By Terence Repelente
Meeting National Artist for Literature Francisco Sionil Jose, or F. Sionil Jose, or just Manong Frankie, as he likes to be called, was like consulting an oracle. And for most Filipino writers and artists, he is. An oracle that can be easily approached on anything cultural, philosophical, or political, even personal, in his office, at the third floor of the Sionil family-owned and managed bookstore Solidaridad, located at the heart of Ermita in downtown Manila.
Manong Frankie holds a thick curriculum vitae, which, would occupy this entire page if we were to enumerate every single highlight, and maybe more, from his first post in 1947 as staff member at the National Catholic Weekly to his rise to the National Artist status, from his first short stories to his five-novel masterpiece, the Rosales Saga. Manong Frankie is at the forefront of Philippine writing in English, the most translated Filipino writer, and, according to his good friend, the late National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, “hands down, the most widely read Filipino author.”
Not to mention the stack of awards and achievements he has received, in and outside of the country. He is the only Southeast Asian writer acknowledged in international media as a candidate for the Nobel Prize. The award, however, has eluded him to this day. “To be honest, until I got to be 80, I was hoping I’d get it. I’ve heard from some of my sources that I was twice on the final list. But when I passed 80, I stopped hoping, especially now that I’m 93. Nobody gets the Nobel Prize at my age anymore,” he says. “The old men in Stockholm probably do not like my politics. They have also been criticized as Eurocentric. The stone hard reality is that I’m not good enough, which means the brilliant young writers after me have to work harder.”
But at his age, Manong Frankie confesses, the award doesn’t even matter anymore, “To tell you frankly and honestly, neither the prize nor the honor matters, it’s the money. More than a million dollars! Mababayaran ko na ang utang namin (I could pay off our debts),” he jokes. “The only thing that matters to me now is to have at least more time to finish my novel, which I am currently writing.” The novel, which is science fiction, he says, is about a man who loses many things, like his integrity, his sexuality, and his memory. In the novel, he will raise questions on what it will be like when robots and artificial intelligence take over the world. “And I also wish that when I go, I wish to go quietly, without any suffering,” he says.
Manong Frankie’s sole request to the young Filipino writers: “don’t die young.” He meant that in both the literal and artistic sense. “I’ve met many writers that, by the time they were 50, wala na silang ibubuga (they couldn’t create anymore). Most of the time, the reason is egoism, narcissism, and utter arrogance, too much self-celebration,” he says. “We must always remember that there are things bigger than us, than you and I, than all of us.” And, as he always stresses, one should always strive for social relevance. “That’s the most difficult part of writing, because you might be a very skillful writer, you might be capable of very elegant and beautiful language, but your writing has to have meaning. I told this to my friend Manny Baldemor. I told him, Manny, your paintings sell, you’ll become rich, you’ll be famous, but you will not be great until you create something with social commentary.”
According to Manong Frankie, the future of Philippine literature lies on the removal of the American imperial influence over it. “The Americans are such successful imperialists, even Filipinos themselves defend it,” he says. “We as Filipino writers must nurture our roots. Because our roots aren’t only geographic, our roots as Filipinos can be ideas, or a set of beliefs, or ideologies—they are all important.”
Humans are tribal, according to Manong Frankie, and it’s difficult to outgrow this tribalism. “What’s important is to get its essence, the identity, the distinct personality. Ito ako (This is me), and show that to the world!” he says. “That’s what defines our literature, that’s what defines all other literatures—nationalism and self-identity.”
Until the early 19th century, says Manong Frankie, American writers were so enamored with English literature, the colonial masters, the colonial country. Likewise, the English writers were also enamored of French literature, and they all wanted to write like the French, same as how the American writers wanted to write in the romantic tradition of England. “Then Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote The American Scholar, a landmark book of American literature, in which he said ‘Let us forget the romantic tradition, let us forget England, we must celebrate America,’” says Manong Frankie. “As a result, many writers rose, like Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and so on. Because they celebrated America, ‘yan ang kulang na kulang sa atin (That’s what we lack). We are still very much influenced by American writers and American literature and culture.”
We should do the same thing as what Emerson did, according to Manong Frankie. “Forget America! Forget American literature! Forget the colonizers,” he says. “We must look inward, so we have something to bring outward, for the world to see. Again, there are things bigger than me, bigger than you!”
His fellow National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera said that the distinguishing factor of Manong Frankie’s works, which Bien categorized as vernacular, is the searing social commentary within them, which was also what Jose Rizal and other great writers did. Manong Frankie has always believed that the present economic system also dictates the kind of culture that will grow out of a nation. Dominant in his works, which could only be described collectively as epic, are themes touching on the country’s century-old problems like poverty, feudalism, and corruption.
As he wrote in one of his blogposts titled “The Future Belongs to the Young:”
“Even in your shattering loneliness, remember you are writing, not for critics, academics, or other writers, but for your own people who, in their silence and perhaps poverty, cannot express their aspirations and anguish. You are their voice but only if you have not deserted or betrayed them.”