Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil, grand dame of Philippine letters, passed away on Monday, July 30. She was 96.
She leaves a lasting mark on Philippine letters as journalist, memoirist, and public historian. Hers was a singular voice in Philippine letters, one that documented what it meant to be a Filipino in post-war Manila, and in the decades following.
Guerrero-Nakpil was born to the illustrious Nakpil clan— a family of artists, botanists and doctors whose own contributions to the world of Philippine letters and sciences remain vital to both fields.
In her later years, family would figure prominently in her writing—most notably in a series of memoirs published in the first decade of the new millennium. These were "Myself, Elsewhere," "Legends & Adventures," and, fittingly, "Exeunt."
It’s been said that in writing her personal memoirs, she was also writing the story of Manila, whose genteel beginnings (and in whose urban elite she figured) were destroyed by the war.
“She was as gracious in person as she was formidable,” says prominent Filipino writer Alfred Yuson, “with a keen intellect that allowed her humility in her own appraisal of her topnotch skills that included the nuanced evaluation of memory and history’s ironies, as well as her elegant, crafted prose.”
Guerrero-Nakpil also served as inspiration and mentor to some of our most prominent writers—among them, famed historian Ambeth Ocampo, and columnist, activist and media personality, Danton Remoto.
On his Instagram account yesterday, Ocampo wrote that Guerrero-Nakpil encouraged him to write at a time when strict academics “pounced” on him for writing popular history (itself a genre Nakpil took to, thrived in, and inspired others with).
On his Facebook account, Remoto declared yesterday, a “gray day with the passing of Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil, a towering figure in Philippine literature, and whose iconic books shaped the way I think and write.”
Guerrero-Nakpil also had a keen eye for the cultural nuances of being a Filipino, which she captured in her wry, humorous, and keenly intelligent essays and books. These included canonical texts like "Woman Enough," published in 1963 and "Questions of Identity," published in 1973.
Apart from her writing, she was a great champion of women’s rights. She was also the former chair of the National Historical Commission, and strove to spread a popular history of the Filipino, far from the stiff margins of local textbooks. In the end, perhaps, these living accounts are what we remember best and most.
It is difficult to imagine anyone else writing in the same vein, and with the same boldness of word and spirit, as Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil. She was a singular writer who left her readers transfixed, and drew her fellow Filipinos into a more intimate sense of their Filipino-ness.