Friday, June 28, 2013

Lunch With F. Sionil Jose, by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
Published in Zee Lifestyle, June 2013

         After almost two decades of not seeing him, I saw F. Sionil
Jose in Cebu at the performance of Progress, a musicale based on his
short story. Frankie, a familiar name I use because my writing mentor,
Lina Espina Moore called him thus, remembered me.  In the late 1980s,
Lina had brought me to the Solidaridad bookshop owned by Frankie and
his wife, Tessie. Lina introduced me to them and arranged for the
launch of my first short story collection in their bookshop.

         Frankie was an established writer then; but in 2013, he had
risen even higher.  Since 2001, he held the highly coveted title of
National Artist for Literature in the Philippines.  He had been
awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1980, the Pablo Neruda Centennial
Award in 2004, numerous Palanca Awards, among many other awards.  F.
Sionil Jose is now a household name, and young people pack auditoriums
to hear him speak.  He is one of the most widely-read Filipino writers
in the English language; his novels Dusk, Don Vicente and The Samsons
enjoy the wide distribution provided by the New York publisher, Modern
Library a subsidiary of Random House. He has published other novels,
novellas, short story collections, essay collections, plays, and
children's books.  His writings have been translated into 22

         “Come for lunch,” he said when I told him I'd be in Manila.
And so in late January, I was in a taxi stuck in Manila's terrible
traffic. I did not have his contact information, and I texted a friend
to call Solidaridad and inform Frankie I would be late. My friend
replied: Don't be too late; he's irascible.

         I started to feel intimidated. Would I get scolded for being
late and wasting his time?

         I was ten minutes late and thankfully, Tessie Jose told me
they had just arrived. The Joses travel daily from their home in
Quezon City to their bookshop in Ermita, arriving mid-day, and they
return at around nine or ten at night when the traffic has subsided.
Tessie gave me a tour of Solidaridad; apparently there had been a fire
several years ago and Solidaridad had to be rebuilt. A lot of books
were destroyed. Frankie would later relate how no one picked up the
damaged books which they put outside on the sidewalk for people to

         Tessie and I waited for Frankie to finish his work – everyday
he is quite busy, writing still another novel, editing manuscripts,
dealing with publishers who want foreign rights or electronic rights.
He is also involved with PEN Manila Chapter and the bookshop.

         No one mentioned by tardiness; and he was not irascible or
intimidating. As he and Tessie led the way to the restaurant, he
pointed out the high-rise buildings sprouting up in Ermita. Look at
this change, he seemed to say; but he is not a man who is afraid of
change because when I later asked him what he thought of e-books, he
simply stated, “What is there to say, it’s here.”

               We had lunch in the same Indian Restaurant where Lina,
Frankie and ate at years ago.  Frankie and Tessie ordered our food
while I pulled out my notebook and informed Frankie that I'd ask him a
few questions for an article.

          His story is that of a poor boy who makes good. Francisco
Sionil Jose was born in 1924 to a poor family that failed to file the
necessary legal documents to claim the farm they had been tilling. His
mother, who had been abandoned by her husband for another woman, had
to raise three children. Until he got involved with editing and
writing, Frankie did manual labor, raising hogs or working as a farm
laborer or doing household chores. Fortunately along the way, he had
teachers who encouraged him to read and to write. By the time he
attended Santo Tomas University, he was writing and doing editorial
work. He married a supportive woman; he worked; his writings were
published; he opened his bookshop; he himself became a publisher; he
received grants, awards; he made important connections; he founded the
Manila PEN Chapter; he was called a CIA spy (the charges were
dropped). Through it all, F. Sionil did his best to work for justice
for the rural poor.

This single-mindedness was what made him tell him he didn’t consider
himself successful at all. He talked about what he wanted to happen to
the Philippines, and that was to have justice, meaning each Filipino
would have three meals a day, education, a roof over their heads,
medical care.  He concluded that this has not happened, that there are
many poor people eating one meal a day, and that there is grave
injustice. The measure of his success, he said, is to know that
because of his writings, a little bit of justice is now available; he
said he has not been successful.

                “I am frustrated,” he said, “the older I get, the angrier I become.”
I asked him – Do you believe in God?

         He said he is a baptized Catholic; he had a Thomasian
education; he has many Jesuit friends. But he considers himself an
agnostic. “I am not happy with organized religion,” he said. “It is
too huge.”  Later, he would add, via email: “…I am very religious but
not pious. I rarely go to church and if I do at all, it is when the
church is empty so I can pray by myself and listen to my own prayers.”
He enjoyed describing his typical day. He wakes up at around 1 a.m. to
work until around 5 a.m. He has breakfast, then he takes an hour nap.
He and Tessie go to Solidaridad, arriving there at around 11 a.m. He
works; they have lunch at noon. He works, then rests for a couple of
hours in the afternoon. He and Tessie eat outside; they walk to the
Robinson's or Mall of Asia. They attend social events. At around 9 pm
they return home. They are in bed by around 10 pm or later.

                There was nothing irascible about the Frankie I met that day.
While he talked I noticed how he reached out to touch the arm of
Tessie, his partner since 1949. “Sweetheart,” he called her. And
later, as we walked back to Solidaridad, the two of them walked side
by side, helping each other as they negotiated the irregular sidewalk.
And as far as I was concerned, he and Tessie extended to me such
warmth and love; I was sorry to say goodbye to them.

 I felt gratified when a week later, I received an email from Frankie:

             “When you come back, do drop by again, this time, around
6 pm so we can have a longer chat... Mabuhay ka!”


Read also
Life in Parian Now
Cebu's 1730 Jesuit House 
The Secret Hall of Angels 
A Story of Hope
Finding Jose Rizal in Cebu
Lola Remedios and her Sayas
Lunch with F. Sionil Jose

 tags: Philippines, literature, novelist, writer, author, fiction writer, Filipino, Frankie Jose, Cecilia Brainard

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