Francisco "Franz" Arcellana was my teacher. Like many writers, I first read him before I met him. On my own, I had read "The Mats" and "The Flowers of May" when I was a young and sullen undergrad at the Ateneo. Instead of reading my books on Financial Accounting and Business Statistics, I sat on the table beside the PS 9991 shelves in the Rizal Library every afternoon, and read the books of Filipino writers. One day, I said to myself, keeping the secret deep in my heart, one day I will also write a book.
I liked the subtlety of "The Mats," how it showed that at the core of the Filipino is his or her love for family. The word "Recuerdo" woven on the mat for the dead daughter captured this vividly. And "The Flowers of May," which won a Palanca Award in 1952, isn’t it in a way the flip side of "The Mats," since it talked about the death of Victoria recalled just as the rains of May began to sweep the land?
In 1982 I applied for the UP Writers’ Workshop and Franz Arcellana was its director. The workshop then was as lively as it is now, but messier. Some of the panelists did not discuss the texts at hand but talked about their travels in Russia. Others wondered aloud why the writers-to-be were not writing about the poor, in Tagalog. It got so bad that one day I stood up and said I can only write about the middle-class, because that was where I belonged, and when I wrote in Tagalog I had my Vicassan Dictionary beside me. But Franz - great good gracious God Franz was there - he spoke clearly and firmly and said that the only thing we have to do as young writers is to write the poem or the story only we can write. And that we can write in any language we are comfortable with, whether that is English or Tagalog or Cebuano or Pangalatok. Then and now when I think of Franz I think of a prophet atop a mountain, white hair like flame, his words hissing in the wind.
Those words saved me when I came back to Ateneo and began graduate school. After Ateneo, I wrote speeches for a government office and children’s stories for a publishing house. It was the height of the Marcos dictatorship. When my father lost his trading firm I had to look for a good job and ended up editing the plenary sessions of the Interim Batasang Pambansa. It paid well, and I was mightily entertained by assemblymen who spoke lines like these: "I demand an investigation into the national airlines because their airplanes always collapse."
But every afternoon, I would go home in an aircon shuttle bus in my beautiful barong. And when I looked outside I saw the sun beginning to sink and a deep, inexplicable sadness always threatened to drown me. I must write again, I remember the words forming themselves inside me, because if I don’t, I will end up fat and wealthy and immensely sad.
I returned to graduate school at the Ateneo, and that summer my first teacher was Franz.
He taught Fiction Writing and came and went to school in his old, reliable Beetle, which had an Apple Macintosh sticker on the windshield and books and papers on the backseat. He always wore cool, long-sleeved shirts, untucked, and that trademark eyeglasses. For the first story discussed in the workshop, he asked us to comment on the word or punctuation mark used by the writer, one student per word or punctuation mark. The first word was "The" and the student in the front row said it was "a definite article." Franz quickly added, "That’s the word Hemingway suggested you use as the first word for your work - when you can’t begin a story, or you are continuing your novel." It took us five days to discuss one story. I haven’t been to a workshop where the works were discussed in such a, ahhh, microscopic way.
One smart aleck in class asked, when we were about to discuss the second story: "Are we going to talk about it one word or punctuation mark per student again?"
Franz smiled his gently avuncular smile, then said, "No."
The same smart aleck also walked out of the class after his story was discussed. One scene in his story showed a baby slipping from the hand of the nurse carrying it. The baby’s head is bashed on the floor. When Franz asked what is the point of the scene, smarty said: "But it happened in our hospital in Cagayan de Oro City!"
Franz said that not because it happened in real life, it could happen in the world of fiction. Fiction is governed by rules autonomous from that of the real world. Perhaps it was way over the head of smarty, for pretty soon, he was standing up and leaving the room.
Too bad for him, because he failed to see the point in any writing workshop. It will not teach you how to write; it will teach you the attitude you must take toward writing. What are these attitudes? That the story, the poem, the essay or the novel has to be written, whether the world is ending or your heart is breaking. That the writer begins again and again when he writes, such that a flotilla of awards means nothing in the end. That Time, that great and severe arbiter, is the only judge that can tell whether you will be read 100 years from now, or be relegated as a footnote in the literary history.
I submitted old stories for the class and wrote new ones, and was surprised myself by the sexual content of the new stories I wrote. Franz could read your story and draw its structure on the board, such was the depth and clarity of his mind. One day, Franz took me aside said he was willing to discuss my stories privately not because he wanted to censor, but we would take more than a week explaining to the under-grad students what those body fluids and subtexts mean. Oh Franz he can be wicked, too, like one day when he told me he opens the middle page of a newly-bought book, to inhale its "virginity." Or weird, as when one student told him he liked the story "Divide by Two" that Franz had written and he flew into a short but magnificent rage, telling us loudly, "I hate that story! I hate that story!"
But through the years, he set many young writers on the road. Or even not-so-young ones. In his first book Oldtimers, Butch Dalisay thanked Franz "for seeing me home." Eric Gamalinda also told me, over cappuccino and latté in Chelsea, that the old man helped him a lot when Eric decided to go back to school, and write fiction. In 1994, Franz attended the launching of Ladlad, the gay anthology that Neil Garcia and I had edited, the first in this Catholic and conservative country. It was a difficult week. I had rashes all over because of the launching but when the day came, my mentors were there. Franz and Bien Lumbera showed up. I was glad.
Sometimes I visited Franz in the Faculty Center of UP to ask him to sign a book, or write letters of recommendation, or just to chat. He would be sitting there, amidst a whirlwind of old books, covering them all carefully with white bond paper. U2 would be playing in the background, a cassette tape given by one his students.
One of the poems that Eman Lacaba wrote was called "After Franz Arcellana." Franz got a Smith-Mundt grant in Creative Writing in 1956 and he visited the poet Richard Eberhart at Princeton University in New Jersey. Franz told Eman about this. Eman assumed the voice and persona of Franz in this beautiful work, which is included in Salvaged Poems.
"In the spring of ’56 I went to see Richard Eberhart./ Have you been, he asked, in a Quaker graveyard?/ No, I said. He took me to one outside Princeton./ Spring was just beginning; cold the high noon./ Still went from the thaw the ground, like green fire/ The neophyte grass, the air miraculously clear./ Under the cypresses and elms, as we wove in and out/ Among the mounds of Friends, the poet said: Note/ The graves
(This essay is included in Regarding Franz, a book of tributes for the late National Artist Francisco Arcellana. The bouquet of essays is edited by Elizabeth Arcellana Nuqui and Lydia Rodriguez Arcellana, published by the UP Press, and launched late last year).