Love, Youth and Nick Joaquin

The author and Nick Joaquin (Photo courtesy of Maria Carmen Sarmiento)

The author and Nick Joaquin (Photo courtesy of Maria Carmen Sarmiento)

I probably would not be a writer if not for Nick Joaquin. Reading Prose and Poems was a seminal point in my coming of age. His writings stirred me so that I was moved to commit my first crime: I stole a copy of his novel, The Woman Who Had Two Navels from our high school library. No one had ever checked it out. I deserved to have it. It would not gather dust on my bookshelf. In my possession, it was certain to be read, and reread.

I was in college when I first met Nick Joaquin in the flesh.  He was giving a lecture at the old Thomas Jefferson Library on G. Araneta Avenue in Quezon City.  I arrived late, clutching the two books by him, which I owned.  The auditorium was filled to overflowing.  I spotted an official-looking American who turned out to be the USIS director. 

“Please, you have to get me in there,” I told him.  “I’ve been in love with Nick Joaquin since I was twelve.”

Straightaway, he took me through the backstage and escorted me right up to the podium where Nick Joaquin was taking questions from the audience.

“This young lady is in love with you,” the USIS director declared.

“Ever since I was twelve,” I added.

“Oh, sweetheart, where have you been all my life?” Nick Joaquin exclaimed and gave me a one-armed hug.  He liked the sound of that and wrote it in my stolen copy of The Woman Who Had Two Navels.

Nick Joaquin's dedication in the author's copy of The Woman with Two Navels (Photo courtesy of Maria Carmen Sarmiento)

Nick Joaquin's dedication in the author's copy of The Woman with Two Navels (Photo courtesy of Maria Carmen Sarmiento)

“I’m still in school but I’ll wait for you,” I replied.

“I’ve been waiting for you too!” he laughed, and wrote that on the flyleaf of Prose and Poems—No. 360 out of just 1,000, and doubly valuable as it was a gift from another great Filipino, Claro M. Recto, to my mother, long before she had me.

Nick Joaquin's dedication on the author's copy of Prose and Poems (Photo courtesy of Maria Carmen Sarmiento)

Nick Joaquin's dedication on the author's copy of Prose and Poems (Photo courtesy of Maria Carmen Sarmiento)

I married right after college and had three children in quick succession.  It was more than twenty years later, or in 2000, that I would again meet Nick Joaquin. He was to give a speech for the NVM Gonzalez Literary Awards of which I was the first Grand Prize Winner. He was formally dressed in a vintage black barong with huge white embroidered daisies. My winning story had also taken the Philippines Weekly Graphic Grand Prize, and Nick Joaquin happened to be this magazine’s editor tooAside from the generous check and the Billy Abueva trophy (a bas relief of NVM’s face), I got a copy of Nick’s book: Manila, My Manila.  This time, my daughters, who had read him, took it to him to sign. The night was young but the Master, as I thought of him in private, was already in high spirits. He wrote Quijano de Manila with an exuberant “Ye, Yay!” beneath his nom de plume.  Someone passed him the guest book.  Mischievously, he wrote his name as “Jose Garcia Villa” then underneath Address, scribbled: “Hell.”

“Hell?” my younger daughter asked faintly.

“Yes, hell!” he roared; then, as if for emphasis, he scribbled “Jose Garcia Villa” on my book too. Suddenly he sprang to his feet and stumbled out into the street.  My daughters followed him surreptitiously, and watched rapt, as he raised his face to the nighttime sky.  Heartrending cries of “God! God! God!” came forth from what seemed like the depths of his soul.  Then a man in a T- shirt and jeans came running up to him. It turned out that he was only calling for his driver “Rod.”  Duhh… 

Nick Joaquin's dedication on the author's copy of Manila, My Manila (Photo courtesy of Maria Carmen Sarmiento)

Nick Joaquin's dedication on the author's copy of Manila, My Manila (Photo courtesy of Maria Carmen Sarmiento)

All writers of the succeeding generations hold Nick Joaquin in awe.  It turned out that he thought about us too.  Thus, during a Halloween long past, that other revered National Artist for Literature, F. Sionil Jose or Manong Frankie held a little soiree, so that the Master could meet us in his convivial digs over the famous La Solidaridad, which also serve as the headquarters for the Philippine Center of PEN International. 

There must have been about thirty of us, a motley mix of poets and fictionists, with some journalists thrown in for good measure.  Nick Joaquin had generously brought a cochinillo from the Casino Espanol to go with Tita Tessie Jose’s pinakbet.  The Master was in smart casual, which for him meant, navy blue walking shorts, a long-sleeved dress shirt and brown loafers.  Manong Frankie trotted us out, like so many backward children, urging us to introduce ourselves.  Nick Joaquin sat in the inner parlor by the stairs.  No one among us had the temerity to make actual conversation with him but we eagerly posed for pictures.  He pronounced the technological marvel of the digital camera “Beautiful!”  Then, he retired to Manong Frankie’s inner sanctum.  Chris Lacaba, the scion of a literary dynasty if there ever was such a thing, promptly took in a plate of cheese to him.  The next thing we knew, Nick Joaquin was racing down the stairs, without giving us the chance to even say goodbye.  Paolo Manalo, jolog poet and Chris’ fellow Sex Bomb groupie, thought it must have been the cheese.

Which made me wonder:  what now of Nick Joaquin and the younger generations of writers--the bloggers, watt padders, FB soul barers… The late legendary Nieves Epistola, one of the most beloved English professors at the UP Diliman, told with gentle amusement of the time that Nick Joaquin watched the milestone-setting Anton Juan production of Portrait of the Artist as Filipino which unprecedentedly, had male actors playing the leads, as Candido and Paulo.  Most of the audience were high school students.  Throughout the play, Nick Joaquin kept up a boisterous and enthusiastic running commentary, as was his wont.  But instead of listening to his words, all that the students thought to ask their teacher was: Sino yung matanda na ang ingay ingay at tayo ng tayo para umihi? [Who was that noisy old man who kept getting up to pee?]   It is an evil generation that cannot see the great artist for the piss drunk old curmudgeon. But then Nick Joaquin’s words will outlive us all.

For more on Nick Joaquin: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/01/books/review/nick-joaquin-the-woman-who-had-two-navels-and-tales-of-the-tropical-gothic.html?smid=fb-share


Maria Carmen Sarmiento

Maria Carmen Sarmiento

Maria Carmen Sarmiento is an award winning writer and the former Executive Director of the PAL Foundation. She can be reached at menchusarmiento@gmail.com; menchusarmiento@ymail.com.


More articles from Maria Carmen Sarmiento