Holding out in the waiting room
The 60th-anniversary conference of the Philippine Center of PEN International was an opportunity for its original members to get together, and there were three of us who made it—Frankie Sionil Jose, National Artist for Literature and founding PEN national secretary; Rony Diaz, a leading fictionist and former government technocrat; and myself, a retired academic and memoirist. Of our writers group the Ravens, there are three others out there but they may have chosen to be reclusive for one good reason or another. In my case, I almost declined to be a speaker, given my handicaps including lack of logistics (no car). But I have no regrets attending the conference — braving the traffic in a public conveyance from Imus, Cavite, to a hotel in Ermita, a stone’s throw from Frankie’s Solidaridad bookshop and within taxi distance to the conference venue at the University of Santo Tomas.
I gave a talk that I imagined was well received by participants of “uncertain age” and some millennials who appreciate literary history. I dwelt on the 1950s as the golden age of Filipino writing in English (according to Prof. Jose “Butch” Dalisay). Because of my impaired hearing, I could no longer follow the discussions and decided to forego the second day’s sessions.
The three of us oldies managed to joke about our infirmities and our being limited to vicarious sensual experiences. Another National Artist for Literature and Philippine PEN chair, Bien Lumbera, who just turned 85, joined us bastoneros. The millennials must have looked askance at these relics of the past.
All of us holdouts, young adults who survived the brutal Japanese occupation, are 85+ years of age, said to be the fastest growing age group in developed countries such as the United States and Japan. Adult nappies for many of them are de rigueur.
Writing at the age of 87, Mary C. Morrison talked about “the heroism required by old age to live through the disintegration of one’s own body or that of someone you love.” She concluded that “old age is not for the fainthearted.”
Five years ago, Frankie Jose invited me to what he calls his “den of iniquity” on the top floor of Solidaridad bookshop. He picked up a small ornate vase on his desk and handed it to me. What for? I asked. Well, he said, I am 87 and can go anytime now. Later he visited me in my retirement place in Imus for lunch at Café Marcelo. Over maya-maya sinigang, chicken skin chicharon, and light beer, he asked me if I could write his obituary. Are you serious? I asked. He nodded, saying he wanted to be remembered as a revolutionary, perhaps thinking this may be glossed over when he goes.
I have known Frankie since the early 1950s when young writers like him and myself were targeted for recruitment in the radical movement. We put out a little magazine, Comment, that provided an outlet for intellectuals and writers some of whom were blacklisted by the McCarthyite witch hunters. In time Comment morphed into Solidarity magazine with a worldwide readership lasting into the 1990s. Several years ago Frankie received the Pablo Neruda Award from the post-Pinochet Chile government. He will be 93 just as I will be 88 this month.
Next to his Solidaridad office den is a room wide enough to accommodate 50 people for PEN meetings and book launchings. Local writers and visiting scribes and Nobel laureates have sat around the round table and exchanged views with Frankie and other PEN members. Once Frankie managed to have Luis Taruc, the Lava brothers (Jesus and Jose), and Casto Alejandrino, the old party leaders, to reminisce over the Huk rebellion. It was an eye-opener for Frankie who published the discussion, much of it recriminatory, in one issue of his Solidarity magazine.
He was forbidden to travel during martial law and his book “Mass,” whose main character later joined the New People’s Army, had to be published abroad. Excerpts were included in the anthology “Kamao.” His bookshop during martial law became a conduit for underground literature and at times a secret meeting place for revolutionaries on the run. It is a bookshop for intellectuals and serious readers—no popular titles and supplies. The two-story postwar building with capiz windows is a holdout in a high-rise and glass-windows neighborhood.
The late Nick Joaquin, a habitué of the bookshop and sparring partner of Frankie, swore that he saw an old woman in a stockroom. Frankie himself said that while working on a manuscript one night at his office, he saw the waste basket move from near his desk to the wall. His novel “Ermita” noted that many civilians were massacred in the district during the battle for Manila. He showed me a few trees that survived the devastation in Ermita, with gnarled and carbuncled trunks hit by shell fire, one in a very narrow alley near the bookshop and the other near the corner of Padre Faura and Adriatico. They are holdouts, as it were, as old or older than us four (Frankie, Bien, Rony and myself) at the conference.
As a holdout in the waiting room, one gets used to the departures of contemporary colleagues and friends. Frankie himself has had bouts with mortality, like a mild heart or asthma attack, or a fall that luckily spares his head. Falls are said to be a major cause of death of seniors.
At 71 I began to nag a publisher to please have my book out before I went. Well, that was 16 years ago and seven books published later. I have two more irons in the fire, two more books in the works, and I am resigned to wait.
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Elmer A. Ordoñez is a retired professor of English and comparative literature at the University of the Philippines. He is one of five survivors of the Ravens, formed after the war as a subgroup of the UP Writers Club.
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