Sionil Jose, F(rancisco)

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SIONIL JOSE, F(rancisco)

Nationality: Filipino. Born: Rosales, Pangasinan, 3 December 1924. Education: University of Santo Tomas, Manila, 1946-48. Family: Married Teresita G. Jovellanos in 1949; five sons and two daughters. Career: Staff member, Commonweal, Manila, 1947-48; assistant editor, United States Information Agency, U.S. Embassy, Manila, 1948-49; associate editor, 1949-57, and managing editor, 1957-60, Manila Times Sunday magazine, and editor, Manila Times annual Progress, 1958-60; editor, Comment quarterly, Manila, 1956-62; managing editor, Asia magazine, Hong Kong, 1961-62; lecturer, Arellano University, Manila, 1962; information officer, Colombo Plan Headquarters, Ceylon, 1962-64; publisher, Solidaridad Publishing House, and general manager, Solidaridad Bookshop, from 1965, publisher and editor, Solidarity journal, from 1966, and manager, Solidaridad Galleries, 1967-81, all Manila; lecturer, University of the East graduate school, Manila, 1968; correspondent, Economist, London, 1968-69; consultant, Department of Agrarian Reform, 1968-79; lecturer, De La Salle University, Manila, 1984-86; writer-in-residence, National University of Singapore, 1987; visiting research scholar, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, Japan, 1988. Founder and National Secretary, PEN Philippine Center, 1958. Chair, Solidarity Foundation, from 1987. Lives in Manila. Awards: U.S. Department of State Smith-Mundt grant, 1955; Asia Foundation grant, 1960; National Press Club award, for journalism, 3 times; British Council grant, 1967; Palanca award for journalism, 3 times, and, for novel, 1981; ASPAC fellowship, 1971; Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio award, 1979; Cultural Center of the Philippines award, 1979; City of Manila award, 1979; Magsaysay award, 1980; East-West Center fellowship (Honolulu), 1981; International House of Japan fellowship, 1983; Outstanding Fulbrighters award, for literature, 1988. L.H.D.: University of the Philippines, 1992.


Short Stories

The Pretenders and 8 Short Stories. 1962.

The God Stealer and Other Stories. 1968.

Waywaya and Other Short Stories from the Philippines. 1980.

Two Filipino Women (novellas). 1981.

Platinum, Ten Filipino Stories. 1983.

Olvidon and Other Short Stories. 1988.

Three Filipino Women (novellas). 1992.


The Rosales Saga:

The Pretenders. 1962.

Tree. 1978.

My Brother, My Executioner. 1979.

Mass. 1982.

Po-on. 1984.

Ermita. 1988.

Viajero. 1993.

Sins. 1994.



Waywaya (from his story), 1982.


Questions. 1988.


(Selected Works). 1977.

A Filipino Agenda for the 21st Century. 1987.

Conversations with Sionil Jose, edited by Miguel Bernad. 1991.

Editor, Equinox 1. 1965.

Editor, Asian PEN Anthology 1. 1966.

Editor, A Filipino Agenda for the 21st Century: Papers, Discussions, and Recommendations of the SOLIDARITY Conference. 1987.


Critical Studies:

New Writing from the Philippines, 1966, and In Burning Ambush, 1991, both by Leonard Casper; Sionil Jose and His Fiction edited by Alfredo T. Morales, 1990; Conversations with Filipino Writers edited by Roger J. Bresnahan, 1990; "Revolutionising Philippine Space: F. Sionil Jose's 'Rosales' Novels" by Andrew McRae, in Crossing Cultures: Essays on Literature and Culture of the Asia-Pacific edited by Bruce Bennett and Jeff Doyle, 1996.

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For more than half of his life F. Sionil Jose has been simultaneously a writer of "fiction with a cause," founder and editor of Solidarity magazine in Manila, and the widely traveled owner of the Solidaridad bookstore, which also serves as a nerve center for extraliterary conferences. Both the magazine and the bookstore were named after the late nineteenth-century group of Philippine intellectuals in Spain who solicited not rebellion but reform of their second-class citizenship. Because his declared aim always has been to work for "social justice and a moral order," his novels and short stories inevitably comprise a single concern. He is best known for his five Rosales novels, which trace the migration of peasants from the barren Ilocos range of northern Luzon to the fertile central plains and finally to metropolitan Manila. In the process basic agrarian values, such as loyalty to the extended family, humility before God in nature, and honesty with one's fellow humans, along with a readiness to work, gradually have been sacrificed to Western excessive individualism and love of material objects.

Although in 1949 Carlos Bulosan had talked of creating a similar dynastic tetralogy, he died prematurely, and thus the Rosales epic is unique among Philippine literature. It extends from the 1880s to the present and is critical of elitist Filipino families who have always collaborated with foreign interests: Spanish hacenderos, American "liberators" at the beginning of the twentieth century, Japanese wartime occupation forces, and modern multinationals. Such Filipinos, President Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda Marcos among them, who put personal greed and oligarchic faction before national needs are responsible, according to Sionil Jose, for the continuing impoverishment of the landless majority of Filipinos. Yet as protest literature the novels depend less on their characters' helplessness than on the characters' will to resist corruption and to restore ancestral traditions of openness and trust and of mutual dependency.

Thematically, Sionil Jose's short stories have always been consistent with the ideals proclaimed in his novels and supported both by the 11 years he spent as a consultant to the Department of Agrarian Reform and his editorials in Solidarity. Like William Faulkner, who also wrote to restore a closer relationship with nature than with the industrialization of the American South, Sionil Jose's commitment has resulted in many of his short stories being seedlings later transplanted into the Rosales epic. One early story, "The Cripples," introduces Istak's father, hanged for theft by one arm until it withers. The situation is repeated in Po-on as part of the gross injustice that leads to the mountain men's migration southward. Istak himself becomes Antonio Samson's grandfather in The Pretenders. Ermi Rojo, a prostitute to politicians in "Obsession," evolves into the central character in Ermita. In Mass the chapter titled "Challenge to the Race" began as "Offertory," a story of official terrorism and torture under Marcos. The title story in Platinum presents a reverse mirror image of the situation in Mass, whose young narrator is a member of the urban poor but resolutely opposed to the Marcos dictatorhip. In "Platinum" a wealthy girl works to solve the problems of the underclass, at the price of her life.

A unique example of Sionil Jose's capacity for using literary experiments to serve his vision of history's frustrating discontinuities is the novel Viajero, whose episodic arrangement allows for virtuoso alternations and interpenetrations of short with longer fictional forms. In a single work he has constructed a compact parallel to the five-part Rosales saga. Viajero's dynamic focus is on the Filipino diaspora, imagined through the dramatic experiences of a composite Philippine voyager who is searching through global space and centuries of historic struggle for recognition. He searches from pre-Hispanic times through various colonial periods and wartime occupations toward a conceivable millennial fulfillment of the Filipino dream—the mature convergence of both individual citizens and society at large. To suggest this as a real possibility, Sionil Jose alternates the journeys of invented characters with such identifiable icons as Ferdinand Magellan, José Rizal, and Benigno Aquino. Despite its limited length Viajero resembles the national mural achieved by John Dos Passos's collective novel U.S.A.

Sionil Jose has never easily identified with a single social class or political ideology. "The God-Stealer" makes clear his respect for ancient native beliefs, yet "Waywaya" recognizes that feuds sometimes have occurred between tribes, as has the taking of slaves irrespective of gender. He even recognizes certain traditional virtues as potential vices if carried to an extreme. A self-reliant Ilocano in "Pride" feels enslaved by his perpetual indebtedness to relatives, for he can accept the principle of solidarity but not abusive nepotism. Similarly, in "Tong" a young Chinese girl submits to the will of her parents out of respect and marries an older man to whom they owe money. The ravages of World War II often seem to be the origin for the decline in traditional Filipino honor. In "Gangrene" a soldier begs not to be seen while he is an amputee and potential casualty, but in "Hero" a man accepts without qualms unearned battlefield medals (as Marcos notoriously did). Concealing one's true self from an occupying enemy, as people typically are forced to do under colonial powers, often takes its toll, leading people to become strangers even to themselves. The difference between outright collaboration for gain ("Dama de Noche") and reluctant compromise ("Voyage") narrows. Corruption flourishes wherever temptation is greatest, in corporate business ("The Interview") or in government bureaucracy ("Progress" and "Cadena de Amor").

Sionil Jose has increasingly pictured opportunists (tutas) who rise in the ranks of the seemingly successful yet are burdened with a sense of their being insincere because they are insecure ("Diplomacy," "Friendship," and "Modesty Aside"). Meanwhile, the underclass remains as powerless as it ever was under colonialism. The epidemic spread of corruption is epitomized in the title story of Olvidon. Here a Filipino doctor treating the national leader, whose skin beginning at the genitals is turning the color of a white sepulcher, finds his own skin taking on the deathly hue. Compared with such political prostitution, the hardworking whores in "Ob-session" and "Flotsam" appear to be a less, therefore forgivable, evil. Unlike the characters in "A Matter of Honor" and "The Drowning," who suffer for others, neither political nor professional prostitutes understand what love is. Of the two, however, the corrupt elitist—such as Carlos Corbello, the international playboy and entrepreneur in Sins—is the worse, for he confuses love with total possessiveness. Some of the earthier portions of Mass, Ermita, and Sins have been praised for their Rabelaisian humor. Even in such works, however, sexual byplay is never an end in itself but principally a symbolic means of satirizing the onanistic propensities of the ruling class.

Without exception Sionil Jose regularly demands integrity of both rich and poor. The suffocating control of the common tao (mankind) by either an overbearing oligarch or by Communist strongmen, by security guards or by vigilantes, is not acceptabe to the man who in 1980 won the international Magsaysay Award for fighting the cause of disenfranchised millions. As Sionil Jose explained in "The Writer Who Stayed Behind," defying the possibility of detention and confiscation during Marcos's 20-year rule, he neither hid in the hills nor escaped overseas but rather stayed in the Philippines as a voice raised to reassert the nation's honor. Anything less would have seemed to Sionil Jose to have been surrender to the "enclave of privilege and affluence."

—Leonard Casper