It would be hard to write about Efren R. Abueg, foremost fictionist in Filipino, without getting personal. His works, spanning from the seminal short story “Kamatayan ni Tiyo Samuel” (Palanca First Prize for Short Story in Filipino in 1967) to the novel Huwag Mong Sakyan ang Buhawi (Nominated for a National Book Award in 2015), have a “personal” feel, as if he is writing about your neighbor, your teacher, or the couple across your street. His works touched on the very essence of what makes us Filipino, and for that, he has inspired a generation of writers, including me, to take up fiction writing.
My first encounter with Abueg was life-changing. It is not an exaggeration. I was “indoctrinated” at a Protestant Chinese school, where the Filipino subject is least prioritized. In high school, Filipino subjects were mostly about the required readings–Ibong Adarna, Rizal’s Noli and Fili. In between, I couldn’t recall reading any other stories because most of the time, it was always Math and Science. There was, however, the essay writing in Filipino. I remembered excelling in it and surprising my teachers, who always asked why I’m able to write well in Filipino. At that time, I really had no clue.
In fourth year high school, we had this thick textbook for Filipino class, which our class didn’t even bother to learn. I think I was the only one in the entire batch excited to hold that textbook. Even though it was not part of our lessons, I read the entire content of that textbook and found myself, one afternoon amid the noise inside the classroom, “transported” to the world of a desperate Mang Itoy in the story “Mapanglaw ang Mukha ng Buwan.” I was so riveted by the story that I decided at that moment that I wanted to write like this author who was unfamiliar to me. I looked at the byline and saw the name: Efren R. Abueg.
The power of a singular story moved me to “search” for his works, like an unexplainable thirst, as I saved a portion of my allowances to buy books. With my introduction to Abueg, a new world opened. I learned about his works in the groundbreaking anthology Mga Agos sa Disyerto, together with writers Dominador Mirasol, Rogelio Ordoñez, Edgardo Reyes, and Rogelio Sikat. I read their works and soon, I found myself reading B.S. Medina, Pedro S. Dandan, Genoveva Matute, Ave Perez Jacob, Jun Cruz Reyes, Lualhati Bautista, Liwayway Arceo, among others. I didn’t realize that I’m being exposed to the Golden Age of fiction in Filipino, I was just awed with the wealth of experience and the breadth of humanity contained in the pages of their books.
Soon, I found myself in college “attempting” to become a fictionist. I failed numerous times and was even discriminated against during a workshop, when a panelist quipped: “Ano ba ang ginagawa ng Tsekwa rito?” My stories were even laughed at. But I persevered, opening my tattered textbook that had Abueg’s story, which I read over and over again, until I understood the struggle of Mang Itoy as he rowed his small boat in that cold, dark night.
A big break arrived as a campus literary contest cited two of my short stories. These were also published in the campus literary journal. I don’t know if it was fate but the journal, at one time in its history, had Abueg as its adviser. I heard from someone that Abueg is always on the lookout for young writers, so I gathered up some guts (aka kapal ng mukha) to visit him at the Filipino Department. I don’t know if he could still recall that time, but I just went there, asked for him, and introduced myself.
“Yes, I read your work,” he said, referring to my story published in the Malate Literary Folio. To say that I was star-struck is an understatement. And that act of his, to say that I’m being “read,” struck a chord in my being, inspiring me to work harder to become a better writer. That started our correspondence to the point that he became my graduate school thesis adviser. Through the years, I’m awed with the fact that I’m able to confide in him and witnessed how he was able to nurture so many talents—writers, artists, journalists, even critics.
Abueg is like his works—devoid of outright anger and angst that filled the stories of his contemporaries, but full of wisdom and realism, with his words carefully crafted with social significance as an undertone.
I asked him one time what he wants to be known for, aside from being a master of fiction in Filipino.
“I want to be known as an advocate of the Filipino language,” he answered. “Years of my lectures in Filipino in almost 50 universities and colleges in the Philippines and five years of service as writer-in-residence at De La Salle University-Dasmarinas attested to my service to the cause of Filipino language today, including my being a founder of Cavite Young Writers Association, which is my way of giving back to society by honing the talents of the youth.”
Abueg’s list of works, accomplishments, and accolades in literature and academe is too long to enumerate. But even with his stature, he remains humble and approachable, giving time and effort to those who want to hone their writing. Even at this time, when he could comfortably sit down with his wealth of works, he continues to write for publications such as Liwayway, so that his stories may continue to inspire the next generation of Filipino fictionists, who may now be lost and in search of a story that would change their lives.