Cover Illustration by Pete Rich

Doubtless one of the most prolific writers in the Philippines, National Artist for Literature F Sionil Jose is motivated by a deep awareness of the injustices that plague Filipino society and has dedicated his life to bringing these issues to light.

“At 95 I am still writing, searching and hoping,” says the multi-awarded, National Artist for Literature Francisco Sionil José, who continues to climb three flights of stairs every day to his private alcove in the Solidaridad Bookshop in Manila. “In writing, I’ve always tried to be true to myself first and foremost. 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 realise that hypocrisy itself is the need for virtue.”

The prolific writer, best known for The Rosales Saga, an epic opus that spans 100 years of Philippine history and society over five novels, has an impressive body of work that encompasses over a dozen novels as well as multiple memoirs, historical accounts, short stories, plays and countless articles and editorials. He is considered as the most widely-read Filipino author in the English language and his works have been translated into 28 languages around the globe.

José has always credited his mother, Sofia, as one of his greatest influences. “My lasting memory of her is entwined with ethereal images of revelation and discovery,” José writes about her on his blog entitled Hindsight. “Of silver mornings, cool, clear streams and golden fields – the good life and, most of all, books and books and honest labour.” Industrious and resourceful, she had always found ways to support the family and her son’s love for literature. Born in Pangasinan to a migrant family from Ilocos, José’s ancestral past and the loss his family experienced has always touched him deeply. He recalls how his grandfather, who was a soldier in the Philippine revolution, took him to the land that their family used to sow. Here, he emotionally shared with the five-year-old José, how it was forcefully taken from them by wealthy mestizo landlords. This recurring theme of repression would mark his life’s work.

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“It’s so difficult to be a Filipino, but it is with this sense of Filipinoness that has been my truism as a writer”
F Sionil Jose

He began his writing career in 1949 in Manila as a journalist and for the past half-century, José has dedicated his life to documenting the social injustices that plague Filipino society and the persistent sickness he calls “national amnesia”. One of his greatest inspirations as a writer is the National Hero, Jose Rizal, whose primary weapon was his plume when many of his contemporaries were brandishing arms. José deeply admires Rizal’s “devotion to his art and to his country”.

Following suit, the National Artist shares, “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, the ignorance—these seemingly insurmountable obstructions to the creation of a just and sovereign nation.” He adds, “It’s so difficult to be a Filipino, but it is with this sense of Filipinoness that has been my truism as a writer.”

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When asked about his legacy, José says: “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 and his enduring search for truth in a world that is full of lies and in the beauty of a world demeaned by ugliness.”

National Artist for Literature, F Sionil Jose, passed away in his sleep on January 6, 2022 at the Makati Medical Centre while awaiting surgery. He was 97 years old. This article was first published October 7, 2020; last updated January 7, 2022. 

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