My Dinner With F. Sionil Jose

National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose Turns 90

F. Sionil Jose (left) and Benjamin Pimentel (Photo courtesy of Benjamin Pimentel)

F. Sionil Jose (left) and Benjamin Pimentel (Photo courtesy of Benjamin Pimentel)

The choice I faced in mid-October was this: Watch the San Francisco Giants take another step toward their third championship in five years, or accept my friend Jette’s invitation to have dinner with her dad.

I picked dinner, which turned out to be the smart choice. For one thing, the Giants lost Game 2 that night, though they eventually won the championship.

More importantly, how can one go wrong with a quiet dinner in a cozy, elegant restaurant on the waterfront on San Francisco’s Embarcadero with one of the Philippines’ most important writers?

Jette's dad is Frankie, or F. Sionil Jose, the novelist, essayist, the grand old man of Philippine literature. I first met him in the early 2000s at his bookstore Solidaridad in Manila. He and his wife, Tessie, served me turon (banana eggroll). We met next at Jette’s home in San Francisco, Jette served afritada (stew).

“He’s looking forward to seeing you,” Jette said in an e-mail.

And I certainly looked forward to seeing Frankie. He's an old man with a young man's energy for telling and listening to stories.

He is, of course, at work on yet another novel. He assumed that I too was working on another novel. He had seen the stage adaptation of my first, Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street, which was produced by Tanghalang Pilipino at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 2008. In fact, Frankie attended the gala, which I missed. (I arrived a week later.)

I've never been comfortable talking about works in progress. So it was a bit awkward as Frankie asked one question after another on what the novel was about, probing into the plot and characters, quizzing me on the voice, etc.

Then it was my turn to press him on something I strongly believe he should be doing: write his memoirs.

That's one thing we badly need, I told him. Other prominent National Artists, including Nick Joaquin and Amado Hernandez, never wrote their memoirs.

And Frankie should do it.

He just smiled. But there's actually a sign that he's working on it.

A few weeks before his trip, Frankie wrote a column titled "Notes From an Aborted Autobiography." It was actually from an interview he did with Jette a few years ago.

They were in Pangasinan where Frankie spoke to children from his old elementary school.

'"It was so amazing and very touching to see. He captivated the kids. They literally were at his knee, and asked him so many questions about his youth in Rosales and how to be a writer. They were so excited after the talk," Jette recalled.

The event inspired Jette to write about 20 questions for Frankie "primarily because I wanted to get to know him better. … I wanted to show both my father and the writer.”

Frankie’s column offered even more.

One of Jette’s questions was on what shaped Frankie “the most as a man, as a writer, as a husband and father.”

Frankie’s answer: “My mother, more than anyone, nurtured me, shaped me and whatever I’ve really achieved, I owe it to her not only because it was in her womb where I began, but because ever since I saw the light, it was she who really brought it, kindled it and let it shine so I could see the way. When she died, that light did not fade or dim for by then, it had been ignited in my heart and mind — the love, compassion and sacrifice.”

I look forward to that memoir.

Frankie celebrated his 90th birthday with a party at the Cultural Center of the Philippines where he was honored by fellow writers and artists. 

Happy Birthday, Frankie!

Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel

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