The first time I saw F. Sionil Jose was at the memorial for National Artist Edith Tiempo. He was asked to speak about the late poet, and he said something to the effect of: “Edith Tiempo was actually a poet. Unlike [Jose Garcia] Villa. Villa was just being clever.”
“Wow,” I thought to myself. “What a dick.”
Sionil’s reputation precedes him. He is one of the most widely read Filipino authors in the world—a National Artist who has written novels about the Filipino class struggle. His works let the world in on how the local power elite caused and compounded the misery of those in the margins. There was a time he was one of the few domestic names that had transcended the bookstores’ Filipiniana sections, his titles displayed next to those of foreign authors—an ultimately meaningless distinction that meant a lot to me as a younger writer.
During the memorial when he had turned a eulogy into a potshot at Jose Garcia Villa, I chose to keep mum. I still had the energy back then to subject Mr. Jose to basic ethical standards. Like the rest of the crowd, I went there to remember Edith Tiempo. It’s just that we ended up watching this man criticize a long-dead contemporary—who, by the way, made a greater impact on World Literature than Sionil, simply by writing nothing.
Sionil’s propensity to grandstand would become even more apparent. Sometime in the mid-2010s, I heard he had caused another stir. He spoke at the Palanca Awards and decided it was the best platform to criticize one of the winning plays. Again, the reaction was mostly muttered among small groups of writers. I said to a friend: “Well, they asked him to come on stage, so he masturbated!”
Amid the latest Sionil-induced furor, the novelist Edgar Calabia Samar shared a video of another incident, this time at the 2012 Taboan Writers Festival. In it, Samar challenges Sionil about a wholesale conclusion the latter had made about Philippine Literature. The whole context is unavailable, but Samar asks Sionil if his statement is a fair generalization, given that the National Artist himself admitted he hadn’t read anything in Filipino lately. The old man eventually responds, irritated and unironic: “Are you questioning my authority? I’m 87 years old. I’ve written 14 novels and translated [sic] into 28 languages!” The people laughed, partly with him, and partly at him. But again, no public outcry.
I suppose it was still the kind thing to do—to patronize him and maybe call it mercy. Eventually, however, Sionil would evolve from a generally harmless narcissist into an advocate for racial violence and media repression, and still be met with the kindest possible resistance.
In 2015, after he said that Chinese schools in the Philippines should be closed down to hasten “integration,” he was respectfully, eloquently, and lovingly told off by admirers—the historian Leloy Claudio and the late writer Clinton Palanca. Of course, this led to him doubling down on his positions, while also making the unfounded claim that Chinese-Filipinos control 60 percent of the economy—and passing it off as objective fact.
In 2019, he went even further—pointing to policies that would expel “the Chinese,” confiscate their properties, or burn down their businesses. In this column, he claimed that the Chinese-Filipinos now controlled 80 percent of the economy, up from 60 just four years earlier. This elicited a strongly worded but nevertheless civil response from the scholar Dr. Caroline S. Hau.
In May of 2020, Sionil publicly refused to “mourn the passing” of ABS-CBN, claiming that its “demise” was “even good for Philippine democracy if it means dismantling the Lopez empire”—perhaps forgetting that he had previously compared himself to Socrates, who was condemned to “death by poison” because he was “telling the truth.”
Yes, this full-throated support for fascism was also met with kind criticism. In response, writer Joel Salud wrote a respectful Facebook note, where he said: “Manong, if you recall, Marcos did the exact same thing during martial law: close media outfits. And you were one of the voices which opposed that.”
After Sionil’s bitter Facebook post regarding Maria Ressa’s Nobel Peace Prize, it seems his former admirers have finally had it. The response essays no longer begin with “I love your work, but…” We have reached the point of pure, unadulterated disrespect. Those who have just tuned in to the Sionil saga might find the criticism over-the-top, but it is the result of several years of tolerating his calls for racial violence, and his support for the ABS-CBN shutdown.
Over the years, Sionil has been criticized with enough reverence. It felt like doing the sign of the cross as one passes an old decrepit church, months away from demolition. And where has such a respectful approach with this man gotten us? He still ended up blacking out the fascist bingo card, and he continues to defecate on his own legacy.
There is a reason why I haven’t addressed “Manong Frankie” directly: It may well be that Sionil is beyond redemption. And it is likely that he will take his antiquated beliefs to the grave. The remaining and important question is: How do we avoid growing old and heartless the way he has? I have a theory.
One thing I’ve noticed in Sionil’s articles is his propensity to namedrop. From his stories, it seems he hangs around mostly with the political and economic elite. Once in a while you will see a column of his memorializing or profiling some vaguely familiar name. When he doubled down on his racism against Chinese-Filipinos, he actually referenced a meeting with rich Chinese businessmen.
It is entirely possible that this is the story of the boiling frog: If you put the F. Sionil Jose immediately among the oligarchs, it will jump out. He has, after all, written several novels and stories about the evil and complicity of the oligarchy—for which he does deserve credit. But if you socialize the F. Sionil Jose over time with increasingly richer and more powerful people, it will no longer notice the day when all its friends are oligarchs.
Sadly, while he has written 14 books translated into 28 languages it seems F. Sionil’s Jose’s last important story will be this cautionary tale. He has lived in a position of prominence for so long that he has started to equate the experiences of the power elite with the lives of normal Filipinos. There are many pathways to heartlessness, and this is certainly one of them. Though he has made an indelible mark on Philippine literary history, perhaps he will be known in his later years as a punchline to a bad aphorism: Either you die a hero or you live long enough to become F. Sionil Jose.
[Gian Lao is a poet. He’s contributed essays to ANCX and was a speechwriter for President Benigno Aquino III].