Philippine Literary Giant F. Sionil José Dies at 97

JC Gotinga
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Philippine Literary Giant F. Sionil José Dies at 97 National Artist for Literature F. Sionil José checks his bust as he arrives at the unveiling of a giant pop-up book of Filipino heroes as the centerpiece of the 118th celebration of Philippine Independence Day in the northern province of Pangasinan, June 12, 2016.
Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews

The Philippines’ literary community on Friday mourned the death of F. Sionil José, a National Artist for Literature, whose widely read novels espoused national sovereignty and social justice.

José, 97, died at a Manila hospital late Thursday on the eve of a scheduled angioplasty. He is survived by wife, Tessie, in Manila, and seven children, all but one of whom live in the United States.

“Our father passed away peacefully this evening. Many years ago, he told us this is what he wants written about him: ‘He wrote stories and he believed in them,’” his family said in a brief statement. 

Highly regarded for documenting the generational travails of the Philippines in novels, short stories and other writings, José was a key and at times controversial figure in the Philippine intelligentsia.

His best-known work, “The Rosales Saga,” is a series of five novels that illustrate a pivotal century of Philippine history from the points of view of characters rooted in his hometown of Rosales in the northern Pangasinan province. José wrote in English and some of his 14 novels and many short stories have been published internationally and translated into 28 languages. 

In other writings, José sparked controversy over his support for President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and his disdain for the Filipino-Chinese community.

He also drew criticism for an October tweet questioning the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to journalist Maria Ressa. 

“I have criticized Duterte but not on press freedom. The Philippine press is alive and well not because of Maria Ressa. No writer is in jail. There is no censorship. Duterte hasn’t closed a single newspaper or radio station,” José tweeted on Oct. 9, 2021. “Those Nobel judges were taken for a ride by western media hype.”

From his hospital bed, the famously agnostic José thanked God for allowing him to live as he urged his failing heart to survive. 

“I cannot kill you dear heart; you have to do that yourself. For 97 years you have been constantly working patiently pumping much more efficiently and longer that most machines,” he wrote.

“I know that a book lasts long too, as the libraries have shown, books that have lived more than 300 years. Now, that I am here waiting for an angioplasty, I hope that you will survive it and I with it, so that I will be able to continue what I have been doing with so much energy that only you have been able to give. Thank you, dear brave heart and dear Lord, for this most precious gift.”

Mother nurtured interest in reading

Born Francisco Sionil José in Rosales on Dec. 3, 1924, he grew up poor but was educated.

José showed an interest in reading, which his mother nurtured by giving him books despite their poverty. He started writing as a school boy.

He was moved by the novels of the country’s national hero José Rizal, whose writings helped foment the Philippines’ quest for independence from Spain in the late 1800s. 

In 2009, TIME magazine said José’s Rosales Saga “is rivaled in his nation’s literature only by José Rizal’s [novels].” 

After World War II, José attended college but dropped out and started working as a journalist in Manila. In the succeeding decades, he became a prolific writer and editor, opened a publishing house and bookstore and founded the Philippine chapter of the international writers’ guild PEN. His bookstore Solidaridad was named after the revolutionary newspaper that included Rizal among its editors.

Awards José earned include the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, which he won five times; the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1980; the Outstanding Fulbrighters Award for Literature in 1988; and the Pablo Neruda Centennial Award in 2004. Most notably, he was named a National Artist for Literature by the Philippine government in 2001.

“F. Sionil José’s writings since the late ’60s, when taken collectively can best be described as epic. Its sheer volume puts him on the forefront of Philippine writing in English,” the National Commission for Culture and the Arts said on its website. “But ultimately, it is the consistent espousal of the aspirations of the Filipino – for national sovereignty and social justice – that guarantees the value of his oeuvre.” 

‘True patriotic Filipino’

Additional tributes have poured in.

“You spoke your mind against all naysayers and misunderstanding. You sang your heart against all the noise and distractions. And you truly loved our country, fully and unreservedly, ’til the end,” political analyst and writer Richard Heydarian said on social media. 

“Not only is he a legendary writer and storyteller, F. Sionil José is a true patriotic Filipino,” presidential spokesman Karlo Nograles said.  

Joel Pablo Salud, a Filipino journalist and erstwhile friend who has publicly feuded with him over his support of Duterte’s drug war, said he felt “extremely sad” by of José’s death.

“Now that the chance for us to iron out our differences is gone forever, then he and I have no choice but to bring our differences with us,” he said. “I may grieve now because he is gone, but I grieve a thousand times over for the victims of this regime.”


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