‘Life has no meaning … the individual gives it meaning.’
Francisco Sionil José has been writing since his early years. As a novelist he is one of the most productive and most widely read Philippine authors, in English and in many translations. Now, 95 years old, he is still writing columns, expressing his opinions on current affairs and reminiscing his work and his life.
This short outline of his work will, of course, never be complete …
Francisco Sionil José was born on 3 December 1924, in a family of Ilocano settlers in the little village Cabugawan near the town Rosales, in the Philippine province Pangasinan. All around the village were rice fields. They lived in a peasant house with a grass roof, walls of buri palm leaves, and bamboo posts and floors.
Like many others his family had fled from Ilocos to find more fertile soil to work and more freedom from the Spanish colonizers. He used this family history and his birthplace, Cabugawan, as the initial setting of the story in the novel Dusk (Po-on).
The Philippines had been occupied by the Americans since the Spanish colonizers were driven out of the country in 1898. But first the Americans had to fight another cruel war against the army of the Filipino’s of the newly established First Philippine Republic, who had hoped that the Americans would support their independence.
The father of F. Sionil José, Antonio José, was an Aglipayan minister. While his mother, Sofia Sionil, worked hard as a dressmaker and was also selling food in the market. When she found out Francisco liked to read, she borrowed books from the houses of officials in the town. He especially liked the classic novels, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but also the books of José Rizal.
‘She never really bothered me when I was reading, not just books but even pages of old newspapers used to wrap dried fish. I was reading the Noli one early evening and when I came to the part where the priest accused the brothers Crispin and Basilio of stealing, I was so angry I started crying. I remember my mother pausing her sewing to ask what it was that made me cry. I pointed to the book. I don’t remember her saying anything. She just looked at me, her eyes shining, then she went back to her sewing.’
(Memories of my mother)
As a little boy Francisco went to the Rosales Elementary school, where on graduation day, after grade 8, he wore a pair of self-made wooden shoes for the occasion. Two months later he left his hometown, 13 years old, to take the train to Manila.
‘Literature had enthralled me at an early age but in that village where I was born, so few books were within my reach. What delighted me most about leaving my barrio to enroll at the Far Eastern University High School in Manila in 1938 was the availability of so many books not just at the FEU library but at the National Library which was then at the basement of the National Museum.’
(A visit to Arguilla Country: literature as patriotism)
During his high school years he stayed with his uncle.
‘I was thirteen when I first came to Manila in 1938, and my memories of the city, which had less than a million people then, is still very vivid. All the way from the Bonifacio Monument to Antipolo Street were rice fields. Dimasalang and España were lined with kangkong plots. All the way from the Welcome Monument in Quezon City to Diliman was cogon wilderness. Makati was the world’s end, with few rice fields and vast stretches of grass.
‘I lived with my uncle and his family in a small accessoria in Requesens near Bambang, and I walked every day to the Far Eastern University High School, which today is now the Isetann Mall, on the corner of Quezon Avenue and Recto.’
(Can Manila live again)
On December 8 in 1941, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese army invaded the Philippines. General MacArthur escaped Manila, but most of the American and Filipino forces had to surrender to the Japanese, and were forced to go on the suicidal Bataan Death March.
MacArthur returned in October 1944 to liberate the Philippines, but the war lasted until Japan surrendered on 2 September 1945.
And finally, on July 4, 1946, the USA granted the independence of the Philippines.
During the Japanese occupation there was hunger in Manila. During the war in 1945 Sionil José, after finishing high school, worked for the U.S Army Medical Corps in northern Luzon. After the liberation he studied at the University of Santo Tomas. The same university where José Rizal studied medicine during the 1870’s. And Sionil José might have studied medicine if he had not failed a chemistry exam, but he chose to study liberal arts, working to pay his way through university.
In university he was already writing and publishing short stories for the college paper Varsitarian, and later as a staff member of the catholic weekly Commonweal, in 1947 and 1948.
But in the end he did not finish his studies and dropped out. Later he wrote about this:
‘I am a college dropout, just the same I handled an undergraduate and graduate course on culture. Now I have five honorary Ph.Ds. from Foundation University in Dumaguete, the University of Pangasinan in Dagupan, the Far Eastern University, De La Salle and the University of the Philippines.’
(Before the curtain falls)
With his writing experience he found a job as assistant editor of the United States Information Service (USIS), based at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, during 1948-49.
In July 1949 Sionil José married his wife Teresita and over the years they had seven children.
From 1949 until during the 1950s he worked as an editor for the Manila Times. One of his colleagues was the young Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr. With Aquino he had discussions about the revolution that was necessary to bring changes for the country. They were part of the optimistic and ambitious young generation after the war.
‘Though in my early twenties then, I already had ideas of what our country should be. Much of this thinking was brought about by World War II, which matured my generation, ahead of our time. From that primal experience of hunger, fear and barbarity grew this impulse to transcend the self — puny, inconsequential — and embrace the community, the disparate people of a nation, possibly united and moving as one, not just to be strong so it can defend itself, but so it can build a just society that can withstand the vicissitudes of man’s inhumanity to man.
‘Though much younger than I, Ninoy shared this ideal which can only be brought about by revolution. This many did not know — he believed in it.’
(Ninoy’s unstated legacy)
Benigno Aquino would later play a role in the history of the Philippines.
While F. Sionil José was working for the Manila Times he also started to seriously write literary work. Besides thinking about and working on a novel, he wrote a series of short stories that were published a magazine.
The serial called ‘The Chief Mourner’ appeared in Women’s Weekly from 11 May to 10 July 1953.
Another series of short stories appeared in the same magazine under the title ‘The Balete Tree’, from 4 March 1954 to 6 July 1956. These stories later became the novel ‘Tree’, as part two of the Rosales Saga.
After leaving his job at the Manila Times F. Sionil José travelled all over the world. He received a fellowship in Washington in the USA, as a grant of the State Department.
‘When I was 30 years old, I was invited to visit America for six months, go anywhere I wished and meet anyone I wanted. I had enjoyed a princely per diem of 12 US dollars a day, half of which I saved so I could go home via Europe and Southeast Asia.’
(Before the curtain falls)
One of his first destinations in Europe was Paris.
In 1958 Sionil José was the founder of PEN Philippine Center, and became its national secretary.
The year after he joined the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Paris, where he met many French writers. Also in 1960 he received Asian and Pacific Council fellowships. Staying in Hong Kong he became the managing editor of Asia magazine.
‘In 1961, I became managing editor of the regional Asia Magazine in Hong Kong, and moved my family there. The slums that crawled up the peak were being dismantled and high-rise tenements were rising in their place. We rented an old house in Kowloon-tong. Our next-door neighbor was a Peking Opera actress and we often watched her rehearse in her garden.’
(Memories of Hong Kong)
Back in Manila he became a Lecturer at the Arellano University, in 1962.
In the same year he published the novel The Pretenders, which became the fourth part of the Rosales Saga. This series of five novels describe a hundred years of Philippine history, from the Spanish colonization to the Marcos era, through five generations of a family.
In The Pretenders Antonio Samson graduates from Harvard university, but back home is matched to the daughter of his employer. Out of shame not to be able to marry his true love Emy, with whom he has an illegitimate son, he ends his life.
The following years he worked abroad, in Sri Lanka, as Information officer for the Colombo Plan Bureau in Ceylon.
Writer, publisher and bookseller
Coming back to Manila in 1964, after almost ten years of travelling, he set up the bookshop Solidarity, which is still open on Padre Faura street in Ermita. It is often called ‘the best little bookstore in Asia’.
Seeing much poverty in Manila he also started an organization, aimed to help young dropouts from school in the slums of Tondo, for which he started a book binding shop to provide jobs.
On poverty and class consciousness he wrote:
‘Our greatest problem is not the physical poverty of the poor but the poverty of the spirit among the very rich who, in the end, by their greed and callousness, are the real perpetrators of poverty itself.’
(The Plebeian Mind)
In 1965 Ferdinand Marcos became president of the Philippines, starting industrialization and infrastructural projects.
The next years were also very productive for Sionil José. He started his own publishing company, called the Solidaridad Publishing House. One of the first publication was Equinox I: an anthology of new writing from the Philippines, which he edited.
A year later he started the Solidarity Magazine: Current Affairs, Ideas and the Arts, of which he was the publisher and editor.
He was also editor of the Asia PEN Anthology, published in 1966 in New York.
1967 was just as eventful. He started and managed the Solidaridad Galleries, that existed for ten years in Manila.
He received a grant from the British Council, and he visited the Soviet Union, during the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. In a blog he remembers:
‘The Russians were the first to translate me and I have a feeling I’ve more readers in the former Soviet Union than in my country. I was there for the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1967 and travelled not only in Russia but also in the Eastern European capitals. I recall my breakfast at the famous National Hotel in Red Square, aromatic tea, freshly baked black bread, with fresh butter and all the caviar that I could slap on it.’
(Before the curtain falls)
His next publication was the volume: The God Stealer and Other Stories, published in 1968. Besides being a lecturer at the University of the East graduate school in Manila, he was also correspondent of London based The Economist, in 1968 and 1969.
In a whole other role he became a consultant for the Department of Agrarian Reform.
Political circumstances changed in the Philippines when president Marcos declared martial law in 1972, which lasted for almost ten years. The reasons were the ‘communist threat’, student protests and ‘rebellion’ in several parts of the country. Officially it was ‘to save the republic’ and ‘to reform society’. Many politicians and journalists were arrested, among whom Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr., who was then a senator.
Publication of some of Sionil José’s novels in the Rosales Saga was banned.
‘When Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, I was not allowed to travel. I lost my journal Solidarity and, now censored, I lost income as a publisher, and was also harassed with fictitious lawsuits. But I should not complain too much. What I suffered was trivial compared to those who were imprisoned, tortured, and killed.’
(It is difficult to love this country …)
‘All through those years that intellectual freedom was under siege, the writers who did not conform with Marcos felt isolated and defenseless. It was a time when we sought comfort not just from one another but also from those colleagues abroad who understood our flight and sympathized with us.
‘Now, I hear young people say Marcos was the best president we ever had, that martial law brought peace and prosperity to the country. They may be forgiven for saying these things because they never experienced Marcos, Imelda and their toadies. They did not witness the jailing, torture and killing of thousands.’
(History, remembrance …)
During those years he received the Outstanding Thomasian Alumnus Award from the University of Santo Tomas.
But in 1976 he got his passport back and one of the trips he made was to Germany, where he traced the travels of José Rizal in that country.
‘For one, I learned so much from that trip. Rizal — his life and his writing — had influenced me tremendously. That trip helped confirm what I had always presumed — that it was the German experience that propelled Rizal’s intellectual growth.’
(History, remembrance …)
The Rosales Saga
In that same year he stayed for a month in a small hotel in Paris, where he wrote, in one creative sprint, his novel Mass, the fifth and last novel in the Rosales Saga. Mass was the novel that gave him the most pleasure in writing, also because of Paris. Paris, where José Rizal stayed many times, to walk, study, write and visit his fellow countrymen who stayed there. Just recently Sionil José wrote about this in a column:
‘I hope that a Filipino scholar will trace that influence to Rizal and his generation, the Luna brothers, and so many other Filipinos lived in France at the time. They were informed by anarchist ideas, the impressionist movement in art. It was no accident that in that posh dinner to celebrate the birthing of the Malolos Republic, the menu was French.’
(Remembering Paris …)
In 1978 Sionil José published the novel Tree, subtitled Love and death in a small Filipino town and the second part of the Rosales Saga (Manila, Solidaridad, 1978).
In Tree the grandson of Don Jacinto, the ilustrado rebel landowner of the novel Po-on, describes the peasant rebellion against the colonial agricultural system.
A year later Tree was followed by the publication of My Brother, My Executioner (Manila, 1979), part three of the Rosales Saga.
Luis Asperri, illegitimate son of the landowner, inherits the estate. His half-brother warns him that the peasant insurgents will overthrow the elite class of landowners.
And in the same year Sionil José published the novel he wrote in Paris, Mass: a Filipino novel (Solidaridad Publishing House; Manila, 1979). This is the fifth and last part of the Rosales Saga.
Mass describes life in the 1970’s, during and after the period of martial law. Pepe Samson, the illegitimate son of Antonio and Emy (of the novel The Pretenders), is a student leader who eventually joins the guerrillas in the mountains.
During this same year 1979 he received the City of Manila award, and also the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio award. About this last grant he wrote that he was allowed to stay in the Bellagio Conference Center, near lake Como in Italy, where he wrote the first concept of Dusk (Po-on).
And a year later, in 1980, he received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Award.
The Board who awarded this prize:
‘… recognizes his intellectual courage and his concern for and encouragement of Asian and other writers and artists, for many of whom his Solidaridad Book Shop is a cultural mecca.’
(Ramon Magsaysay Award)
A collection of his stories was published in Hong Kong: Waywaya and Other Short Stories frm the Philippines (Heinemann, 1980).
For his novel Mass he received the Grand Prize of the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award in 1981. An award he had received earlier for his publications The God Stealer (1959), Waywaya (1978), A Scenario for Filipino Renaissance (1979), and for Arbol de Fuego (Firetree, 1979).
Another award in 1981 was the East-West Center fellowship (Honolulu).
But 1981 was also the year that marked the end of martial law in the Philippines. In the presidential elections that were held later that year, the main opposition leader by then, Benigno Aquino, was not allowed to join. Ferdinand Marcos won the elections.
Also in 1981, F. Sionil José visited the Netherlands, where he was invited to speak and attend a forum at the ‘Derde spreker congres’, a three-day event in Amsterdam about literature in the third world.
Some quotes from his speech:
‘…I hope that I express the feelings and desires of those, who like me come from the lowest layers, and though I do not consider myself their voice or representative, I hope that I have, at least, expressed for them what they in their silence, insignificance and suffering cannot express.’ …
‘Rizal’s novels were brilliant Victorian paintings of his time.’ …
‘I know only too well how useless words are, and how insufficient my answers to the needs of this time. I envied some of the characters in my stories and novels – they acted with untamable courage and without compromise, where I try to justify why I cannot propagate my convictions. And my conviction is: that for my country revolution is not only possible or inevitable, but that it is above all justified.’ …
‘… it is my sincere hope that I will leave my thoughts to some boy somewhere in our 7000 islands, so he may not leave his village when he grows up, like I did.’
A picture of F. Sionil José appeared with a review of the symposium in the Dutch newspaper Trouw (2 October 1981):
The novel The Pretenders was already published in Dutch, titled Maskerade (Bussum, Wereldvenster / Novib, 1980). Followed in 1982 by the translation of Mass, the first translation made of this novel, as Mis in Manila (Amsterdam, Wereldvenster).
And recently by the Dutch translation of Dusk (Po-on), published in 2020 as Schemering.
In the following years new publications by F. Sionil José appeared with novellas and stories:
Two Filipino Women in 1982 (Manila, New Day) and Platinum: ten Filipino Stories in 1983 (Manila, Solidaridad).
In the same year he received the International House of Japan fellowship.
But 1983 will be remembered as the year that Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr. was shot at Manila airport, when he returned from exile in the USA. After several politically tumultuous years, Marcos announced new presidential elections for 1986, in which his main opponent was Aquino’s wife, Corazon Aquino. Both candidates claimed the electoral victory, but after the ‘People Power Revolution’ or ‘EDSA revolution’ Marcos had to leave the country.
In those years, from 1984 to 1986, Sionil José was a Professorial Lecturer at De La Salle University in Manila.
But he also kept writing and editing, and in 1984 he completed the Rosales Saga with the last publication, but chronologically the first book in the series: Po-on (Manila, Solidaridad, 1984).
According to Sionil José this novel took most time to write, more than three decennia, because of the historical research, about Apolonario Mabini and the battle of the Tirad Pass between the soldiers of the Philippine republic and the American army. The main character in
Po-on, Eustaquio Samson, is the grandfather of Antonio Samson of the earlier novel Pretenders.
Later Po-on appeared with the new title Dusk for the international market. And in 2020 Dusk was published in Dutch as Schemering.
In his interesting blog ‘Notes from an aborted Autobiography’ Sionil José remarks:
‘My grandfather and many of the Ilokanos at the turn of the 19th century were illiterate. He had migrated to this part of Pangasinan with the intention of settling in the Cagayan Valley which afforded the land hungry Ilokanos a chance of owning their own farms. All this past is dealt with more detail in Po-on, meaning the beginning or the base trunk of a tree — the first novel in terms of chronology of the five-novel Rosales Saga.’
Just recently he wrote about his inspiration for the Rosales Saga:
‘Here’s a little background of the five novel saga I named after it. In my late teens and early twenties, I was writing short stories using my boyhood as a major theme – that boyhood spent in a village of the town, Rosales. I had, by then, read Rizal’s novels and Willa Cather’s My Antonia, about boyhood in a small Nebraska town. Then, during the Liberation when I was in the US Army, I read Steinbeck’s Salinas novels and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha series. Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus was particularly instructive. With these models in mind, I arranged the chronological sequence of the saga to portray and dramatize a hundred years of our history.’
(Everyone is relative)
The next years brought more trips abroad.
In 1987 he was writer-in-residence at the National University of Singapore. A year later he went to Japan as a visiting research scholar at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies of the Kyoto University.
And in the same year 1988 he received the Outstanding Fulbrighters award for literature.
But he was also very productive in writing and editing some of his best publications:
the famous novel Ermita (Manila, Solidaridad, 1988),
a collection of poetry: Questions (Manila, Solidaridad, 1988),
and the collection Olvidon and Other Stories (Manila, Solidaridad, 1988).
For his collective literary work he received in 1989 the Cultural Center of the Philippines award.
That certainly did not mean that, at the age of 65, he retired from writing …
On the contrary, the list of publications of the next 30 years goes on, year by year. On writing he wrote in one of his blogs:
‘The first and most important responsibility of the writer then is to himself and his art — a heavy burden for any individual to shoulder simply because life is not a simple matter of black and white, of right and wrong. In between is a huge gray area — a limbo, an uncharted territory wherein we live. All of us are burdened with internal contradictions that we have to live with if we cannot resolve them. The conflict, for instance, is not between right and wrong but between belief and action.
‘I am often asked to write my own autobiography, or a novel with a happy ending unlike what I have already written, novels with unhappy endings. Writers write from their very lives.’
(The moral obligation of writers)
In 1991 he published Gagamba (The Spiderman) (Manila, Solidaridad), which has been called a ‘meditation on the meaning of life …’
In 1992 the book Three Filipino Women (novellas) was published in New York by Random House.
And in 1993 he published the novel Viajero (Traveler) (Manila, Solidaridad). In Viajero, which is not part of the Rosales Saga, some of the characters in these books reappear.
About this novel Sionil José wrote:
‘In Viajero, this is the eventual acceptance of revolution and its concomitant violence by Salvador dela Raza which liberates him from his old self. He describes this crossing as a decision which liberated him. His search makes him flee the comfort of a San Francisco life for the harsh uncertainties of living, teaching and perhaps dying on a mountain.
‘I had intended to use as prologue to Viajero this stanza from T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” … It had struck me with its pithy resonance, its profundity, but I settled for Rizal’s “Song of the Wanderer.” Not only is it more relevant, it was also written by a man whose writings have been my most important influence.’
(Journeys & ‘Viajero’)
Sin is the title of his next novel (Manila, Solidaridad, 1994), published as Sins in the US edition (New York, Random House, 1996).
In Sins the captain of industry Don Carlos thinks about his life on his deathbed.
The novel Po-on was published with a new title Dusk and an introduction by the author in 1998 (New York, Modern Library). The same company published part two and three of the Rosales Saga (Tree and My Brother, My Executioner) as Don Vincente: A Novel in Two Parts.
In the same year a selection of his essays was published, with the title In Search of the Word: Selected Essays of F. Sionil José (Manila, de la Salle University Press, 1998).
In 2001 F. Sionil José was rewarded in the Philippines with the title National Artist for Literature.
That same year he published the novel Ben Singkol, which was later followed by:
The molave and the orchid and other children’s stories (Manila, Solidaridad, 2004),
This I believe: gleanings from a life in literature; essays (Manila, Solidaridad, 2006),
Vibora! – a novel (Manila, Solidaridad, 2007),
Sherds, a novel (Manila, Solidaridad, 2007),
Muse and Balikbayan: two plays (2008), and
The Feet of Juan Bacnang (2011).
In 2014 F. Sionil José received the French award Officier dans l’ordre des Arts et Lettres.
And until today we can follow his thoughts and writing in his blogs and the columns called ‘Hindsight’ that he writes for the newspaper Philstar.com.
Some examples from his militant blogs:
On youth and the future:
‘I will be 90 very soon — an old man by any standard, with so much hindsight — which is the lowest form of wisdom, to understand why we continue to be poor, why there’s so much injustice ravaging this nation, and why wealth is coveted by so few. And more than ever, I cling to this belief that our redemption is not in the hands of our very rich, but in our very poor — that it is in their power to banish these inequities, if they can band together and realize that in their hunger, they command.
But they need the very young — you — to help them and lead them as did those young leaders — Bonifacio, Mabini, del Pilar in 1896. And most of all, that greatest of Filipino writers, José Rizal.’
(The moral obligation of writers)
‘Revolution is often a lengthy process, and you may not even notice it until it is exploding all around you. Here I am, 94 years old, and still wondering why the revolution has not yet happened, when so many of us have long accepted its necessity, its inevitability even.’
(Letter to a young revolutionary)
One of his last, on the corona virus crisis:
‘It is also the duty of these giant pharmaceutical companies to produce drugs that are available to the very poor; and finally and most importantly, we have to reform the political order and usher in a government – very expensive perhaps – that can attend to the social needs of our people. Capitalism may have to go, as the deadliest virus. Capitalism protects the rich and damns the poor.’
(Folk Medicine …)
Finally, from his blog ‘Before the curtain falls’:
‘Mine wasn’t a rich life, but was much, much better than the drudgery I came from. I worked very hard to do that and hoped as well that I gave voice to what so many of my countrymen had aspired for. With what I have written, I hope that some may now understand themselves better, so that they can also live with themselves. I hope that I have also brought some light to the blackest corners of their minds, their hearts, their very homes, that I have given them memory, too, so that they will remember.
‘Before curtain falls, I have always suspected that Somebody up there likes me, allowed me to live this long, gave me a companion who stood by me in the darkest night, forgave my sins, nurtured and nagged me so I’d be able to write and give all of you a bit of myself. My wife—she gave all of herself to me.’
(Before the curtain falls)