The first thing F. Sionil Jose said when the interview began was short and simple:“I expect intelligent questions.”
National Artist for Literature Francisco Sionil Jose is well known as a fictionist, essayist and journalist. His Rosales Family Saga, a series of novels (Po-on, Tree, My Brother, My Executioner, The Pretenders, Mass) crossed genres when three of them went from page to stage in a series of productions by the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) and Tanghalang Pilipino. He has also written other novels and short stories while writing a regular column in the Philippine Star.
But there are other facets to the man. He is also a teacher; a businessman who put up the Solidarity Magazine and the Solidaridad Book Shop which has become a landmark in busy Manila; a cultural worker who founded the Philippine chapter of P.E.N. (Poets, Playwrights, Essayists and Novelists) International. He is a loving husband, a father of seven, a grandfather and a great grandfather.
An educator, Jose has taught at the Arellano University, the University of the East, De La Salle University, the University of Santo Tomas and the University of California in Berkeley. Although he dropped out of the UST before gaining his undergraduate degree, he has nevertheless been conferred with honorary doctorates by the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University, and Far Eastern University.
For his achievements he was awarded the title National Artist for Literature in 2001— the highest award the Philippine government bestows on artists – and has been recognized both here and abroad with other awards, namely the Pablo Neruda Centennial Award (Chile, 2004);The Order of Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon (Japan, 2001); the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres (France, 2000); Cultural Center of the Philippines Centennial Award (1999); Cultural Center of the Philippines Award (Gawad para sa Sining) for Literature (1989); First Prize, Palanca Memorial Award for Novel in English(1981); Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts (1980).
At the ripe old age of 88, Jose continues writing. His knowledge of current events would put a professional journalist to shame. He and his wife Tessie still run the bookshop and in fact, “I choose every book that we sell here.”
The interview was done at the second floor of Jose’s bookshop – a venue which in itself has attained significance for many of the Philippines’ intelligentsia. In that room, equipped only with two tables and comfortable chairs, many of the countries’ best and brightest have met – for wine, good food and the pleasure of scintillating conversation. It also the monthly meeting place of the Philippine P.E.N.
Off the room, in a separate compartment was the den of Mr. Jose, the room where to this date, he continues to create great literary works. His office is filled with the memorabilia of a life in the arts. On his desk are newspapers, manuscripts and various documents. Under the glass cover of the desk are photographs of his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Behind him is a bookshelf filled with his favorite works as well as copies of his books in each of the 27 languages in which they have been translated. An upside-down Philippine Flag is stuck to the wall. A few inches away from the flag is a penis guard from Papua New Guinea. Below the flag is the electric typewriter he still uses.
Steph Racquel, PLAYBOY’s managing editor, who was with this writer during the interview couldn’t resist asking when she saw the upside-down flag. : How can you not be angry if you are Filipino?, Jose answered, We are talking about all of these tragedies. Pero manhid ang mga tao (People are numb). The flag by my desk is upside-down because I am enraged. Writers have to have rage and passion.
Throughout the conversation, it was evident that Mr. Jose is a man who has spent a lifetime expressing his passion through his writings. He is a man of strong opinion. A nationalist to the core, he continues to work hard to achieve a true social revolution even if, to quote him: I don’t see the revolution fulfilled in my lifetime.
The interview starts off with an interesting anecdote of his experience with the original PLAYBOY Magazine in the U.S. in the 1960s. F. Sionil Jose (FSJ): I knew the fiction editor of PLAYBOY (The fiction editor at that time was Robie Macauley – NGT) because he was in the Philippines during World War II. He asked me to write for them….but I was so busy. But it was, I think US$10,000.00 per story. He introduced me to Hugh Hefner. He brought me to the head office in Chicago. They had many good writers for PLAYBOY. And their interviews were very good. We used to sell the compilation of PLAYBOY interviews here in the bookshop but we only had two copies and they are gone now. Those interviews took several sittings, unlike this one.
(F. Sionil Jose’s full interview is on the January-February 2013 issue of Playboy Philippines)