Advice to young writers at the NBS-STAR Fave Book Awards: You do not write for yourself alone

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - March 15, 2015 - 12:00am

This is an extended version of the brief remarks I made the other day at Solaire during the awarding of prizes to the winners of the “My Favorite Book, My Selfie” contest that is sponsored by National Book Store and The Philippine STAR.

Before the award ceremonies, STAR president/CEO Miguel Belmonte table-hopped and I told him to reissue the memoir of his grandfather, the late Go Puan Seng, which was launched at my bookshop way back in the 1960s. I met Mr. Seng and his wife at the old Manila Overseas Press Club on Roxas Boulevard as publisher of Fookien Times. We had many pleasant conversations during which he related how his family survived World War ll. I told the same thing to Miguel’s sister, Vice Mayor Joy Belmonte, when she dropped by our house in Project 8, the other week with Quezon City Mayor Herbert Bautista. It is important that the present generation gets to know about our past, even the very recent past, to reinforce our memory, and with it, our sense of nation.

I also asked Miguel what I had already asked my editor Millet Mananquil: to include a literary section in the STAR the way Chinese newspapers do; and second, to publish stories and poetry. I reminded him that it is the creative writers who easily become splendid journalists, to wit the late Nick Joaquin and his weekly reportage in the old Philippines Free Press.

I have hopes that the STAR will also be able to publish books like the New York Times, a corollary business that is not difficult to accomplish since it is already in the printing business.

Way back, I also told NBS founder Socorro Ramos that we need a chain of antiquarian bookshops as a repository for second-hand books for book lovers. I always imply that any book I haven’t read is new, no matter how old it already is. This is one of the pleasures of poring over those old library copies in the Book Sale branches — I have bought from there some very good discarded library copies as well as second-hand books.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, three bookstores in Avenida Rizal were very close to Newspaper Row, Florentino Torres: at the National Book Store was Nanay Ramos — then a sweet and young cashier; Alemar’s a bit farther down Avenida; and across Azcarraga, in Doroteo Jose, was Joaquin Po’s Popular bookstore — a hole-in-the-wall affair that nonetheless had the best selection.

When I returned from Colombo, Ceylon after a two-year posting there as information officer of the Colombo Plan Bureau, I had saved a little to start a publishing house and with assistance from the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Paris, a journal called Solidarity, I was looking for an office when my father-in-law, Dr. Antonio Jovellenos told me to look at the Jovellenos house in Padre Faura. The house was much bigger before World War ll.  Like so many residences in the Ermita Malate area, it was burned during Liberation in 1945. I found the house too big, for all I needed was a room or two. My wife said, “Why not make it into a bookshop?”

She consulted Nanay Ramos immediately and she gave her several suggestions from her own experience on how to manage a bookshop.

I owe Nanay Ramos and the National Book Store chain a lot. They carry my books and they also assure me and other Filipino authors a reliable outlet not just in the Manila area, but all over the country. I hope that the chain will continue to carry Philippine books and that its publishing arm, Anvil, will persist in publishing Filipino authors even if their readers are not large.

For my speech to the winners of the National Book Store “Favorite Book” contest, here’s what I said.

Millet asked me to inspire the younger writers.

I am sorry to disappoint her, for it is not my intention to inspire them but to discourage them from engaging in a profession that is without real rewards, and is often thankless.

     Writing is a difficult and lonely profession. At the La Salle Library are most of my manuscripts now. You can see how hard I work — the many revisions I make before a book is ready to go to press.

I have critics, some in academe who think my English is not good. I ignore them because their criticism is not based on my texts. For most of them, it is inggit — envy. They don’t like my politics, or my beret.

When I write, I do not compete with Filipino writers no matter how much I appreciate them — Nick Joaquin, Manuel Arguilla — no, I compete with the best English writers in the world. That is how it should be — remember, Manny Pacquiao competes with the best boxers in the world.

Filipino cultural criticism is inutile. It is a matter of writers scratching each other’s backs when they should point out the simple truths that are so obvious. Otherwise our cultural growth will always be stunted; mediocrity flourishes where good critics are silent.

The singer, the musician who performs before an admiring audience, is immediately applauded after his virtuoso performance.

The writer — not so; he is always in perpetual doubt about his work, and sometimes, as it often happens in a country where people do not read, he is consumed by this indescribable dread that he is not read at all.

Well, such doubts always torment me. There are so few occasions — how I wish there were more when I get to know that I am read.

The other day, for instance, this young nurse who spent two years in London came to see me. She was in tears when she hugged me. She said she returned because my books told her to.

And the other year, at convocation in Muntinlupa, this beautiful matron who sat beside me said she had read all my books. She observed that I must like the color green because my heroines were always dressed in green. Then, she said, “Look into my eyes.” They became misty and, soon, tears welled in them. “No other writer,” she said, “has moved me as much as you have done.”

Then, my wife and I were in this Japanese restaurant close to the shop. The owner who was on the counter opposite us with a friend stood up and introduced his companion who greeted me, then said, “Mr. Jose, thank you very much for your writing. You changed my life.”

For this tired old hack, these are the niggardly rewards, so lovingly bestowed; they lift me to the clouds, and affirm what I have done. They do not translate into the goodies that we need — a TV set, a condo unit. Like I always said again and yet again, these rewards — like integrity and honesty and all the hard work you pour into your writing — you cannot have them for breakfast.

So then, will you still write? Yes, you will. And no harsh criticism, no travail, no agony, or all the clouds that darken the horizon can stop you.

You have found your calling, your purpose, and your dream. You will now transcend yourself, because you are no longer writing for yourself alone but for your own people. You are one of them, voicing their aspirations for truth and justice and you know deep within you that you are right, that you will sacrifice for the word you made sacred with your art.







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