Tribute: F. Sionil Jose never stopped writing, searching, hoping

Leah C. Salterio

Posted at Jan 07 2022 09:22 PM

National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose. CCP handout photo
National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose. CCP handout photo

Francisco Sionil Jose was known as the most widely read Filipino writer in the English language. A student probably did not graduate from college without encountering one of his literary works.

From novels to essays, short story collection, children’s books, non-fiction works, film documentary and anthologies, Jose ran a whole gamut of admirable literary library that undoubtedly became his enviable legacy.

Jose, who died Thursday at age 97, used to climb three flights of stairs to his private alcove at Solidaridad Bookshop in Padre Faura, Manila, the store he put up with his wife, Maria Teresita Jovellanos, five years his junior.

Solidaridad, named after Jose’s journal, Solidarity, had been in business since the early 1960’s and was the main source of livelihood for Jose and his wife. It never closed down.

To this day, the store offers hard-to-find books and Filipiniana reading materials. It has been one of the favorite haunts of a number of local writers and even reading enthusiasts.

Every Monday, Jose’s weekly column, “Hindsight,” appeared on Philippine Star. Even during lockdown, he never failed to submit his columns. He and his wife were considered immune-compromised because of their ages. Yet, Jose still delivered.

The multi-awarded National Artist for Literature never stopped “writing, searching and hoping,” as he told Stephanie Zubiri of Philippine Tatler in one of his last interviews in October 2020.

Born in Rosales, Pangasinan to a migrant family from Ilocos, Jose found it hard to forget when he was merely five years old, how his family lost the land that was forcefully taken from them by wealthy mestizo landlords.

Even before he was born, Jose’s family already settled in Pangasinan. His forefathers who escaped poverty in Ilocos, brought everything that could be salvaged from their house, like molave posts and stone mortar for pounding rice. They travelled through Cagayan Valley.

Rosales, Pangasinan also became the setting of Jose’s many novels. It was in Barrio Cabuwagan, where Jose spent his childhood and started his love for writing.

Jose regarded his mother, Sofia, as one of his greatest influences. In 2011, he paid tribute to his mother in his Philippine Star column. She always supported her son’s love for literature from the time Jose was a young boy.

At the time Jose learned how to write, he also started reading. His mother made sure Jose always got the books he loved to read. He shed tears when he read about the plight of brothers Crispin and Basilio in Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere.” Jose easily related to the brothers when he recalled his family’s experience with the landlords when he was a young boy.

Jose also became familiar with the novels of Willa Cather, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck.

Starting his college education at the University of Sto. Tomas (UST) after World War II, Jose, unfortunately, failed to finish college. He started his writing career as a journalist in 1949. He has written more than 35 books translated into 28 languages and published worldwide.

Originally written in English, his books had been translated into Dutch, Russian, Czech, Korean, Indonesian, Latvian, Ukranian and other languages.

The prolific Jose was best known for “The Rosales Saga,” five epic novels encompassing 100 years of Philippine history, illustrating a vivid documentary of Filipino life.

The five-volume “The Rosales Saga,” which Jose worked on from 1962 to 1984, was profoundly influenced by Rizal’s works. The latter’s life and writings employed and integrated themes and characters depicted in Jose’s works.

 His anti-elite views and authentic Filipino-English made him an underrated, yet critically acclaimed author internationally.

Five of Jose’s works won the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature. As early as 1959, he brought home the honor for his short story, “The God Stealer,” touted as his most anthologized work of fiction. It is not just a tale about an Ifugao stealing a religious idol, but also about the friendship that developed between a Filipino and an American.

That was followed by “Waywaya” (1979), his essay “A Scenario for Philippine Resistance” (1979), “Arbol de Fuego” or “Firetree” (1980) and his novel “Mass” (1981).

Jose met his wife in 1948. They both attended UST. He was a senior, while she was only a freshman. However, they met at the birthday party of University of the Philippines (UP) poet, Godofredo Burce Buñao. She was the chaperone to a girl Buñao was courting then.

After only a short time of being together, Jose and Jovellanos eloped, simply because Jose could not afford a wedding for a girl who comes from the respectable Ermita family. He couldn’t even buy his bride a wedding ring. He was earning a measly P250 a month then, augmented by every short story he wrote, that was paid P50.

She never complained about the married life they started, even if she had been sheltered as an intern at Holy Ghost College, that later became College of the Holy Spirit. She learned to prepare the “peasant” food he grew up with.

With the electric sewing machine she acquired, the first house appliance she acquired, she learned how to sew and repair their clothes and that of their seven children through the years.

Twenty years after they eloped, Jose finally gave his wife an engagement ring with a modest, tiny stone and a platinum wedding band at the same time, “which she has never taken off,” he wrote in his “Hindsight” column.

Last March 12, 2021, Jose and Jovellanos marked 73 years of being together, the anniversary of the elopement. He called her his happiness and “God’s most precious gift” to him. 

Jose was honored by various award-giving bodies for his literary masterpieces and for being an outstanding Filipino in the field of literature.

The City of Manila, under Mayor Ramon Bagatsing, bestowed it first literary award to Jose in 1979. The following year, Jose was honored with the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts.

Jose’s other noteworthy accolades were the Outstanding Fulbrighters Award for Literature (1988) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines Award (Gawad Para sa Sining) for Literature (1989).

Reaping awards did not stop even at the turn of the century for Jose. These included the CCP Centennial Award (1999), the Chevalier Dans (Ordre Des Arts et Lettres, 2000) and the Order of the Sacred Treasure (2001).

Also in the year 2001, the Philippine government gave the prestigious National Artist Award for Literature for his outstanding contributions to Philippine literature.

In 2004, Jose received the coveted Pablo Neruda Centennial Award in Chile. Neruda was a poet, diplomat and politician who won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1971.

That same year, Jose also delivered his last literary work, the children’s book, “The Molave and the Orchid.”

Up until his death, Jose was a Nobel Prize nominee. He was patiently waiting for the award to come, but unfortunately, Jose did not get it.

Interestingly, writers from the Philippines and even from other countries wrote books and essays about Jose through the years. Miguel Bernard, editor of Vera-Reyes Publishing, Inc. Philippines, came out with “Conversations With F. Sionil Jose” (1991). Similarly, Alfredo Morales released “F Sionil Jose and His Fiction” from the same publishing outfit.

James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly Magazine, authored “The Ilocos: A Philippine Discovery” (1991). Edwin Thuboo, editor of Times Academic Press in Singapore, released “Frankie Sionil Jose: A Tribute” (2005).

German writer Hergen Albus of the SEACOM Edition in Berlin, delivered “Die Rosales Saga von Francisco Sionil Jose. Postkoloniale Diskurse in Der Romanfoige Eines Au Philippinischen Autors” (2009).

Three years later (2012), Albus came out with “Post-Colonial Discourses in Francisco Sionil Jose’s Rosales Saga: Post-Colonial Theory vs Philippine Reality in the Works of Philippine Author.”

Jose’s works were reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic Monthly, International Herald Tribune and even the New York Review of Books.