F. Sionil Jose: The Man’s Search for Social Justice Through Literature

At the age of 97, F. Sionil Jose has finished the epilogue to a life dedicated to literary greatness. A mainstay in Filipino literature, he has written some of the most well-known novels, short stories, and essays. These include F. Sionil Jose’s Po-On, The God Stealer and Waywaya.

What sets his literary style apart, however, is the normalcy of the characters he chooses to focus on. His writings do not rely on the characters’ majesty or their innate heroness and grandeur. It’s the Filipinoness and how each character moves in relation to the social injustices and inequalities occurring in the backdrop.

In this article, we celebrate a life well-lived, but a life F. Sionil Jose was yet to be finished with.


The Humble Beginnings of a Prolific Writer

Born and raised in the small village of Cabugawan in Rosales, Pangasinan, he lived through poverty and has witnessed social inequality, albeit through the eyes of a young child. F. Sionil Jose fostered a love of reading at a young age, whether by reading borrowed books or pages of old newspapers in wrapping dried fish. In a beautiful tribute to his mother, F. Sionil Jose credits her as someone who never questioned his love of reading and even effectively fueled it by readily borrowing books from officials, doctors, lawyers, and other intellectuals in their town.

At one point, a young F. Sionil Jose was moved to tears out of dismay as he was reading Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere – the part where a Spanish priest accused Crispin and Basilio of thievery. Maybe to a young child, Noli Me Tangere was nothing more than fiction that ignited some of the most painful emotions. But to F. Sionil Jose, this might have been one of the eye-opening pieces of literature that introduced him to the social injustices Filipinos have been made to suffer – a recurring theme in all of F. Sionil Jose’s literary works.

With 97 years of a well-lived life, F. Sionil Jose has lived through a lot of historical events, from the start of World War II to the numerous revolutions against erring presidents. All of which have inspired the numerous novels and short stories that F. Sionil Jose has written throughout his lifetime.


Sionil Jose’s Contributions to Philippine Literature

Sionil Jose has written 35 books, from his famous five-novel series of the Rosales Saga to his essays and non-fiction works – some of which he has labeled as ruminations or collections of ramblings of criticisms against and for Filipinos.

In the foreground, F. Sionil Jose has provided us with unmatched literary works that promote patriotism. But in the background, he has left us with some of the most effective critical works that put to light some of the most pervasive social injustices and inequalities that plague the Filipino people, from colonization and land grabbing to war and dictatorships.

In his own words, F. Sionil Jose culminates that “One of the greatest tasks of Filipino writers is how to make Filipinos remember. Not only to remember but to love this country,” which he has done clearly and without a doubt in the seven decades that he has been writing for the Filipino people.

Aside from the literary prowess effectively exhibited in his writings, F. Sionil Jose’s legacy also continues with the Philippine Center of International PEN, the center that promotes literature through literary readings, workshops, seminars, and conferences. At the time of the Marcos dictatorship and the decay and halting of freedom of speech, the Philippines PEN stood unwavering in their defense of freedom of expression and the media – a task that they have stood their ground for until today.


Sionil Jose as an Imperfect Man

With a writing career spanning several decades, F. Sionil Jose has raked in multiple prestigious awards, accolades, and titles, from the five Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature he has earned, to the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts. He is also hailed as a National Artist for Literature and is revered locally and internationally as one of the most prolific Filipino writers there ever was. With these under his belt, it’s almost impossible to imagine F. Sionil Jose as an imperfect man.

In recent years, however, he has found himself exposed to the ire of the masses due to controversial takes, opinions, and thought pieces that not a lot of people agreed with – including his attacks against the Filipino-Chinese communities and his support of a controversial administration and a bloody war on drugs. In addition, his method of writing sometimes characterized only as being cantankerous and derisive has led to many detractors criticizing F. Sionil Jose.

But as he wrote once, “A man who knows himself can live with his imperfections.” And he did unapologetically until his last breath, taking with him the pieces that he still wanted to write about with all the energy that he still wanted to muster.


Philippine Literature Is Forever Changed, Thanks to F. Sionil Jose

While the recent years haven’t been as friendly to F. Sionil Jose as it has been throughout his writing profession, there is no doubt that he has left an impressive legacy in Philippine literature both local and abroad, inspiring hundreds or even thousands of young writers to write about the things that most traditional writers would veer away from.

As he mentioned before, he has lamented how he believes that his writing has not influenced people enough to see visible and creative results, to which, a lot of young writers would not agree with. His novels and short stories have accompanied students, intellectuals, aspiring writers, and ordinary readers for years in their quest to better connect to their roots as Filipino people. I believe that this is what F. Sionil Jose leaves behind: a legacy of patriotism through the eyes of the common folk.

If you’re unfamiliar with the works of F. Sionil Jose, it’s never too late to expose yourself to the worlds and stories he has written within his lifetime. There are hundreds of physical bookshops and online bookstores in the Philippines that have F. Sionil Jose’s works on their shelves, waiting for the next young reader to reach for them.