First published in the 2018 edition of the Fookien Times Yearbook
Within the last 100 years, in living memory to some, three cataclysmic events afflicted this nation and people -- the Filipino-American`War from 1898 to 1902, the Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1945, and the Marcos dictatorship from 1972 to 1986.
The Revolution of 1896, which morphed into the Filipino-American War, was the first organized rebellion against Western imperialism. It also established the first republic in Asia, short-lived though that republic was. In his SONA address last July 24, President Duterte described just one of the incidents in that war -- the battle of Balangiga in Samar, where Filipino guerrillas armed with bolos killed a company of Americans after which the Americans retaliated and made the island a "howling wilderness," killing civilians at random.
At the time, the number of Filipino casualties of that war was estimated at 200,000, but more sanguine Filipino historians place the number at a million. Historians like Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil and the late Teddy Agoncillo said that had that Revolution succeeded, a civil war would have engulfed the country soon after.
In the anarchy that prevails in war or revolution, to survive, each man is for himself, civic morality is abandoned, and virtue is thrown out the window. The longer anarchy prevails, the lower morality sinks and corruption is accepted as the norm. When this happens, it is difficult to resurrect ethical values. This is what has happened to us all these years.
I am 93 years old. I grew up in a village in Central Luzon and came to Manila in 1938 to enroll at the Far Eastern University High School, which today is the site of the Isetann Mall on Recto. Manuel Quezon was President of the Commonwealth then, and he dominated the newspapers and the gossip in the tiendas. I have lived through the three brutal years of the Japanese Occupation, and through the Marcos dictatorship. I was one of the jubilant thousands who massed at EDSA in 1986. We had great expectations, all of which were squandered by Cory.
We now have a new President (Duterte) who, like all our past presidents, promised to bring us change. I have strong doubts that he will be able to do that, to unify this fractured nation. It is not obvious to so many, particularly those who are used to the privileges of power and status and who are pampered with the sense of entitlement that their exalted positions have vested in them, that a revolution has been started by a single man who, despite his failings, was the least expected to usher it. In these conditions of stress and danger, often made more confusing by contradictory impulses, it is important for the institutions of freedom to be more vigilant and purposeful, to lessen the collateral damage, and to prevent the revolution itself from eating its own children. Duterte started with much promise, so let us wait and see what he can do in this coming five years.
Our first two presidents, Jose P. Laurel (March 9, 1891 - November 6, 1959) and Manuel L. Quezon (August 19, 1878 - August 1, 1944), served in unusual times. Was Laurel a Japanese collaborator? While collaboration as a political issue had long been settled by the time Laurel was elected senator, collaboration as a moral issue rankles to this very day.
Sergio Osmeña (September 9, 1878 - October 19, 1961) and Manuel Roxas (January 1, 1892 - April 15, 1948), both contemporaries of Quezon, were correct gentlemen of the old school. The country's problems, though alleviated by the return of MacArthur and American largesse, were manageable. Both presidents laid down, perhaps inevitably, the norms of political conduct -- Parity, the Bases that institutionalized American dominance. Such would last to this very day.
Carlos Garcia (November 4, 1896 - June 14, 1971) had a grand nationalist vision. But the day after Magsaysay died, corruption was back with vengeance. Why was he unable to continue Magsaysay's sterling legacy?
Cory Aquino (January 25, 1933 - August 1, 2009) was a disaster. She turned the EDSA revolution into the restoration of the oligarchy. The people expected so much of her. She became president only because Ninoy was assassinated. So did PNoy become president only because of the vast popularity of his mother. Both left nothing remarkable for which they will be remembered. The fact that they did not pursue and prosecute the killer or killers of Ninoy Aquino will always be a black mark on their record, not so much as Ninoy's wife and son but as presidents.
In this country, ethnicity matters. We had four Ilokano presidents -- Elpidio Quirino (November 16, 1890 - February 29, 1956) from Ilokos Sur, Ramon Magsaysay (August 31, 1907 - March 17, 1957) from Zambales, Ferdinand Marcos (September 11, 1917 - September 28, 1989) from Ilokos Norte, and Fidel Ramos from Pangasinan. The best president this country ever had was Ramon Magsaysay and the worst was President Marcos.
I recall what my compadre, O.D. Corpuz, Marcos's education minister, said of Marcos: one, he was Ilokano and therefore will work very hard, and two, he knew history, and therefore will aim for greatness. Yes, he did work very hard at enriching himself, and history? For all his brilliance, he really did not understand it primarily because he was interested only in power, how it would work to perpetuate himself in office. Aside from plundering the nation, Marcos denied a whole generation of Filipinos from achieving political power; his martial rule lasted too long.
Ramon Magsaysay, who was not half as brilliant as Marcos, had a commonsense approach to government. Do good for the poor, be honest. He created the most honest government we ever had. When he made mistakes he acknowledged them and immediately corrected them.
Quirino belonged to the old school of politicians. He was honest, too, but was not effective. He had a big heart. His family was massacred by the Japanese and he forgave them, granted amnesty, too, to the collaborators. He laid down the program for the economic modernization of the country.
Cong Dadong Macapagal (September 28, 1910 - April 21, 1997), the poor boy from Lubao, moved to Forbes Park at the first opportunity. Had he been great, Marcos would not have succeeded him.
Erap and Gloria were also abject failures. Erap, particularly, never understood the magnitude of his office. Gloria as an economist did not use her knowledge to develop the country. She served longest, and left the country's problems even far worse for her rule
Fidel Ramos was efficient. He corrected the many mistakes of Cory. He failed to modernize the Armed Forces. As I told him, he should have declared a coup at the end of his term to continue the reforms he had begun.
For sure, there has never been a shortage of capable and patriotic Filipinos. But the best and the brightest are seldom on the escalator to the presidency. Or if they are, fate -- unswerving and final -- denies them power. Here then is a personal review of Pepe Diokno, Manny Pelaez, and Paeng Salas, all illustrious Filipinos who should have been president, who would have lifted this nation from the dung heap.
I was an aide to then Foreign Affairs Secretary, Emmanuel Pelaez (November 30, 1915 - July 27, 2003) in 1962 before he sent me to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to work as Information Officer of the Colombo Plan Bureau. He asked me to look at the Foreign Affairs Department and what could be done to improve it. I set up the Foreign Service Institute after I had gathered materials from Chatham House in London and from the State Department in Washington.
When I returned from Colombo in 1965, I was asked by its director, Alex Fernandez, to lecture on Southeast Asia. The Institute was not founded by Ferdinand Marcos as stated in the Institute's brochure. Pelaez founded it. Because he did not want to play the game, Pelaez was defeated by Marcos in the convention which elected Marcos as presidential candidate.
Pelaez was more than an excellent public official; he had also integrity which President Macapagal "borrowed." During the Martial Law years because of his criticism of the regime, an attempt on his life was made. His driver was killed and he was seriously wounded.
Senator Pepe Diokno (February 26, 1922 - February 27, 1987) championed agrarian reform and social justice. He was also a stern critic of American imperialism and was responsible for the expulsion of the American businessman, Harry Stonehill. When Marcos declared Martial Law, he jailed Diokno and Senator Ninoy Aquino. Pepe was released after two years, while Ninoy was kept in jail.
That imprisonment, Pepe told me, almost made him lose his sanity. He said Marcos was deliberate -- he had been set free because he had no presidential aspirations and did not have Ninoy's political machinery and popularity. On several occasions I went with him to the provinces as he defended the oppressed laborers and farm workers, often at his own expense. We had a longstanding argument. Though he defended in court many who were accused of rebellion, he did not approve of revolution primarily because its violence cannot be controlled. He was diagnosed with cancer when the Mendiola massacre occurred. Twenty- one farmer demonstrators were killed because Cory refused to see them.
He was on his deathbed when I saw him last. Nena, his wife, refused to have visitors see him but because we were such old friends, she let me in. He repeated his old argument. I told him both of us will go but those peasants who were killed in Mendiola will never get justice. I am afraid that I am right.
People misunderstood Diokno as being bitterly anti-American. He was not; he just wanted their influence diminished so we can evolve and free ourselves from the odium of dependency.
In this sense, he was so different from Senators Claro M. Recto, and Lorenzo Tanada who were anointed as nationalists when they were only anti-American. Both opposed the crucial land reform program which would have brought a better life to millions of Filipinos.
Rafael Salas (August 7, 1928 - March 4, 1987) was one of the first disciples of Ramon Magsaysay. He was the compleat technocrat and was Marcos's executive secretary. He illustrated how the Philippines can be self- sufficient in rice when he established the Masagana Program and for the first time, we even produced a rice surplus for export.
With him, Malacañang and the government operated efficiently. But soon, he went to the United Nations to manage the UN's population program. Marcos and his drumbeaters portrayed Paeng's departure as due to Palace intrigue, that he couldn’t agree with one of Marcos's closest friends. Paeng said that was not true at all. He left Malacañang because he saw the terrible corruption that had set in. He told me that at the time, our foreign debt was about 4 billion dollars; if Marcos gave back the money he had stolen, that debt would be wiped out.
Paeng could have been the UN's Secretary General if he had the support of the government. He was also a humanist, a poet. He was a book lover unlike so many powerful Filipinos who do not read. He was a frequent visitor at my bookshop.
In these many years I observed our long and tedious journey to nationhood. I have seen how our people posited their hopes for the future only on one man, the leader, the President who stood as the father of the nation, endowed with the power of the people. We have had this very personal view of our leaders fostered by elements in our culture, our Christian faith in one God who sacrificed for His people. Sacrifice. Who among them truly sacrificed for us?
I am sure the propagandists of these past presidents will object to my conclusions. They are not final, for all our judgments on history as we know it are tentative. As that old Russian saying states: It is difficult to foretell the past. There are no ifs in history, that the water under the bridge that passed will never come back. My only excuse for claiming the truth is that I was there, witness to our time and place.
At the very least, an important insight which our past taught us is this: travail has tempered us in the same manner that fire tempers steel. We are on the way to nationhood the way that Cuba, Vietnam and Japan had become the nations that their own people made them. This country cannot be dismembered anymore; we may seem fractured even to ourselves, but the Philippine state has endured and all those recalcitrant elements in this country--the Moros, the communists, the ethnic separatists--who want to take over this state must realize this very real and formidable development.
In making what seems a definitive assessment of our history and our political leaders, I have not forgotten this most important caveat: Our leaders--all of them were elected, with our approval.
They did not come to power atop a tank or on a white horse, but through the ballot. The damning verdict of history is that only a corrupt society will also produce corrupt leaders. If we made them, we deserve them. So then, what is wrong with us?
From this flash summary of the recent past, it is very clear why our leaders failed. First, they were unable to transcend their vaulting egos, their ethnic and clan loyalties. They could not really identify with this nation because they were not rooted tenaciously in it. If they were, they would love and care for the Filipinos so much so, they would sacrifice for them.
How does our National Anthem end?
In the public mind, the writer is often regarded as a romantic if not a heroic figure. All too often, we are evaluated on the basis of our writing alone, our so-called artistry. Seldom are we regarded as ordinary mortals, capable of sin, of corruption, even betrayal. This we must not forget particularly in writers' conferences such as this where we are lifted to high pedestals.
We should ask again what is it that we writers really do. To be mundane about it, we tell stories, we entertain. We like to think, however that we are not just simple entertainers. Dignify, ennoble the writer then. Whether mediocre or brilliant, the writer is important to his people, his nation. The written word as journalism is history in a hurry. The written world as literature is history that is lived. The writer then is the tenacious keeper of memory, and without this memory, there is no nation.
Look back then into ourselves, into our past these many years. Look back in anger, in sorrow, but look back without any mote in our eyes. Have we transcended our families? Our ethnic loyalties? Are we paving the way to nationhood?
My first real experience with literature happened when I was ten years old and in Grade 5. My teacher, Ms. Soledad Oriel, found out that I loved reading and she gave me the very first novels I read, Rizal's Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, Willa Cather's My Antonia and that Spanish classic, Don Quixote de la Mancha.
I was immediately engrossed with Rizal's Noli. When I came to the part where the brothers Crispin and Basilio were wrongly accused of thievery, I was so stricken by the injustice of it all, I wept. Rizal of course, clearly defined his purpose. He wanted a robust and free Filipino nation. More than a hundred years after his martyrdom, are we that nation now?
In 1955, the United States Department of State invited me to visit America for six months. Among my memorable experiences from that year was an afternoon spent with the American poet, Robert Frost, at his cabin in Ripton, Vermont. He was then already in his 80s but still hale and alert. He said that when America invaded the Philippines in 1898 several Americans including himself had strongly objected. It was unthinkable that a country that had won its freedom by revolution would now stop another country from doing the same. He asked me, after all these years, what is the American record in the Philippines?
My copy of Complete Poems of Robert Frost, which he graciously inscribed at his cabin in August 1955.
The American literary experience is instructive. Early American literature, being an import from England, was much influenced by the European romantic tradition. Then sometime in the early 18th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that American writers must break away from Europe and celebrate America. The appeal was accepted by a new breed of American writers--Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton--they brought about the "flowering of New England," and after them, the agrarian writers, Eugene O'Neill, Faulkner, then Hemingway, Fitzgerald, the Harlem Renaissance, gave American literature its sinews. They also defined a nation. And remember, they didn’t attend workshops and got MFAs and Ph.Ds.
In the 1950s and 1960s, I was able to travel widely. It was a time of frenzied post-World War II reconstruction as well as rethinking. I met academics, writers who became friends. I am particularly fond of the Korean-American writer, Richard Kim, Hirabayashi Taiko of Japan, Mochtar Lubis of Indonesia and Edwin Thumboo of Singapore. Though our backgrounds were totally different, we had a felicitous meeting of minds. They were all politically engaged, concerned with government, institutions, liberty and, most of all, ethics. They believed in integrity and above all justice. They wrote beautifully while watching their countries emerge from the rubble of war and mature and prosper. I too wrote and wrote, but saw my unhappy country flourish briefly and then decay.
Let us now turn to the literature spawned by workshops and literary studies. I've read a lot of them and found much of them finely crafted but without blood, sweat and iron. Pages and pages of massaged and boring verbiage. All those American-inspired culture models, have they made us better Filipino writers and artists? I emphasize the term Filipino. Are they appropriate for us? Maybe it's time we do away with these writing courses and replace them with heavy doses of history, philosophy, anthropology, and the Eastern and Western classics.
I have said many times that colonialism is not dead; it lives on in the attitudes embedded on the colonized, their sense of inferiority. Their hankering for acceptance and appreciation in the lands of colonizers.
Colonialism has morphed and taken new forms and assumed new names. Globalization is one of them. It has also mutated--the new colonizers are not necessarily the farangs, the foreigners anymore. Our oppressors are now our own elites. As writers, do we recognize this?
When Random House finally published me in the 1980s, my work had already been translated into several Asian and European languages. My editor at Random, Samuel S. Vaughan, was formerly president of Doubleday. When Doubleday was bought by Random, Sam was retained as senior editor. He had a prestigious record; he was also the editor of President Eisenhower and that American writing guru, Wallace Stegner. I told him, do whatever you wish with my manuscripts, but do not make me less Filipino.
The Russians were the first to translate my novels. My Russian translator, Igor Podberezky, was Russia's foremost Philippine specialist. He studied at the University of the Philippines; his Tagalog was archaic Balagtas but he also spoke my sidewalk Tagalog. I asked Igor if the Russians published me because they saw some Marxism in my fiction. He dismissed my comment and said: there are hundreds of talented Marxists in Russia and Eastern Europe and of course in Asia. No, he emphasized, we published you in Russia because you express the Filipino condition beautifully and we want to learn more about your people.
I mentioned in the beginning of this presentation how Rizal's novel had affected me. Our national hero is the greatest influence in my life as a writer. I now realize that my major theme--our search for social justice and a moral order--echoes Rizal's. Roots! Whatever they are which enliven, inspire and sustain you--recognize them and nurture them with passion for it is they that will make you endure. Our country--the land. Yes, the land!
In Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago are some of the most beautiful descriptions of the Russian winter and spring. This is how a writer articulates his love of his native land. But the Soviets did not allow him to go to Stockholm in 1965 to receive the Nobel Prize; they decreed, he did not love Russia enough. Read Manuel Arguila's lyrical evocation of the Ilokos countryside. They, too, express his love of country not just with words. He fought our oppressors, the Japanese, for which reason they killed him.
So then, what else do have I say to young Filipinos who are determined to write?
First and foremost, be honest with yourselves. Celebrate our country, our Filipinoness. Write not only for yourself but for our people. Be true to them as you will be true to yourself. Be contextual. Be involved and politically aware of our peoples' problems. Be engaged, and be able to identify our enemies. Look closely at what you are doing--you maybe one of them without knowing it.
What is your vision of our future? Our lives--have they any meaning at all? Must art be moral? When we ask these ancient questions, we then come face to face with our humanity. Bertolt Brecht said, "We who want the world to be kind cannot ourselves be kind" for man's greatest failing is his own inhumanity.
And now I return to Mr. Frost's question about American colonial rule. I gave his question a bit of thought then said, I suppose it turned out to be all right; if not for the public school system that the Americans brought, I'd most probably be an unlettered peasant today.
But I knew even then that my answer was not complete. I recall an African's response to European colonialism: They told us to go to Church, close our eyes and pray. We did but when we opened our eyes, our lands were gone.
I should have said, the Americans told us to go to school to get educated, and we did. But after we had become educated, something in us was gone. Our dreams perhaps, our identities, our Filipinoness. This we must now ask ourselves and be honest with our reply.
Are you aware of our own literary traditions? Have you used them creatively?
We all know that art and literature have no borders in the sense that the imagination has no boundaries. But what is the purpose of art? Does the artist have any responsibilities? Should his people, his country command his loyalty as much as his art? Does a particular novel or story ridicule us? For a Filipino to denigrate us and profit from it is beyond contempt. So does the movie maker who portrays us as savages and without redeeming qualities.
Are you in touch with the young? I have been speaking before high school students and teachers. Every so often young people visit me as if I were some oracle. Their dexterity with the new technologies amazes me. But at the same time I am appalled by their ignorance of our history, our culture. I was shocked to hear some of them describe Marcos as our "best" President. How did my generation fail to tell them the truth? I am deeply saddened to realize I have not reached them no matter how hard I tried. Who will teach them the truth? Will they listen at all?
It brings to mind my own youth--and a friend who also wrote. I edited my college paper and so did he. We shared a common past and we often talked about the future with determination and candor. After college we parted ways--he became a lawyer and politician and I continued writing. All through those years, I followed his career--he had become powerful and rich. We were in our fifties when we met again. He rushed to me when he saw me, embraced me then whispered, "Frankie, I hope you understand." But how can I, ever? Does a dream wither with the years and die?
I survived darkness, and looking at the young, eager faces of my visitors. I hope to God that they will, too, that the dream which I know is deep within their hearts will not fade and that it will sustain them through the blight that looms before all of us, the lies that confuse and befoul the air, the dark stain that Marcos cast upon our history.
I pray that they will be brave and strong enough to survive like I did, and prayerfully to prevail, which I did not. What can I tell them, then? I repeat: master the language. It is with words that you shock and surprise, move your reader to pity, to anger and hate. It is with words, too, that you give light, the truth.
Nurse your melancholy--all great literature has lots of it. From where does this melancholy spring? Where else but from our truest knowledge of the brevity of life--God's sweetest gift which we must enjoy while it lasts, which we must endow with meaning to deserve it.
Read, write and rewrite. Forgive, live, and love. But above all, remember.
And finally, all of us know writing is hard labor. In this country, it does not pay, and we are not appreciated. Why then must we persevere, why write at all? I'll tell you why: we will do it because it is compulsion, because it is duty to God and country.
Thank you for listening to this tired old man.
We are at the start of a revolution that is uniquely Filipino in the same way that EDSA 1 was. The past decades that were a slow drift to an implosion due to rampant corruption, weakened institutions and the apathy of Filipinos has finally been arrested -- not by a man on a white horse, or a soldier atop a tank, but through the ballot by a foul-mouthed Indio, the first politician courageous enough to challenge the Catholic Church and the powerful, arrogant and, yes, unclean media. His ideology in its basic simplicity is love of country and people, and a willingness to sacrifice for it.
The ramifications of Duterte's assault on the rotten status quo, which has begun with the war on drugs, will go deeper into the matrix of our society and government as police, politicians and powerful Filipinos are subjected to the harsh scrutiny of the revolution. Eventually the highest enclaves of privilege will feel its impact for the simple reason that rampant corruption also afflicts our business and banking sectors.
Many of our problems are due to the irresponsibility of the oligarchy; they are the number one culprit of our economic and moral decline. They argue and make decisions from comfortable positions. The revolution is happening, and they cannot see it. Perhaps, when it reaches them, they will be forced to be more socially involved and invest in enterprises that will "spread money like fertilizer." They may even bring home the money they have stashed or invested abroad, and participate in the resurgence of ethics and patriotism.
Populist programs particularly in education, in health and in housing are an absolute necessity but they should not cultivate mendicancy. It is important that many jobs are created as President Roosevelt did during America's Great Depression. The monetary aid being dispensed to the very poor under the past administration should be stopped and in its place, jobs.
Populist programs should not bankrupt the economy and result in dire shortages of food and medicines as is happening in oil-rich Venezuela. Apart from creating jobs and therefore increasing production, the Duterte government should also widen the tax base and intensify tax collection. As in the United States, tax evasion should be dealt with severely by imprisonment and confiscation of assets. There is hardly anyone in this country that is put in jail for tax evasion. It will take a lot of courage to do this, but President Duterte has tons of it.
HIS MASSIVE SUPPORT cuts across ethnicities, across social, economic and generational divides. All sorts of people supported his election, among them those who saw where the wind was blowing. Even the Moros did. The Left did not; as with EDSA 1, their feet were not on the ground. They supported Grace Poe instead, unmindful of the big money that was behind her.
Yet, upon occupying office, President Duterte took the high moral ground by accommodating the Communist left and extending a hand to the Moro rebels. The response of these rebel movements to his offer of a unilateral ceasefire and peace will validate -- or invalidate -- their sincerity. It is only with peace that we can have real development.
The first weeks of the Duterte administration have already given us hope in several sectors -- in agriculture, in the welfare of our OFWs, in transportation, education, housing, telecommunications and services. And most of all, access to the very top for the aggrieved, and transparency of government transactions, long withheld by politicians and the powerful with secrets to hide.
His major failing, as I see it, is his accommodation of the Marcos dictatorship. Why? He is fully aware of its evil, its immoral excesses, and its singular role in impoverishing our country. For that reason it is too early to be euphoric.
MAKE NO MISTAKE though. This revolution is rooted in ethics and patriotism as were most revolutions in the past. It will not be a quick fix. The Mexican and Vietnamese revolutions lasted one generation; we must be prepared for the painful process, the collateral damage, the emotional travail.
Yet there is no certitude, no guarantee, that this revolution will create a free and just society. Remember how the French revolution devoured its own children, Madame Roland exclaiming before the guillotine, "Oh liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!"
That revolution ushered Napoleon, just like the American Revolutionary War preceded the Civil War, the Chinese revolution brought about the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that decimated hundreds of thousands, and the Iranian revolution brought about Islamic fundamentalism. But the revolutions changed these countries forever. For this is what every revolution does -- it alters society, and transfers power from the oppressor to the oppressed.
It is a risk that all people must take to be free of oppression, to have justice. It is up to the survivors of any revolution to realize that it does not bring immediate social benefits to the people. At its conclusion, it is precisely at this opportune time that revolutionaries have to work harder to make that cataclysmic change bear fruit. It is the time when they should depart to be replaced by excellent administrators who have the technical knowledge and expertise for development. The sword must now be forged into a plowshare.
IN USHERING a meaningful change for the Philippines, President Duterte has incurred the wrath of so many in all levels of society, from the slums to the perfumed precincts of the very rich who feel that their status and privileges are threatened. It is very possible that this very day, conspiracies are being hatched to assassinate him. If such plans succeed, they may well halt the revolution although several changes have already been made permanent.
But our past has shown how Filipinos easily forget and are not all that vigilant. Soon, the baser side of our nature, our instincts, will prevail. President Magsaysay brought about a clean government but upon his death in 1957, in that airplane crash which up to this very day is considered by many as sabotage, corruption returned instantly. And the very stalwarts who supported Magsaysay could do little to stop the resurgence of this evil.
Whatever good the Duterte revolution succeeds in implanting in the Filipino consciousness must therefore be made permanent, institutionalized. This can be made possible by constant testing under stress, as metals are tested and strengthened by fire, and by also ingesting in our hearts the ideal of love of country and people -- and the willingness to sacrifice for it -- so that we can redeem this unhappy country at last.
The Rosales saga encompasses a hundred years of our tumultuous history.
It starts sometime in 1872 when the three Filipino priests, Gomez, Burgos and Zamora were executed by the Spaniards on suspicion that they were party to the Cavite mutiny of that period. The first novel in the saga, Poon, is set in this period. The concluding novel, Mass, is set around 1972, the year President Marcos declared Martial Law. The novel describes those times, the massive demonstrations, the corruption and the uncertainties and social upheaval that Marcos used to justify his dictatorship.
The Rosales saga itself is the story of three families. Of the three, the emphasis is on the Samsons, the peasant family which migrated from the Ilokos to the plains of eastern Pangasinan, to this town called Rosales, supposedly named after the flower Rosal which, in my youth, bloomed profusely in the town.
The entire novel, its structure, plot, etc., was conceived on the eight-hour flight from Hong Kong to Paris. By the time the plane landed at Orly, the novel and its characters had already come to life in my head.
Nena Saguil, the Filipino expat painter in Paris, recommended a small hotel near her apartment, close to the St. Germain Cathedral on the boulevard of the same name. It was amazingly cheap, seven dollars a day, including the usual continental breakfast of croissants and good French coffee.
I had to move rooms three times; my typing at night disturbed the hotel guests. The hotel manager knew I was writing a novel and was very sympathetic. He finally found me a corner room on the sixth floor, the hotel's topmost floor, with no neighboring rooms -- and also no elevator. And so for a month, I worked on Mass in a small room furnished with a table and chair, a cot, a cabinet and a washbowl.
I had never written so feverishly before. When my hands were tired from typing, I wrote in long hand. There were times I would write and re-write for three straight days with hardly any sleep, and little food. I ate apricots mostly -- it was June and they were in season and very cheap at the public market below my hotel.
Briefly, the novel is about the illegitimate son of Tony Samson, the Harvard scholar in The Pretenders. The young Pepe Samson is concerned only with his gonads and his stomach. He goes to Manila to live first with his relatives on Antipolo Street, then moves on to Tondo as sacristan of a parish priest. The novel is not just about his journey from "one swampland to another." It is a record of his transformation.
Returning to Manila, I cleaned up the draft then submitted it to a publisher. Her response was immediate; she didn’t want to get into trouble with the dictatorship. I then gave it to another publisher who was quite brave in publishing a magazine that was already critical of the regime. She didn’t want to touch it either.
What to do? The Russian samizdat came to mind. I mimeographed about twenty copies and distributed them to friends. My Dutch publisher, Sjef Theunis, heard about Mass and he asked to see it. I sent it to him immediately and within a few months, the first edition of Mass, in Dutch, was published. It sold very well and underwent two printings. Sjef sent me a hefty royalty and with that money, I immediately published Mass under my Solidaridad imprint.
Friends who read it worried. One warned me that Marcos's hatchet man, Colonel Abadilla, would get me.
I had gambled when I published Mass. I was aware of the danger yet I felt certain the novel would not matter. I knew Marcos was deliberate. And because Filipinos did not read Filipino novelists, there was little chance Mass would have an impact. Marcos did not bother with it.
Mass turned out to be my most popular novel, and it continues to sell to this very day. It is also my most widely translated work. Many readers have said it is the most powerful novel in the Rosales saga.
Could there be an explanation? When I was writing Mass in Paris, I had very little money and I subsisted on apricots, which were in season and very cheap. Came a time during that frenzied month that my stomach became very sour from eating them. Years later, I read somewhere that the apricot is one of the best foods for the brain. My son, Alex, a food scientist, doesn't think apricots had anything to do with it. He said, "Papa, you were inspired and on a roll."
I end this blog with the last passage from Mass, when Pepe leaves the city to join the revolution:
Time to go and the Tondo I will leave will be brightly lit with Christmas star lanterns, colored bulbs strung before windows, boisterous drinking of cuatro cantos and San Miguel in the tiendas, children with harmonicas and plaintive voices caroling. The distance, however, which beckoned was dark. I was afraid.
So I leave behind those who see the sword, but refuse to raise it. "Bless me, Father," I said nonetheless. "I cannot leave without your blessing."
"I am mortal, Pepe," he said. As he raised his right hand, I dropped to my knees.
He helped me to my feet, and we went down. At the door, he wrapped an arm around my shoulder and hugged me briefly. Tia Nena kissed me on the cheek.
"Hoy, you have to cut your hair now," he said as I left them at the kumbento door.
I was afraid, but I felt very light. I knew I could go very far without tiring.
Gangrene is about the youth of the seventies who responded to the Marcos dictatorship courageously and with great sacrifice. The title is also symbolic.
The short story first appeared in the Diliman Review, the publication of the University of the Philippines.
I wrote Gangrene after my son, Eddie, told me about a call he received from a classmate's mother. Her son, his classmate, had disappeared. She was calling all his friends asking if they knew where he was, and that if any of them knew something, they should get in touch with her.
Eddie said the boy's mother was crying. Did he know what happened to his classmate? Eddie said he was an activist, that he had joined the rebels in the mountains.
By F. Sionil José
Major Aromin met him at the pad; and through the diminishing whine of the helicopter engine, his former Executive Officer made the usual amenities.
"It was a good flight, Aro,” Colonel Sison said. “But could you not have informed me much earlier?”
“There was no way, Sir,” Major Aromin said apologetically as they walked through the expanse of dying grass towards the white-washed buildings of the camp and the base hospital ahead. “It was only this morning that I knew. As a matter of fact, since I did the surgery, it was I who asked him. You cannot imagine my shock when I found out. Of course, I knew way back that one of your sons …”
"How was the surgery?” Colonel Sison asked. At fifty, Major Aromin was the Army’s best brain surgeon.
Major Aromin fell in step with the colonel who seemed ready to break into a run. The colonel was trim like most officers; tennis and jogging helped keep him in shape.
“Routine, Sir. We had to amputate the right leg. We thought well above the demarcation line and early enough. But we were too late. I know that now. We gave blood transfusions, of course.”
"Was he in great pain?”
“When he was brought in, he already had this infected leg wound. And of course, they tried to force information out of him. You know what I mean …”
Colonel Sison breathed heavily. He could not bear to ask how his son fared under questioning. He would request the field report - the details, although that seemed so futile and useless now. “He was never physically strong,” he murmured.
“He was in the ward, Sir,” Major Aromin was saying. “But this morning, after I found out, I had him transferred to a room. So you and the family can be alone with him. Will they come tomorrow, Sir? I hope it is not too late …”
“I felt it better not to tell them anything.”
“I broke it to him, Sir,” Major Aromin said. “I told him that we did not want to bury him in an anonymous plot. That was when he gave me your name."
“Thank you, Aro,” Colonel Sison said. “Thank you very much.”
The base hospital was beyond the parade ground. In the harsh April afternoon, the white-washed building with an asbestos roof stood out like a massive box above which loomed the Sierra Madres. They passed the line of agoho trees where there was some shade. In front of the barracks for the enlisted men, a volleyball game was in progress.
The men at the lobby saluted as they entered and Colonel Sison returned the salutes with a tentative lift of the hand. It was no different within the building; it was just as warm and he started to sweat.
Willy was only nineteen when he left and now, he was here. What could seven years do to a boy, a junior in engineering school, brilliant with figures and also with words? There was so much promise in him.
The room was at the end of the corridor and as they approached, a nurse came out with a medicine tray. To Major Aromin’s unspoken question, the nurse said, “He is awake, Sir.”
He pushed the door open and strode in. So, this was what seven years had done to his oldest son. The face so thin and pale, the hair stringy, the lips now colorless. Willy was in regulation blue pyjamas, his right stub of a leg cocooned in bandages. His eyes lit up at once. “Papa, Papa,” he said softly.
Colonel Sison held his son’s hand - it was rough. Poor Willy, he did not do any work except shine his shoes, weed the garden or wash the car … and now, his hand was calloused. Colonel Sison’s chest tightened and in the afternoon heat he suddenly felt cold. At least, I am not too late, he told himself.
“You have white hair now, Papa,” Willy said, smiling, showing the gap where they had knocked some of his teeth out.
The colonel drew a hand over his head. “Yes, son. That is what age brings.” He remembered the old joke among his colleagues. “I spent fifty years putting that white there. I won’t dye it.”
Willy’s voice was the same, quiet and warm. “But that is all, Papa. You look the same.”
Colonel Sison wanted to say something nice, like you look well yourself, but the words would not shape. He had never given his four children any of that bullshit; he would not do so now.
“And Mama, how is she? Tell me about Sammy and Beth. And Timmy ... he must be big now. I do not carry any pictures. I just keep all of you here, in my mind." He tried to lift his arm in a gesture but could not raise it.
“They are all fine, Willy,” Colonel Sison said. “I am sorry I could not bring them with me just now … tomorrow, after I have prepared them for this …”
“Will there be a tomorrow, Papa?” Willy asked.
Colonel Sison held his son’s shoulder and pressed it. “I can only hope, son,” he said.
He could see through the window, at the far end of the building, a platoon in battle greens alighting from three weapon carriers, which had just pulled in. They had a wounded man on a stretcher.
“Your Mama,” the colonel said brightly, “she looks the same. Still pretty. She complains of chest pains now and then and I tell her that with me in the house, she is becoming a hypochondriac. She worries about you all the time. Whenever there is a story in the papers about encounters in Samar, or in this area, she always reads avidly. She never stops asking the wives of officers in the field whom she knows. You know, to this day, she keeps calling some of your friends, especially those whom she has met, who have been to the house, pleading with them to let her know if they have heard from you."
“I am sorry, Papa,” Willie said. “I did not mean to give her so many problems. That is why, when I wrote that letter, I told her not to expect to see me again …”
"She keeps that letter and reads and re-reads it. After all, you are the oldest - and the oldest is always special …”
“And her orchids?”
“I brought her five new ones from Singapore last month. I was there for a conference. They are her only hobby, you know. The cattleyas bloomed two months ago and the house was full of them. Imagine, even the toilet with a cattleya!”
"I miss the house,” Willy said. “Have you fixed the kitchen roof already? And who goes up there now to patch it up and clean the gutter?”
“That’s Sammy’s job now,” Colonel Sison said.
“It has been a long time, Willy,” Colonel Sison said. “He is ten now, you know. And very bright. I think he is the brightest among you all, at his age, anyway.”
"There goes Papa, making a favorite of the youngest as usual. But I am not envious. Remember Beth? How she asked when Mama was expecting Timmy if she would still be loved once the baby came?”
Colonel Sison grinned. “Well, he is pampered all right. But not in the way you think. He gets ordered around and he sometimes wishes he had a younger brother or sister so that he could order someone around too.”
“What is he good at?”
“Everything. Music, science, and math - his report card is full of O’s - meaning Outstanding. He is also fond of animals. He has five cats."
“What about Bat?”
“The poor dog strayed out into the street one night - four, five years ago, I think, and disappeared. He must have been dognapped. I wonder how they had enjoyed Bat - he was more than ten years old."
“It was still meat,” Willy said. “There were weeks we did not have meat at all. And when I was hungry, you know what I did? I dreamed of Mama’s paella and her special Sunday chicken curry."
The door opened and Major Aromin peeped in. “Nothing, Sir. I just want to tell you that we are getting all the reports ready when you leave …”
Then they were alone again. “What reports, Papa? About me? You need not read them. They will not say anything because I did not tell them anything!”
He held his son’s hand again. “We have so little time ... I don’t want to ask you questions. I did not come here to do that. Willy, we missed you …”
Again, the smile on the pinched, pallid face. “I missed you, too. The house. Two years ago, on Mama’s birthday, I happened to be in Manila. I broke discipline and visited the house. It was about eight in the evening. I had hoped there would be someone outside, Mama, perhaps, watering the lawn. But everyone was inside. I could hear the stereo playing the Bee Gees. I saw the old Toyota in the driveway, newly painted. I did not linger..."
“Oh, Willy, why did you not just come in? You know how it is. Unless there is an emergency for me, at seven, we are all in the house, just as it has always been!”
The wan smile again. “Anyway, I heard your voices. I walked past the house slowly, twice. Everything seemed all right.”
“Not everything is all right. Not everything! At least, this was where we had agreed …”
“Papa, don’t try and comfort me. You see, I was told - else I would not have given them your name. My mind is still clear, though.”
The colonel did not speak. What could he tell this boy whom he had cradled in his arms and mind? They had shared so many things together. He was the oldest, he had watched him grow, saw the look of triumph in his eyes when the boy beat him for the first time in tennis. Then their hunting trip in the marshes of Laguna, when Willy got two ducks and he had nothing. How glorious were those days then.
“I don’t want to die, Papa. Please believe that. I was very careful. All of us. We have so much to do and we have so little time. There are many things you don’t know, Papa. What is happening high up there. What is happening all over the country. The newspapers, nothing there but lies, Papa.”
Colonel Sison bowed. “Let us not talk like this, Willy. I just want to see you alive, that’s all. Your mama, your sister and brothers. Timmy - he has never really seen you. He asks about you and sometimes, we make up stories. But even at his age … And now, son, I want you to grant your father a favor …”
“What can I do, Papa?”
“It is about Sammy and Beth. Sammy is twenty-three now. But Beth - she is only nineteen …” Again, the cold, clammy feeling, the tightening of the chest. “Willy - I fear for them. I think they will also leave very soon, like you did."
The gaunt face brightened. "They will? How do you know?”
Colonel Sison shook his head. “They did not tell me. I just know it. I can feel it - the way it was when you left. Your Mama and I - we are sick with worry.”
The smile lingered on the shrunken face. “You will lose all of us, Papa. That is how it is anyway. And soon, it will be just Mama and you - just like when you started out. At least, this way, you will know where your two other children will go. Remember Mama’s story about her former classmate in college? How her three sons became priests? It is not really too different, you know …”
Colonel Sison’s voice was a hoarse whisper. “I want you alive. I don’t want your brother and sister …”
"To be like me? Like this?”
His eyes had misted and there was an unmistakable tremor in his voice. “I am your father, Willy.”
“I wish you could be proud of me, Papa.”
Colonel Sison could feel his son appraise him, his uniform.
"But this is not for me to say. I know I am an embarrassment to you … maybe, a bar to your promotion. Loyalty being the highest virtue now in the army, because of me, maybe they don’t trust you. But at the very least, please don’t be ashamed of me. Or Sammy and Beth … I did what is right.”
“I am not ashamed of you, Willy,” Colonel Sison said emphatically. “But Sammy and Beth - I don’t want to lose them, too. Please, talk with them. And Beth - she is so young. So very young!”
“Not anymore, Papa. At nineteen, you know many things. I cannot talk with them, I never did. And after what has happened to me, what can I tell them? As for Beth - there are many women with us. If they join it is their free choice. They found out by themselves. And they will not be alone …”
Colonel Sison gripped his son’s hand. “Willy, we have gone through this before. All those demonstrations you joined. The teach-ins. I understand. I really do. I did not come here to argue but to see you. To find what I can still do …”
"Nothing now, Papa. It is enough you have come.”
“I want you alive, Willy.”
“And be comfortable as it has always been? Perhaps, that was the reason, but really it is not. I thank you for what you have done for me, my education …”
"You said that in your letter,” the colonel reminded him.
“I thank you, Papa, for it, so I could see better the terrible rot around us.”
“I want you alive,” Colonel Sison said.
“To see the rot spread? We know everything has worsened. And the leaders, they are making money on the carrion of the young. Papa, I have no regrets other than we have to see each other like this."
“I want you alive,” Colonel Sison repeated.
The volleyball game outside had ceased; it was beginning to cool. They had just a few moments more.
“When we come tomorrow, what do you want us to bring you?”
“I had not expected you to come, Papa. I thought that when I died, they would just inform you. Perhaps, I should have told them at the very end. But inside me, I really wanted to see you, Mama, my brothers and sister."
“We will drive the whole night if there is no plane or helicopter available tomorrow. Whichever way, we will be here early in the morning."
“No, Papa. Please don’t bring them here anymore. I don’t want them to see me like this. But you are different. You are a doctor. You are used to this …”
“I am your father. I want Sammy and Beth to come so they will know what awaits them.”
“They know, Papa. There is no need to tell them. From the very beginning, I knew. I was prepared for this. Believe me.”
Colonel Sison was silent.
Beyond the open window, the grim ranges of the Sierra Madre loomed, dark green and seemingly close.
He could make out the outline of giant trees close to the summit. But he knew the mountains were still miles away. They had flown over the folds of the foothills and the pilot had pointed out to him the areas that were not safe. Now, the sun burnished the summit with slivers of blue as it eased down. Time to go. The pilot had said they should lift off while there was still light, and he could hear the helicopter engine revving up. He wanted so much to tarry, to savor this last meeting.
“I should be back in the house before nine tonight,” he said. He stood up then bent over and embraced the thin, wasted body, smelled the musty bedding, the disinfectant and that pervasive odor of hospitals which had clung to his son.
“Thank you, Papa.”
Colonel Sison stood up. He did not want his son to see the tears that scalded his eyes so he turned quickly and marched to the door.
Three very significant events in the last hundred years have tested us as a nation. The Revolution of 1896 and the American Occupation tested my grandfather's generation. The Japanese Occupation of 1942-45 tested my father's generation. And the Marcos Martial Law Regime tested mine.
I encapsulated these periods in my Rosales saga, which covers a hundred years of our history, from 1872 when the three Filipino priests, Gomez, Burgos and Zamora were executed by the Spaniards for their alleged complicity in the Cavite revolt of that period. The saga's concluding novel, Mass, portrays the advent of Martial Law in 1972. In all these calamitous events, we failed as a people, the stern lessons from our past banished from our memory.
The colonial ordeal and the Marcos tyranny should have tempered us, pumped iron determination into our veins to lift this nation from its ignominy. We learned instead that patriotism is not rewarded, that it is the collaborators who flourish and prevail.
Let us go back not just to the Marcos years but to the Commonwealth that was inaugurated in November 1935. I was a senior at the Far Eastern University High School in 1941 when the war broke out. The manner with which politics was played then was very different from what it is today. For one, in those days, politicians were impoverished for they spent their own money for their campaigns. We were then a scant 18 million people compared to the 105 million that we are today. Many of our politicians then were from the landholding class, very few from showbiz. We were more critical in the selection of our leaders.
It is very sad that many Filipinos consider the Marcos administration as the Golden Age of Philippine art. But art thrives on freedom, and the Marcoses censored newspapers, movies, literature, books. Yes, Imelda encouraged the visual arts and, because of her patronage of the arts, many Filipino artists became solvent. She opened two exhibitions at our Solidaridad Galleries in the early seventies and both exhibitions sold very well.
Culture is the foundation of any nation. Whether they admit it or not, all artists are politically engaged. True artists persevere, with or without government recognition. The little good that the Marcoses did for culture was nullified by the tyrannical excesses of the conjugal dictatorship, by the thousands who were jailed, tortured or killed, and by their damning legacy of ethical collapse.
The murder of Ninoy Aquino awakened us and congealed into EDSA I. That was a real revolution. The upper, middle and lower classes were united and supported by the Army. But alas, Cory Aquino turned that people power revolution into a restoration of the oligarchy that Marcos had emasculated. Today, we are on the same rotten track. It does not matter that media is not censored; corruption has worsened and has become entrenched in media, as with many of our institutions.
Come to think of it, the best president we ever had was Ramon Magsaysay in the fifties. He served but two years as President but he defeated the Huk uprising and established a clean government--something we may not see again in a long long time. Before him, President Quirino had the foresight to map out an economic program.
In the post-Marcos years, President Fidel Ramos started this country on its rise. I told him, he should have declared a coup at the end of his term so he could continue his reforms. It takes at least one generation for a poor, backward nation to progress the way Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and even Japan did. President Aquino has made some economic gains but these gains are not reflected in the appalling condition of the lower classes, many of whom are so poor they eat only once a day.
A national election will soon be held. In our apathy, we have come to accept that many Filipino voters will vote for candidates who are popular although inutile, whose names are easy to remember and who are crowd pleasers. They will not look into the candidates' past, their achievements or lack of it. And so we deserve the nincompoops that we put in Malacanang and in Congress.
Federalism should be given a chance, but power will only be vested in the provincial dynasties who will then do what they please with the people's money. Democracy favors the rich, not the poor. The widespread destitution in our country cries for a revolution that will wipe out the oligarchy which has colonized this nation.
Poverty must be banished from our midst. But this cannot be done unless the people themselves will it enough to act. And most of all, justice should prevail. Six years after the Ampatuans massacred 50 people--they have not been convicted. And who killed Ninoy Aquino thirty years ago? Surely, it was not those soldiers who were jailed for the crime?
With the coming election, we must now face the ugliest of truths about some of our leaders -- they are murderers. This is the theme of my last novel, The Feet of Juan Bacnang. The novel illustrates the hypocritical acceptance of these killers by Philippine society and the impunity of their evil. To eliminate them, we need a leader who is not afraid of them and can restore justice in Philippine society.
In many levels of our society, even among our intelligentsia, some say Duterte is that avenger. He has a wide following because he feeds on the deepest frustration of Filipinos, which government -- and the killer elites who defy and defile it -- cannot alleviate. Therefore he must be taken seriously. But as King Louis XV said, foretelling the French Revolution, "Apres mois, le deluge."
Are we prepared for this?
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.
To the best of my knowledge, the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature was launched at the Philippine Columbian Club on Taft Avenue in the early fifties, the brainchild of Carlos Fernandez, an executive at the Compaña Maritima, and NVM Gonzalez, writer and editor at the Evening News Saturday Magazine. It must be recalled that the Columbian Club in those days was a cultural center; it had a big library and was the venue of convocations addressed by renowned writers like the English historian Arnold Toynbee. Carlos and NVM convinced Charlie Palanca, himself a member of the Columbian Club, urbane and very well-read, to be the patron of the award.
The Palanca Award was originally for short stories and poetry in English only but soon, it came to include longer literary works including novels and plays in Tagalog, Ilokano and Cebuano. To my mind it is the only award of its kind in Asia that has lasted this long. When my short story, The God Stealer, won the first prize of 1,000 pesos in 1958, I got the check personally from Charlie, who I knew very well. My wife bought our first refrigerator with 700 pesos, the rest went to our children’s needs. In those days 1,000 pesos was a lot of money, and the refrigerator was a status symbol. In some homes it was displayed in the living room.
How The God Stealer came to be
In December 1949, I joined the United States Information Service on Dewey Boulevard as assistant editor. I was supposed to graduate in March the following year but now that I was earning money, I did not see the need to finish school.
At the USIS, I met two writers, D. Paulo Dizon and Juan Gualberto Planas. All three of us were already being published in the national papers. I left the USIS after less than a year to join the Manila Times Sunday Magazine as associate editor. On occasion I visited the old office to see my writer friends. I remember the American cultural officer at the time to be a good man; he was kind to his staff. His assistant was from Ifugao. He was taller than most Filipinos, and hefty as well. He was very proud of being Ifugao, and at the first opportunity, he would proclaim his ancestry.
On one of my visits, I learned that he and the American cultural officer were planning a trip to Banaue to see the ancient rice terraces. He asked me to come along. We took the bus to Baguio, slept there that night, and the following morning, the Dangwa bus took us to Banaue. The road then was not as good as it is now; it was narrow and graveled. The traffic was scant, and the many pines along the way were lofty and wreathed with moss. We got to Banaue--then just another big village--in the late afternoon. There being no hotel, we stayed in the house of Bill Beyer, the son of the anthropologist, Otley Beyer.
There was a small souvenir shop near the house. It had a few items -- baskets, handwoven cloth and a couple of bulols, or granary gods. The American cultural officer was fascinated by them and he started haggling. His assistant took him aside and told him not to waste his money. That night, the assistant said, he would just go to the terraces--some gods were there to keep watch on the harvest – and he would just steal one for his boss.
His offer sank immediately into my consciousness. By the time we got to Manila a couple of days later, I already had the story plotted out.
The God Stealer is my most anthologized story. It was made into a play by Victor Torres in the 1990s. With it, I illustrate how symbolism may radiate from literature not as an artificial construct but as an organic element in the story itself.
The “God” in The God Stealer represents the Filipino soul. A nation's soul is an organic construct – we ourselves shape it with our dreams and aspirations, our ideals. It is not something that can be imposed. We grow to love this soul and develop loyalty to it.
I named the American cultural officer Sam Christie, to represent America and Christianity. The Ifugao assistant’s name is Philip, for Philippines, and Latak, an old Tagalog word for sediment but latak has a much deeper meaning.
The story has been interpreted as a commentary on the Filipino identity, on the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, and on the friendship that can develop between them. I had intended for it to be a story of what happens when we hold little regard for our national soul, and it is stolen and given away.
This is the ending of The God Stealer:
“You are not a friend,” the voice within the grass hut had become a wail. “If you are, you wouldn’t have come here searching for gods to buy
“We are friends,” Sam insisted, toiling up the ladder and at the top rung, he pushed aside the flimsy bamboo door.
In the semi-darkness, amid the poverty and the soot of many years, Sam Christie saw Philip Latak squatting before the same earthen stove aglow with embers. And in this glow Sam Christie saw his friend – not the Philip Latak with a suede jacket, but a well-built Ifugao attired in the simple costume of the highlands, his broad flanks uncovered, and around his waist was the black-and-red breech cloth with yellow tassels. From his neck dangled the bronze necklace of an Ifugao warrior.
Philip Latak did not even face Sam. He seemed completely absorbed in his work and, with the sharp blade in his hands, he started scraping again the block of wood which he held tightly between his knees.
“Leave me alone, Sam,” Philip Latak said softly, as if all grief had been squeezed from him. “I have to finish this and it will take time.”
Sam Christie’s ever-observant eyes lingered on the face. Where had he seen it before? Was it Greece – or in Japan – or in Siam? The recognition came swiftly, savagely; with watery legs and trembling hands, he stepped down and let the door slide quietly back into place. He knew then that Philip Latak really had work to do and it would take some time before he could finish a new god to replace the old one, the stolen idol which he was bringing home to America to take its place among his souvenirs of benighted and faraway places.
It is a cliché, of course, but being a cliché does not detract from its validity. Who else does the future belong to but the young? It is theirs to shape any way they like, and my hope is they will do it with vision and commitment to ideals like justice and loyalty to this unhappy country–the crucial attributes that would make them not only endure but prevail. I want to reach them, especially the writers, to impart all the good that I have learned, the truths by which we live, to remind them of our revolutionary tradition, and that above all, we are a heroic people.
To young writers -
Memory and sentiment are never enough. Master the craft of writing and use the language you know best. Respect the word and know the rules before you break them. Once you have mastered the word, use it then as one would create a window -- polished, untarnished, so that you can see clearly beyond the glass. Don’t cover this window with frills and fancy drapes for it is these decorations that will attract the eye, and hide the view. Review, revise, rewrite till it hurts, till the hand that holds the pen is numb, till every sentence reads easily, every word is in place and you know by then that the window is made.
You are a storyteller, a singer -- so learn rhythm, music, resonance, narrative technique, until these are in your marrow. You can learn all these by writing letters, notes, exercises, journals. That concert pianist, that prima ballerina—every day they practice and practice, and limber up before they go on stage.
Do not be waylaid by the latest literary fads, by fashionable ideologies. They will surely pass as unremembered seasons and what will remain are those verities -- love and death, faith and forbearance, which you have made permanent in prose. Look at your craft with humility, and be your own severest critic. Do not for once believe that ancient panegyric, that the pen is mightier than the sword. Never! It is always naked power which triumphs and rules, against which you must always rail till your voice hoarsens. Beware, too, of early praise for it can destroy, and remember again that only time will tell if your work will prevail.
Write with all your senses, and with your gut afire, so that your words will throb with life. Live, be observant, be the eternal child aglow with awe and wonder of the world, amass memories for they will all be retrieved as dialogue, color, plot, action.
Ask yourself – what is literature? Who is your audience? Literature is the noblest of the arts and writers should, therefore, be of noble bearing, affirming in their very lives the Socratic precepts of virtue and excellence. This is difficult to achieve; perhaps, it is enough that you strive to be able to look at every man straight in the eye and to sleep soundly at night without the nightmares of a bad conscience.
Be an honest witness to your time, and be strong when they revile you for telling the truth. Your vocation will also condemn you to solitude, but remember -- he who stands alone is the strongest. Even in your shattering loneliness, remember you are writing, not for critics, academics or other writers, but for your own people who, in their silence and perhaps poverty, cannot express their aspirations and anguish. You are their voice but only if you have not deserted or betrayed them.
Whatever suffering might be heaped upon you, never, never lose your equanimity, your humor. Much of what you will write will be bleak -- just the same, learn to laugh at yourself first, and your critics, and certainly at the antics of the wretched among your countrymen.
Nurture in yourself that abiding sense of urgency, of passion -- deep and volcanic -- but always keep it in control and with it, that profound melancholy wrought by our history, by our own leaders -- no matter how effulgent our fiestas and how bright our smiles. This passion, this melancholy, must surface as literature if you are to be an artist. So Lenin said all art is propaganda, but remember, not all propaganda is art.
I make writing seem difficult because it really is. Worse, it may not even make you live comfortably, and you will grow old like so many of us who tried, without ever being appreciated in your own country. Although we have a novelist as a national hero, we do not read the novels of our own country’s writers.
Why then must you write at all? Write because there is so much hypocrisy and cussedness in us and, who knows, you may be able to exorcise a bit of these. Write because many of us have lost our moorings, and it is in literature where history lives, where we can know best ourselves so that we can then live with ourselves and be rooted again in native soil. Write because it is a vocation which will give you such pleasure, so lasting and so deep it transcends anything those sybarites and sensualists covet. I assure you, this old man knows.
What, after all, is literature but pain remembered. In remembering, we adorn it with our imagination, our craftsmanship, ennobling it perhaps, imbuing it with permanence; it then exists beyond our puny lives, a testament to your humanity for all the world to witness. And having witnessed it, it is our hope that what we have written will evoke compassion, for in the end, this is what draws us all together.
One final word: write wherever you can do it best, in exile perhaps, but never, never leave your village, your town, your beginning. Enshrine it in your heart, sanctify it in your mind for your beginning gives you your soul, your humanity. In remembering with passion, you will be writing about a particular place and a particular people, but you shall have given them also what all will recognize, the universality of life and of art itself.