Francisco Sionil Jose

F. Sionil Jose, the multi-awarded fictionist and essayist whose works tackled themes of social injustice, class struggle, and colonialism in the Philippines, died in his sleep on Jan. 6. He was 97. His family, through his Facebook profile, confirmed his death late that night: “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.’”

Francisco Sionil Jose was born on Dec. 3, 1924, in Rosales, Pangasinan. Many of his short stories and novels were set in his hometown, the best known of which were the Rosales Novels, a five-part saga that followed generations of the Samson family, whose personal lives are tied seamlessly with three centuries of Philippine history. The series’ final novel, Mass, published in 1973, earned him one of his five Palanca awards.

Jose’s writings have been translated to over 25 languages and published in various international journals and anthologies over the years. In 1965, he opened the Solidaridad Bookshop in Ermita, Manila, which became a hub for local writers and those seeking Filipiniana reading material. It also served as the headquarters for the Philippine Center of International Poets, Essayists, Novelists (PEN) International, which he founded in 1957. The shop is still in business in its original location.

Jose was bestowed the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts in 1980, the Outstanding Fulbrighters Award for Literature in 1988, and the CCP Centennial Honors for the Arts in 1999. He was given the Order of National Artist in 2001 for his contributions to literature.

To many, he was known as Manong Frankie, always the writer with a quick wit and divisive opinions but never without his signature beret and cane — both of which may seemed like fashion statements but were actually meant to keep him warm and safe, he once admitted in his column in The Philippine Star.

The most recent of his most forthright comments was his criticism of journalist Maria Ressa receiving the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, posting on Facebook that he had not “read anything memorable by her.”

But despite this sharp tongue that earned him both fans and detractors, he also wrote with chilling honesty about his own self, the final example of which would be a message he posted addressing his heart, a few hours before his death.

“Thank you brave heart. There are times when as an agnostic I doubt the presence of an almighty and loving God. But dear brave heart you are here to disprove this illusion, to do away with the conclusion that if you doubt Him, you kill Him. I cannot kill you dear heart; you have to do that yourself. For 97 years you have been constantly working patiently pumping much more efficiently and longer than most machines. Of course, I know that a book lasts long too, as the libraries have shown, books that have lived more than 300 years. 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.

Jose was scheduled for angioplasty surgery at the Makati Medical Center, but passed away the night before. His heart was unable to continue, allowing the Philippine literary icon to rest. — Brontë H. Lacsamana