The Writing Life

The Writing Life

By F. Sionil Jose

F. Sionil Jose

One thing about growing old; there is nothing graceful about bones getting rickety, wrinkles and falling hair. This is what it does – if dementia or Alzheimer’s doesn’t set in earlier. It is perhaps because I’m 95 that I was asked to write about my legacy. It’s such a definitive term, presuming that I have accomplished something worth remembering and immortalizing.

I often look back now and ransack the past and my memories. Several questions crop up. What have I really done with this life? What are my regrets, my deepest pain?

I have never really bothered about what others thought of me. Not too long ago, while I was having coffee in a neighborhood supermarket, this elderly man approached me. I’ve known him since the 1960s when my bookshop opened. He was a frequent visitor, and we had desultory conversations. He was a political activist and led a teachers’ group. “It took me 20 years,” he said, “to realize that you are not working for the CIA.”

In college, I struggled through Das Kapital. My Russian translator, Igor Podberezsky, called me an orthodox Marxist.

A French expat defined me as an anarchist and a popular American official – he married a Filipina – told his local friends that I was a communist. In this regard, may I remind my readers that a communist is a member of the Communist Party; being one is not a crime. We must always remember this, particularly now in the current wave of red-tagging, which can lead to dangerous conclusions. Red-tagging demolishes intelligent discourse. It is no different from name-calling which is so prevalent today in social media. We ourselves should define ourselves. I bring to mind my most important dialogue with my Random House editor – Samuel Vaughan, a distinguished figure in contemporary American publishing and the editor of former American President Dwight Eisenhower. I told him he can do whatever he must with my manuscripts, but please do not make them less Filipino, for this is how I want to be known – a Filipino writer. I have even written down what should be inscribed in my tombstone: “He told stories and believed in them.”

                                          Legacy

I was asked by Stephanie Zubiri to write about my legacy for her magazine, Tatler Philippines. For those who don’t know, the original Tatler (meaning gossip) is a snooty, classy English magazine which records the social life of England’s upper classes, including the royalty. Tatler Philippines tries to do the same. As a writer, I have moved quite widely. So, every time I wear a barong for some reception or formal dinner and I am asked where I am going, I always say, “I am going social climbing.”

This is what I wrote for Stephanie:

As a writer, I always took for granted that everything I write is what I leave behind. This is so true with all artists, painters, architects, composers. But now that this question is asked of me, I want to think of a better reply because we will eventually come up with the questions.

Q: What is art and its function and what are legacies for?

FSJ: How I wish it were possible for my readers to remember not just the narratives or the ideas that I have written down, but to consider as well my motives for writing, and for my readers now and in the future to understand them. These motives are rooted in man’s aspiration for justice, in his enduring search for truth in a world that is full of lies and for beauty in a world demeaned by ugliness.

Q: What challenges have you encountered in building this legacy?

FSJ: In writing, I’ve always tried to be true to myself. This is the greatest challenge that I think any writer or artist faces. It is very difficult to do so. And all too often, one must be a hypocrite, but one must realize that hypocrisy itself underlines the need for virtue.

Q: How far are you now into this legacy?

FSJ: At 95, I’m still writing, searching and hoping.

Q: Who or what inspires you, and why?

FSJ: Inspiration for any writer can come from so many sources, from one’s life, from one’s surrounding and companionship. My greatest inspiration as a writer is Jose Rizal, his devotion to his art and to his country. I think that what has motivated me, more than anything, is my consciousness of the great challenges that we as a people face. The inequality, and the poverty, the apathy and the ignorance – these seemingly insurmountable obstructions to the creation of a just and sovereign nation. It is so difficult to be a Filipino, but it is with this sense of Filipino-ness that has been my truism as a writer.

                                              Root

Way back in the early 1950s, my neighbor journalists in Project 8 used to go duck hunting in the environs of La Mesa dam. That whole area, as with much of Quezon City then, was covered with wild grass, the abode of rice pigeons. A creek ran through the expanse. In the dry season, the water level was quite low, and I saw this weird-looking branch or root jutting out of the water. On the next visit, I brought a saw, and while I was cutting this, Greg Niespla of the Evening News – I recall this very well – remarked that he would have gathered firewood in the area too, but his wife used a kerosene stove. I brought the root home, scrubbed and oiled it, and it stands in our porch today, a beautiful sculpture carved by time and nature. I know that it will last another hundred years or more. Every so often, every day in fact, I look at the root and touch it, almost as a habit. It is part of the furniture that I’ve grown old with, and if I want to romanticize it – it is there to remind me of longevity, how things last, petrified by time. I don’t know to whom it will pass when I go. Will it have the same significance it has for the one who will inherit it? I am sure it will keep like those wooden artifacts in Japanese museums that have lasted several centuries.

                                              *      *      *

The oldest evidence of human civilization – 12,000 years old – has been unearthed in Turkey recently. The discovery has changed some academic views on civilization itself. In this site, there were samples of ancient art, figurines, carvings, inscriptions, affirming the ancient panegyric “ars longa, vita brevis.”

My French translator, the poet Amina Said, considers Viajero my very best novel. Here is a passage from it:

“But the word, the only word, I knew it even before I was born, heard it then, not whispered but shouted from every mouth, and even from those who were mute, they spelled it in signs so it be understood. I read it in my mother’s womb, and it gushed into me, air in my lungs compounded with sun and starlight brighter than day and truer than right. I know who spoke it first – this incandescent word in my remembered past.

Who has noticed it? Who will remember Viajero itself, just 12 years from now?

Who cares, really?

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