The Philippine Star
A nurturer of writers
Irecall my wife and I were having lunch with National Artist F. Sionil Jose and his wife Tessie at a Chinese restaurant a few footsteps away from his iconic bookstore, Solidaridad. He was relating to us, over dimsum, some secret history details of Philippines-US relations, which he has been privy to over the years. And he also passed along, unbidden, the plotline for a novel, which he said I should consider writing. I’ve since stored away that idea, which Manong Frankie gave away so freely, inside a glass case in my mind marked “In Case of Emergency, Break Glass.”
That generosity comes back to Jose in spades with every new generation of writers that holds court with him — usually at his feet, where he is seated before a typewriter in his upstairs office — eager to hear his stories and insights into the value of writing, the value of good governance, the future of Filipinos, etc.
And that generosity was very much in evidence at the Cultural Center of the Philippines last Wednesday when F. Sionil was given a blowout birthday celebration among friends young and old. It was his 90th.
A roster of speakers came to pay their respects, some with a song, many with a recollection or two, and others with lengthy tales in Tagalog involving first edition books and penis sheaths. There were a few twinkling recollections by his grandchildren, and an adapted performance of portions of his novel,
Tree. More than one acknowledged the unbending strength of Tessie, Manong Frankie’s dedicated wife, who sat by him in the front row of the CCP Lobby. The cake, naturally, was a frosted amalgam of several of Jose’s books, which have been translated into dozens of languages (really: you can see countless foreign editions in the bookshelf behind his typewriter at Solidaridad).
The evening ended in a meet-andgreet session onstage, as hundreds lined up to shake hands with the writer and pass along their blessings. Perhaps the pithiest lines came from Manong Frankie himself. He said the secret to his longevity was simple: “The good die young.” Indeed, through his writing he has strived to remain a thorn in the side of indifferent government, and a usually indifferent public. Yet the faithful still flock.
I have been the beneficiary of Manong Frankie’s nurturing, at times. He’s encouraged me to write a novel from an expat’s perspective on his country; I’ve responded by writing this column. And he’s occasionally sent me books from his well-curated bookstore collection, such as essays by classic curmudgeon H.L. Mencken, economic studies like Why Nations Fail, and, because he himself enjoys a good laugh, the philosophical joke book Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates.
For his birthday, knowing he’s a man of many hats, but mostly berets, my wife and I gifted him with a Bench derby from the Albertus Swanepoel collection.
People have asked Jose why he always wears the beret; is it an affectation of cool? A hipster thing? No, Manong Frankie says: he wears hats to prevent himself from catching pneumonia.
During his remarks, the novelist spoke of old writers becoming footnotes. Does all the text a person leaves behind amount merely to a footnote? The evidence surrounding him at CCP suggested otherwise.
It must be a momentous occasion to reach one’s 90th birthday, and I’m reminded that Manong Frankie has often expressed wonderment with each advancing year into his 80s, as though he has inexplicably won the lottery by being allowed to continue commenting on life around him, year after year. In a way, he has. And we have, too, being able to read what he has to say.