A Varsitarian memoir

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Jan 3 2011

By Francisco Sionil Jose

I enrolled at the University of Santo Tomas in 1944; the school then was in its old campus in Intramuros, close to the Santo Domingo Church. The main campus in España was the interment camp of Allied civilians, mostly Americans. After the first air raid by American carrier planes in September 1944, all classes in Manila were closed and in October that year, with Manila already starving, the country in shambles, my mother, a cousin and I walked all the way from Manila to my hometown Rosales, Pangasinan, where we waited for the Liberation. In January 1945, I joined the American Army as a civilian employee, and left the Army in October 1945. The following year, when Santo Tomas opened, I enrolled in the college of Liberal Arts as a preparatory medicine student.

How did I get to join the Varsitarian?

Miss Paz Latorena whom I already knew was a first rate writer was teaching English and I purposely enrolled in her class. On our first day, she made us write on a theme whose title I do not remember. It was not difficult—so when I finished it in 15 minutes, I asked if it was all right for me to leave. She said, yes.

The following session, she called my name and told me to see her after the class. She said I should take the examination for the Varsitarian that forthcoming week, and that I must not fail to do it. And that was how I joined the Varsitarian, first as assistant literary editor, together with Dolores Locsin, The literary editor at the time was Albert Card—an American veteran studying under the GI bill of rights.

In those days, there were separate entrances for men and women and separate classes as well, but not in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters because we were so few, the Varsitarian office was in the ground floor, the huge room at the right of the main entrance in the main building. Voz Estudiantil, the paper in Spanish shared the office with us. The Varsi Adviser was Francisco Cuerva, and the Varsitarian moderator was Fr. Florencio Muñoz who was also the University secretary; he was succeeded by Fr. Francisco Villacorta. It was the age of the typewriter, the flatbed press and the linotype. When we put the paper to bed, we really put it to bed in the flatbed press at the UST Printing Press which was then at the corner of P. Noval and España. There we often worked late at night, and got our fingers dirty with printer’s ink while we helped the printers set up the pages with the cuts and the proofs fresh from the linotypes.

When there were huge blanks that needed material, we typed out the stories right there. In those days, there was indeed a close working relationship between the editorial staff and the printers.

My first editor-in-chief was Eleno Mencias who was a medical student, then came Santiago Artiaga who wrote a column, Tiago Tiaga. He was in law, and finally, Manuel V. Salak. He was taking up Law. And on the fourth year in the staff, I became editor-in-chief, with Constante Roldan as my managing editor. I remember Cenon Rivera who was staff artist, then J. Elizalde Navarro, who lived by himself in a small ground floor apartment near the University. I often visited him and we reminisced about the war, and talked about art. He was then very much under the influence of Carlos V. Francisco.

Pepino Vinzons Asis, alumni editor—in the eighties, he visited me at my bookshop. He had become a priest and was in a poor parish somewhere in Bicol. We talked about the priesthood, its hardships I had hoped he would visit again.

There were several fixtures in the Varsitarian, the first of course, was Francisco Cuyerva who was the publications director and the office manager, Enrique Lumba who was responsible for running the office. I had no typewriter and he permitted me to work in the office at lunchtime or late in the evening typing out my manuscripts. Then there was Mike Evangelista who was alumni editor, who was also a very good proof reader, and Benny Buenaventura—the hippie poet and perennial student, who continually gave us his poems—some of them publishable. I was walking behind him once on the way out of the campus to España and he was talking to himself. I moved closer and realized he was reciting Shakespeare.

In the Varsitarian, Ben Rodriguez, Tedoro Benigno, Mary Ruff Tagle, and Eugenia Duran Apostol wrote short stories, and Adoracion Trinidad contributed poetry. Juan Gatbonton and Neal Cruz were reporters. Delia Coronel who was the coed editor became a nun and in Marawi, she translated the Maranao epic, The Darangen, for which she has yet to be fully honored.

My first formal dinner was tendered by the Father Rector, Angel Blas, for the new Varsitarian staff in 1946 at Carbungco’s—the only posh restaurant shortly after World War II. And so there we were, before that fancy dinner table arrangement, the different kinds of forks and knives. I did not know the sequence so I watched the priests, and followed their example. The red and white wine—that was easy enough. The soup and the fish, too. Then the brandy after dinner. I wondered why it was not so generously poured as the wines and so I gulped it, not sipped it, and almost choked.

I remember Johnny Frivaldo and our meeting with Father Villacorta, how he had asked for more pay for us staffers and more scholarships—which Father Villacorta granted. To prove his point, Johnny lifted one of his shoes which had a hole in the sole. Johnny was a very good politician, as his career later proved.

And Gloria Garchetorena, and Celso Carunungan—as literary editors they made a beautiful and a hard-working pair. Celso could write those complex and profound sentences—but he elected to write simply as was the fad in those days with Carlos Bulosan, and William Saroyan.

And since I was then an avid follower of William Faulkner, I tried to write differently, in a manner prolix and confused, one page, one sentence of convoluted thinking.

I recall only too well how once, Manuel Salak, who was then Varsi editor, and Manila Times reporter had inquired about one essay that I wrote. He said, it was beautifully written, but what did I want to say? I thought the words were by themselves explicit.My most important lesson in writing was given to me by Fr. Juan Labrador, Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters. This was sometime in 1947, I think. NVM Gonzalez was then editing the Saturday Evening News Magazine and he had used one of my short stories.

Father Labrador took me to the canteen—the building at the left of the main building. The ground floor was for students, the second floor for the faculty. We had mami and siopao. He asked me to look out of the window and tell him what I saw. I said, the high school girls playing softball. He said, suppose I put curtains on both sides of the window, what will you see? I said, the curtains and the girls playing softball. Then he leaned forward and asked, Suppose I covered the entire window with beautiful curtains, what do you see?

I said, the curtains, Father.

He said, that is writing. Never cover the window with curtains, no matter how beautiful. Leave something clear so that your reader can see what is beyond the window.

His eyes twinkled, Besides, you will always be a second rate Faulkner. You can be a first rate Jose.

So, goodbye William Faulkner. And shortly after, Miss Latorena dropped by the Varsi office. She had read my latest short story and she said, now I was not just telling stories but writing them.

The happiest days of my youth were spent at Santo Tomas. Thanks to the Varsitarian, I had a small pay and a scholarship as well. And most of all, although it was not at the campus where I met her, it was at UST where my future wife was studying, too. When I first met her, I asked if she had read me. She said, no. Did she not read Varsitarian at all?

Again, she said, no.

It was a monumental put down, but it did not faze me. V

Francisco Sionil Jose is the National Artist for Literature. He is one of the most widely-read Filipino writers in English. His works, most famous of which are the Rosales Saga, had been translated in 22 other languages. He founded the Philippine Center of International PEN (Poets and Playwrights, Essayists, Novelists) in 1957 and became the Varsitarian editor-in-chief from 1948-1949.