Gregorio C. Brillantes: The fictionist in full | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Gregorio C. Brillantes: The fictionist in full

The greatest short-story writer in the Philippines is now 91. With both legs broken, he is bound to a wheelchair. He is very hard of hearing. He can be moody but his words, spoken and written, are as sharp as ever. He may be a literary lion in winter, but a lion still, and today, he is roaring.

The subject of Gregorio “Greg” C. Brillantes’ rightful wrath? The scarcity of short stories in weekly magazines.

“From the 1950s to ’70s, there was always a literary section, now they is no more,” he tells Lifestyle in a rare interview. “Because the literary establishment and the newspapers don’t find it profitable. It’s stupid. I don’t feel like collaborating with this kind of possibility. It’s difficult to get short stories published these days. Having magazines without literary sections is much too commercial. The task begins with the editors. They should threaten to walk out if a newspaper does not have a literary section.”

He is just getting started, as Brillantes will return to this subject throughout the interview, so incensed is he by the lack of respect or interest in his beloved art form. Just imagine if there were no literary sections publishing short stories during the time of National Artists for Literature N.V.M. Gonzalez and Nick Joaquin, he says.

“It would have been impossible,” he growls. “Back in the day, the material would just arrive, stuff from the likes of (National Artist for Literature Franz) Arcellana. You would never run out, because there was always somewhere to publish them.”

One cannot begrudge Brillantes his ire. He rose to productivity and prominence during the time when short stories were everywhere, and there were many magazines to publish them. It would also be impossible to match the craft and work he did over four decades.But new generations of writers can read all of it, because his three collections—“The Distance to Andromeda and Other Stories” (1960), “The Apollo Centennial: Nostalgias, Predicaments, and Celebrations” (1980), and “On a Clear Day in November, Shortly Before the Millennium: Stories for a Quarter Century” (2000)—all long out of print, have been gathered in a single volume, “The Collected Stories of Gregorio C. Brillantes,” edited by literary scholar Jonathan Chua and published last year by the Ateneo de Manila University Press.

The book boasts an excellent introduction by the novelist Reine Arcache Melvin and an exhaustive editor’s introduction by Chua. But the treasure here is the 39 stories Brillantes wrote over four decades, from 1952 to 1993.

Origins of a writing life

As Chua points out, the stories are written “in his inimitable way of writing autobiographically without using the first person, the origin of his writing life.” It is safe to assume then, that “The Collected Stories of Gregorio C. Brillantes” reflects the collected life of Gregorio C. Brillantes.

Gregorio Concepcion Brillantes was born on Dec. 18, 1932, the son of a schoolteacher father and a drugstore-owner mother, in Camiling, Tarlac.

The key moment of his literary awakening was when, at 13, he found a box of old Philippines Free Press and Philippines Graphics issues, which he read voraciously and clipped. This was how he discovered the short stories of the likes of Gonzalez, C.V. Pedroche and National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Santos. This was when he was inspired to start writing short stories.

As both introductions and the stories themselves will show, Camiling loomed large in Brillantes’ life and literature as he grew up and wrote about life there, barely disguising the town but laying bare the wandering nature of his wonder.

He decamped to Manila to take up his literature degree at the Ateneo campus in Padre Faura in 1948 and write more short stories.

These stories would make him famous, winning literary contests and garnering him the moniker the “James Joyce of the Philippines,” even as he was also teaching English at Ateneo. One famous story in Chua’s introduction recalls how Free Press literary editor Teodoro M. Locsin—a beloved mentor—published one of Brillantes’ stories, sending him a money order for P60, only to send him a second money order for P40 “for it was a fine story.”

What exactly drew Brillantes to the short story? He had tried other genres such as poetry, which he gave up, and the novel. As he recalls, “I tried writing a novel. I don’t know what happened to that novel. Nothing.”

So why the short story? “In the first place, it’s short. If you do a survey of the short story in history, it has attracted the best talent, the best material, the best atmosphere, the best writing societies from American colonial times, from English aristocracy and generally in different European countries. In Russia, it was Anton Chekhov, followed by the great Russian short story writers. The influences were there. I stuck to that tradition. I continued that tradition, saying to myself, this year I will write a story and I will win a prize. So I kept doing that.”

He was encouraged in his craft by the likes of Gonzalez and Santos. And he chose to write in English as it was the most feasible route as far as he was concerned.

Many people may not know that Brillantes worked in journalism for a long time. “It was important, an education and a pleasure,” he says. ”Nick (Joaquin) was literally my tablemate and Locsin was the best editor at the time.” In fact, Brillantes has as many collections of nonfiction as short fiction prior to “Collected Stories.”

Of all his stories, “The Distance to Andromeda” is the most famous, the one most commonly taught in schools and synonymous with his name. As a former teacher, he says knowing it is being taught makes him feel good. “It was unique. It was a lot of things I wanted a short story to be.”

Yet Chua identifies another story as his best: “Faith, Love, Time, and Dr. Lazaro,” where a boy named Ben drives his physician father at night in a futile mission to save a baby stricken with tetanus.

Brillantes doesn’t disagree: “In a sense yes, because it tackles Heaven and Earth. it has all the elements. It mixes reason, faith and unbelief in Dr. Lazaro and his son who might become a priest. It is a mixture of all Filipino society.”

Brillantes does play favorites—to a degree: “I have some favorites because they contain distinctive elements in my fiction: ‘Distance to Andromeda,’ ‘Dr. Lazaro’ and one or two more.”

Chua explains: “If the stories are supposed to be a reflection of his life, then it’s been quite a journey. In the ’40s, the stories were populated by lonely school boys or boys introduced to the unrest in the countryside or struggling with memories of the war. The ’50s saw ‘Andromeda’ and (‘Dr. Lazaro’)—his best short stories before he hit 30, and they reflect the concerns of people that age with a philosophic bent—questions about faith and mortality. The adolescent themes are handled better, such as in ‘Beautiful Gurrls.’ There are still stories reflecting on the war and the political issues. In the post-‘Andromeda’ stories he stepped out of himself more, and it’s the external world that figures more than the internal world of the protagonist. In his last published story he goes back to (‘Dr. Lazaro’) but there are magical elements now.”

Gregorio C. Brillantes: The fictionist in full

Godfather of PH speculative fiction

That final story, 1993’s “On a Clear Day in November, Shortly Before the Millennium,” a clan gathers at a cemetery for the yearly Day of Visitation, when the dearly departed—the Visitors—rise in spirit form and chat with them.

Combine this story with “The Apollo Centennial,” which is set in a dystopian Philippines of 2069, and you have the combination of science fiction and fantasy that would later be dubbed speculative fiction, a reason why Brillantes is often tagged as the godfather of Philippine speculative fiction. A local contest was even named after him.

At the time, he was just writing short fiction, unafraid of such uncharted territory.

In 1962, he and wife Lourdes married and moved into the Quezon City home they still live in and where they raised three daughters: Dr. Patricia B. Silvestre, now the dean of the University of the Philippines College of Music, and who still lives with them; and Cecilia and Alicia, who both live in Houston, Texas.

Brillantes has three grandchildren—Silvestre’s daughters Rebecca and Katerina, and Cecilia’s daughter Isabella.

And Camiling remained on his mind for a long time. The second to the last story he wrote is literally called “The Flood in Tarlac.” Brillantes says he actually used to visit Camiling often because they still had the school his father started and some property. He saw how different Camiling had become.

But in 2015, he fell in the driveway, and in 2017 broke a hip while walking in the house. He’s been in a wheelchair since. His dry advice to writers: “Don’t break your legs.”Silvestre says he is very healthy for his age: “No maintenance meds. His bloodwork is basically good. If he didn’t fall, he’d still be driving his red Mercedes Benz to Book Sale and foraging there for great books at a bargain.” His big indulgence when he is up to it is asking to eat at the Quezon City Sports Club, a family favorite.Silvestre played an important role in getting “Collected Stories” into print: “I facilitated the formalization of the publishing agreement and served as liaison between the press and my dad.”

Gregorio C. Brillantes: The fictionist in full


The story of how the book came to be is a story in itself. The original publisher was the nascent publishing house Exploding Galaxies under Mara Coson, who first secured the rights in 2020.

Recalls Karina Bolasco, who was then director of the Ateneo Press: “In September 2020, Mara had already collected and scanned all of Greg’s stories as she intended to launch Exploding Galaxies.”

There was a slight hitch according to Silvestre: “My dad is a traditionalist and the sound of a publisher named Exploding Galaxies didn’t appeal to him. He declared that he wanted Ateneo Press—of his alma mater—to be the publisher.” Chua, who was close to Brillantes and chair of the Ateneo Press editorial board, had mentioned how they had put out omnibus editions of writers such as National Artist for Literature Rolando Tinio and Jessica Zafra, with Jose “Pete” Lacaba and Kerima Polotan up next. Here’s where serendipity and dedication paid off. Bolasco says she was negotiating to print a Philippine edition of Wilfrido Nolledo’s novel “But For The Lovers,” but the American publisher Dalkey Archive wouldn’t sign off on it.

“So when Mara expressed interest in ‘Lovers,’ I suggested we swap as I saw the merit and importance of what Mara wanted to do—reissue for our young readers classic Filipino novels,” Bolasco says.

Coson herself went to the US and successfully acquired the rights to “Lovers,” making Nolledo’s book available to Filipino readers for the first time—as Exploding Galaxy’s inaugural title.

“I asked Jonathan to be the editor—if there was anyone who was going to do this really well, it could only be Jonathan, whose attention to detail is exemplary,” Bolasco says.

Chua says it was “a challenge finding the [Brillantes] stories during the lockdowns. The libraries were closed. When they began reopening in 2022, I had the chance to look for the stories physically. Before that, I was relying on sometimes unreliable indices and catalogs. I still haven’t found one story which he had included in the 1980 edition of ‘Andromeda.’ And Mr. Brillantes did not keep copies of his stories, or he had lost them to (Supertyphoon) ‘Ondoy.’”

Silvestre’s two daughters even helped with the proofreading, of which there was a lot, as Chua noted that there were different versions of the stories published through the years and they all had to be reconciled. Bolasco notes, “It was great for them to discover their lolo’s remarkable talent and enjoy immensely his stories. And that kind of assured us the omnibus edition will have an impact on the Gen Zs.”

‘Classic Papa’How long did it take to push the book out? “Two years and eight months, to be exact, from September 2020 when Mara turned over their files to us, up to when we launched it in July 2023,” Bolasco answers.

Then there was the matter of the book launch, or, more accurately, getting Brillantes to attend his own launch. Silvestre says the original launch date was Dec. 18, 2022, his birthday.

“From the beginning, he never wanted to go to the launch, as he found it all ridiculous,” Silvestre says with exasperation. “This is classic Papa, he tends to be very cynical about things, so decisions would always depend on whether or not he’s in a good mood. At first, we were thinking of just having him broadcast via Zoom at the launch, since it’s difficult to persuade him to get out of the house. But my girls, Rebecca and Katerina, relentlessly pushed to make everything go smoothly at home to keep their grandpa in a relatively good mood so that when launch day comes, it’s just a matter of getting him into the car and to Ateneo. It helped a lot, too, that my sister Alice was here to help with everything.”

The day finally came: July 26, 2023. “We girls prepared a speech on his behalf, but he surprised us all when he took the mic from us and gave a really cool speech, giving anecdotes and thanking all who came, and saying he couldn’t have been able to write all these years without his wife Lourdes by his side. He enjoyed the music at the launch, as well a signing books for a long line of people.”

This was indeed a good sign, for in many ways, the generational talent that is Brillantes is a man out of time: Most of his contemporaries have passed away. The writer friend he misses most? Benjamin “Ben” Bautista. “Even my favorite readers are gone. They died recently. Domeng Soriano, Matt Rao, they were my faithful readers.”

Gregorio C. Brillantes: The fictionist in full

To the future

“Collected Stories” stands as a lodestone for Brillantes. “There are maybe stories I haven’t finished, but I don’t think I can say I can try and finish them,” he admits.

Many of Brillantes’ stories are about the duality of looking to the past and looking to the future. If the Camiling stories represent the past, then stories like “The Apollo Centennial” may represent the future. Now that 2024 is closer to 2069 than ever, does he think Philippine society is heading to the future he envisioned?

“In a certain sense,” he says. “It depends on the opposition. It’s almost there. It can go two different ways. The Filipino can still emerge dominant.”

As Chua notes, in the introduction to his survey of short stories in English, National Artist for Literature Dr. Gémino H. Abad writes: “It struck me at the end of my research, how apt, how fateful it is that, without prior design, ‘Upon Our Own Ground’ should begin and end with Gregorio Brillantes (1932–): From ‘The Distance to Andromeda,’ 1956, to ‘The Apollo Centennial,’ 1972. Over that 17-year period, it can justly be said that Brillantes is—without intent of invidious comparison—the major figure among the young writers of his generation.”

Brillantes accepts this to an extent: “Not necessarily in technique, but I am in terms of insight into our society, into what’s happening to our country.”

The greatest of our short-story writers in English has one wish for people reading his “Collected Stories”: “I will hope that they will welcome it.”

Younger readers

Silvestre says: “It felt great to know that his stories would all be together in a new contemporary volume. I was happily surprised to know that there were many younger readers of his stories, and that his stories resonated with scientists, students, visual artists, and doctors, among others.”

Bolasco quotes Ramón C. Sunico: “Books serve at least one noble purpose: They preserve the best among us and save them for our children. What to let go of? What to hold on to? Anyone who has been touched by a story of Mr. Brillantes will be grateful for this collection. Once again, readers can discover his eye for detail, his turns of phrase, the many ways he can affirm what it is to be not just human, but Filipino.”

Brillantes may not think he’ll be finishing those stories, but he still wants more good short stories to be written and published. He wants the universities to emphasize the short story. And, again, he wants more publications for the stories.

The fire with which he speaks belies his frail appearance, but reminds one of his iconic story, “My Brother Ramon,” when the narrator, clearly a stand-in for Brillantes, says: “It will be a beautiful story… It will be a great and unforgettable story… Tonight, I said in my heart to the darkening street and the approaching rain, I too will write, with fury, anger and tenderness.”

“The Collected Stories of Gregorio C. Brillantes” tells his beautiful story—and Gregorio C. Brillantes wants aspiring writers of the country to write theirs: “I want writers to look to the future, like in the story where the man and his two sons are passing the river and they run into someone from the past, but they are going to the future.”

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