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Meeting F. Sionil Jose and Nick Joaquin, the Einsteins of Philippine Literature


Because of my change in programs from Lia-Com to just plain Liberal Arts, I needed to follow the 1977 curriculum instead of that of my freshman year in 1975. The direct consequence of this was that I had to take six units of Filipino, which by this time law required to be taught in college as well.

Because I was an East Asian Studies major, the curriculum I had to follow was saturated with language courses. On top of a series of English and Literature required subjects and electives, I also had to take twelve units of Spanish, six units of French, six units of Nihonggo and now another six units of Filipino. It was not really a problem because all except Nihonggo, which has the verb always at the end of a sentence, have the same technical structure.

Aside from this, French and Spanish are both Romance languages which share many similar words. The only initial difficulty that I encountered with my French I class was the approach of Dr. Lantin, the professor. He was a kindly bespectacled man who also taught Religion. The moment he entered the classroom and set down his attaché case atop the teacher’s table, he immediately started on a befuddling soliloquy in rapid French.

What little I had heard of the French language previously, I had already loved. This was why I was blown away by the professor speaking fluently in the language in front of the class. Of course, nobody understood a word of what he said. He would later enlighten us that the approach he was taking with us was not dissimilar to children learning a language for the first time. It was totally unstructured and not very effective. He seemed to have forgotten that children spend hours upon hours with their families and their environment completely immersed in their language. In contrast, we only had three hours each week.

Dr. Lantin continued in this mode for a couple of weeks before starting formal instruction. It was only when he did that I started to make something of the French language and started to realize that it sounded a lot like Spanish and even English but that the spelling was so much more elaborate.

I loved French and learned quickly; but as with Spanish, I knew that learning it would be a waste unless I would get opportunities to practice it.

I suppose it was inevitable given the number of language subjects in my curriculum that I would end up taking four in one semester. In the second semester of my senior year, I was taking French II, Nihonggo II, Spanish IV and Filipino II. It was, in a language sense, simply the craziest semester in all the years I was at DLSU. Sometimes, when taking quizzes, I would find myself absentmindedly using words of the wrong language.

Yet, despite the obvious difficulty in trying to learn all these languages, I actually got good grades in all. When I come to think about it, had I gone into Foreign Service instead of education after I graduated from college, I could easily have become multilingual instead of just bilingual. Neither French nor Spanish was far different from English; and although Nihonggo was structurally different from the Romance languages, in fact it was a lot less complicated. All I needed was practice, which unfortunately I would not get working as a teacher.

I had a most interesting assignment in one of my literature electives. I and one of my classmates were required to interview the prolific and multi-awarded writer F. Sionil Jose. Fortuitously, Jose’s son was among my classmates, so it was through him that we arranged to visit his father’s bookstore somewhere in Malate.

At the time, I really had no idea who F. Sionil Jose was. When I finally met him, I was initially totally unimpressed. He was of average height, balding and soft-spoken. If we hadn’t already been introduced, I would have mistaken him for a bookstore clerk.

I would only get to realize his literary genius after I read a few of his works much later when I was, in fact, already working as a teacher. Even our interview went on quite mundanely. Jose was a master writer as his numerous awards attested. But while I remember him as kind, polite and accommodating towards us, his was the personality that one would not remember for the rest of one’s life.

In fact, for almost the entire duration of the interview, I was having difficulty staying focused and taking down notes because Jose’s son and another of my classmates were interviewing another literary genius – a very drunken Nick Joaquin. Now this one left quite an impression.

For starters, his voice was loud and often drowned out Jose’s responses to our questions. That he was drunk so early in the day was hilarious in itself, but he was also witty in a sarcastic way. He would roll his eyes whenever my classmates asked him their questions, as though he thought the questions were not well thought out enough.

At one point, he called out to me and my partner, “Are you sure these two guys are your classmates?” Then he haughtily nodded his head in the direction of the two guys interviewing him. “Look at them,” he spat out, “they don’t even know what to ask me! I’m interviewing myself!”

And we all broke out laughing.

Too bad I was, at the time, next to ignorant as to who the gentlemen we interviewed really were. Jose and Joaquin were like the Albert Einsteins of Philippine Literature, but I would not get to realize this until years later.


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