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National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose dies at 97

By PINKY S. ICAMEN Published Jan 07, 2022 11:51 am

Francisco Sionil Jose, a National Artist for Literature, multi-awarded and one of the most critically acclaimed Filipino authors, died on Thursday evening, Jan. 6. He was 97.

The Philippine Center of International PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, Novelists), a literary guild founded by Jose in 1958, first announced the national artist’s death on its Facebook page. 

Jose died in his sleep on Jan. 6, 9:30 p.m. at the Makati Medical Center according to his wife, Tessie. He was scheduled to undergo an angioplasty procedure on Jan. 7.

In Jose’s Facebook page, his family also confirmed the news in a short message. “Our father passed away peacefully this evening. Many years ago, he told us this is what he wants written about him: ‘He wrote stories and he believed in them’.”

Hours before his death, Jose, who wrote a weekly column titled “Hindsight” in The STAR, penned what would be his last post on Facebook, where he addressed his “brave heart” and even as a self-declared agnostic, thanked the “dear Lord for this most precious gift.”

“Now that I am here waiting for an angioplasty, I hope that you will survive it and I with it, so that I will be able to continue what I have been doing with so much energy that only you have been able to give. Thank you dear brave heart and dear Lord for this most precious gift,” he wrote.

A prolific writer, essayist and novelist

Jose was born on Dec. 3, 1924 in Rosales Pangasinan, where he developed his love for reading and became an inspiration for his works of fiction.

He attended the University of Santo Tomas in Manila after World War II, taking up Lit. B Journalism at the old Faculty of Philosophy and Letters. He was the editor-in-chief of UST’s The Varsitarian school paper from 1948 to 1949.

The Philippine literary giant has written over 35 books composed of novels, short stories, poetry and social commentaries that mostly examine the effects of colonialism and class struggle on Filipino society.

Among his notable works include The Rosales Saga, a five-novel series (The Pretenders, 1962; Tree, 1978; My Brother, My Executioner, 1979; Mass, 1983; and Po-on, 1984) that spans 100 years of Philippine history—from the execution of the Gomburza in 1872 to the declaration of martial law in 1972.

Jose was also the Philippines’ most widely translated writer, with his works translated into over 25 foreign languages, and Ilokano Tagalog and Cebuano.

In 1965, Manong Frankie, as he was fondly called, and his wife Tessie, opened the gem of a bookstore on Padre Faura St. in Ermita, Manila—Solidaridad Bookshop, which was named one of the world’s most brilliant bookshops by the Financial Times readers in 2021.

Jose was conferred the title National Artist for Literature in 2001, with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts describing his collective work since the 1960s as “epic.”

“Its sheer volume puts him on the forefront of Philippine writing in English. But ultimately, it is the consistent espousal of the aspirations of the Filipino–for national sovereignty and social justice—that guarantees the value of his oeuvre,” said the NCCA.

Jose gained recognition for his literary works, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Arts (1980); Order of Sacred Treasure, Japan (2001); Pablo Neruda Centennial Award (2004), Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres (2014), and Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature, which he won four times.

A staunch defender of the Duterte administration

Toward the latter part of his life, he was known to have defended the Duterte administration since the ex-Davao City Mayor was elected into power in 2016.

His remarks and commentaries on the government have stirred conversations among the public and fellow writers.

In a Facebook post days before the 2016 national elections, Jose said the Duterte vote is the “voice of angry Filipinos.” 

“If Duterte wins the election, his victory will be brought about by millions of Filipinos fed up with corruption at all levels of our society, and frustrated that the gains of the Aquino administration do not translate into their improved welfare and safety,” he said in his post.

In his STAR column on June 14, 2021 titled “Why Duterte,” Jose wrote, “It may turn out that for all his vulgar language, Rodrigo Roa Duterte may yet be, next to Magsaysay, the best president we ever had. All the criticisms considered, just remember this—the country is far safer now than at any other time.”

In October 2021, Jose posted on Facebook his sentiments about Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, who he said “does not deserve the Nobel” Peace Prize award. Ressa became the first Filipino to receive the distinction.

The Nobel Committee awarded the prize to Ressa and Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov "for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.” 

In his post, Jose said, “No writer is in jail. There is no censorship. Duterte hasn’t closed a single newspaper or radio station. The closure of ABS-CBN was made by Congress which did not renew the ABS-CBN franchise,” said Jose, who added that he has not read “anything memorable” by Ressa. 

Following a backlash from the public, writers and journalists, Jose maintained in a follow-up post on Facebook that his “opinion is based on verifiable facts” and the “truth.” 

“If you are intelligent, question the facts, do not kill the messenger that brought them. Then ask yourself: What heroic sacrifice has Maria Ressa done for freedom and the Philippines. And who is funding her,” he said.