Literature and society
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - February 9, 2015 - 12:00am

On the invitation of Shiela de Leon, literature teacher, I was at the University of Bulacan in Malolos last week speaking to students, some of whom I knew wanted to be writers. My topic was “Literature and Society” — the same topic discussed fully by the late Salvador Lopez in the 1930s. For this book, he won the Commonwealth Literary Prize, a cool one thousand pesos. It doesn’t look much now but in 1935 the salary of government clerk was P18 a month. In this book SP postulated that the writer has a great responsibility to society. This in contrast to the view held by the poet Jose Garcia Villa, that art is absolute — the artist’s responsibility is to art alone.

I cited SP’s book primarily to show that the subject is not particularly fresh — the discussion on the purpose of art, or in this case literature — was made in ancient Greece long before Christ was born. Those ancients mulled over human issues like immortality, the soul, all of which became relevant during the recent visit by Pope Francis.

Before my talk, Bulacan State University president Mariano C. de Jesus told me the university, which was the former Bulacan Trade School, had an enrollment of 40,000 over four campuses. The students are fortunate to have a president interested in culture.

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis: “Art is long and life is short.” Whether he admits it or not, every writer hopes that his work will last so that, in essence, he will also last. How may any writer or artist achieve the excellence that will make his work endure?

This is my personal view. First, I write for my time and people. As a writer then, have I become history? Pardon the conceit — but do artists really become immortal?

Who can deny the fate which all of us share? Death is the ultimate leveler, equalizer, and the destination of all living things.

How then does one survive death? The human species does it by procreation, the miracle of birth and life. Immortality or what approximates it is expressed, too, by that old Chinese adage — to be a man, you must plant a tree, write a book, and sire a son. So then, the definition of immortality is clear.

And history? What after all is history but time and what transpires in it? There is only one history — the hard and disputable fact, but there are so many ways of looking at it. A nation’s history is often written by those who colonize it, by those who win in the war to covet it. It can be written also from the point of view of the colonized, from the bottom up. And this is the new history, which is sometimes revisionist.  

Literature is language — the tongue is an extension of a man’s deepest feelings, his very soul. Not every person who speaks, however, is a writer or artist because language is not automatically literature. Literature is art that uses language as its basic tool and the writer is a skilled user of language. Writing, like all other art forms, is a craft that is learned in school, through constant practice. The apprentice craftsman learns how to fashion sentences, paragraphs, the stories, novels, essays, and poetry even. He learns grammar, punctuation, the precise meaning of words, and their meaning. He learns how to produce tension, how to be clear if precision is required, and how to be obtuse if obfuscation is demanded of him. He knows brevity or long-windedness. He writes to communicate, to arouse love or hate. He also knows his writing will most probably survive if he is good enough. Indeed, literature is the noblest of the arts.

To achieve art the writer knows he has to be more than a craftsman. He must now be creative, imaginative, original and profound, all these cannot be taught — these virtues he must search in himself. He will surely find them if he strives hard enough, if he goes deep down to his very core and finds it there — God’s gift for him alone, because artists are rare creatures; they are born, not made.

And so, finally, after much pain and suffering — and joy which approximates epiphany — the book is written. It is alive by itself and by itself, it commands love, or hate, or even contempt from those who read it; readers will want to change it, each according to his beliefs. It attains a life of its own, a world as well and lives as long as it is remembered, what it has to say. Then, slowly and surely, it becomes history. And this is what I have said — writers never die; they become footnotes.

Future readers of fiction may not be able to appreciate the smells, the sounds and the tastes as evoked in a novel in a particular age; they can only imagine these. As presented by a writer writing for history, they are the very blood and bile of that age so realistically depicted.

It is, therefore, imperative to write for our time and place, and in the process, to be involved with it in a manner that we soak its essences into our very bones. Whether we hate it or love it, there is no complacency in our attitude as revealed in what we write. So we want to change our age? Our time and place? If we do, we will then hoist alternative futures, we will then be writing as well beyond our time and place. For posterity perhaps? Yes, if we have crafted something excellent, something enduring which will survive our time and place, if it will pass the severest of all critics — which is time.

We write from our lives, from the reality where we live, embroider it with imagination and so you have a novel or at the very least a short story. As normal human beings, our lives are often mundane, colorless and insipid. Those who are in journalism, however, have a chance to experience a broader view of humanity. They cover wars, disasters, great human dramas — all of which may translate into fiction or drama. It is for this reason that individuals planning on a literary career should have a profession that allows them diverse experiences, and make a living from it for here again is a problem — literature does not sell and the writers’ income from it is often meager. Those stories about writers living it up because they write bestsellers are not fiction — but they are very rare.

History is a writer’s major informant; it is also what he records when he writes about his time. Journalism, it is said, is history in a hurry. And literature is history that is lived.

This is self-serving, but I hope that you will consider reading my “Rosales Saga,” which consists of five novels, starting with Po-on and set in the Philippines from 1872 when the Filipino priests Burgos, Gomez and Zamora were garroted by the Spaniards for their suspected participation in the Cavite Mutiny of that year. Four other novels follow — Tree, My Brother My Executioner, The Pretenders and the final novel, Mass, which takes place during the period when Marcos declared martial law, in 1972.

You will see here how I use history as the basic material for the saga. It is also personal in the sense that parts of the saga are autobiographical, and you will recognize those autobiographical nuances if you know about my life — that I was born in a small town, Rosales. The novels are also about childhood recollections, my forefathers who migrated from the Ilocos to Pangasinan, looking for land.

I was asked to describe the creative process, how a novel is conceived from life, history and, of course, from sheer imagination. For this purpose I will talk about Tree, Sherds and Vibora.

Tree covers the period from the 1920s onwards to the years after World War II. The rich landlord Don Jacinto, who helps the main character, Istak, in the first novel called Po-on, is the retired farmer and grandfather of the narrator in Tree — a boy who is alienated from his father. The narrator belongs to a landed family. The story is dominated by a tree — the balete — in the town plaza close to the house of the landlord. The point of view is that of a pampered boy. I purposely made him the mirror of the events that transpired in the novel.

The actual inspiration of the novel is The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck. The stories in this novel are narratives of passengers on a bus that stalls in this small town. I improved on it in the sense that the characters in Tree are related to one another by geography because all of them come from this small town itself. I wrote the chapters as short stories so that in themselves they are complete, but I saw to it that they are interconnected. The narrative tension centers around the boy, his relations with the other characters and how such relationships impact on his emotional well-being.

Sherds does not belong to any series — it is short enough to be read in one sitting and is basically about art, its rationale, its logic. The drama in the novel is in the relationship between an artist and his student, a talented girl from a very poor background. The tension in the relationship is resolved when the teacher realizes who he truly is.

This novel is not based on any personal experience — it is completely imaginary other than the fact that, in 1967, I set up an art gallery in Malate called Solidaridad. Its purpose was to give our contemporary art a Filipino and an Asian face. I did this knowing only too well that our art as ordained by our history — and is very derivative of the west. Sherds demands suspension of belief, for it is also an allegory.

To create from pure imagination the artist potter in this novel, PG Golangco, I researched on ceramics in Asia, the ancient world of Greece and Rome and South America. I visited ceramics exhibitions in Seoul, Tokyo, New York, and potters and their kilns in Kyoto, and here in the Philippines. This research is normal for a writer who wants his characters to be believable.

In life as in literature, a person’s character determines his fate. It is important therefore for a writer to create characters that are not only credible but are interesting for which reason they are remembered. To create such characters, the writer must know them inside out, their qualities, faults, language, their sensitivities. A doctor is not just a doctor in a story; the author must also know if he is a specialist on any particular phase of medicine. He must act, talk and think like a doctor. If the character is blind, the author must know what caused the blindness, if there is a cure for it, and what the blind person’s capabilities are, his keen sense of hearing, his tactile sensitivity. Without such knowledge, the character will not be alive.

The third novel, Vibora, is based on the life of Artemio Ricarte, the revolutionary general and one of the founders of the Katipunan. He is remembered basically in our history for his refusal to pledge allegiance to the Americans after the failure of the Philippine Revolution in 1902. He spent more than 30 years in exile in Japan and returned to the Philippines only in 1942 at the behest of the Japanese Imperial army. One of the most crucial issues raised by this novel is collaboration with the Japanese, which as a political issue was closed when President Quirino granted amnesty to the collaborators after World War II. As a moral issue, however, it continues to fester to this very day.

Collaboration. This is what our elites did with all our colonizers — the Spaniards, the Americans, the Japanese, and with Marcos; the sorry condition of our country today is its colonization by our own elites.

Let me remind you that this town, Malolos, is a very important landmark in our history; it is here where the first Republic in Asia was founded in 1898. Here, we saw how the rich Filipinos — the ilustrados — betrayed the Revolution for their own self-interest. While the rich ilustrados were in Malolos in the daytime supposedly doing their chores, at night they were in Manila negotiating with the Americans for the setting up of a federal government that would include the Philippines. Learn from history so you will understand our poverty today. They maligned Apolinario Mabini because his moral influence stopped them from plundering the country. They resorted to the old tactic of destroying the critic, not his criticism. They attributed his paralysis to syphilis, which was untrue. Eventually, Mabini had to quit the government but not the fight against the Americans.

In using historical material for fiction, the writer must be very sure that he does not falsify history. He can embroider, make interpretations, but the fact must be absolutely true. In the Ricarte novel, his role in the Revolution is not falsified nor his long exile in Japan. There is no falsifying the fact that he fled with the Japanese at the end of the war to the Cordillera. That can be interpreted in many ways, one that he was afraid of guerrillas, and that he found security with the Japanese who he served willingly to the very end.

One final observation. Writers in poor countries like ours are really provided with great heroic themes which emanate from the tragic contradictions in society. The struggle against oppression, poverty, tyranny — these do not concern writers in prosperous societies. Their concerns are the trivia of suburbia, sex, and violence — they say nothing to us. Note this: great literature is pervaded by a profound melancholy, of pain and suffering, as examined and depicted by writers struggling in loneliness in a hostile and finite world.

I am now 90 years old. It may occur to you to ask what, in this, my twilight years, I still want to do.

Yes, I am working on a new novel — I have been at it for the last two years but I have not been able to really sit down in one place to finish it. It could be my very last. 

What are my thoughts now? I have tried to transcend the ego which pleases me personally and to instead consider what would please others, too — my family and beyond; the little people in the village from where I came; how I can express their aspirations, how I can be of use to them. There wasn’t much that I could do — I have no power, no wealth — all that I can give them are words that are my flesh and blood, words shaped as stories which, I hope, will be read as literature, and ennobled as art.

Yes, I have already the exact words for my epitaph:

“He told stories and believed in them.”

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