Food for the soul

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Sunday, February 3, 2013


HOW does one interview a great man in Philippine literature like F. Sionil Jose?

Easily, it turns out because he is friendly and has no pretenses.

He is all of 88 years old and though he needs a cane to move around, his mind is as sharp as ever, and as critical of today’s society as when he wrote Progress, a short story attacking the evils of the Marcos years. This escaped censorship, he says, probably because the authorities knew few people read literature. But the short story was read and adapted into a musical by the Sipat Lawin Ensemble.

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The musical adaptation has been staged in a lot of cities in Luzon, but it is only this year that it has come to Cebu, courtesy of Little Boy Productions whose head, Hendri Go, says the Cebu version was four years in the making.

Giving a brief lecture before the show, Jose says he has had many awards but he treasures most the award during the Junior-Senior prom he got in 1941: “The boogie woogie champion!” Whether he said that in jest or in all sincerity, one has to wonder:

He does have so many writing awards, including National Artist for Literature and some international awards (from Chile, from France, from Japan) but only one for his dancing prowess.

He told his young audience that the Filipinos are tribal, therefore, the Philippines is not yet truly a nation, but that what we do have is a wealth of talent. In an interview he expounded that “we must be able to transcend our ethnicity, to look at ourselves as a member of a bigger community, the nation,” to be a better writer.

Of theater, he said, “We should develop it and not think of it in competition with TV and films. What I hope will happen is for the Filipino to spend for his mind,” to see a play. As a writer, he is ”grateful for the effort in transforming fiction to theater where response is  immediate…it’s food for some, and food for the soul, too. Writers work in isolation and so don’t know what happens to their works.”

F. Sionil Jose thinks that Filipino literature in English is alive and well, and that there are Filipino writers who are better than the world’s best.

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of Filipino readers. “Most of us do not read. This makes us shallow. If only people would read, they would be more intelligent and not vote for actors and athletes as our political leaders.”

At 88, F. Sionil is still writing. He has a Philippine Star column. ”Hindsight,“ which occasionally takes a dig at the Philippine political scene, and is writing another novel, entitled Esperanza, which he describes as a take after Willa Cather’s My Antonia. But when asked what is his advice is to would-be writers, his first (spontaneous) answer was: “Don’t be a writer! Walang pera!”

After a while, he adds: “But if you really want to write even if there’s no money in it, despite criticisms, nothing will stop you from going ahead. Write!”

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on February 04, 2013.

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