Arts and Culture

Notes from an aborted autobiography

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

Every so often, a friend or a reader will ask when I’ll sit down and write my autobiography. Having read me, they think my life is as interesting as my fiction. Autobiographies are always self-serving and are often excuses or rationales for failure and misdemeanors.

I have argued that I am in everything I write and an autobiography is, therefore, superfluous.

My daughter Jette, who is also my editor, thought of a way by which I’d write it just the same as answers to her questions.

She was with me on a recent trip to Rosales where, at the SM mall there, I spoke before schoolchildren.

Did you enjoy speaking with the children in Rosales?

When we were at SM in Carmen the other day, I did not expect my audience to be grade school kids. Maybe a mix, with high school kids from the area. As it turned out, most were from the grade school close by and from the elementary school, which I attended as a child. I have talked before to very young people. I remember addressing kids gathered by the Yuchengco Foundation who wanted to write children stories — and then a few years back, the elementary school in Cavite (San Felipe) and now.

Before such an eager audience, I can see all this eagerness in their expectant faces, their rapt attention as if I were the wisest of human beings. How do I connect with these young minds? They are so different from what I was. These are kids weaned on TV, radio, movies, comics and books — things I never really had as a child. And computers and cell phones!

I brought to mind when I took my kids to Cabugawan, my village; when we crossed the bridge over the creek, I told them that this was where I swam as a boy. They looked down at the creek in the dry season, the rubbish on its banks, the water dark with mud, and they all chorused: “Papa, you swam in that dirty water?” They didn’t know it could be very clear or brownish in the rainy season.

The kids asked the simplest questions. Then a high school student asked what kept me writing. Why, indeed, should an old man persist? How I can explain to them that passion is what drives me? How can I explain the sustenance of this passion? I told them passion is like thirst or hunger that is never assuaged. All of them know these most visceral of feelings.

The subject of unearthly presence came. I told them that under the main building of the elementary school (now Rosales South Elementary School) there are Kibaan — dwarfs — and all of them leaned forward, eager to listen. And I remember how I listened fervently, too, to my grandmother when I was very young, when she told stories of capri, and other superhuman beings.

Asian folklore is littered with ghost stories; the Chinese, the Japanese revel in them. We do, too, although there is so little of it in our mainstream English literature.

I told them I was 10 years old — in grade five — when my teacher Soledad Oriel gave me the novels of Rizal, then Don Quixote and finally My Antonia by Willa Cather — these were the first novels I read and they opened to me a wide new world which I continue to explore to this very day.

I hope that by telling them my introduction to literature, they will be encouraged to read and perhaps to write as well.

All the barrios of Rosales now have electricity with all the happy distractions available to them now — this huge new mall included. I wonder if the open spaces, the fields coming to life during the planting season, the creeks now full of rushing waters — do these attract them as they did to me as a growing boy? How I wish I could have a talk with them and really feel once more all that young sense of wonder and awe suffuse me.

I told them how I climbed the water tank in the early morning when I was 13 so I could view the town, its environs from up there. Not contented with what I saw, that school vacation, I climbed Balungao Mountain, reached its summit after one whole strenuous day. Then briefly, on the summit, I saw the far distance which I would traverse in due time.

I played truant so often as a boy. I wandered in the fields around Rosales. And almost always when I returned, I had something in my alat — the farmer’s all-purpose woven bamboo basket: vegetables I filched from some farm, or fresh water snails and fish I caught in the rice fields.

How I loved the freedom then, the imagination that went with it as I traveled to distant lands and immersed myself in a boy’s vast, imagined world.

What are the memories that shaped you as a man, as a writer and as father and husband?

I remember our little home roofed with grass (pan-ao) with split bamboo floor, sturdy bayog posts and walls of buri palm leaves. The windows were drawn at night and locked with a short bamboo pole from the inside. The ladder was made of bamboo, too. I recall how my mother would cook a good lunch, with chicken for the farmers who came to fix the roof. The only furniture was the low eating table (dulang) in the kitchen.

Close by was my grandparent’s house — much bigger, with wooden posts — sagat. I remember my grandfather — his toes that were splayed “like ginger.” I learned from my uncle that he was in the revolution of 1896. I never got to know his name other than what we called him — Apong — and my grandmother who we called Imbet. Both chewed betel nut and smoked leaf tobacco, which my grandmother handrolled. She had bad teeth and as a boy, I used to pulverize her betel nut in a short bamboo tube with a chisel.

Under my grandparents bigger house were sagat posts that they were unable to use and a wooden weaving loom. Close by was a long, hollow wooden trough called cul-loong where they pounded the grain from the straw, and a wooden mortar where they pounded the grain into rice. It was such a pleasure to listen to the rhythmic pounding. Behind the house was a small granary where the sheaves were stored, and a well where we drew water.

It is still so vivid in the mind. I was, I think in first grade — or not yet in school — but I recall how we walked a distance and how my grandfather carried me on his shoulder and I held on to his head, his white hair cropped short. All around us were rice fields with ripening grain. He put me down and pointed to the near distance and said all that land was jungle then but he and his brothers cleared it, planted it. Then all that land was stolen from them. I looked at the ancient face: my grandfather was crying. He told me then to go to school so that I will not be oppressed.

It took me years to understand, to ingest, to learn and grow from such a memory. My grandfather and many of the Ilokanos at the turn of the 19th century were illiterate. He had migrated to this part of Pangasinan with the intention of settling in the Cagayan Valley which afforded the land hungry Ilokanos a chance of owning their own farms. All this past is dealt with more detail in Po-on, meaning the beginning or the base trunk of a tree — the first novel in terms of chronology of the five-novel Rosales Saga. In the early part of the 20th century, the new American colonizers conducted a nationwide cadastral survey to specify in torrens titles, those lands available for homesteads. The educated mestizo ilustrados took advantage of the colonial edict, got titles to vast areas including those cleared by the Ilokano settlers who became tenants overnight. This is how those vast haciendas in Luzon and elsewhere came to be; this also became the root of the agrarian problem that resulted in the impoverization of so many peasants and the ensuing peasant revolts — the Colorum uprising in eastern Pangasinan in 1931, the Sakdal revolt in 1935, the Huk rebellion in 1949-53, and onwards to this very day, the NPA.

We were very poor but, thank God, my mother was industrious and resourceful and we never missed a meal although we knew that our neighbors during the Gawat — the lean months of the planting season, June to September — were eating only twice a day, at 10 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon. The incidence of hunger now is even worse — poor Filipinos now eat only once a day. Altanghap, this is what this single meal at high noon is called, short for almusal (breakfast), tanghalian (lunch) and hapunan (supper).

The Ilokano virtues of patience (anos) and industry or hard work (gaget) were pounded into me by my mother and relatives as far back as I can recall.

Being the oldest of her three children, early in my life, I was also told to be responsible. This was most difficult for me to observe for I liked wandering, to the backsides of houses and the town, to the barren fields in the dry season and to them again when they turned green when the rains started in May.

There was plenty of work in our little house; as a boy, I helped my mother with the millstone, grinding rice for the cakes she made to sell. And during the harvest season, I went with her to the fields to help in the harvest — hard physical work in the broiling heat, which explains the coarse skin, the early aging of those who work the land.

I must have been six or seven years old, in first grade when I first accompanied my mother to the fields to harvest with the scythe (kompay) the Tagalog harvest — the Ilokano variety of rice, such as that planted in the terraces in Ifugao, is harvested tediously, stalk by stalk, with a hand scythe (rakem).

We started before sunrise with a bottle of water, leftover rice and half a cake (sinacub) of raw cane sugar — our lunch. In the pre-dawn dark, we cut the rice stalks, some of them flat on the ground, all wet with dew. By daybreak, my mother and I already had a neat pile; we laid a mat on the field and started threshing the stalks with our feet; sometimes, I flayed the stalks on the mat itself but that was not right for the grain would fly in all directions and would be wasted. Remember, all this was in the open sun. And as the sun rose, I started to perspire, to itch; my back hurt. I was thirsty and soon the water bottle was empty. It is so easy to understand why farmers don’t want their children to be peasants like themselves!

By early afternoon, we had stopped harvesting — now, we had to thresh. By sundown, I looked at my neat pile of grain, pleased that I had harvested so much. Then, time for the farmer who owned the rice field to give me my share. And this is when I realized that for all that back-breaking, whole day’s effort, my share was so little — just a ganta — and looking at that pittance, I started to cry.

My mother, seeing me suffused with sadness, started to laugh. I couldn’t understand it then till she explained — that was the way it was. We didn’t own the land, the seed rice; we didn’t plant it; we merely helped in the harvest. Our share was fair, judicious.

Children steal — I am no exception. I was in grade four and was a monitor that afternoon. “Monitor” meaning I was assigned to erase the blackboard, clean the room.

When I was finished, I saw that our teacher, Mr. Soriano, had left his fountain pen on his desk. I took it with no second thought and since there was still light, I went to the bus station and started peddling it to the passengers. I was unable to sell it that afternoon so, early the following day, I went to the bus station again — and that was where I was apprehended. I went back to school not quite really aware of the gravity of what I had done.

Mother whipped me and told me I had brought shame not just to myself but also to her. It took me time to absorb the lesson on morality; if I saw toys of friends that were nice and expensive, I coveted them and would steal them — given the opportunity. I realized slowly I couldn’t do such things, that I must make my toys myself, learn how to enjoy what I had, and, taking to the fields, the open spaces, the creeks where I swam, the wind’s will became mine.

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