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Who Is F. Sionil Jose and Is He Still Relevant?

Should we still listen to F. Sionil Jose?
IMAGE The Official Gazette (Twitter: @govph)
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At 95 years old, F. Sionil Jose has lived through 15 Philippine presidents including Manuel Quezon. He also survived World War II, two revolutions, and numerous epidemics. He has seen much and is considered an authoritative voice by way of his age, experience, and wisdom. 

Sionil Jose is one of the most celebrated authors in the Philippines. He is best known for his novels and short stories that depict class struggles in Filipino society. Among his most notable works is The Rosales Saga, a five-novel series that paints a picture of 100 years of Philippine history. 

After World War II, he dropped out of the University of Santo Tomas to pursue his writing career. He started as a staff member in 1947 at the publication Commonweal, then moved to the U.S. Embassy in Manila to work as assistant editor of the U.S. Information Agency in 1948. A year later, he became the associate editor of the Manila Times Sunday Magazine where he worked until 1957. 

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Throughout the 1960s, Jose worked as editor of various broadsheets and magazines in the country. By 1965, he became the publisher of Solidaridad Publishing House. The following year, he established Solidarity, a monthly magazine that features “current affairs, ideas, and the arts”. 

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Jose is a recipient of several Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature for his works: The God Stealer (1959), Arbol de Fuego (1980), Mass (1981), and A Scenario for Philipppine Rannaissance (1979). 

Sionil Jose as a Staunch Nationalist

Jose is one of the Philippines’ most notable nationalists. Many of his lectures promote Filipino identity through a thorough review of the country’s history. In fact, Jose Rizal, the father of Filipino nationalism, is among the focal points of his discussions. 

In a lecture at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, Jose provoked nationalist thought when he said the Philippines is not yet a nation because Filipinos have yet to learn how to sacrifice for the greater good. 

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This has been a common refrain for Jose, who has come up with a number of reasons why he thinks Filipinos have not matured as a nation, a consequence of which is corruption in the government. 

In an interview with The Philippine Star in 2001, Jose was asked what he thought about corruption in the Philippines. He explained that Filipinos have no moral anchor because we are not Hindus or Buddhists, while taking a jab at Catholicism and its lack of ideology.

Jose blamed Catholicism for the lack of nationalism among Filipinos. 

Tayo wala nyan because basically we are a very young nation. So that has to grow. But I don’t think that Catholicism was able to imbue in the Filipinos that kind of moral fiber that I am talking about,” said Jose. 

He said Catholicism was brought to the Philippines by the sword, and subconsciously, Filipinos could be opposed to it. He then suggested Filipinos do not have the same “classical background” as other Asian nations that Hinduism and Buddhism fostered and led to their maturity. 

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Sionil Jose’s Controversial Statements

Through the years, Jose has drawn flack for controversial statements and unpopular opinions he publishes whenever national issues arise. Compared to his other statements, Jose’s occasional jabs at Catholicism seem mild. 

In 2019, he endorsed violence against Filipino-Chinese in the Philippines by suggesting the country do a Vietnam-style eviction of local ethnic Chinese who have lived among the population for generations.

In 2018, Jose earned the ire of the art community when he lambasted a local artist for being showcased at the National Museum.

“I object to the presence of a work by Andres Cristobal Cruz and most of all a room dedicated to Emilio Aguilar Cruz. Both have not produced any significant body of work, either paintings or books, of great artistry,” he wrote. 

"Even if 50 million Filipinos will succumb to this pandemic, there will still be 50 million of us who will continue building this nation."

-F. Sionil Jose (July 13, 2020)

In 2015, he was heavily criticized after he suggested the government close all Chinese schools in the country because he wants all Filipino-Chinese to come out in the open and denounce China for its incursions into Philippine waters. After a few days, he double-backed qualified his statement after meeting with the Filipino-Chinese community. 

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“In the meeting last week, I listened to their views and understood fully why they do not come out so openly in their opposition to the Chinese incursions in our country. I also accepted their legitimate complaints about the government, the high price of power which is one of the real reasons why modernization in this country is so slow.”

Then, in May 2020, Jose harshfully added salt to injury when he claimed ABS-CBN’s shutdown was not a loss for the nation. 

“I'll not mourn the passing of ABS-CBN. The Filipinos do not really need ABS-CBN. It does not produce food or goods,” said Jose. “It has certainly entertained millions but it did not diminish poverty.”

Is F. Sionil Jose Still Relevant?

Sionil Jose built his name on a foundation of great literary works. Two Filipino Women (1982), Po-on (1984), and The God Stealer (1959) certainly go down in history as among the best works in Philippine literature. 

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But in recent years, the author has endorsed violence and impunity in the name of nation-building. 

In a 2016 interview with Coconuts, he openly endorsed the bloody war on drugs. Asked if President Duterte should stop the war on drugs, Jose called for it to continue, which he considers a revolution. 

He should not stop. What should be done is see to it that this so-called collateral damage is diminished. Yan ang malungkot eh, if something happens to him, he dies or assassinated, then you put the revolution on hold. At naumpisahan na, sayang, ituloy na yan,” said Jose. 

His endorsement of the bloody drug war has not aged well. 

Depending on who you ask, the “collateral damage” of that war has spiked to 12,000 deaths according to the Human Rights Watch or 27,000 according to the Commision on Human Rights. The police say the deaths could be as high as 29,000.  

And just when you think it could not get any worse, it does. On July 13, he closed his article in Philippine Star with the following words:

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"Even if 50 million Filipinos will succumb to this pandemic, there will still be 50 million of us who will continue building this nation."

It is not easy to criticize a venerable old man whose name is often preceded by honorifics: National Artist for Literature, esteemed nationalist, renowned author. 

But when wisdom turns to mad benediction of racism and the government’s acts of despotism, a chastising for the formerly brilliant is in order. Literature and the sacred history of the Philippines should not be used to enable and justify acts we have always considered cruel, inhumane, and unjust.

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Romio Armisol Salva
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