The door leading to the third floor of the Solidaridad book shop is narrow and softly lit, but the wooden stairs are well-polished and clean. An air-conditioned living room of modest size welcomes every guest who is made to feel at home and at ease. The small office on the northeastern part has been the special birthplace for some of his widely acclaimed novels. Wearing his printed black polo and black slacks that exactly fit his aged body and with his house slippers on, National Artist Francisco Sionil Jose went out of this room and sat in front of a round table. Prominent people in politics and literature were able to grace this receiving room and to some extent had a few heated arguments with him too. He was specifically referring to his dear friend the late Nick Joaquin, a contemporary of his as well as a fellow National Artist, whom he misses the most. His baldness and sparse white hair were witnesses to the decades of scribbling words into journals, essays and novels. We arranged the seats facing him and began asking questions. His wife Teresita later joined us in the discussion.
F. Sionil is not overly serious and reserved. His sense of humor may be for intellectuals only, but he could crack jokes in the middle of the conversation, and his laughter can be contagious. Aside from answering questions that were part of the interview, he also told stories about a ghost that dwells in his office and the mystery of a thick folder that fell from the top of a cabinet when he and Nick Joaquin were arguing on a certain topic. He also mentioned that a lot of people died during the Japanese occupation in the nearby area along Padre Faura where his shop is located. Ghosts have not spared a nearby establishment that even during daytime the crew apparently saw a headless man walking inside the resto that prompted all of them to go out of the building, which created a slight commotion out on the street.
Perhaps a good sense of humor is one of his hidden secrets that despite his age, his mind still works rather sharply and his memories are very vivid. Especially for young people who are eager to listen to him and learn a thing or two, he was very welcoming, more than willing to share his wisdom and stories like a teacher in a classroom full of knowledge-hungry students.
That very afternoon was a close encounter. There were only six of us, short of a minimum college class of eight students. I was not star struck but my ears were. My role was just to take pictures, but the temptation was really intense, so passionate that I cannot resist getting my pen and paper and started taking notes of some of the very important things that were coming out of his mouth. I had to ask permission from our Travelibre team leader if I could raise some questions as well. She said yes. So I asked him what advice he could give to the young aspiring writers. He said, “You have to read, read and read more especially the classics. Write, write and practice writing. Keep a journal. Be observant. Establish your characters and be imaginative.”
It was a rare opportunity and I had to seize that moment. In fact, I have no idea that the core group would be meeting the National Artist. It was a blessing since I had been in search of some inspirations that could improve my writing skills.
After two hours, before we ended, we headed back to his office and he showed us a portion of a shelf — a collection of his novels in 28 different languages. I was intrigued by the novel, Ermita, and I bought a copy and had it signed personally by the author himself. We thanked him for the generous time he spent with us and left for the National Museum.
While waiting for the museum tour guide to arrive, I flipped the book open and started to read:
“To those who want to lift this nation from the dunghead of history, the past does not matter – only the present, the awareness of the deadening rot which surrounds and suffocates us, and what we must do to vanquish it.”
I think I have just found a new hobby.