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Manong Frankie’s pen at 95

Manila may have been spared the fury of Typhoon “Tisoy,” but unfortunately it led to the postponement of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ birthday tribute to National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose, who turned 95 last Dec. 3. On the other hand, except for the usual warm gathering of writers and friends, as it was during Manong Frankie’s 90th birthday fete at the CCP, what need did he have for more words of tribute? As associate editor of the Philippines Graphic Magazine Alma Anonas Carpio put it in a Facebook post: “Your words are more powerful than any tempest.”

It was my husband Elfren who first introduced me to F. Sionil Jose’s books. He was so impressed with his works, especially the Rosales saga, and dared me to name any other Filipino writer who can be compared to Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. And there I was, the literature major, having to argue with someone who seemed better read.

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He bought all the F. Sionil Jose books, read them all, and was awed when he received a letter from the author himself commending him for a column he had written criticizing the authenticity of the concern of the Philippine elite for the less privileged—a strong shared sentiment for both of them. To date, they have a pending coffee date in Solidaridad Bookshop to continue their conversation.

I only got to know Manong better when I became chair of the National Book Development Board (NBDB). He and his gentle and kind wife Tessie (yes, compared to her husband who minces no words about anything and everything) have always been so warm and friendly. He surprised me with a present to welcome me into the industry—a pretty collection of notebooks for the four seasons, a writer’s all-time favorite. He gave me literary magazines from Japan highlighting new titles and writings, and recommending such a publication for the NBDB. Always concerned about promoting literacy, he was happy that I write about education and teachers.

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At the recent PEN (Poets & Playwrights, Essayists, Novelists) International Conference—made possible through the support of Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda, another of Manong’s many dear friends, and the first to be held in Manila since the founding of the Philippine chapter in 1957 by F. Sionil Jose—he was elected international vice president, a well-deserved tribute. The event, which hosted about 200 international writers, was important to him. “It is an occasion for us to show writers from different parts of the world our treasures,” he said.

At its formal closing dinner hosted by the University of Santo Tomas and Philippine PEN national secretary Lito Zulueta, Manong did not have any remarks to make, but charmed the crowd with his surprise harmonica number, “Auld Lang Syne.” It did not bother him that the evening’s musical fare had come from the Manila Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Solares.

Tessie said harmonica playing is one of the ways he relaxes. The couple met as college students in UST, Manong publicly announced that night. Tessie recalled how she was merely chaperoning a dorm mate at a party when they met. They married soon after, with neither of them completing a degree and despite her father’s objection because he worried about his daughter’s economic welfare as a writer’s wife. And yet, Tessie said Manong became the in-law closest to her father. How he wept and mourned her father’s passing.Manong credits Solidaridad’s continuing existence to the fact that it is rent-free; the Padre Faura prime property that it is today is an inheritance of Tessie’s that came with the admonition never to be sold. How fortunate for book lovers here and abroad, as the bookshop has become an established treasure trove of well-curated titles and especially difficult-to-access Philippine books. If only the walls could speak of the many notable personalities who have shopped and stopped by for lengthy discussions with Manong, at his private office upstairs.

What I find most endearing is Manong Frankie’s reading and writing life, providing an inspiring role model for today’s students. He began to write at the same time he began to read in grade school, and credits his hardworking mother for getting him books to read, despite the difficulties of life. In fifth grade, one of his teachers introduced him to the novels of Jose Rizal, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck. The “Noli” made him cry, because the acts of injustice were familiar to him.

May today’s students discover reading the way the young F. Sionil Jose did.

(To be continued)

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: Cultural Center of the Philippines, F. Sionil Jose, Manong Frankie, Tisoy
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