Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On F. Sionil Jose

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A Review of Francisco Sionil Jose (1924-), a Filipino novelist, short-story writer, poet, editor.

"Born in Rosales, Pangasinan, a poor rural province on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, he was one of five children of an impoverished landless family. José studied as a medical student at the University of Santo Tomas, Manila, and began writing in 1949. He supported his studies by selling stories and journalistic pieces and graduated in English literature. A journalist for much of his life, he worked in increasingly important editorial positions for The Commonweal, the United States Information Service in Manila, The Manila Times Sunday Magazine, Progress, Comment, and The Asia Magazine in Hong Kong (as managing editor). He was also correspondent to The Economist from 1968 to 1969. in these positions and as a member of the Filipino diplomatic corps, he moved with his family to many international posts. José taught at the University of the East Graduate School (1974) and at De La Salle University (1984-5) and received an honorary doctorate from the University of the Philippines in 1992.

José's background of peasant poverty is central to his themes, whether as journalist, editor, or fiction writer. Many of his editorial essays are concerned with land reform and social justice and have become increasingly pro-feminist. His later publications have dealt more with the crisis of poverty and corruption, especially centred in Manila, that afflicts the increasingly urbanized Filipino population.

José's first published novel, The Pretenders, appeared in 1962, and his first collection of short stories, The God Stealer and Other Stories, in 1968. In 1966 José founded Solidarity, a journal devoted to publishing on ideas and cultures from Southeast Asia. In his position as Solidarity editor he has published essays, his own and those of others, that are critical of state corruption and push for further democratic and progressive reforms in the Philippines. But it wasn't until he founded his bookstore and art gallery Solidaridad (in 1967) that he was able to concentrate on his writing career. Since then, he has published prolifically. His publications include two novellas (Two Filipino Women, 1981, and Three Filipino Women, 1992), eight novels, a book of poems (Questions, 1988), and four short-story collections: The God Stealer and Other Stories, Waywaya, Eleven Filipino Short Stories (1980), Platinum, Ten Filipino Stories (1983), and Olvidon and Other Short Stories (1988). He is best known for his five-novel narrative cycle of Filipino characters, conflicts, and history --- the Rosales quintology --- comprising The Pretenders, Tree (1978, first serialized as The Batete Tree in 1956), My Brother, My Executioner (1979), Mass (1982), and Po-on (1984). Other novels include Ermita (1988) and Gagamba (1991).

[...] José's works have been translated into twenty-two languages. His steady literary production, the steadfastness of his commitment to a vision of social justice simultaneously produced with a tragic sense of human corruption, and his elegiac celebrations of the natural world have brought him deserved national and international acclaim. Acknowledging him in The New York Review of Books as 'the foremost Filipino novelist in English', Ian Buruma also underscores the breadth of José's appeal. Paradoxically, even as José has worked and reworked the myths of Filipino national identity, he has become the Philippines first internationally recognized writer."[Source:Shirley Lim, José, Frankie Sionil (1924-) from Routledge Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English All other material © Routledge 1994.]

F. Sionil Jose is my favorite author and a true inspiration to me. As a novelist, his style is genuine: the themes and plots are captivating -- critical and subtle but progressive and smart; his characters are intriguing and complex but full of life -- and you cannot help but wish to understand them, get to know them. His story telling is, in my opinion, sheer perfection. I think there's nothing better for an author than to captivate his/her readers the exact way that he/she desires to captivate them. I not only managed to get, through his books, articles and essays, a closer look into the history, the artistic and cultural background of the Philippines, but once again, I am simply mesmerized by his talent and his dedication. He made a change. Being an aspiring writer myself, Francisco Sionil Jose has moved me in more ways than one. 

I have been reading his work for many years now (short stories, novels, novellas, articles, essays...) and it was an honor -- a half-dream come true -- to enter his store "Solidaridad" for the first when I went back home to the Philippines in 2009. I was supposed to have lunch with him. The best thing about it is that he was excited to meet me as well. The pressure was on. Unfortunately, for personal reasons, I finally couldn't get to it. Nevertheless, I'm preparing for this very awaited lunch very soon, and that's the second half of my dream. Hopefully it will become a reality soon enough.

Francisco Sionil Jose is someone I look up to and who pushes me to strive for more, to pursue my dreams, to keep on believing that nothing in this world is impossible... Because of him, all I want to do is improve my writing.

For every bookworm (or not), filipino or not, F. Sionil Jose's works of art are every bit worth reading . I recommend the Rosales quitology, Gagamba, Three Filipino Women, and my personal favorite: Ermita. Get mesmerized like me.