When I asked why, he said: “Because who among us has not betrayed another?”
It struck me then—and still does today—as an intriguing thought (and it may very well be true, given our histories, both national and personal), but it also shows the kind of ideas NVM spent almost all his life wrestling with.
On Friday, September 11, 2015, I had the honor of sharing my memories of the Philippine National Artist for Literature at a commemoration of his birth centenary. The program, organized by his son, Michael Gonzalez, and sponsored by the Philippine American Writers & Artists Inc., Philippine Studies Program of the City College of San Francisco, and NVM Gonzalez Writers’ Workshop, was held at the Philippine Consulate General in San Francisco.
It gathered many of his friends, colleagues and former students in the Bay Area, where he was based for a long time, before eventually returning to the Philippines. He died in 1999.
Though short, the program was a poignant one as guests recalled their favorite NVM “moments.” Alan Smith, NVM’s dean at Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay) when he taught there in the 1980s, took the stage to do precisely that—as did writers Oscar Peñaranda and Penelope Flores. I also was called on to share what I remembered of NVM as a teacher.
I was in his fiction class when I was a graduate student at the University of the Philippines in Diliman in the mid-1990s, and I was also privileged to know him outside the classroom. I was close, and remain close, to his grandchildren by his daughter Selma, and I spent many afternoons and evenings (as well as occasional mornings) at their lovely cottage on the UP campus. That was where I got a glimpse of NVM up close and away from the literary workshops and conferences he was constantly a part of at the time, and that was where he freely shared his thoughts on the topics he most cared about: contemporary society, language, Philippine culture, literature, of course, and many others. I often got a preview of what would later end up in his essays and newspaper columns.
That’s my lasting impression of NVM: He was a writer, but he also was a true man of ideas. And that’s exactly what I shared during the Consulate program (my remarks can be read here, for those interested:
He loved to wrestle with ideas and took great delight in refining, articulating and then sharing them. Many like to recall that whenever they ran into NVM, his first words were often, “Do you know what I thought of last night?” or “You know what I discovered?” and he always said it with so much enthusiasm and vigor as if it was what he lived for. In many ways, it was.
Friday’s program also featured a screening of part of “A Story Yet to Be Told,” a documentary film about NVM, and highlighted a postage stamp just released by the Philippine Postal Corporation that pays homage to him. Michael, who runs the NVM Gonzalez Writers’ Workshop in addition to his duties as faculty at City College of San Francisco, presented that to the crowd of about 50, along with the cover of two new books featuring his father’s works. The first was A Wanderer in the Night of the World: The Poems of NVM Gonzalez, edited by Gemino Abad. The second was Pitong Gulod Pa Ang Layo at Iba Pang Kuwento, a translation by Edgar Maranan of NVM’s Seven Hills Away and Other Stories. The two books, incidentally, were launched a few days earlier, on September 8, 2015, on what would’ve been NVM’s 100th birthday, at UP Diliman.
The reminiscences continued long after the program ended as guests, while mingling over refreshments, exchanged their own memories of NVM.
I had the chance to catch up with Deputy Consul General Jaime Ascalon, a fellow UP Diliman alumni and whose wife, incidentally, was also a UP English major. We were, in fact, classmates in a literary criticism class.
Thanks to Mr. Ascalon and the leadership of Consul General Henry Bensurto Jr., the Consulate truly has been a loyal and ardent supporter of initiatives to promote Filipino culture and arts, a case in point being this program. Another is the third Filipino American International Book Festival, set for October 2 to 4, at the San Francisco Main Library. NVM’s spirit, just as in festivals past, will surely be there as Manong Oscar Peñaranda, Manang Penelope Flores and many others who were influenced by NVM or otherwise touched by the lucre of his mind will be in attendance.
I will be there, too, snooping around and keeping notes, as I like to do at these things but only so I can keep telling the story of the Pinoy in America.
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