Interviewing Joma Sison
Edsa 1986 is but a faded memory for millennials who cannot relate to old newsreels and the fact that Fidel V. Ramos cannot jump as high as he did in those heady days. I cannot recall now if it was an event or an exhibition but MAMBO ’86 (Movement of Artists and Madmen for Better Onomatopoeia) in the UP Vargas Museum was where I was told Jose Ma. Sison would make an appearance. My editors probably thought it a cruel joke to assign me to get an interview from Sison, then freshly released from prison. Sison received a hearty round of applause as he entered the museum and people looked at him with the awe one had for museum relics. Sison was immediately mobbed by autograph-seekers because this was way before the rise of the cell phone and the selfie. Gringo Honasan was the other celebrity of the evening, who got a different kind of attention from the ladies.
To break the ice I brought my copy of the little red book, “Philippine Society and Revolution,” where he signed over Amado Guerrero, his pseudonym, with his name ending with a star. I remarked, so you now acknowledge authorship of this book? He smiled and I asked for a short interview. He referred me to his wife, Julie, who he described as “my new jailer.” She promised a quick interview of 15 minutes “after Holy Week.” When I insisted, Sison asked: “Gaano ba ka-importante yan?” My job depended on it so I replied: “Importante ho.” Sison then asked: “Kailan ba ang deadline mo?” I answered, “This afternoon.” So he said “O, sige follow us.”
Follow I did, through a number of events trying to get snippets in between other reporters asking him the same questions: What do you think of the Aquino administration? The present situation? What are your plans? Then I asked something different: “Can you tell me about your childhood?” When he got started, his wife tried hard to stop him from reminiscing:
“When I was nine years old, I started writing in Ilocano. I wrote poems and I was able to get a short story published in Bannawag. I stayed in Ilocos up to the age of 11, then I went to high school, sa Ateneo de Manila.”
In between puffs of Marlboros and chuckles, he narrated how he was “disciplined” into transferring to Letran:
“We didn’t like the one in charge, a Jesuit scholastic. I led my class, or the majority of my classmates to play hooky! Somebody told the Jesuits that we went out to the movies. It was then discovered that we went AWOL (absent without leave) three times. I had the record of 35 absences, but I got second honors. Somebody said I beat the topnotcher kahit sa fourth year ng Ateneo, I was on the staff of Bobby Ongpin sa Hi-Lites ng Ateneo. Reporter lang, kasi second year lang ako.
“For my third and fourth year, I was in Letran. I was literary editor of Letran News, the college organ, so even if I was only in high school, I was already a member of the College Editors Guild. My poems went unpublished at Ateneo, but at Letran I dominated the literary page. Fourth year ako nang maging literary editor ako. Most of the time, practically every issue, I dominate the literary pages!”
Those early juvenile poems, the majority of which he admits being ashamed of, should be seen as part of his literary development. “There was social criticism, I even had a story, the landlord and the maid, doon nag-combine ang social criticism, sex, and violence. That piece could not be published. So when the moderator, Teddy Owen, would see me he teases me (motioning with his finger), I felt relieved when it wasn’t shown to the priests. Binabasa ko na noon sina Albero Moravia at Guy de Maupassant.”
He was introduced to Marx and Communism: “In third year high school, I read an anti-Communist book, which was supposed to be the best at the time, by McFadden, Doctoral dissertation iyan sa Fordham. I read it and what it presented as Marxist argument, by pursuing the line, I considered superior sa kanyang anti-Communist arguments from the Christian viewpoint. (laughs) I learned to be interested in Marxism by reading an anti-Communist book! It was supposed to be a philosophical book.”
I was not able to sit down for a proper interview but I had enough for a profile with a personal angle that made my editors happy.
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