F. Sionil José: PH cultural dynamo
Through his prolific pen and prodigious energy, National Artist for Literature and Philippine PEN founder F. Sionil José transformed profoundly the country’s cultural landscape by reconciling creative dedication and social commitment, which Salvador P. Lopez once cast as the polar opposites of “Literature and Society.”
With his vast literary output of at least a dozen novels and half-a-dozen short story collections, many of them translated into foreign and Philippine regional languages, his numerous essays and opinion columns, José was the Philippines’ most prolific writer in English and its most translated author barring none.
José was also a cultural dynamo who founded and managed with his wife, Tessie Jovellanos, the well-loved bookstore and cultural hub Solidaridad; set up the publishing house Solidarity and edited the international intellectual journal of the same name, which scholars now say helped “construct” Southeast Asia and make Southeast Asian studies the vibrant field of scholarship it is now; and held conferences and forums featuring local and foreign writers, artists, and experts to influence Philippine and Asian development directions.
All of this and more José was able to do before finally writing 30 on Jan. 6, 2022. He had just turned 97 on Dec. 3, 2021.
In his famous 1940 essay, Lopez had reminded the writer and artist “that of all the ends in which he may dedicate his talents, none is more worthy than the improvement of the condition of man and the defense of his freedom.” José certainly did not need any such reminder. When he founded the Philippine PEN in 1958, Lopez was its first chairman.
During martial law, the Philippine PEN led by Lopez and José solicited signatures for the release of fellow writers who had been imprisoned by Ferdinand Marcos.
It was during the Marcos authoritarian years that José published most of the novels that would form the Rosales Saga. In order of publication, the pentalogy consists of “The Pretenders” (1962), “My Brother, My Executioner” (1973), “Mass” (1973), “Tree” (1978), and “Po-on” (1984).
Covering four generations of Philippine history from the late Spanish colonial period up to martial law, the series has been called by Ian Buruma in the New York Review of Books as “an allegory for the Filipino in search of an identity.”
Poet, critic, and scholar Ricaredo Demetillo said the Rosales Saga are “the first great Filipino novels written in English—the most impressive legacy of any writer to Philippine culture.”
Through the journal and his publishing firm, as well as Solidaridad Bookstore, called in the foreign press as “the best little bookstore in Asia,” José carried out a cultural enterprise which sought to cultivate and firm up Filipino identity, provide directions for national progress and development, and link up the Philippines with Asia and the rest of the world.
Writing for The Atlantic, James Fallows declared: “America has no counterpart … no one who is simultaneously a prolific novelist, a social and political organizer, an editor and a journalist, a small-scale entrepreneur … José’s identity had equipped him to be fully sensitive to his nation’s miseries without succumbing, like many of his characters, to corruption or despair.”
In his last years, José became controversial for supporting President Duterte and criticizing the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize won by Maria Ressa.
The Philippine PEN board of directors distanced itself from his position, while enjoining his critics and detractors to respect his opinion in the interest of freedom of expression and free exchange of ideas.
In 2019 during the PEN International Congress in Manila, José was elected international vice president, along with several Nobel laureates and Nobel nominees.
To date, José’s works have been translated into 28 languages, including Ilocano, his mother tongue.
Even his fellow national artist and good friend, the equally prolific Nick Joaquin, conceded that José was the principal cultural dynamo of the country.
“Francisco Sionil José is Asia’s white hope (or tan stand?),” Joaquin wrote in the Philippines Graphic. “(He) has been translated into every major language, including the Scandinavian, and is, hands down, the most widely read Filipino author.”
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Lito B. Zulueta is national secretary of the Philippine PEN and a faculty member of the University of Santo Tomas.
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