How do you give an introduction for someone like F. Sionil José? Anything that I’ll say was probably said better by others. So let me skip the introduction.
While I differ from his view on many toipcs in Philippine history, my appreciation for his cultural, social and historical writings remained.
The man has never abandoned his quest for social justice. His criticism of the country’s irresponsible elites and the locals passiveness has become the theme of his impassioned writings. I admire that he never tire of bearing the desire to change his nation after all these years. Most people would have given up–but not Manong.
I like this picture. FSJ looks disinterested (I’m not sure if he was). That’s a great profile of the man. We kept banging our knees. We took turns seating side ways. The novelist is a hefty, tall guy, almost the same height as I am. His office is cramped with books, there’s a type writer. No laptop. He slouches on his seat like a little boy. Favors wearing crocs over shoes around his office. He readily admits that he tire easily these days. (Special thanks to César for taking photos).
To quote him, “my generation failed; it made all this mess and I am, myself, culpable. Looking back, I should have shouted more loudly, longer, too, even perhaps to the point of getting hoarse. For that is what Bertolt Brecht said — “Shouting about injustice hoarsens the voice” — and the artist whose voice is hoarse will not be understood, will not even be listened to.” His egalitarian ethos for the common Filipino has never diminished.
It was easier for him to rest on his laurels, write commissioned biographies, get rich doing what so many gifted minds has done but he prefers to toil and tug along that rough road.
He runs a bookstore where he still writes. He’s now 88.
This is not a formal interview, more like a chit chat between an obscure blogger and one of the country’s literary greats, Manong Frankie.
F. Sionil José: Teka, are you related to the the pilot — that made the trip from Manila to Spain?
Arnaldo: Yes. I heard from older relatives. But I don’t know how he’s related to me.
F. Sionil José: You see, that was in the, what 20’s or 30’s?
Arnaldo: Early 1900’s Manong, not sure when.
F. Sionil José: See I have good memory. I remember. Matagal na yon ha!
Arnaldo: Let me shake your hand.
F. Sionil José: Oh. [Laughs]
Arnaldo: I’m shaking the hands of one of the greats!
F. Sionil José: Oh, narinig mo yun Cesar? [Laughs]
F. Sionil José: Oh ano? ano ba interest mo?
Arnaldo: How are you? kamusta po ang buhay?
F. Sionil José: Oh sige salamat, it’s humdrum
F. Sionil José: Do you write?
Arnaldo: I blog…
F. Sionil José: Ok yan. May blogger dito nun’ kamakailan lang.
Arnaldo: Is it true that you’re a snub, I don’t think so, but why do people…
F. Sionil José: [laughs] Ganito yan’ ah kung minsan I’m so busy I don’t want visitors. Kung minsan naman, kagaya mo, suddenly you just drop by out of the blue… otherwise naman I could spare time with anyone who wants to see me.
Arnaldo: I’ve read the things you’ve wrote about Singapore, I worked there but recently had to quit…
F. Sionil José: Ha? Teka muna, what’s your work in Singapore?
Arnaldo: I was working with a software company. I’m not sure if you’ve heard that they’re trying to localize the workforce there?
F. Sionil José: They can’t do that. They don’t have enough people.
Arnaldo: But they’re trying to develop their locals…
F. Sionil José: Kahit na. At saka, no matter what they do, they’ll always need people that knows more. I know Singapore well. Simple lang yan. I was there when it was like Binondo. Curious ako, “ano kaya yan Singapore na yan?,” it was a small town surrounded by rubber plantation. Mostly, rubber plantation. I’ve been traveling around the region, from the late 40’s onwards.
Arnaldo: A few weeks ago, I was reading an old article of yours about your grandson in Illinois.
F. Sionil José: Ah, that. It was a short story. It was very autobiographical.
Arnaldo: Do you still write?
F. Sionil José: Feet of Juan Bacnang. César kailan ba lumabas itong Juan Bacnang? ah yes, February last year. This could very well be my last.
Arnaldo: No, no, no.
F. Sionil José: I’m not well. Marami akong sakit. Salamat na lang that this [pointing to his head] is not yet demented. I know younger people who suffers from memory sickness.
Arnaldo: Are you aware how you inspired young people, like, to look at social and cultural issues in a…
F. Sionil José: Yes, yes. But I don’t really think of it.
Arnaldo: Did you really told Ramos to hold on to power and reform the government?
F. Sionil José: Yeah, to stage a coup. It’s just articulating the obvious.
Arnaldo: Do you think someone would come along and lead us, correct the wrongs, heal the ills?
F. Sionil José: Maybe.
Arnaldo: Never thought of running for public office?
F. Sionil José: [Laughs] No, but I was in government for two years. I was in the Foreign Service, I went to Sri Lanka. I have experience in the bureaucracy, the Department of Foreign Affairs, thank God, it was led by someone I admire, knew very well, si Manny Pelaez. So it wasn’t too bad. I had direct communication, all the suggestions I gave were followed. Those kind of things. Because there’s nothing more frustrating than when you have something good which you think should be accepted but gets rejected.
Arnaldo: Do you think artists can be good at running things? like government?
F. Sionil José: [Laughs] We’re rooted on reality. It’s the imagination, the dream that sustains us, that takes us off to the cosmos.
F. Sionil José: Paano ngayon di ka na babalik sa Singapore?
Arnaldo: I don’t know. I’ll look around and see what are opportunities I could take. The economy, they say, is doing well. So, let’s see.
F. Sionil José: Maraming opportunities dito. But sometimes, it’s difficult even for the skilled. Ganyan naman dito sa atin. How are your ties here?
Arnaldo: My network is good. I’m very positive, upbeat po tayo!
F. Sionil José: Alam mo that’s the advantage of open societies. You can fit in anytime because you have the talent needed. Dito, what’s wasted dito sa ating bayan is not the talents that go out but the talents here that are not utilized! Hindi ginagamit, ang daming marunong, you know, but somehow they could not get into [inaudible] positions.
Arnaldo: So these talents, ends up poor, desperate?
F. Sionil José: Basahin mo yun Star last Sunday. I’m writing something about poverty. Again. Kailan ka ba dumating?
Arnaldo: A couple of weeks ago.
F. Sionil José: Ah so you don’t…
Arnaldo: I download all your articles and put then all on my e-book.
F. Sionil José: Ah [laughs] you’re, what’s that, a techy. I can’t even use the computer.
Arnaldo: I’ll never forget that Cervantes seminar where you shouted at Pío Andrade, why were you so upset?
F. Sionil José: [Laughs] Ah na dun ka ba?
F. Sionil Jose: I can’t stand it.
Arnaldo: You scared a lot of people there!
F. Sionil José: [Laughs] Ah oo na dun ka pala. Madami, daming audience, tao. Hindi daw kasi totoo yun kay Rizal ano? [Laughs] I can’t stand it, I’m incense by such things.
Arnaldo: I know that man, met him, Pío Andrade, he wrote “The Fooling of America”, I personally find his works formidable
F. Sionil José: His book is good. That one demystifying Romulo. Which is not completely true, I know Romulo. But there’s more than a kernel of truth in that book!
Arnaldo: So you read him also?
F. Sionil José: Ah yeah. Di naman ako basta basta nagsasalita.
Arnaldo: Tell me about Ninoy, Cory…
F. Sionil José: I would select the books and Cory would bring it to Ninoy in prison. I know them both very well.
Arnaldo: What about Robert Frost?
F. Sionil José: What about him?
Arnaldo: You’ve met him, right?
F. Sionil José: Ah yes, he was 80, and healthy when I interviewed him!
Arnaldo: Wasn’t he senile?
F. Sionil José: No! not at all. He was healthier than me kasi his cabin, di naman hills, but there were inclinations. We walked. He was walking faster than I! And I was just 30 years old.
F. Sionil José: Ah, you brought up Robert Frost. The woman that introduced me to him, I learned afterwards that she was the mistress! [laughs]
Was she Filipina?
F. Sionil Jose: No, Americano. Her husband was a good friend of Frost. Works in Harvard.
Arnaldo: Para palang si Hemingway to’?
F. Sionil Jose: [Laughs] but yun ano, yun persona ni Robert Frost, was old and gentle. I read in his biographies that he was cranky, one of the children committed suicide, but I didn’t saw these, iba s’ya sa personal.
Arnaldo: Was he cocky at all?
F. Sionil José: No, he was very nice. Very nice.
Arnaldo: These are the Americans intellegencia that was against the American empire
F. Sionil José: Oh yes. Ok, let me get back to work. Next time don’t show up unannounced!
Arnaldo: I will. Thank you Sir. I really appreciate this. Agnamayak!
F. Sionil José: [Laughs] Ok, ok.