Nick Joaquin lives
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - December 15, 2017 - 4:00pm

I first met National Artist Nick Joaquin when I was 12 years old. I was part of the Metro Manila Children’s Choir that sang Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” while the dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. sat on stage at the inauguration of the National Arts Center (NAC) on Mt. Makiling.

And so wearing our angel’s costume of white cotton, with white carton wings attached to our sides, and a halo trembling atop our heads, we had a final rehearsal at the NAC three days before the inauguration.

We were sweltering in our angel’s costume that morning when a helicopter hovered into view and slowly descended on flat land 500 meters from us. The first thing I saw was a silk scarf in red and black, floating in the air as a woman stepped out of the helicopter. And then I saw the black bouffant hair and the face of the woman hiding behind big, black sunglasses.

It was the First Lady, Imelda Romualdez Marcos, and she stopped in front of us, was given a mike, and spoke. “Good morning, children, I was told you have beautiful voices. Now, I would like you to hide behind that hill,” indicating a hill around 2,000 meters away, “and begin singing behind that hill as you walk towards the National Arts Center. If you do that, my foreign guests would think that angels have actually descended on top of the mountain.”

And so we did walk to the hill, hid behind it, and sang as we slowly wobbled in our angelic costumes. The First Lady swooned over our singing, and then she said goodbye, and boarded her helicopter once more. In a few second she was gone.

On inauguration day we arrived early, fortified by a packed breakfast of Tetrapak, a leg of fried chicken, and bread given by the Metro Manila Authority, whose governor was the First Lady. Then we boarded the blue Love Bus for Laguna.

We were given a holding area behind the NAC and then the guests arrived one by one. One of them was a tall and sullen man wearing a Barong Tagalog. He smiled when he saw us, complimented us for the “sheen” of our costumes, and our teachers (including my mother) asked him for his autograph and posed for photographs with him. The man said he did not like being photographed, “but for you I will say yes, because my late mother was also a school teacher.”

This man was Nick Joaquin. Later during his speech, he would retell the story of Mariang Makiling, who lashed at the greedy people who felled the trees and ruined the rivers of Mt. Makiling, all the while looking directly at his hosts: Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and his wife, Imelda.

Later I would learn that Nick Joaquin only accepted the award after his protégé, the poet and journalist Jose “Pete” Lacaba, was released from the military’s torture chambers.

The second time I met Nick Joaquin I had just graduated from Ateneo and was attending the launching of his book, Collected Verse, published by the Ateneo de Manila University Press (a reprint is in order). I bought the book and joined the long queue seeking his autograph. When it was my turn, he asked for my name and I gave it and then his voice boomed: “Danton, it was good they didn’t behead you.”

I just smiled and said, “At least my name is not Robespierre,” and then he laughed.

The next time I met him was at the UP National Writers Workshop. I sat beside a girl whose long story was being discussed; beside her sat her boyfriend. When it was Joaquin’s turn to speak, he said the story is too long and it could be edited (the word he used was “pruned”) and there was something wrong with its structure.

Just then, I heard a sniffing beside me and I saw the girl in tears. Her boyfriend stood up gallantly to defend her. “Mr. Joaquin,” he said, “my girlfriend wrote that story that you dislike. I was in this workshop last year and you also disliked my story.”

Like a flash of lightning was Joaquin’s reply: “Then you deserve each other.” He stood up and stormed out of the workshop. I ran after him, wanting him to stay, but he walked so fast and hailed a jeepney and was soon swallowed up by the darkness inside.

I taught his stories when I began working at Ateneo. The students loved “The Summer Solstice” and “May Day Eve.” His two novels, The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Cave & Shadows, were required reading in my graduate classes. Then and now I wonder at how he strung that brilliant first sentence in “May Day Eve,” a tour de force that captures life’s swift passage from wonder and beauty to death and decay.

And now, at the centennial of Nick Joaquin’s birthday, Elda Rotor of Penguin Books has finally introduced him to the West through the book, The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic, with a fantastic cover design by Kristina Collantes. Gina Apostol wrote a foreword that I read with my heart in my throat, while Vince Rafael’s introduction gave the cultural context for Joaquin’s work.

The book has received rapturous reviews. The British Broadcasting Corp. has listed it as one of its Best Books for April 2017. The New York Times’ Melissa Chadburn noted that Joaquin “summoned a space between languages” to create his memorable fiction. It adds: “It is rare for any woman to be granted clarity in desperate times – to be described as anything but hysterical. But this is Joaquin’s way: He writes sentences that are precise yet lyrical, tiny emotional ramps leading us to the truth – to the original wound – with dignity.”

Kirkus Reviews noted that Joaquin “finds passion and melodrama in the nation’s colonial and Catholic history… His work is a welcome discovery.” Genevieve Valentine of National Public Radio observed “a potent and uneasy blend of passion and fatalism” in the book. She called it “a truly lyrical work … with the language beautifully dense.” Her verdict: “This is a standout collection.”

One hundred years after he was born, our National Artist Nick Joaquin still lives in the magic of his words.

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