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The Fascinating Life of Nick Joaquin

The true legacy of Nick Joaquin lies not in the volume or richness or brilliance of his works, but in the optimism in the Filipino.
IMAGE Fringe Magazine, Wikimedia Commons
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As a writer, Nick Joaquin was extremely shy and elusive. When he was asked to fill out a biographical form for the English-language journal Philippine Review in 1943, he just wrote “25 years old, salesman.” But even his reclusive nature and preference for anonymity could not hide the genius behind his pseudonym, Quijano de Manila.

Such was Joaquin’s reclusiveness that up until he died, he refused to give the exact date of his birth, saying that he did not want people coming over to celebrate his birthday. Conflicting sources cite May 4 or September 17, 1917 as his birthday. But he was named after Saint Nicomedes, whose feast day falls on May 4, so we can deduce that that is his real birth date.

Nicomedes Marquez Joaquin, more commonly known as Nick Joaquin, is a towering literary figure whose body of work is unparalleled. Short stories May Day Eve and The Summer Solstice are just some of his pieces that became standard readings in high schools in the Philippines. These are short stories he published right after the Second World War, an event that clearly left him shaken and yearning for escape abroad.

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Nick Joaquin was a Voracious Reader at Age 10

Joaquin was born to a family of means. His father, Leocadio Joaquin, was an attorney at the Court of First Instance of Laguna, where he met his second wife, Salome, Joaquin’s mother. According to a biography by Resil Mojares, Leocadio was a popular lawyer in Manila and the southern provinces, an abogado de campanilla. He was also a friend of Emilio Aguinaldo.

Joaquin’s mother, Salome, was a highly educated woman and was trained at an institute for teachers during the Spanish colonial period. She was one of the first who was trained by the Americans in the teaching of the English language, which she taught in Manila. She left her teaching profession after marrying Leocadio.

Joaquin’s genius was supported by his parents, who encouraged him to read books even at 10 years old. The young Joaquin read a book while running errands: He held a book in one hand, while holding a dinner pail in the other and buying the family’s meal from a nearby store. While polishing their house’s wooden flooring to a gleam using a coconut husk, he still held a book in one hand.

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He had a “rabid and insane love for books,” described his sister-in-law, Sarah K. Joaquin. Pleased with his son’s bibliophilia, Leocadio helped him get a borrower’s card at the National Library. At age 10, Joaquin read classics authors such as Charles Dickens, Anton Chekhov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway.

Nick Joaquin Dropped Out of School

Leocadio died when Joaquin was only 12 years old and just about to start high school. Although he was a very intelligent student, he found no passion in the confines of curriculum and classroom learning. When he told his mother that he wanted to leave school, in his third year of high school, Salome was nothing but heartbroken, but she still allowed it.

As a restless individual, Joaquin tried his hand in many things. His first job was as an assistant at a bakery in Pasay. Then, he became a printer’s devil at the Tribune-Vanguardia-Taliba or TVT. His job at the TVT was his first experience with what will be his lifelong career in print media.

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At 17, he published his first poem in English. When it appeared in Tribune, the editor was so impressed that he wanted to congratulate its author when he turned up to collect his fee. Joaquin, who was insufferably shy, did not collect his fee but just ran away. In 1937, when he was 20 years old, he published his first short story, The Sorrows of Vaudeville.

Nick Joaquin Living Through the War

Joaquin’s career was blossoming when the country was on the cusp of the Second World War. When it finally came, he described the experience as something that he truly detested. As a consequence of the war, the Joaquin family had to move from their Pasay residence to a new house in Arlegui Street in Manila, close to Malacañang Palace. Throughout the Japanese occupation of Manila, the adolescent Joaquin took many temporary jobs: He worked as a port stevedore, rig driver, salesman, factory watchman, road worker, and other jobs that required manual labor in exchange for a measly ration of rice.

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Joaquin witnessed the Battle of Manilaone of the most gruesome war stories ever documented. The war left him feeling so defeated and shaken that he described being drained physically and mentally because of it. Every day, he saw corpses lying in the streets while he worked. He also lived in constant fear of being killed or his family being harmed.

According to biographer Resil Mojares, the experience of the war filled Joaquin with the desire to leave the country and go somewhere far. It was so bad that he dreamed of pursuing a religious vocation by going to a monastery in Spain or somewhere in Europe, “somewhere where you could clean up.”

Nevertheless, it was during the war when Joaquin produced some of his best literary pieces: La Naval de Manila (1943), It Was Later than We Thought (1943). In rapid succession after 1945, he published some of his greatest works: The Summer Solstice, May Day Eve, and Guardia de Honor. At a time when American influence was snuffing out the Filipino identity in literature, it was Joaquin who eloquently proved that it was okay to recognize our own history, to acknowledge the Filipino in the Spanish colonial period.

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Nick Joaquin as “Quijano de Manila”

Joaquin used the pseudonym Quijano de Manila when he started writing for the magazine Philippine Free Press in 1950. “Quijano” is an anagram for his surname.

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As a journalist, he turned reportage into an art form, says Mojares, with pieces such as "The House on Zapote Street" and "The Boy Who Wanted to Become Society."  “He turned ordinary crime reports into priceless vignettes of Philippine social history,” writes Mojares.

From the ‘50s to the early ‘70s, the Free Press was the most dominant print platform for creative writing, political commentary, and news reporting, such that almost every household in the city were subscribed to it, according to Mojares. Here, Joaquin published his Prose and Poems, a collection of poetry, stories, and playspieces that solidified Joaquin as a prominent figure in Philippine literature.

According to Mojares, when Joaquin became the Free Press’ literary editor, he effectively presided over the country’s literary scene.

Why Nick Joaquin Almost Declined His National Artist Award

Joaquin was the same shy and reclusive person as an adult as he was when he was a child. Awards and recognitions did not enamor him. That is part of the reason why he almost refused to accept his National Artist Award in 1976. He distanced himself from Malacañang, politely declining invitations to state functions and dinners, according to Mojares.

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The ‘70s was a tumultuous period of political and civil unrest. Journalists and activists were nabbed, and among those was Jose F. Lacaba, a fellow writer and close friend of Joaquin’s. When the offer to confer to him the National Artist Award came, he had a mind to politely decline, but his family and friends advised him otherwise, telling him it was the prudent thing to do. Joaquin also realized that he could use accepting the award as leverage for petitioning the release of Lacaba from prison. In the same year that Joaquin accepted his National Artist Award, Lacaba was also released from prison.

Nick Joaquin’s Legacy

As an astute observer of history, Joaquin witnessed the transformations of Philippine society from the American colonial era, the Second World War, the post-war era, the Marcos years, and the present republic. According to Mojares, during his time at the Free Press, he would churn an average of 50 articles or stories a year.

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Joaquin is the Philippine’s most important writer of Philippine literature in English. His work spans almost 70 years.

Today, he is immortalized in the hundreds of articles he produced. He has more than 60 book titles to his name, and is remembered in schools all over the country with classics such as May Day Eve and The Summer Solstice.

Joaquin died in April 2004 at 86 years old, still writing, refusing to retire, and always compassionate and optimistic about his countrymen. His opus, no matter which milieu they were written, always have positive thoughts about Filipinos (his best works were produced during the war). His true legacy lies not in the volume or richness or brilliance of his works, but in the optimism in the Filipino.

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