Digital Reporter

The first version of this article referred to the Philippine High School for the Arts as Makiling High School for the Arts. It also stated that Mr. Pete Lacaba was imprisoned because of his poem. He was, in fact, linked to subversive acts. These errors have been corrected.

National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin would have celebrated his 100th birthday last May 4, had he still been alive. (Or maybe he wouldn’t, the man was said to prefer keeping his own birthday a secret.) Famous for his novels and short stories, some of which had been required reading for high school students, Mr. Joaquin also wrote news features in another name: Quijano de Manila. His nom de plume was an anagram of his last name, which roughly translates to the Spanish for “gentleman” and calls back to Mr. Joaquin’s favorite novel: Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes.

As Quijano de Manila, Mr. Joaquin wrote several stories for the Free Press, and eventually the Asia Philippines Leader, ranging from several topics and news beats. These stories were eventually collected into series of reportages, which include Reportage on PoliticsReportage on the MarcosesReportage on Crime and Reportage on Lovers. Mr. Joaquin was said to drink one beer in the morning at home while writing his stories, take a midday siesta, take another bottle of beer in the afternoon while typing his stories down at the Free Press office, and then go out drinking at night. He was also said to drink while interviewing his sources.

But how is Quijano de Manila different from the creative writer of florid prose and poetry, who thought in Spanish but wrote in English and brought the gothic from the bleak Victorian homes of England and America to our own colorful doorsteps? Why did he have to write in another name?

Art Samantha Gonzales


“He wanted to distinguish himself from being a creative writer to being a journalist,” Rosario Joaquin‑Villegas, Mr. Joaquin’s niece and executor of his estate, told SparkUp at the side of He Lives: The Centennial Celebration of National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin at the Cultural Center of the Philippines on May 4. “But eventually the distinction didn’t matter to him anymore.”

Indeed, Mr. Joaquin himself said so about his two personas and the rift between creative writing and journalism, with a theatrical flair, when he accepted his Ramon Magsaysay Award for Literature in 1996: “Many think I am a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—although they’re not at all agreed about which of me is Dr. Jekyll and which is Mr. Hyde.”

“The question of Journalism versus Literature? no longer has to be asked,” he added. “The old feud is over and the two rivals are now more or less on even terms. If journalism has been upgraded to literature, literature is being reinvented as a species of reportage. In the some five decades I have been in journalism, those are the developments that I find most moving—because my own writing career has moved in the same direction: from fiction to reportage, and from reportage to non‑fiction as literature.”

But Ms. Joaquin‑Villegas said that her uncle would never be a source of fake news. “First of all, Tito did his research. He would never release fake news,” she said. “He had integrity, and he would really dig (for information). No fake news could come out of him because of his research and integrity.”

“The millennials, what they can learn from him, he can teach us where we came from. For me, that’s the most important thing millennials can learn,” she said. She added that it made her very happy to have Mr. Joaquin’s A Question of Heroes (1977), a collection of essays on key figures during the Spanish period, to be credited as a source for the popular film Heneral Luna (2016).

SparkUp also spoke with Marra PL. Lanot, a poet and essayist of feminist works and friend of Mr. Joaquin. “There’s always a place for Nick’s style because Nick always treats his subjects in a humane way. It’s the pros and cons, the negative and positive traits of the subject,” Ms. Lanot said.

As for what the current generation could learn from reading Nick Joaquin, she said: “They’ll learn how to understand the subject, how to understand history, and how to understand their own nation—to understand, appreciate and to love your fellow Filipinos.”

Ms. Lanot met Mr. Joaquin as a student, when she had decided to try out submitting a poem to him for publishing, only to find out that it was her own father who had first published Mr. Joaquin’s poem in the Manila Tribune. (“You are my discoverer!” Ms. Lanot recalled Mr. Joaquin telling her father, after he had insisted on accompanying her home to meet him, after which her father replied: “Discoverer? Who am I, Christopher Colombus?”) She eventually married writer and journalist Jose “Pete” F. Lacaba, known for his reportage on the First Quarter Storm and was incarcerated and tortured for two years during the martial law period after being linked to subversive acts. They are the parents of Kris Lanot‑Lacaba, who co‑wrote the biographical film Dahling Nick (2015) with Director Sari Raissa Ll. Dalena. Ms. Dalena is the daughter of artist Danilo Dalena, who drew editorial cartoons, cover illustrations for Mr. Joaquin’s books, and portraits of Mr. Joaquin, among other of his contemporaries, which are displayed with Mr. Joaquin’s memorabilia at the CCP.

A critic of the late strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos and his first lady, Imelda Romualdez‑Marcos, Mr. Joaquin initially did not want to accept the accolade of being a National Artist in 1976, calling the award a ploy to “deodorize” the atrocities of that period. However, he was convinced to accept so that he can use it as a leverage to get Mr. Lacaba released from prison. Witnesses to the awarding said that Mr. Joaquin spread his arms like Jesus on the cross when called to stage. He also used his position as National Artist to humiliate the former first lady in his introductory speech for her during a ceremony at the Philippine High School for the Arts, after which he was never invited to accompany her again.

Art Samantha Gonzales


“As a journalist he was very professional,” Mr. Lacaba said during the Small Beer forum on the life and works of Nick Joaquin held that evening. He had worked with Mr. Joaquin as a writer and copy‑editor for the Free Press. “Even if he didn’t like the subject, if he agreed to write about it, he would interview the person.”

For Ms. Dalena, who personally did a lot of research while working on her film, Mr. Joaquin’s florid style of writing also translated to his journalistic works.

“They call it the Joaquinesque—florid, elaborate, and a bit excessive, but that’s for his prose and poetry,” Ms. Dalena told SparkUp. “A little bit of that kind of applies to his journalism, he said that things don’t always have to be dry or cold, it can be full of substance yet well constructed. There’s a certain architecture to his journalism.”

Still, that didn’t mean that Mr. Joaquin skimped on the facts to come up with a good story. “He would really go to the source,” Ms. Dalena said. “He would travel, take the long trip, and meet that person and even wait for many hours just to be able to talk directly to the source, or to that person. He’s that kind of person when he does interviews. He doesn’t rely on second‑hand information.”

“The strong sense of memory and seeing beauty in the ruins, through the rubble, that was what formed the pain and beauty of Nick Joaquin and that’s why he would write very nostalgic concepts but still be very much at the present,” she added. “He would always be able to connect the past and the present, and that is what adds richness to his writing.”

In his own words, Mr. Joaquin said, during his Ramon Magsaysay Awards speech: “You know, actors say there are no small parts, there are only small performers. So I say there are no hack‑writing jobs, they are only hack writers. If you look down on your material, if you despise it, then you’ll do a hack job.”

Art Samantha Gonzales


Still, one might wonder what Mr. Joaquin would have written if he had still been alive, or if he had been born in our generation. Would he have been active on social media? (“I don’t think so, he’s a very secretive person,” Ms. Lanot said during the Small Beer forum, still, can anyone escape social media nowadays?) Would he have written about the LGBT experience, both of his own and of others, now that the world is more open these kinds of stories as opposed to how it was decades ago? (“Syoke si Nick! There’s no doubt about it,” National Artist Francisco Sionil Jose said on record in Dahling Nick.) How would he have taken the news that the very dictator that he had opposed is now buried at the Libignan ng Mga Bayani with his fellow National Artists? (“Among friends, even during the martial law dictatorship he spoke against them,” Mr. Lacaba said during the Small Beer forum. “In person he would speak his mind out, but in writing he would probably write about the time of Jose Rizal but make that also a metaphor for what’s going on today. That’s the kind of thing that he would probably do.”)

This generation is different from the generation of Nick Joaquin and his contemporaries, though the timelessness of his themes still prevail. “The identity of a Filipino today is a person asking what is his identity,” Mr. Joaquin once wrote, and that continues to be true, though less a question of whether or not Filipinos are more Spanish or more American, and perhaps more an issue of national identity vis‑a‑vis regionalist identity, as exemplified in the free‑style speeches of President Rodrigo R. Duterte, where he would often extol the Bisaya and lambast the Tagalog. Filipino folk Catholicism continues to enthral with its contrast against the orthodox and the liberal Catholic practices. There will always be love, and lust, and the contrast of conservatism. Filipinos are more openly affectionate than other Asian nations, but society’s judgment is nigh inescapable once public displays of affection and sensuality becomes “too much”.

National Artist Francisco Sionil Jose (F. Sionil Jose), in his opening speech during the event, put into grand words the importance of a writer like Nick Joaquin: “The world that Nick Joaquin that inhabited is no longer with us… But what many Filipinos don’t know that as a novelist, as a writer, Nick Joaquin was a living keeper of our national memory. This is what all writers do whether they are lousy or excellent—they are the keepers of memory and remember, without this memory, there is no nation.”

Mr. Jose, now 92 years old, had a friendship with Mr. Joaquin that allowed the two to get into heated debates on several topics, though they both agreed that Don Quixote was the “greatest novel of all time”. Mr. Jose was a wine drinker, Mr. Joaquin stuck to his signature beer. Mr. Joaquin wrote about the mestizos in Manila, Mr. Jose wrote about the colonized Ilocandia. Mr. Joaquin’s nostalgia for the Spanish period was not something that Mr. Jose shared. (“Without Spain, there would be no Rizal,” Mr. Jose recalled Mr. Joaquin argue, to which he would reply “but it was the Spaniards, not the Filipinos, who killed Rizal.”) They even fought about whether or not Jose Garcia Villa deserved to be a National Artist, with Mr. Joaquin defending his contemporary. And when he lost (“which he more often did,” Mr. Jose said), Mr. Joaquin was known to wave a white handkerchief that he had already used to blow his nose at the face of his friend to signify defeat. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a friendship like that in this age of heated debates between the so‑called DDS and the so‑called yellows?

“I look forward to how millennials would see history in their own special way,” Ms. Dalena told SparkUp. Her smile never leaving her lips, she added: “But perhaps it would help millennials if they drank more beer.”

The Aparador ni Quijano de Manila exhibit can be viewed at the Pasilyo Victorio Edades, fourth floor of the CCP this May. Ms. Dalena is working on showing Dahling Nick (1995) at more schools, starting with the Far Eastern University (FEU) and the University of Santo Thomas (UST), which lended their own collection of Mr. Joaquin’s books and memorabilia for the shooting of the film.

The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic, a collection of Mr. Joaquin’s stories, has been published by Penguin Classics last month, bringing his tales to a wider audience outside of the Philippines.