An open letter to F. Sionil José, National Artist for Arrogance

Sometime last month, I saw this letter going the rounds in Facebook.

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To make a long story short, the above letter is from National Artist F. Sionil José, and he’s asking Ramón del Rosario, chairman of the National Museum of the Philippines, to remove the paintings of RENOWNED ARTISTS E. Aguilar Cruz and Andrés Cristóbal Cruz that were being displayed there. His reason? He’s erudite enough to differentiate true art from inability.

Apparently, the letter was leaked online without his knowledge. So a few days later, after his pompous erudition captured the ire of several netizens, Frankie Boy explained himself on his Facebook account.

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When I first read Frankie Boy’s letter to Mr. del Rosario, it made my blood boil. You know, I’ve purchased some of his books. I find his Rosales novels entertaining (but forgettable). His take on social justice is praiseworthy. But as an individual, I never had a fondness for him. Because, in spite of his close friendship to fellow National Artist Nick Joaquín (a renowned Hispanista and a true humble spirit), Frankie Boy is a certified hispanófobo, and his views on Filipino History are vehemently contradictory to how I view it based on documentation and cultural evidence (judging from his writings, his are obviously based on textbook material, stuff he learned only from school). I even find it hard to forgive him for lambasting the late chemist-historian Pío Andrade at a historical forum held in Instituto Cervantes de Manila ten years ago. This humiliating scene was witnessed by my friend Arnaldo Arnáiz who told me that old man Frankie Boy angrily walked out from the room when he couldn’t take anymore all the historical truth coming out of Andrade’s mouth regarding the Calamba agrarian dispute in which the Rizal family was a party.

I was hurt and embarrassed for those artists (the two Cruzes) whose works I am not even familiar with. I could relate to being belittled, so I guess maybe that’s where all this anger is coming from. At first I tried to ignore Frankie Boy’s pompous letter, but I couldn’t. It just didn’t feel good seeing a writer his stature and my, how physically big he is, even for his age belittling accomplished writers and painters who are no longer around to defend themselves from his arrogance and yet I do nothing about it. I won’t be able to sleep well, I thought. Other than that, the last words that he wrote on his Facebook post (“the time has not yet come for me to be silent”) prompted me all the more to give him a piece of my mind. So immediately after reading his unapologetic post on his wall, off I went to my wall and posted an open letter to him (see below, with minor edits).

AN OPEN LETTER TO F Sionil José (NATIONAL ARTIST FOR PERFECTION)

Good day! I hope this post of mine finds you well and good.

First of all, a confession: I’m one of those who shared that “Straight-From-Mount-Olympus” letter of yours (on Twitter; you’re not famous there). Anyway, enough of that. I’m just here to comment on your humble defense of your soon-to-be-legendary letter to the National Museum of the Philippines. So to borrow your own words: “straightforward ito“…

Your best chum, the late, great Nick Joaquín, by far a much BETTER National Artist for Literature than anyone around, living or dead (and I’m 100% sure you won’t contest that), published one of his last books which was about E. Aguilar Cruz titled “ABÉ: A FRANK SKETCH OF E. AGUILAR CRUZ”. Between the two of us, you should know better that Nick would have never wasted his precious time on a subject if it was as paltry as… what’s that poor fellah’s name again? Ben Singkil? If Abé was good enough for a giant like Nick, then he’s good enough for everybody. And even before Nick, our country’s foremost historian today already published a book about Abé’s paintings many years before he became famous enough to correct that glaring syphilitic error that you committed in one of your novels (we all know who that historian is).

Simple lang ang sinasabi co. I won’t go about parading Abé’s achievements. People from the literary and art circles are already mighty aware of them, anyway. Including yourself (you just won’t admit it, c’mon). I’m not a fan of his in the first place. But hey, I’ve been hearing quite a LOT about this “non-entity” since I was a lunchbox-toting kid… a non-entity as a writer, you say?! Yet he was cited in José Garcia Villa‘s annual selections — and Villa is our country’s FIRST National Artist for Literature! Abé also graced the literary pages of the Graphic Magazine quite a number of times and even became the editor of the Sunday Times Magazine. But hey, if you insist of his being a non-entity, then he could probably well be our country’s very first non-existent permanent representative to the UNESCO. So let’s just consider that NHI historical marker in his hometown as a big joke, shall we? Anyway, as I have said at the beginning of this paragraph, I won’t go about parading Abé’s achievements. So, moving forward…

…do we even have to discuss that other Cruz you crucified? Well, I might agree with you that Andrés Cristóbal Cruz was a non-entity as a painter. He was known more for his award-winning writings than for his paintings (by the way, not once did he solicit foreign publishers to have his works translated into other languages just so that he’d be tagged as the most translated Filipino author). However, he was mentored by Abé. Therefore, the National Museum is only emphasizing the latter’s influence on the former. The fact that Andrés’s painting is on exhibit there is to give weight, legitimacy, and RESPECT to Abé’s artistic influence over an award-winning writer who tried his luck in the visual arts.

But what can we non-existing mediocrats do? You have spoken from your laureled throne: “Both have not produced any significant body of work, either paintings or books, of great artistry.” May I just ask where have you been all these years? Did Thanos travel back in time and snap his fingers on top of your regal beret, that’s why you didn’t notice these things going on? Who in blue blazes is Thanos? you might ask. Don’t bother; he’s just another non-entity who could never rival your fictional characters.

Now going back to that letter of yours. Some netizens have commented that we should all be cautious with whatever words we throw at you you since you’re already in the twilight of your mind-boggling existence. “He’s in his 90s. Let him be. Humor him” says one netizen. “Gonna give him a pass, sa katandaan na siguro din says another. But you yourself have said that the time has not yet come for you to be silent. Well, if that’s the case, since you are so willing to talk, then you should be willing to listen. So listen to this…

As far as MANY people are concerned, you are a fantastic novelist (I still love your Rosales novels although a huge chunk of them is as boring as Harold Clavite‘s online existence), a piercing essayist, and a sterling social justice activist (funny that I mentioned the word “justice” on this post). But as a national artist? You, sir, are a non-entity.

Your opinion may be “learned”, but it is still an opinion. And you’re imposing it on all of us. Sorry, Frankie me boyo. I’m still not convinced.

Love lots,

Another non-entity.

PS: If you wish to block me afterwards, forget it. I’m a non-entity troll. So how could you possibly even care about me?

Am I being disrespectful towards F. Sionil José? Well, I’ve been calling him “Frankie Boy” throughout this whole blogpost, so go figure. Let’s not even talk about seniority nor age here. He had this coming a long time ago. He may be a giant in Filipino Literature, but in real life, he’s just a cantankerous old-timer, the type you really want to beat up but couldn’t because of his age. Besides, he said that the time for him to shut up has not yet come. Now that’s a terrifying prospect that I just couldn’t ignore. And more importantly, respect begets respect. Out of all National Artists whose lives and works I’ve read in various books, newspapers, magazines, and websites, he is the only one whom I noticed to be so full of himself (I’m trying to suppress myself from writing plus-size jokes). Don’t get me wrong. I wish him no ill, really. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t write about my resentment of him.

Having said that, I should reveal this now: the ONLY reason why F. Sionil José is the most translated among Filipino writers (something he loves to brag about) is because he has solicited foreign translators to have his works translated. As a publisher himself, he has the clout to do so. Siyá ang lumalapit sa canilá. It wasn’t the other way around. His books were not translated because of the quality of their forgettable stories. So being the most translated writer in Filipinas does not equate to being the best. All you need are PR skills.

If he denies what I have just revealed here, then he should throw away the virtue of HONESTY from his writings.

Before I end this online rant, you must be wondering: what prompted Frankie Boy to belittle Abé and Andrés just like that? I have no idea. My suspicion: maybe he had some ugly misunderstanding with the two Cruzes in the past. Or he’s just jealous of them. But let us not dig into that anymore. Whatever squabble he may have had with the two Cruzes (and may they rest in peace), it’s none of our business. What we should marvel at, however, is this cute photo of Frankie Boy attending the opening of an art exhibit three years ago in which the paintings of those two Cruzes he had looked down upon last month were included. Now that’s neurotically classy of him, don’t you think! 😂

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Ople on the Spanish language

Having been founded in 1922, the Premio Zóbel is considered as the country’s oldest literary award open to all Filipino writers in the Spanish language. Among those who had won the prestigious prize were poet Manuel Bernabé (1924), diplomat León Mª Guerrero III (1963), and renaissance man Guillermo Gómez Rivera (1975). But in the late 1960s to the early 1970s, it was put to a halt because the number of participants dwindled. In 1974, the Zóbel de Ayala clan changed the rules of the contest so that anyone in Filipinas who promoted the preservation of the Spanish language could become an awardee. Nineteen years later, in 1993, Senator Blas Ople, a non-Spanish speaker, became a consequence of that 1974 decision.

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“80 Años del Premio Zóbel”, a compendium of Premio Zóbel’s history, was published in 2000. The book’s author, Lourdes Castrillo Brillantes, was herself an awardee in 1998.

This is not to say that the choosing of the then neophyte senator was nothing short of a scandalous matter among Filipino writers in the Spanish language. He received the award “por sus relevantes méritos en pro de la cultura hispano-filipina” (for his relevant merits in favor of the Spanish language). One such merit was the following essay that he wrote in his column “Windows” which used to appear in Panorama magazine (a supplement of Manila Bulletin’s Sunday issue). The essay was published on 30 August 1992, a year before he was awarded a Premio Zóbel medal.

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Blas Ople (1927–2003).

Our Spanish past lingers in Iloílo with subtle charm
Blas Ople

Having sat down from the rigors of an obligatory speech on current issues, I thought I would sip my coffee in peace, mentally braced for an evening of pleasant boredom.

This was Iloílo City, and the Lions clubs from all over Panay and some from Negros Occidental had filled the vast hall of the Hotel del Río by the river, for the 42nd anniversary of the Iloílo City Host Lions Club. Then magically, the grace and charm of our Spanish past rose before our eyes.

Dancers in full Spanish costumes, platoon-size formations, materialized on the floor. They called on a vast repertory, not just one, two, or three, but many numbers, turning an otherwise banal dinner into a bewitching hour redolent of history. It was only in Iloílo, I thought, that simple housewives, many of them now grandmothers, could be formed into flamenco dancers of such charm, on demand (I was told later they rehearsed for a month for this show).

I gathered that Iloílo and nearby Bacólod are just about the last places where sizable remnants of an elderly Spanish-speaking generation may be found, though this, too, is slowly fading away. But the rhythms of Spain will probably long outlive the Castilian speech in these parts, judging from the authentic passion of those movements we watched that night.

Compared with these, the rigodón de honor danced by the elite in Tagálog cities and towns has to be judged a pale initiation.

Few Filipinos are of course shedding a tear on the waning of our Spanish past, except as this has been subsumed in native speech and customs. The memories of those early centuries still rankle.

This is the revenge of Rizal and del Pilar, whose works have molded, through generations, our impressions of the era of Spain in the Philippines. But when recently, all the countries of the Iberian world met in México, as though eager to repossess their common heritage from their Spanish past, I felt a certain pain to realize that the Philippines alone was not present, for the reason that we have disinvited ourselves.

I should reveal this now. In the Constitutional Commission of 1986, I fought until the end to have Spanish retained in the new Constitution as an official language, together with Filipino and English. I wanted at least an explicit recognition of Spanish as such a language until the wealth of historical material in our archives, most of this in Spanish, can be fully translated into English or Filipino.

But the real reason was that I wanted to preserve our last formal links with the Iberian world, which includes most of the countries in Latin Américas with a population of about 400 million. I remember Claro M. Recto’s sentimental journey to Spain, which was aborted by a heart attack in Rome. If we lost that final strand of solidarity with the Spanish-speaking world, we, too, would never get to Spain.

It was as though both sides had agreed on a policy of mutual forgetfulness.

The “radicals” in the Con-Com strongly advised me not to press the provision on Spanish, because this would have the effect of reopening other controversial issues in the draft charter. It could delay the framing of the Constitution beyond an acceptable deadline.

My worst fears have been realized. We have expelled ourselves from the Iberian community of nations. The rift is final, and will never be healed.

But I felt the charms of our Spanish past will linger longest in places like Iloílo, and during that enchanted evening, I was glad for the opportunity to savor them. We may have left the Iberian world of our free choice, but the hold of Spain will never really cease in the Filipino heart.

To those who are unfamiliar with the issue, it was former President Corazón Aquino’s Constitutional Commission of 1986 (the one mentioned by Senator Ople in his column) that decided the fate of the Spanish language in Filipinas. It should be remembered that Spanish had been our country’s official language beginning 24 June 1571. It may had been unceremoniously booted out from the 1973 Constitution by pro-Tagálog politicians during the 1971 Philippine Constitutional Convention under Ferdinand Marcos’s presidency, but the former strongman, realizing its worth, issued Presidential Decree No. 155 two months after the 1973 Constitution was ratified. Believe it or not, this forgotten Marcos decree recognized Spanish (alongside the English language) as one of Filipinas’s official languages. It thus absolves his 1973 Constitution of any culpability when one wishes to point an accusing finger at the “killer” of the Spanish language in our country.

All index fingers will of course lead to the present constitution, the progenitor of the Constitutional Commission of 1986. No wonder Ople was devastated: he was its member, he fought for the Spanish language’s preservation in the present constitution, yet he was blocked by those radicals from doing so (they were probably those whom Hispanistas and non-Tagálogs today derisively call as “Tagalistas“). That is why, out of disillusionment (or anger?), he wrote that painful statement that we Filipinos have expelled ourselves from the Spanish-speaking community of nations.

But that was 1992. It’s 2018 now, and attitudes toward the Spanish language and our country’s past under Spain for that matter have drastically changed. The enlightened Filipino youth of today will surely disagree with the late Senator’s statement that the rift done by the present constitution’s non-inclusion of Spanish was final, and that it will never be healed. Already, we have several groups in social media, particularly in Facebook, that advocate the return of the Spanish language to Filipino mainstream society such as the SPANISH language should be back in the PHILIPPINES!Oficialización del Español en Filipinas (this one has more than eleven thousand members!), and Defensores de la Lengua Española en Filipinas. Outside of Facebook are blogs that extol the virtues and blessings of our country’s Spanish past: we can cite With One’s PastHecho Ayer, and the Hispanic Indio just to name a few. Then there is Jemuel Aldave Pilapil who organized the Sociedad Hispano-Filipina together with other Hispanists to safeguard and promote the language, thus inspiring me to label him as the new Isagani (watch out for his group’s website to be launched very soon!). The presence of Instituto Cervantes de Manila with its monthly cultural events is a great boost in the efforts to “reintroduce” the Spanish language and culture to our country. Not too long ago, renowned Spanish-speaking Filipinos launched a documentary citing the importance of the Spanish language as part of our national identity and heritage. Even our country’s premiere historian today, Ambeth Ocampo, already revealed himself as far removed from the usual anti-Spain mold of historians by producing very impartial write-ups about our country’s Hispanic past. Says Ocampo in one of his writings:

The concept of Filipino began not with pre-Hispanic indios but with Spain. Individuals known as Filipinos cannot be traced beyond 1521 when Magellan sailed into the Philippine archipelago. Filipino was mainly a geographic term to begin with, and the notion of Filipinas, a place, a nation, cannot be pushed beyond the first Spanish settlement established by Miguel López de Legazpi in 1565.

I could go on and on, but the point is clear: the rift done by Tita Cory’s flawed constitution is not final. Ople’s fight for the Spanish language’s rightful place in the Filipino cosmos didn’t go for naught. We are healing!

The amistad between Nick Joaquín and Guillermo Gómez Rivera

This newspaper clipping was published on 16 May 1992. It appeared in the now defunct Newsday and was written by Jorge Seurat (pen name of priest-poet Fr. Gilbert Luis R. Centina III). The column explains the least-known friendship as well as the converse similarity between writers Guillermo Gómez (whose birthday falls today) and National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquín.

PEPE ALAS

 

The great Nick Joaquín, proclaimed “National Artist” during the glorious years of Ferdinand Marcos, has turned seventy-five. Three-fourths of a century. And as he ages into immortality and mythology, the English language appears to be on the way out in the Philippines. Overpopulation, lack of funds, and diploma mills are seeing to that.

This is so, because English has not taken root as Spanish did take root. And if the English language has a Filipino writer like Nick Joaquín, it is because Nick Joaquín’s real language is Spanish. By Hispanizing English, he has succeeded in Filipinizing it. And lo, in the very Filipino works of Nick Joaquín, English has become Filipino! After 92 neocolonial years of deception and bitterness, we only have this writer who can be considered significant in what we may call “Philippines Literature.”

But Nick Joaquín had to will this Filipinization of English. Rizal and Recto did not have to Filipinize Spanish through their writings. Spanish was already the Filipino Language when they wrote in it without having to choose it from English or “Filipino.”

Nick Joaquín,s merit according to his ardent follower, Don Guillermo Gómez Rivera, is his having been able to pour into English a good part of the essential message of what has been Filipino since 1571. No other writer in English has done this.

Gómez Rivera, a generation or two younger than Nick Joaquín, is the Nick Joaquín of contemporary Filipino literature in Spanish. Were Gómez Rivera to write in English as he does in Spanish, he would sound almost, if not exactly, like Nick Joaquín. If Nick Joaquín is a continuation of Claro M. Recto, who wrote in Spanish in local English letters, Gómez Rivera is the continuation of Nick Joaquín back in the same language of Rizal and Recto.

This is so because both Nick Joaquín and Guillermo Gómez Rivera actually belong to the same Filipino tradition even if they don’t write in the same language. Of course, if Nick Joaquín were to write in Spanish, he would in turn sound almost, if not exactly, like Guillermo Gómez Rivera. Don Lorenzo Marasigan’s portrait for his two daughters, Cándida and Paula, has become alive, both artistically and literally. The young man, Anchise, is Guillermo Gómez Rivera, and the old man is Nick Joaquín, and the burning city that both are leaving behind is our country, ravaged and ruined in almost every sense of the word by this despicable galungóng-brained “democracy” that would condemn our people with the Bataán Nuclear Plant. And, possibly, vacuum of power after frustrating so brazenly the national elections without our people really knowing about it until after a few months, or years, later.

And Guillermo Gómez Rivera wrote a poem in homage of Nick Joaquín after the latter had dedicated to him a copy of his play, Portrait, in book form, saying in Spanish, “A Guillermo Gómez Rivera, el nuevo Colón de la música filipina…” this was so, because Gómez Rivera, after recording his third long-playing of Filipino songs, in their original Spanish versions, asked Nick Joaquín to listen to them. Nick Joaquín obliged and enjoyed listening to Gómez Rivera’s singing of “El collar de Sampaguita” with Bert Buena’s rondalla. He went to Gómez Rivera’s office library, that of Solidaridad Filipino-Hispana, Inc., at the third floor of the Citadel Bldg. on Bonifacio Street, way back in 1969. Since then, Gómez Rivera has held Nick Joaquín in utmost reverence and, as a member of the Academia Filipina, he has suggested to the Fundación del Premio Zóbel, to adjudicate, one of these years, the said prize to Nick Joaquín.

The poem titled “Nick Joaquín prismático,” is worth transcribing and translating here:

Traductor de la historial por toda una / generación perdida en inglés./ Maestro / que enseña la verdad: / —luz opurtuna / para los que no tienen / ni alma ni estro

(“History’s translator / for entire generations / lost in the English language. / A teacher who teaches / the truth, that pertinent light / needed by those / who misplaced / their soul / and their poetry of life.”)

Pues,  el candor y el arte. / La sapiencia de toda una cultura: / —la cultura que es la de Filipinas— es la ciencia; / es la gloria; / es toda la emvoltura / de este gran hombre prismático — trazluz / del madero / que alzamos hoy en cruz.

(“Because candor, art / and the knowledge / of an entire culture / which is Filipino / is the science, the glory, and the whole shroud / of this great and prismatic man / who stands / as the background light / for the planks of wood / we’d now lift into a cross.”)

Ese es  / Don Nicolás Joaquín, / flamante / fragua de este país / de sordociegos, / tabla de salvación / del ignorante / que perdió sus estribos / y sus pliegos.

(“That man is / Nick Joaquín, / the burning torch, / over this country of deaf-mutes… / He is the phalanx / of redemption / for those that ignore / what is truly Filpino / because they have lost / their documents / and the running board / upon which they could have stood.”).

¡Feliz cumpleaños, Don Guimò!

First published in FILIPINO eSCRIBBLES, with slight edits.

How to understand Joaquín’s “A Question Of Heroes”

As a supplement to Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral, a movie based on Gregorio del Pilar’s life and death, Esquire published a few days ago suggested reference books to give the curious moviegoer more information about the historical epic film’s background.

So if you’d like to appreciate the film better from a historical standpoint, consider partaking of the research that its writers did. Jerrold Tarog, who directed the film and co-wrote it with Rody Vera, has prepared a list of books worth reading—before or after seeing the film—to get a better sense of everything that Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral has on its mind.

I haven’t seen the movie yet. But I’m glad that the filmmakers did consult Telesforo Carrasco’s diary which was translated to English by Nick Joaquín from the Spanish original (Carrasco was a Spaniard). According to Director Tarog himself, Carrasco’s diary “provided a more believable version” of the Battle of Tirad Pass. And speaking of the 1976 National Artist for Literature, the director and his team also consulted the famed writer’s A Question of Heroes: Essays in Criticism on Ten Key Figures of Philippine History, the same book that they used as one of the reference materials for their 2015 blockbuster Heneral Luna. Says Esquire about the book:

Here, writer and historian Nick Joaquín poses unprecedented questions about some of our country’s well-known heroes (including Gregorio del Pilar) as a way of providing a fresh perspective on history. This was also one of the materials that Tarog referred to as he made Heneral Luna. Today, he has only this to say: “This book keeps getting me into trouble.”

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Because it really is troubling, especially to those who have been accustomed to immaculate Filipino heroes. In this book, first published in 1977, Joaquín bravely raised questions which were then almost unthought of: how “Filipino” was Fr. José Burgos? what was the real motive behind Andrés Bonifacio’s killing? why did José Rizal opted for a half-breed instead of a “pure Filipino” to be the protagonist of his novels?

And in relation to Tarog’s film: should Gregorio del Pilar be considered a hero considering his tainted record?

When I first read A Question of Heroes years ago, my perception of our national heroes changed, particularly of General del Pilar. He wasn’t that blameless, after all. He too had blood on his hands. I have since not forgotten that part on how he, on orders from above, had liquidated the followers of General Antonio Luna, particularly the Bernal brothers (Manuel and José).

This is not to say that del Pilar should immediately be painted as a villain. He wasn’t. The point here is to show that our national heroes are not demigods to be worshiped blindly. They were as human as you and me. However, lest this blogpost becomes a commentary or a book review on A Question of Heroes, I’d rather let readers find out for themselves more about those examined heroes by grabbing hold of that precious book, perhaps the only book that stands out from Esquire’s list (my opinion, of course).

But just a word of advise: since A Question of Heroes is actually a collection of historical essays, the best way to unlock its “hidden knowledge” is by reading all of them consecutively, not randomly. If you do this, I’d be very surprised if you don’t end up wasted with hopeful tears of nationalistic rage upon reading the very powerful but poignant final paragraph of the book (in the chapter “When Stopped The Revolution?”), for that final paragraph serves as the grand concert to the book’s preceding chapters of dress rehearsals, rehearsals that are meant to prep up the dazed and confused Filipino mind on what should be done to better the status quo.

By following that reading process, one will realize that General del Pilar is but part of a chain, a sad chain of events that up to now has not yet been given a happy conclusion. It is a chain that has yet to be completed.

Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Did Fernando Mª Guerrero just talk to me?

I just woke up about an hour ago, past 10 PM. I then went to one of my bookshelves, grabbed a collection of poetry by Fernando Mª Guerrero (1873-1929), opened up the book (titled Aves y Flores)… then lo and behold! Something strange just happened!

Watch my Facebook Live video here to find out why!

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Aves y Flores, a collection of poems by Fernando María Guerrero (Image: Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes).

And to think that just a few weeks ago, I was wondering if he ever died as a Freemason or not. Incredible. What are the odds?

Heart Anatomy (a heartrequiem, not a literary critique)

Because justice is the hip word today, I thought it best to render one to a now-forgotten collection of poetry written by Amelita Málig, née Cuala, a native of Luisiana, La Laguna. The book, entitled Heart Anatomy, was published in 1973, six years before I was born. It didn’t receive much fanfare. It didn’t catapult the author to literary stardom. Copies were very limited and were given only to a select few, mostly to friends. But the book had served its purpose: it released the author from her “promethean / sea of agonized / red”, putting her “putrefied heart” and “blasted brain” and “broken body” at peace with the God she once doubted.

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Mrs. Málig (1934-2000), as most students used to call her, was my literary instructor at Adamson University. Her only son Christian was a batchmate who became a dear friend of mine (he, myself, and Yeyette who is now my wife once formed a faction; we called ourselves “The Triad” although that silly faction was really meant to be a joke on my then girlfriend). Naturally, I first knew about Mrs. Málig through Christian but never had the chance to talk to her. I only got to meet her two years into college. To my observation, Christian seemed to be apprehensive in introducing his friends to her. But perhaps rightly so because to us students, there seemed to be a touch of eccentricity in her (a usual trait of writers, anyway). Her Bohemian appearance (it’s difficult not to remember her large circular earrings, loose and wild-colored blouses, and heavily made-up face) and booming voice shook fear in the hearts of youngsters who had had traumatic experiences from terror teachers during their high school years. These same kids called her names behind her back (one such memorable tag was “Mrs. Maligno”).

But Mrs. Málig was no terror. She just had a peculiar way of dealing with people. This I found out when she became my teacher in one of the subjects she had handled (Essay and Essay Writing if I remember correctly). She entered the class with aplomb despite her small stature, immediately instructed a student in front to lead the prayer, and off she went with a fun rhetoric that seemed to have been delivered many times before but nonetheless still effective. Not once did she look us in the eye, her scrutinizing iris always gazing at the ceiling as she spoke. And she spoke only English, but her witty one-liners drew down the whole class of mostly provincial kids who rarely use this language in everyday speech, even in English subjects.

After the obligatory introductions, she then bid us to write an essay, any essay. Almost the whole class winced, even myself (believe me, writing is not an enjoyable task). She didn’t explain, but it seemed to me that what she was doing was some sort of a diagnostic test. After several minutes of contemplation, I jotted down a list of pet peeves in sarcastic fashion, ending each item with a “blast it!” exclamation. I then counted the number of students: around 30. There’s no way for her to read all our essays, I thought back then. I was sure that she will not read everybody’s work.

Two or three days later, Christian reported to me about that essay I wrote. He said her mom was all into it. I couldn’t remember if I had laughed. All that I remember was that I was able to grab hold of her attention, and it excited me of course. It was the first time I have submitted a written work to be read by somebody. I immediately got praise although to my mind, even at that early stage of my life, I have always thought that all my writings were mediocre.

On the second day of class, me and my classmates stood up to greet her and to prepare for the mandatory prayers. But she ignored the courtesy and called out my last name instead. In a loud and seemingly angry voice, she boomed:

“Where is Mr. Alas?”

I could feel the blood streaming up to my cheeks. What happened this time? Was Christian playing jokes on me? Slowly, I dragged my feet towards the front of the class. I walked down the aisle, with all my classmates looking down at me as if I was to be sent to the gallows. When I was a few feet from the poetess, she interrogated me… without even looking at my face!

“Since when have you been writing? What books do you read? Who are your favorite authors?”

I didn’t know if I should feel proud or embarrassed. I was sweating profusely as I answered her rapid-fire questions in a low voice. I could feel my classmates inquisitive eyes, wondering what in the world was happening.

She didn’t mention anything about the essay. She lavished no praises. After questioning me, she simply bid me back to my seat. After the day’s lecture, she called me again and asked me to accompany her back to the faculty room. She had some packages and books. I carried them for her.

It was the start of a weird friendship. She rarely talked about her son to me (I never bothered to ask anyway, haha). We didn’t even talk about literature at all, nor about the day’s lectures. She never taught me anything, never recommended any authors. I simply accompanied her from time to time, doing small talk. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t even remember the things we had talked about during those times that we had trod the aisles of the university.

It was during one of these walks when we bumped into Señor Guillermo Gómez Rivera, a colleague of hers in the College of Liberal Arts. She introduced me to him as a fine young writer. I was embarrassed because Señor Gómez already knew me as one of his naughty students who never paid attention in his Spanish class, in fact was always absent; he later on gave me an incomplete grade (humorously enough, I later became a lifetime advocate for the return of the Spanish language in Filipinas). In response to Mrs. Málig’s introduction, the jolly Hispanist looked at me from head to foot and exclaimed in his thick Spanish-accent: “Admirable!” Señor Gómez has since become a close associate and a friend.

But there was this one time when me and Mrs. Málig walked home together that I will never forget. I was accompanying her towards the LRT station in United Nations Avenue. It was nighttime and there was a light drizzle as we hurried toward the covered Falcon Walkway. I’ve been having problems at home, so I involuntarily made a comment about the rain, and how it makes me lonely all the time (up to that point, I had never liked the rain). But I stiffened. I couldn’t pour out my heart to her, and she wouldn’t let me. She never probed. But she had said something about the rain, about its connection and non-connection to whatever I was feeling at the moment. About being and seeing. It was not the rain who’s at fault. It’s how I perceive the rain to be.

She had made me love the rain in an instant. Since then, I’ve become a pluviophile.

Mrs. Málig became my instructor again in another subject: Introduction to Literature. It was there where she introduced us to José García Villa’s poetry, paying more attention to his work than any other writer I could remember from that class. She pronounced Villa’s name as “Hosey Garsha Vila” (for all I know, Doveglion must have had pronounced his name in that manner when he was still alive in the States). It was obvious that she was an admirer of Villa’s uncanny poetry. Inadvertently (or was it purposely?), she made me an admirer, too.

Almost nobody in our class paid her much attention. What I mean is that the few others who had excelled in that subject did it for the sake of grades, not for the sake of learning the craft of versifying. I remember her instructing me and Christian to photocopy pages from her book of poetry to be given away to the rest of the class. The book contained techniques on how to master allegory, metonymy, imagery, alliteration, consonance, and a lot of other stylistic devices. We had it photocopied for days because the book was thick. After it was given away, nothing happened afterwards. We never discussed about literary devices. Nobody from the class bothered to ask. But I have always wondered.

(Fast forward to 2001, or a year before Mrs. Málig’s unexpected demise: On top of the mountain ranges of Abra de Ilog, my wife’s hometown in Mindoro Occidental. I was studying the contents of those photocopies. I studied and learned the literary devices she had given to us on top of a cloudy mountain, all by myself. Sometimes, I’d like to tease myself that those photocopies were really meant for me and not for the whole class).

Life had shown to me its rather unfriendly side when, in late 1999, I allowed immaturity to take over reason. Yeyette became pregnant, and we haven’t even graduated yet. Christian and her mom were one of the very few people whom we divulged our predicament to. Me and Yeyette got to talk with her in front of the SV Building. She gave us moral support by telling her lifestory. She was once a freethinker during her days in UP Dilimán, prompting her disappointed father to transfer her to St. Theresa’s College Manila (which has become a part of our alma mater since 1980). During her inquisitiveness, she had suffered a nervous breakdown, then went on a retreat with a group of religious to find herself. Along the way, she had met Jesuits as well as famous literary critic and poetess Josefina Constantino. She then took pen and paper and focused all her strength into creating this book that I now speak of  (Constantino gave it positive reviews).

She later invited us to her house. Actually, it wasn’t a house but a cramped up, studio type room in an ageing condominium near the expressway. There were three of them living there: she, Christian, and her husband who was suffering from colon cancer. Much of the small room was taken over by their large, double deck bed and a shelf filled with Mrs. Málig’s books and a TV set (Christian says she didn’t have any liking for it, calling it an “idiot box”). The shelf also served as a divider, creating a make-shift room for their dining space. There were boxes underneath the double deck bed, filled with more books and other papers. The room was dank and lonely, blighted even more by artificial light. Little did I imagine that a fashionable poetess like her would be living in such a cramped condition. But then again, she’s a writer, not an office worker.

We had dinner and small talk that evening. I remember it to be a cold one as Christmas was fast approaching. Before we left, she gifted us with a blanket, some pillow cases, and a ladle with her nickname etched on it. Something for us to start with, she said. We still use those items to this very day. And Yeyette is now a very excellent cook.

That was the last time we saw Mrs. Málig. A few weeks later, we confessed the pregnancy to our respective families. Life soon followed, a life that ached the heart.

Yeyette gave birth to Krystal in July the following year. We were already on our own, living in a basement somewhere in Villamor Air Base. And a few months after she gave birth, Christian gave us the shock of our lives when he brought news of his mother’s demise. It practically stunned us since we were all expecting Mr. Málig to go first. We regret the chance of not being able to show Krystal to her in spite of our place’s proximity to hers.

Without mincing any words, Heart Anatomy is the story of Mrs. Málig’s poetic journey from agnosticism to Catholicism, and her newfound devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It’s divided in two parts. The first is about her spiritual struggles, her “heart transmutation”. The second is a new insight on the world, using her heart (instead of just her senses) from her newfound devotion. All her poems on this book are short. But it doesn’t matter. Just like what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay “The Poet”:

It does not need that a poem should be long. Every word was once a poem. Every new relation is a new word.

And like Villa, she was nontraditional. Almost all her verses were experimental, dictated not by tradition but by the heart.

Ever since I became active on the Internet, I have always planned of publishing Heart Anatomy online as a token of gratitude for the literary inspiration she had planted in me and to a few other kindred souls (Palanca Awardee Joe Bert Lazarte, award-winning essayist Imee Rabang, and award-winning poet Radney Ranario) in one way or another. I feel bad and guilty because when I was still an active blogger (I was more active before than now), I’ve never given time for that plan. But two years ago, when I unceremoniously freed myself from writing constraints, I was able to snatch enough time to convert my only copy of her book into PDF form. I then uploaded each PDF page into my Facebook account as an album format, even changing its privacy settings to public in the hopes that it would reach many people. But the endeavor only proved how terrible I was when it comes to online marketing. Only four people “liked” it, and the only other person who left a couple of comments other than myself was Mrs. Málig’s daughter-in-law whom she had never even met.

About an hour ago, I received a chat message from Joe Bert (Mrs. Málig was much closer to him compared to myself and the other writers I mentioned on this blogpost). He told me of his plan to republish our teacher’s only collection of poetry. It excited me because exactly a year from now would be Mrs. Málig 85th birth anniversary (today’s her 84th, which is also the feast day of Saint Augustine of Hippo). It would be the best time to relaunch her book. I then thought of changing that PDF album to private, choosing only a very select few who can access it. It will do her justice if littérateurs would get to read her poetry collection in book form. Nevertheless, to honor her on her 84th natal day, I included below seven of her sensory-filled verses from her book’s poem one: you. You will, at least, be treated to witness a few steps of her versified journey from barrenness to a Land of Promise.

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Divinidad Filipina

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Foto cortesía de Missosology.

DIVINIDAD FILIPINA
Variaciones sobre un tema
Pepe Alas

(A Gemma Cruz de Araneta)

Gloria y honor nos ha dado
eternamente ella existe;
mágicamente encendió
muchas antorchas mustias que
alumbran puertas de anhelo.

Ceremoniosamente
rocío con catarsis
una gran ráfaga de
zafiros en puro éxtasis.

Adorarla es amar la Patria
respetarla es mostrar la Fe
anunciar la nueva mañana
nunca es completa sin su frente:
entre su sonrisa, hay luz,
tantas flores admiran su aire
a pedibus usque ad caput.

Derechos de reproducción © 2016
José Mario Alas
San Pedro Tunasán, La Laguna
Todos los derechos reservados.
Originalmente publicado el año pasado en mi Facebook.

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¡Feliz 74° cumpleaños, Gemma!