A rich harvest of books

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose () - December 27, 2009 - 12:00am

For those of us who write in English — the lengua franca of the world — this in itself is an achievement. It takes not just talent but a certain trepidity to master another language and, in the process, maintain the mother tongue or even excel in it as well. Some damage is inflicted, however, on the inner self — the inchoate sense of abandoning or diminishing a cherished birthright. Moreover, there is that conscious awareness that to master another language is to assume or carry the heavy cultural baggage that goes with the adopted language.

As we all know, English is the language of commerce, government, the communication of intellectuals — the “brains of the nation.” It is the language of power and as such, those who use it can easily be bloated with self-importance when they compare themselves with non-English speakers.

To wit: shortly after the National Artist for Literature, Bien Lumbera stated that though I write in English, I belong to the vernacular tradition; then an interviewer asked if I didn’t feel demeaned by that statement which lumped me in with our writers in Ilokano, Tagalog, Bicol, etc.

I was stunned and angry; the interviewer revealed how intellectually he had been colonized.

I regret that I have not read so many of the new and excellent writing in our other languages; I know of their existence from our scholars, from meetings with other writers. My reading now, though eclectic, is entirely in English and I am denying myself not just the pleasure but the continuing enlightenment from our own natives.

The brief notes below are about some of the Philippine books I have perused this year. This listing would be much longer if I had the opportunity and the time to read more.

The university presses — particularly Ateneo, the University of Santo Tomas, and the University of the Philippines — are producing an avalanche of excellent titles. And so are the commercial presses — Anvil, New Day, and individual authors who are publishing their own manuscripts. And most importantly, so many young writers are coming up to assure us that, indeed, our literature is very much alive and well.

Unfortunately for all of us, this cultural bonanza will not be appreciated because Filipinos don’t read and, worse, those who do are often shackled by colonized minds and they snub our writers, even the very best. They will certainly miss this good harvest for the year.


TRAVELS WITH TANIA by Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo. A polished fictionist and academic, Jing Hidalgo is also a fastidious essayist; she has also written splendid discourses on literary criticism. Her forte is the travel essay. Travels is not so much about the charm of exotic places, but about people, reminiscence and reflection. Worth reading are the essays on Indonesia and Singapore. In all these presentations, Jing Hidalgo uses her superb craftsmanship as a fictionist to maintain narrative tension and extract precious gems of insight from the mundane.

GROWTH AND DECLINE: ESSAYS ON CHURCH HISTORY, by John N. Schumacher, SJ. This Filipino Jesuit is emeritus professor of history at the Loyola School of Theology of the Ateneo de Manila. Father Schumacher’s seminal study on the propaganda movement (which I published in 1973) established his reputation as the foremost student of that period; that book almost didn’t get published because of the objections of the martial law censor in those days. Father Schumacher has, since then, published more studies on the development of Philippine nationalism and what the clergy contributed to that movement. This present collection presents new knowledge and is a must-read for those concerned not just with the Catholic church but with the nationalist ideology.

BRAINS OF THE NATION by Pedro Paterno, T. H. Pardo de Tavera, Isabelo delos Reyes and THE PRODUCTION OF MODERN KNOWLEDGE by Resil Mojares. This Cebuano is perhaps our most outstanding historical writer now. He has probed deeper into the lives and thinking of these three ilustrados who contributed so much to the development of the idea of nation. The presentation extends beyond these three intellectuals — Resil also brings to light many facets of our past obscured by time and the absence of focus from historians: the peasant movements, for instance, and how they influenced contemporary events. The prose of Resil is vibrant and ever fresh — residues of the creative writer that he also is. This is the best history book that has come out in the last decade. It should be in the library of every Filipino who wants to know more about our epic past, and ultimately ourselves. This is not just first-rate scholarship, it is also first-rate writing and storytelling.

The published essays of Quijano de Manila (Nick Joaquin) are now being released in new editions by Anvil. That is about a dozen; though dated, they recall the best in Philippine reportage and resuscitate faded images of the Philippines and Filipinos as they were in the recent past. Reading this series reminds us oldies and informs this generation of what it was like when this country, in spite of the nauseous lapses of our leaders, was the most progressive in the region.


INTSIK: An anthology of Chinese Filipino Writing, edited and with an afterword by Caroline S. Hau. This collection of splendid short stories, poems and essays by our Chinoys was published in 2000 but as the old bromide goes, any book you haven’t yet read — no matter how ancient — is new. The foreword by Charlson Ong is instructive and clearly places and defines the wherefores of the creative output of our Chinese kin. The stories and the poems are more than passable. It is the essays that attracted me most particularly those by the two Tans, Anthony and Michael, Shirley O. Lua and Teresita Ang See. Again, if only so we can appreciate better the wonderful mélange that this nation is, read this landmark book.

GILDA CORDERO FERNANDO SAMPLER. This is a mish-mash, but what a delicious mish-mash! Here is Gilda at her halo-halo best: the glittering prose, the original magnification of the burgis Filipino mind and style and — most of all — her paintings in color. Her story in this collection is “The Dust Monster”; no story by Gilda is ever lackluster, but I would have wanted to see in this book her classic “People in the War.” Just the same, one more hosanna for Gilda.

SOLEDAD’S SISTER by Jose Dalisay. After years of teaching creative writing, Butch Dalisay has once again exploded that old injunction — he who can, does; he who cannot teaches. This slim volume about our overseas workers is poignant and heart wrenching; if I were the sole judge at that Man Asian literary competition in Hong Kong where this was short-listed I would have made it a winner. The prose of Butch is precise, his narrative technique is obviously academic but it certainly is not dull the way most academic writers are.

THE REVOLUTION ACCORDING TO RAYMUNDO MATA by Gina Apostol. I praise this novel not so much for its prose, which is iridescent yet sometimes boring, but for the originality with which the story is unfurled. Here is our history as narrated in a very unique fashion, a narrative that develops and, as it does, broadens our view of our past, our heroism. I hope that our fictionists will follow Gina’s lead in extracting from history those minute threads that, in their entirety, form the Filipino ethos — a magnificent bravura performance.

XXTH CENTURY: TWO PLAYS by Malou Jacob. Malou’s Juan Tamban, staged more than two decades ago, established her reputation as one of our foremost playwrights. These two plays were already staged. The Country in Search of a Hero is experimental and I found it rather difficult, although its theme is close to home because it revolves around our national hero. The other play, A Significant Life, is more understandable, relevant and instructive because it depicts how violence can be self -inflicted. Malou’s oeuvre is sometimes grim, and borders on the absurd, but her theatrical touch is forthright, contextual and can easily be grasped by those who need most to be uplifted — the masa.

EXPEDITIONS: The Philippine Graphic Fiction Awards. This is no ordinary comic book. It is a delightful compendium of prize-winning drawings and narratives. Here are the finest achievements of our young artists who have joined the international wave of so called comic artists but have, in their own way, retained so much of the flavor of their roots. The first prizewinner is The Sad, Mad, Incredible But True Adventure of Hika Girl by Clara Lala Gallardo and Maria Gallardo. The heroine in the story is a girl with asthma. She has no playmates except monsters who eat the children they capture. They want Hika girl’s sister but Hika girl presents herself instead — mice in her tummy, her flesh flavored with cough syrup. All the other strips are skillfully executed, with original narratives. A must for kids and adults who want to be young again.

POEMS SING KWENTAY CINCO by Alfred C. Yuson. Krip’s latest collection of poetry, as usual, touches the heart and mind with its lyricism and lucid imagery. Krip is one of our best poets in English. More than this, among our major poets, only he reads his poetry with such flair and power, he reminds me of Charles Laughton. That name is perhaps too ancient for today’s generation.

FOR STARTERS by Ricardo Suarez Soler. These 10 short stories are the initial public offering of Dr. Ricky Soler, a psychiatrist who was once a journalist, a businessman, a gourmet and a bon vivant. With his urbane background, he has crafted very readable and interesting narratives which also describe the inner life not only of the characters themselves but the milieu wherein they act out their fates. The compelling plots — some culled from Ricky’s experiences as a medical doctor — are skillfully, subtly unfolded. If Starters were a restaurant, it would rate four Michelin stars.

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