a niche once held by the late Nick Joaquin.
Refreshingly, Dalisay has managed to become a serious writer without being precious about his chosen vocation.
“I’ve always written for a living,” he once said in an interview for the University of the Philippines (UP) Open University. A professional writer, he added, could not afford to wait for inspiration—he had to be able to turn it on and off like a faucet.
Nonetheless, his writing has been justly praised by his few peers.
“In a digital culture that fosters an appetite for the easy, the quick, and the merely smart and fashionable, it is important to slow down and relish the pleasures of reading Dalisay,” National Artist for Literature Resil B. Mojares wrote. “The precision and fluency of his prose, his natural storytelling gifts, his skill at character and dialogue, his cool wit and penchant for the ironic, and, beneath his air of levity, a deep understanding of human frailty and folly, tenacity and strength.”
In her introduction to “Voyager and Other Fictions,” an anthology of Dalisay’s short stories, fellow writer Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo puts her finger on what makes his writing singular:
“Dalisay writes with authority, that is, he knows his material, and unerringly finds the story that must be told about it. And then he proceeds to do so in the finest possible way. He is at home with all the different forms he has chosen to work with: There are no cheap tricks, no shortcuts. Everything is meticulously crafted to obtain maximum power. Many of the stories are quiet, and seemingly simple. This is deceptive. Such clarity and simplicity is achieved only with consummate skill.”
Beyond craft, however, is the deep well of life experience that the author seems able to draw upon at will. More often than not, the narrator in his stories, explicit or implicit, is an engaged observer. Dalisay’s stories hit close to the bone because the reader feels that they have not just been imagined, but lived by the writer. Indeed, many of his fictions appear to be spun around a kernel of autobiography.
Born in Romblon in 1954, Dalisay’s parents moved the family to Manila shortly thereafter, mainly to foster their children’s education.
The writer has often reminisced about being the poorest student in the newly opened La Salle grade school, where his inability to socialize with his well-heeled classmates drove him toward books and the written word.
“To take care of my loneliness… reading and writing became my coping mechanisms,” he recalled. “Early on I had the feeling that writing was something I enjoyed doing and that I could do with some level of competence.”
His parents’ unrelenting struggle—by Dalisay’s own count, the family had to move from one low-rent domicile to another some 15 times during his formative years—allowed him to scale the educational ladder: He topped the national entrance exams for the elite Philippine Science High School, where he became editor of the school paper, and eventually UP Diliman where he arrived just in time for the First Quarter Storm.
Much to his parents’ dismay, he joined the radical student movement and soon dropped out altogether, becoming a newspaper reporter to support himself while continuing his political activities, much of which had to do with writing manifestos.
After martial law was declared in 1972, Dalisay was arrested and detained for seven months (an experience that eventually germinated into his first novel, “Killing Time in a Warm Place”). He was not yet 20.
After his release, Dalisay dabbled in the graphic arts for a while, got married and eventually landed a job. Ironically, it was with the Marcos government’s economic planning ministry, primarily writing policy speeches for, among others, Marcos himself.
It was at this point in his life, he says, that he hit his stride as a writer, winning his first Palanca award in 1975.
Dalisay wrote movie scripts for Lino Brocka, and to his parents’ relief went back to UP, graduating with an English degree in 1984, joining the faculty of the English department, and for good measure earning a master’s degree and doctorate in the United States on scholarship grants.
He returned to begin a 35-year career in the academe, teaching creative writing and English, heading the UP Institute of Creative Writing and serving as Diliman’s vice president for public affairs until his retirement last year as professor emeritus.
Amazingly, even with this full academic load, he still had time to write and publish two novels, several collections of short stories, essays, dramas and poems, and numerous works of creative nonfiction.
Now 66, Dalisay reckons he still has a decade of writing, and a novel or two left in him, God willing.
Lifestyle caught up with the author as he sheltered in place, to reflect on his writing life.
At what point in your life did you know that writing was going to be your path?
I knew I was going to be a writer early on, when I realized that there was probably nothing that I was going to do reasonably well with but language. I actually topped the entrance exams to the Philippine Science High School in 1966, but after one year, my grade in English was 1.0, and in Math 5.0. I wrote the grandest letter of appeal I could put together in all my 12 years, and they took pity on me and kept me on probation until I graduated.
I became editor of the high school paper in my junior year, wrote a teleplay for “Balintataw” at age 16, then I entered UP as a hopeful Industrial Engineering major in 1970. After one semester, my grade in English was 1.0, and in Math, again 5.0. I dropped out, became an activist, got into the Philippines Herald as a reporter at age 18, later moved to Taliba, and thought I was hot stuff, destined for journalistic greatness, but martial law was declared and I ended up a political prisoner in Bicutan for seven months of my 19th year.
Upon my release I found a technical writing job with Neda (National Economic and Development Authority), where I was reunited with my fraternity brother and dear friend Boy Noriega, who got me back into playwriting. We competed fiercely with each other, but after beating him once in a literary contest, he kept winning ahead of me, so I decided to move to fiction in English, where I could get away from him. That started a string of stories and prizes (under martial law, there weren’t many publications you could write for, so competitions like the Palancas kept us going).
By 1984, both Boy and I got our first books out as we had challenged each other. He went on to a distinguished career in economics, and I went back to school to study, teach and write, and that’s where I’ve been since.
Forty books later I still get a huge thrill out of seeing a new book with my name on the spine, which I only wish my late father could have seen—he was the one who fired up my young imagination with stories at bedtime, and filled the house with books I couldn’t understand, and so were objects of great mystery to me.
Considering that much of what nurtures good writing—a healthy print media and book publishing industry, an educated and appreciative readership, an attitude of open-minded curiosity about viewpoints other than your own, a vibrant public discourse—all seem to be in steep decline, what is the place of the Filipino writer in the age of Instagram and the meme?
The Filipino writer’s task in 21st-century society is as it was two centuries ago—to seek and to speak the truth. Some of us do this through this artful lie we call fiction, because the truth can be so harsh, or too close, that we need the distance of make-believe to see it.
In the Philippines, that can be dangerous, because the truth often upsets those in power, who can retaliate in brutal ways. The writer most imperiled for speaking the truth, however, is not the one like me who writes novels, poems, or plays, but the journalist, who deals in unadorned facts that the powerful, who are otherwise blind to metaphor, can understand.
But metaphor and fiction are important, because they can make better sense of reality, which is often too bizarre and absurd as to be unbelievable. In these times of fake news and conspiracy theories—usually bad fiction—the writer needs clarity of both mind and heart to bring out the truth.
It’s true that today’s environment—where easy tweets and likes have taken over careful thought and evaluation—is almost hostile to good writing. Except perhaps for books of a certain kind, print is practically dead for young readers. But the material circumstances of literature have always been changing over the centuries—from just the human voice to bark and paper and now digital ink—and writers have always adapted to the medium of the moment. Even in the age of Facebook and Instagram, the long forms—the novel, the essay—will survive, because they fill a void, a hunger that intelligence creates.
And besides truth and political statements, let’s not forget that the best writers offer other things just as important—encounters with beauty, even in the most sordid places, and those inextinguishable signals of the human spirit, humor and hope. It is no longer enough to depict suffering and despair; it is too obvious and too easy. People need to be reminded why life is worth enduring, and that will be our writers’ precious gift.
Any advice for young Filipinos who may want to follow the writer’s calling?
I can only urge them, first of all, to read, and read well. Read what others before them have written, not just to imitate or agree, as every writer has to write to and about his or her generation and its particular challenges, but ultimately to engage in a multigenerational conversation and extend the imaginative memory of humanity. You will need talent, discipline and courage; there is no lonelier profession than one in the arts, but also none more rewarding in terms of the sheer exaltation of one’s spirit. As one of my favorite quotes goes, this one from Baudelaire: “When, like a Poet, the Sun descends into the city, it ennobles even the vilest of its creatures.”