Remembrances of National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose
Manong Frankie was only 93 years old when he took me on a tour of his childhood in Rosales, Pangasinan. The National Artist for Literature, who was born on Dec. 3, 1924, passed on peacefully in his sleep in his hospital room at Makati Medical Center last Friday, Jan. 6, just hours before he was to undergo angioplasty. He was 97.
Four years ago, he was well into his 90s, but he was strong and particularly stronger while we were in Rosales, his world for 13 years, during which he explored as much as he could on foot, going as far away as possible from Barrio Cabugawan, where prior to his birth his family moved from Ilocos.
“Back then,” he told me, “this was all just grass.” Now, it is pretty much a busy modern town, albeit with time-warped ancestral houses and heritage structures here and there, including the two houses where the revolutionary Apolinario Mabini stayed, hiding from the Americans.
Manong Frankie also pointed out the creek in which he spent a lot of afternoons swimming, where he would leave watermelons submerged for hours to cool them. Rosales is also home to the Agno River, one of the largest river systems in the Philippines, which runs through Benguet and Pangasinan, and I imagined Manong Frankie strolling along its banks, riding along on the current, ideas flowing deep and wild and mighty in his head like the river.
Against the Rosales sky is etched the conical shape of the extinct volcano Balungao. It isn’t too much of a challenging trek, or so said Manong Frankie, who would climb the 382-meter mountain as a boy and sometimes sleep on the peak, no tent, no sleeping bag, maybe not even a flashlight, just a sky full of stars and possibilities overhead.
Before he took me to the spot where his childhood home was, we stopped briefly at Rosales Elementary School, where he attended grade school. Did they have an inkling that among their wards was a future National Artist, whose works would be translated worldwide in 28 languages? But thanks to a teacher who opened a library while he was in his fifth grade, this public school was Manong Frankie’s portal to the worlds contained in novels such as those of Jose Rizal, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck. Before the library, his only source of books was his mother, Sofia Jose, who would travel to neighboring towns selling stuff and borrowing books for her son to read.
At age 13, Manong Frankie left Manila where, save for a few interruptions and long stretches of time living abroad in the study and practice of journalism and literature, he would spend the rest of his life. In his youth, he went to Far Eastern University for high school and then to University of Santo Tomas in Intramuros, where he took up liberal arts, only to drop out later, plunging right into writing and journalism.
Manong Frankie never really felt removed from Rosales, as he would go back there every chance he got, and also for no reason other than nostalgia, such as when he and his wife, Manang Tessie Jose, would revisit. Also, in his senior year in high school, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and, around the same time, Fort Stotesenburg in Pampanga and the Nelson Airfield in Manila. Through the chaos, catching a train at Tutuban, which he boarded through the window, he fled to Rosales to reunite with his family and then shuttled between Rosales and Manila, sometimes staying in Tarlac, during the Japanese occupation.
But his real homecoming was when he made his birthplace the setting of his Rosales saga, his five interconnected philosophical and historical novels—Po-on, Tree, My Brother, My Executioner, The Pretenders, and Mass—so called because they are all set in Rosales. These novels, as much as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or the St. Anthony of Padua Parish Church, are a monument to this otherwise little known municipality, a junction town between Tarlac and Nueva Ecija.
‘Courage is no longer necessary now. What is necessary is skill.’
Manong Frankie took me to Rosales, as he had many writers before me, because he considered it his duty to make young or, in my case, younger writers realize the importance of the craft with which they had been blessed, or cursed, because, as he would remind me now and then, writing demanded many sacrifices.
Writing, according to Manong Frankie, is bigger than the writer. In one of our conversations, he said to me, “Don’t worry about your self-centeredness. All artists are egoistic. The challenge is to make the self bigger or otherwise you run out of things to write about. You become boring.” I took that to mean I needed to be bigger than me or at least big enough to represent my neighborhood, my district, my city, my province, my country, my world…
To F. Sionil Jose, social justice came naturally to a writer in search of stories, in search of truths that would resonate with the people he was writing for. “You don’t even have to think about it,” he said. “It just comes out of your writing because you are writing in the context of your times. Look back on history. Look at the plays of ancient Greece. They were concerned also with social justice.”
To Manong Frankie, writing was kind of a social protest, a reflection of reality that clamored for change. It didn’t matter whether it was fact or fiction, prose or verse, but between the lines of any work, including Manong Frankie’s, would be the real story of life in which “man’s inhumanity to man” had been—and always is—a bone of contention, a revelation, a vindication.
But what does it take to be a good writer? Manong Frankie had much to say about that. “First of all you have to really master the craft,” he told me. “Nobody can teach you to be an artist—no school, no workshop. You just have to read, write, read, write, read, write… But part of the process is giving not only your writing but also your life more meaning.”