Notes & Essays

F. Sionil Jose: 'This Country Is Not Hopeless'

The National Artist passed away at the age of 97.
IMAGE The Official Gazette (Twitter: @govph)
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Palanca Awardee for Literature and National Artist Francisco Sionil Jose was a guest lecturer at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila on July 30, 2018. 

He was one of the last guest speakers we invited to interact with the students while I was head of the State University's Public Affairs office.

Addressing a packed Justo Albert Auditorium—made up mostly of world and Philippine literature students—the then-93-year old writer of “The God Stealer” (1959) and “Waywaya” (1979)—talked about the importance of literature in building a nation. 

“Why literature?” he posed the question rhetorically. “Because it refurbishes memory.” Because “literature can teach us ethics.”

That is why he says historians and writers are those who define the soul of a nation since “they are the best keepers of memories” and “without memory, there is no nation.” 

He remembers putting the question to a diplomat friend who studied the development of nations in Africa. Are Romulus and Remus really the founders of Italy? Mustafa Kemal or Ataturk the founder of Turkey? Otto von Bismarck the founder of Germany? 

And the friend replied that, on the contrary, it was writers like Goethe who founded Germany.

So Jose asked his rapt audience, “Will there be a Spain without Cervantes? Greece without Homer? England without Shakespeare? The Philippines without Sionil Jose?”

And when the audience laughed, he, in good humor, took that back by correcting himself.

“No, I meant Jose Rizal (from whose life and writings he drew inspiration).”

This is how he emphasized that literature, or stories about how a nation came about and are preserved in books, is important in building a nation.

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Take the Philippines, for instance. He asked two Japanese anthropologist friends who have been visiting our country over the last 60 years if the Philippines was already a nation in light of its own history. Japan is very like the Philippines geographically and our history is very similar to theirs. 

Yes, was the reply he got. The Philippines is becoming a nation but is not yet quite one. That is because we do not yet love our own country enough. We have not yet sacrificed for it enough.

“You, young people,“ he told PLM students, “your function or your work as Filipinos is to hasten our development as a nation so that you do not need to go abroad to look for jobs. Use your talents here instead. Understand your culture, your history. Know your identity, yourself. The future is yours to shape.”

His advice on the best way to accomplish this: “Look to issues that unite us. Like our collective successes and achievements. If you want to change this country, get engaged, be vocal, be political.

“This country is not hopeless.”

But in the same vein, when a student asked him what he considered his greatest success was, he answered: “I am not a success at all, no. Marami akong regrets. If you read my novels, all of them are very sad kasi ang lungkot ng buhay natin. Ang lungkot ng bayan natin.”

And here he sheds a few tears recalling how, on a train in Tokyo during the Martial Law years, he thought of home and how unhappy this country was. He had to face the window because his tears were falling unchecked.

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His short story “Waywaya” (the Ilocano word for freedom), although set in prehistoric Philippines, makes allusions to the Martial Law regime. While “The God Stealer,” which Jose said was loosely based on an Ifugao who was a co-worker of his at the United States Information Service in the 1940s or 1950s who offered to steal an Ifugao idol for his American boss, is a representation of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized and how easily the latter sometimes gives up his traditions in favor of that of his colonizer.

Most of Jose’s hard-to-find works, like his five-novel series the Rosales Saga, are available in his bookstore Solidaridad on Padre Faura, Manila. 

Now 93, he still climbs the three flights of steps to his writing alcove at the bookshop, much like he did in his teens in Paris. 

Another of his favorite haunts is the grounds and hallways of a mall along a seaside boulevard. He’s still sharp, with a spring in his step and an endless capacity for storing memories.

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