Remembering F. Sionil Jose

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

Francisco Sionil Jose (FSJ) was always my favorite Filipino author and one of my favorite authors in the English language. Whenever I used to tell people about my choice of FSJ, I would often get criticized by those who had other primary choices like Jose Rizal, Nick Joaquin, NVM Gonzalez and Carlos Bulosan.

The recent publication of a special issue on FSJ by the UST Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies was one I read from cover to cover in one sitting. The title of the journal is “Tomas” and was published in 2023, edited by Joselito B. Zulueta and Ralph Semino Galán.

There are four sections, namely: Reminiscences, Criticism and Tributes, plus   a section, Notes on the  Contributors, which has a short biographical sketch on each of the 26 contributors. I find this section engrossing reading because of the stature in the literary world of most of these writers.

I confess that I did not discover the writings of FSJ until towards the end of my college years.

The bookshop Solidaridad, which he owned, was quite near La Salle and during my college years, I used to visit it from time to time. Its first attraction to me was the Solidarity Magazine which I tried to buy or surreptitiously read, due to my limited allowance, whenever I visited. From there, I slowly graduated to reading the other books which led to my discovery of Filipiniana. I now have an extensive collection of Filipiniana books as a result of those visits.

Although I had glimpses of this known author, I never had the nerve to talk to him.  The first book I read was “My Brother, My Executioner” which was brilliantly reviewed in “Tomas” by Shirley O. Lua.  She is an associate professor of literature at De La Salle University-Manila. She sits on the board of the Manila Critics Circle, which hands out the National Book Awards annually to the best books published in the Philippines and belongs to the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, the film critics group that awards the Gawad Urian on the best Philippine movies annually.

In the Introduction, Joselito Zulueta, one of the editors wrote: “When Francisco Sionil Jose passed away at 97 on Jan. 6, 2022, the Philippines lost its most dominant and prolific pen in English fiction, if not its most eloquent voice in Philippine arts and culture. Through his weekly newspaper column (in The Philippine STAR) and his regular social media posts on any issue, current and sundry, he was also the country’s most active and definitely the angriest (some say crankiest) public intellectual.”

The first part of the journal contains reminiscences by 18 contributors about their interactions with FSJ. Here are some of these excerpted reminiscences.

Angelo Lacuesta, an award-winning author nationally and internationally, remembers going on a trip with Manong Frankie, as he was called in the literary community, to the north. The trip was to Pangasinan, home province of FSJ. Among the highlights was a visit to the house of Carlos Bulosan in Binalonan, Pangasinan. Next was a stop to the pilgrimage site of Our Lady of Manaoag. And then to the inauguration of a small library in Bauang, La Union named after the writer Manuel Arguilla. It seems that FSJ frequently took guests on similar tours covering Rosales and other nearby towns.

Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo is a writer of fiction and nonfiction, a critic and a literary scholar. She has published more than 40 books and has received several national awards. She writes a tribute to FSJ, whom she met while she was still a student at UST. She and her friends were regular visitors at Solidaridad and became good friends with FSJ. She writes: “We may have sometimes disagreed on political issues and have sometimes been taken aback by his peremptory ways, but never did we experience anything but support and encouragement from Frankie.”

Popular public historian Ambeth Ocampo wrote that he once asked FSJ why, in his twilight, he was always angry. “He replied … that his biggest frustration was that the world did not turn out the way he wanted or imagined it to be. He was angry from the realization that he was leaving to a new generation a world far worse than he was born in.”

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