I was 10 years old, in Grade Five at the Rosales Elementary School, when my teacher, Miss Soledad Oriel, handed me the Derbyshire translation of Rizal's Noli Me Tangere. From the very beginning, the story gripped me and when I came to the part where Sisa's two sons, Crispin and Basilio, were wrongly accused of stealing, I wept out of pity. They were about my age and I strongly identified with them.
Years later, I recreated Sisa, Crispin and Basilio's mother, in the Rosales saga. She was Tia Nena, and her two boys were Luis and Victor in My Brother, My Executioner. Rizal became the greatest single influence in my life as a writer, and all of my writing has been dedicated to his theme -- the Filipino's search for a moral order and social justice.
My personal discovery of our National Hero happened when I was very young. Today, he is taken for granted -- his monument is in every town plaza, his novels are compulsory reading in schools, and every December 30 we mark his martyrdom.
The Rizal industry itself is very much alive, churning as it does volumes and volumes on the life of this man who best symbolizes what is heroic and noble in us.
I am afraid though that he is not embedded deeply enough in our minds and hearts, particularly in our leaders, for if he were, we would not be in this pitiful rut today.
What rut indeed? Our streets are clogged with fat, glossy cars, the skyline of Manila is studded with monoliths, and our air-conditioned shopping malls are bursting with luxury goods. Ask our government drumbeaters and they will proclaim our economic ascendancy.
But I ask that we look at the many thousands upon thousands who eat only once a day, who cannot go to school because they cannot afford tuition, and who die because they cannot pay for medicine and hospital care. I ask that we look at the truth that there is really no justice in our country because our government systems are ineffective.
All these bring us back to Rizal in his time when he exposed the injustices of Spanish rule. The injustices he faced then are the ideological continuity that many of us can not recognize today when our oppressors are our own elites.
Rizal made me recognize injustice at a very early age. This profound insight is what I hope every young Filipino will also discover and struggle against. Rizal did this not just with his pen but with his very life. With his two novels, he signed his own death sentence. And he returned to the Philippines when he could have easily flourished abroad as a medical doctor. He recognized that the fight for justice was not in Europe or in Spain where he found refuge and friends, but here in his own homeland where injustice was rife.
To recognize the depredation by our own greedy elites is to accept revolution. In the end, this is what Rizal was -- a revolutionary. He gave us memory, and above all, reason to sacrifice.
To be even just a shadow of our National Hero requires of us not just rootedness and intelligence, but most of all, a tenacious affection for this blighted and unhappy country.
I suppose most everyone asked this question would say their life. Or maybe honor, but honor is only possible if there is life to honor or debase.
The gift of life, from parents, from God, is for each one of us to shape, to give meaning to. It's not pre-determined. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder is a brief but thoughtful novel exploring fate or God in relation to life. I argue that life has no meaning, that the individual must shape it to his or her own will, and it will end not so much by God's will but by circumstances beyond the individual's control. My answer to Thornton Wilder is my novel, Gagamba.
We love life for it is our dearest possession and because the logic of love is sacrifice, for whom would we give it up?
That question is something I've not had to face. But if ever I would have to choose, I am positively sure I would give it up for my wife, for my family. For my country? I am not too sure although so many have done so, a few of them writers like myself. Maybe it is enough that I live for my unhappy country.
When I think of material possessions that I prize, I think of my house in Quezon City, a modest structure built painstakingly through the years by my wife, home to my children. I think of this small bookshop in Ermita, which has provided us a modest way of life.
Objects? The old German portable, which I used for years -- I don't remember where it went. The electronic typewriter my daughter Gigi gave me. It handles so smoothly, I write better, faster with it. And now, also my smart phone, which brings me both discovery and distraction. My fountain pens. And my shoes that are difficult to find because my peasant feet are short and wide.
But I'm not really attached so much to these material things. I never was. I could lose them and would not weep.