F. Sionil Jose: Maria Ressa “did not deserve the Nobel.” (Photo courtesy by Rappler)
By F. Sionil Jose
I apologize for the very personal nature of this essay.
Long ago when I was in high school, I came across this motto at the National Library which was then in the basement of what is now the National Arts Museum. It is Latin, and the English translation is, “Evil prospers where good men are silent.” I have always been an avid reader. I read Rizal’s novels when I was in Grade Five. As a teenager, I already knew what was right and wrong. My core values were taught to me by my mother most of all, and relatives: patience and industry, honesty, humility, respect for elders, and compassion. All these were reinforced when I was a Boy Scout.
I loved writing, but I aspired to be a doctor. Fate ordained otherwise, and now I am being pilloried for being a writer.
I knew I will be damned, but just the same, I said Maria Ressa did not deserve the Nobel. To repeat. There is no censorship in the Philippines. No writer is in jail, no newspaper or radio/TV station has been closed. These are facts. What heroic sacrifice has Maria Ressa done for peace, freedom, and the Philippines? What has she written? My critics hate Duterte so much, they are blind to the realities, the good he has done these five years, the massive infrastructure. Just look at Manila Bay today! My critics think I’ve sold out to him. I haven’t even met him, and I have criticized him from day one, for permitting Marcos to be buried in the National Cemetery, his dalliance with China, the drug war.
From day one, too, I also appreciated his confrontation with a rich lethargic Catholic church, a corrupt and arrogant media, and a bloated irresponsible oligarchy. No other Filipino leader has dared do this. Duterte modernized the Armed Forces of the Philippines, made the country safer, and brought peace to Mindanao.
Someone asked why I get bashed when Manila Times columnist, Bobi Tiglao, who called her a fraud, is not. Maybe it’s because I don’t fight back. I can easily demolish them with an epithet or two – I am, after all, a writer. Sometimes, the ad hominem criticism is so ridiculous, it is humorous, like a troll saying Mrs. Edward Lansdale and I had an affair! Obviously, this troll has never seen (Pat Kelly) or me. They mistake sincere, forceful writing for arrogance.
Long ago, during the Martial Law years, Marcos’ thugs were attacking me, and I was fighting back. My old friend, Nick Joaquin, told me to stop. His exact words: “You don’t know these people. They will kill you. Is your conscience clear?” I told him, “Of course, it is clear, and you know that.” It is still very clear today.
Of course, through the years, I have changed. Change is the Law of Life. But this change came deliberately after I witnessed the empirical evidence. For instance, I’ve toned down my criticism of our ethnic Chinese – this particularly after my dear friend, Ramon Sy, told me that the entrepreneur, Carlos Chan, is the most Filipino of them. I finally met Carlos Chan to confirm what Ramon told me.
Then, there are the American bases. I wanted them out. I regret that now in the face of Chinese belligerence. I always worked with the caveat that, if in doubt, don’t. I am not always sure that I am right, and it is for this reason that I am never self-righteous. When I commit a mistake, I am filled with remorse and agonize over it. I care about everything I put on paper because it lasts. But my mistakes have never damaged any institutions. They have hurt only me or those dear to me.
I am grateful to the Lord, to my wife, my doctor, and my friends who stand by me. Even though I am physically hobbled now, my mind is still keen and my memory, too. Way back when my children were growing up, I told them never to put food on their plates if they cannot eat all of it – that this food is what I have earned by honest labor, that not one grain of rice was bought by thievery.
Then and now, I can look at any man straight in the eye without blinking.
Writers make just enough to live on. My income has been augmented by my National Artist stipend, fellowships, grants from foundations and governments, and friends who know my condition.
Someone asked who paid for my one-month stay in Paris in 1976 when I wrote Mass, the concluding novel of my Rosales Saga. This is one question I’ll happily answer if only to recall that June in Paris was the most joyful season in my writing life. The International Association of Cultural Freedom based in Paris invited me to a conference. They paid for my fare with a generous per diem for four days. I paid the rest with my meager savings. Nena Saguil, the painter who lived in Paris, found me a very cheap $7-a-day room close to her apartment. It had no bath. It was close to the Saint-Germain-des Prés church. A public market was below the hotel. Apricots were in season, and I lived on them and French bread. It was the first time I could get out of Manila for I was not allowed to travel for four years.
I conceptualized the novel on the Hong Kong flight to Paris. Tony Samson, the main character in The Pretenders, had an illegitimate son, Pepe. This is his story, his education, and his epiphany. Mass is the only novel I wrote from the beginning to end in one creative spurt–so devoted I was to it, I lost track of time. Marcos is mentioned in it; no one wanted to publish it, so I published it myself when my royalties arrived from Holland. According to an international listing, Mass is the most widely translated Filipino book.
Martial Law was unkind to me, and this pandemic, too. My real source of livelihood is my bookshop, and there are days when we have no sales. But this country is not short of compassionate people. There is this beautiful young couple who gifted me with a fortune, and I haven’t even done anything for them. I translated their gift into my books, which were sent to public schools. To them and all the others who helped me–my eternal gratitude, your reward is in heaven. Dios ti agngina unay. As for my critics, they can do their worst. I stand straight, I will not be silent to the very end. In this, my twilight and what I have gone through, no one can harm me. To paraphrase my own fictional character, long-suffering and abused Tia Nena, in my novel Mass, “No one can hurt me now. I am free.”