NATIONAL Artist for Literature F. Sionil José, the Philippines’ most translated author and most prolific novelist in English, passed away on Thursday evening (Jan. 6, 2022) at age 97.

José died in his sleep at the Makati Medical Center where he was supposed to undergo an angioplasty on Friday, Jan. 7, according to his wife, Tessie.

José took up Litt. B. Journalism at the old Faculty of Philosophy and Letters. His teachers included Fr. Juan Labrador, O.P. and Paz Latorena, often called as one of the three literary matriarchs of Philippine letters in English (along with Paz Marquez Benitez and Loreto Sulit). 

José was the editor in chief of the Varsitarian from 1948 to 1949.

Five of José’s works have won the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature: his short stories “The God Stealer” in 1959, “Waywaya” in 1979, “Arbol de Fuego” (Firetree) in 1980, his novel “Tree” in 1978, and his essay, “A Scenario for Philippine Resistance,” in 1979.

Also among his most notable works were the Rosales Saga novels “The Pretenders” (1962), “Tree” (1978), “My Brother, My Executioner” (1979), Mass (1983), and “Po-on” (1984); “Ermita” (1988); “Viajero” (1993); “Sin” (1994) and “Ben Singkol” (2001).

His fiction, especially his novels, have been translated into at least 27 languages.

In the 1990’s Random House, the venerable US publishing house, published the US editions of the Rosales Saga, as well as the novels “Three Filipino Women” (1992) and “Sins” (1996).

In 1957, he founded the Philippine PEN (Poets and Playwrights, Essayists and Novelists), the local chapter of the international federation of writers promoting freedom of expression.

He was the owner of the “best little bookstore in Asia,” the Solidaridad Bookshop and Publishing House, in Ermita, Manila, which opened in 1964.

He also became an art entrepreneur with the setting up of Solidaridad Galleries in Malate, Manila. Among the artists who held their first exhibits there were National Artist for the Visual Arts J. Elizalde Navarro, art editor of the UST Varsitarian when José was the EIC; Nena Saguil, Onib Olmedo, Ibarra de la Rosa, and others who became trailblazers in the Philippine art scene. 

Because of his opposition to Ferdinand Marcos, José was blacklisted and forbidden to travel during the early years of martial law. He was removed from the list through the help of his friend, then acting foreign minister Manuel Collantes.

José received the City of Manila Award for Literature in 1979.

Because of its depiction of student activism during martial law, “Mass” was first published in 1982 in its Dutch translation in Amsterdam and Brussels where it became a best seller. The original Manila edition came out the following year but only after the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. which unleashed a wave of protest across the nation.

In 1980, José received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Arts, which is considered the Asian version of the Nobel Prize.

He became a National Artist for Literature in 2001. The same year, he was conferred the third class of Japan’s Order of Sacred Treasure.

José received the Pablo Neruda Centennial Award in 2004. In 2014, José was named an officier (officer) in France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters).

In his twilight years, José became controversial for his support of President Rodrigo Duterte and his criticism of Maria Ressa winning the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.

Prior to his death, José wrote: “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 in 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.”

The José family has yet to release details of the National Artist’s wake and interment.


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