UST alumnus and ex-‘V’ editor Bienvenido L. Lumbera, National Artist for Literature; 89

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National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera attends “Valik Varsi,” the grand alumni homecoming of the Varsitarian, on Jan. 20, 2018. Lumbera was assistant literary editor of the publication in 1953.

National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera, whose doctoral dissertation 55 years ago on Tagalog poetry encouraged other Filipino scholars from the regions to investigate their vernacular traditions and established “Philippine Studies” as a vibrant academic field, died on Sept. 28 due to complications of stroke. He was 89 years old.

Lumbera finished cum laude with a Litt. B. Journalism degree at the old Faculty of Philosophy and Letters in 1954. He was the Varsitarian’s assistant literary editor in 1953. 

He later received a Fulbright Fellowship and completed his master’s and doctorate degrees in comparative literature at Indiana University in 1960 and 1967, respectively. 

His dissertation, “Tagalog Poetry: Tradition and Influences in Its Development,” studied the Tagalog poetry during the Spanish period that led to the classic Tagalog prosodic tradition embodied by Francisco Baltazar (1788-1862) in his “Florante at Laura” and which influenced poets in the 20th century. 

It was published as a book in 1986 by the Ateneo de Manila University Press, “Tagalog Poetry, 1570-1898: Tradition and Influences in Its Development.”

In 1986, he received the Outstanding Alumnus in Literature award from the Faculty of Arts and Letters during its 90th-anniversary alumni homecoming.

in 1996, Lumbera received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts for “asserting the central place of the vernacular tradition in framing a national identity for modern Filipino.”

The international award is considered the Asian version of the Nobel Prize. 

In 2006, he was named National Artist for Literature, the highest recognition given to Filipino artists. 

Lumbera taught at the Ateneo de Manila University before going underground in 1972 when late dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law. He was arrested by the military in 1974 and released almost a year later. He later taught at the University of the Philippines-Diliman and became editor of one of the school’s journals, Diliman Review, in 1978.

A celebrated poet, Lumbera’s representative Filipino poetry were collected and published in “Likhang Dila, Likhang Diwa” by Anvil Publishing in 1993. His later poems were collected in “Balaybay: Mga Tulang Lunot at Manibalang” (2002; Talingdao Publishing House). 

He was also a dramatist and wrote the librettos for the rock opera ballets “Tales of the Manuvu” in 1976 and “Rama, Hari” in 1980. From the two famous dramatic works emerged perhaps his two most popular lyrics—”Noong Unang Panahon” (composed by Nonong Pedero) and “Magbalik Ka Na, Mahal” (composed by Ryan Cayabyab). The first became a hit record by Leah Navarro in the 1970s, and the second a hit record by Kuh Ledesma in the 1980s. 

He also wrote the musical drama “Nasa Puso ang Amerika,” a stage adaptation of Carlos Bulosan’s novel “America Is in the Heart” in 1984. Lumbera would go on to write several acclaimed dramas such as “Hibik at Himagsik nina Victoria Laktaw”, “Bayani,” and “Noli Me Tangere: The Musical.”

As an academic, Lumbera authored many critical works such as “Revaluation: Essays on Literature, Cinema, and Popular Culture” (1984) and “Abot-Tanaw: Sulyap at Suri sa Nagbabagong Kultura at Lipunan” (1987).

The UST Publishing House published an expanded edition of his 1984 work, “Revaluation 1997: Essays on Philippine Literature, Cinema, and Popular Culture.” USTPH later published “Bayan at Lipunan: Ang Kritisismo ni Bienvenido L. Lumbera,” edited by Rosario Torres-Yu, in 2005; and “Anticipating Filipinas: Reading Bienvenido Lumbera as Critic,” edited by Charlie Samuya Veric, in 2006.

For several years, Lumbera was chair of the Philippine Center of the International Pen (Poets & Playwrights, Essayists, Novelists). 

In 2008, the Varsitarian gave Lumbera its Parangal Hagbong for lifetime Thomasian achievement in letters.

Father and teacher

Lumbera was married to teacher Cynthia Nograles with whom he had four children.

Sining, one of Lumbera’s daughters, recalled the “unconditional love” their father had for them as well as the important values he instilled in them at a young age

“As a father, he loved us, his children,unconditionally,” Sining told the Varsitarian. “He simply loved us and wanted nothing more than our happiness. He raised us to do the same to others. To be considerate to others and have compassion.”

But he was a father figure not only to his children.

Ateneo professor Michael Coroza, a UST alumnus and former Varsitarian staffer, said he was a graduate student of Lumbera at UP Diliman. 

“Isang karangalan at kagalakan para sa akin ang maraming ulit na pakikipagtagpo ko sa kaniya. Tunay na higit pa siya sa isang Maestro, Pambansang Alagad ng Sining, Ama,” Coroza said in a Facebook post.

For Joi Barrios-Leblanc, a Philippine literature lecturer at University of California, Berkeley, Lumbera stood as a father figure when she lost her own father as a kid and was the one who accompanied her to the altar on her wedding day.

“Itinuturing ko siyang tatay dahil ama siya ng aking panulat, ama sa pagiging guro at iskolar at ama ko sa pakikibaka. Naging orphan ako sa ama noong 12 years old ako, kaya malaking bagay sa akin na dumating siya sa buhay ko,” she told the Varsitarian.

Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, director of the UST Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies, said Lumbera was of great help to her when she was in the state university in Diliman, directing the Likhaan: University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing.

She explained she turned to Lumbera for guidance and advice who by then had become more than just a colleague, but also a good friend.

“I knew I could always rely on his calming presence, his sense of fairness, and his wisdom,” Pantoja-Hidalgo said in a tribute message with other friends and students of Lumbera. “He had been my friend for almost four decades. He was high-minded and steadfast, a brilliant and brave man. But he was also a kind man, patient, generous, and at times, wonderfully funny.” 

Award-winning Filipino novelist Lualhati Bautista also paid tribute to Lumbera or “Bien” as she lovingly called him.

Novena Masses and memorial services for Lumbera were held from Sept. 28 to Oct. 6  via Zoom. 

Lumbera’s ashes will remain in the family house until his interment at the Libingan ng mga Bayani as a National Artist. 

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