Gatekeepers of national pride

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Jan 3 2011

By Joseinne Jowin L. Ignacio, Roman Carlo R. Loveria and Ana Mae G. Roa

THEY WERE men of wisdom whose intellectual guile and artistry have enamored a nation and kept it from the bondage of cultural apathy and ignorance.

Of the 16 Thomasians who were named national artists, three are former Varsitarian staff members–Francisco Sionil Jose and Bienvenido Lumbera for literature, and Jeremias Elizalde Navarro for the visual arts.

Francisco Sionil Jose

During his formative years as a writer, Jose, a naitve of Rosales, Pangasinan, was deeply inspired by the works of “Jose Rizal, Anton Chekov, Stojowsky, William Faulkner, and several black writers,” according to him. There was also the constant support he got from his mother Sophia and Fr. Juan Labrador, O.P., former dean of the old Faculty of Philosophy and Letters (Philets), now Faculty of Arts and Letters. Convinced at a young age that writing was “an expression of memory,” Jose, the 2001 National Artist for Literature, would live by this principle, his impressions, social consciousness—and memory—finding flesh in his novels, short stories, poetry and essays.

“It (writing) is memory put down on paper. So my earliest memories are my basic capital as a writer,” Jose tells the Varsitarian.

In 1945, he entered UST as a Literature major then joined the Varsitarian the following year.

Jose’s subsequent editorship, however, had to endure the heavy hand of censorship, with articles especially those with political overtures, having to be tamed by the school administration.

“It was during that time (1947-1949) that the Parity Rights was amended,” Jose says. “The students back then were very interested in politics.”

But it was only after the Second World War that Jose and his colleagues truly felt the burden of censorship which greatly exasperated them.

“We knew ourselves to be mature, and we knew what censorship was. And though we never took it upon ourselves, there were times when I got very angry about it,” he says.

Jose also founded the Philippine center of the international organization of Poets, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN) in 1957. As a man of letters, he thrived in the company of deliberate solitude, a situation that helped him complete some of his many notable novels such as Ermita (1988) and the Rosales Saga, which includes Po-on (1984) and Tree (1978).

His experiences abroad gave rise to his other successful novels such as The Pretenders (1962) and My Brother, My Executioner (1979).

In 1974, Jose received the Outstanding Alumnus Award for his literary achievements. His other writing diadems include the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts in 1980, the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in 1981 where he bagged the grand prize for his novel Mass, and the Varsitarian’s Parangal Hagbong in 2005.

Bienvenido Lumbera

Wordplay and a sense of social awareness typified Lumbera’s literary temperament.

The Lipa, Batangas native injected social relevance to his essays and stories by using intricate yet level-headed words which he learned from reading the dictionary and some children’s story books during his primary-school days.

“When I was in Grade 6, I wrote a composition using fancy words from the dictionary,” Lumbera says. “My teacher could not believe that I wrote it, and that I had the ability to write such a composition.”

After high school, Lumbera heeded the call of writing as he entered UST in 1950 to pursue a degree in journalism. He joined the Varsitarian in 1953 and became a literary editor before graduating cum laude in 1954.

Lumbera’s poetry collection, “Sunog sa Lipa at Iba Pang Tula,” won a Palanca in 1975 and like Jose, he also received the Magsaysay award in 1993. In 1998, he was awarded the Gawad Cultural Center of the Philippines Para sa Sining.

As a librettist and scholar, Lumbera has published books on culture and nationalism, one of which is Philippine Literature: A History and Anthology (1982), which he wrote and edited with his wife Cynthia. The anthology, while recounting the country’s literary history into five periods (pre-colonial, Spanish colonial, American colonial, the Third Republic and post-Edsa), also raised the standards of Philippine literature against the “prevailing literary customs” characterized by the aversion toward the study of ethnic lore. He also penned Writing the Nation: Pag-aakda ng Bansa (2002), which tackled Philippine arts and culture.

Proclaimed National Artist for Literature in 2006, Lumbera, whose works subsequently became part of the canons of Philippine literary criticism today, holds this distinction in high esteem. “When (a person) assumes a title like the National Artist, one needs to be circumspect in his views since he is speaking from a point of authority,” he says.

Jeremias Elizalde Navarro

Besides producing the finest writers of the country, the Varsitarian also produced masters in the visual arts. Case in point: the late Jeremias Elizalde Navarro who was declared a National Artist for Painting in 1999.

The Antique-born Navarro first entered the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts in 1947, but later transferred to UST where he majored in Painting. He joined the Varsitarian in 1948 and became its Art editor from 1949 to 1951.

As a V artist, Navarro conceived Varsilaffs, which provided comical renditions to everyday University-life scenes and Season’s Harvest which portrayed harvest-time landscapes.

Besides dabbing paint onto the canvas, Navarro also explored and used other media such as hardwood, metal and stone in his later works. He was also known as one of the pioneers in incision paintings, a technique that emphasizes texture by laying thick paint on carved wood or stone surfaces.

Among his masterpieces were “A Flying Contraption for Mr. Icarus” commissioned by the Lopez Museum (1984), and “I’m Sorry Jesus, I Can’t Attend Christmas This Year” (1965).

Navarro represented the country in various artistic competitions abroad, such as those in Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Japan, Indonesia, and the United States among others. He also staged numerous one-man exhibitions.

For his sharpness with the pen vis-à-vis his artistic brilliance, the Varsitarian conferred on Navarro, (who also ventured into poetry and art criticism later in his career), a posthumous Parangal Hagbong award in 1999. On June 10, 1999, he died of bone cancer at the age of 75. V