N.V.M. GONZALEZ: PHILIPPINES WRITER

N.V.M.GONZALEZ
FILIPINO WRITER

 

PALH is featuring writings about the late N.V.M. Gonzalez as a tribute to him. 
Copyright of all writings belong to the authors. 
Thanks to Isagani R. Cruz, Erma Cuizon, Nadine R. Sarreal, Luisa A. Igloria, Tony N. Serran, 
R. Zamora Linmark, Marjorie Evasco whose works are included here.

 

N.V.M. Gonzalez was born Nestor Vicente Madali Gonzalez on September 8, 1915, on Romblon, Philippines.  He studied at the Kenyon School of English and at Stanford and Columbia universities.  He began working for English-language publications in Manila, serving as a writer for Graphic Weekly for many years and as editor of the Manila Evening News Magazine from 1946 to 1948.  

Although he never obtained a college degree, he taught widely, first at the University of Santo Tomas and Philippine Women's University, both in Manila; and for two decades at the University of the Philippines, Quezon City.  He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong and in the United States at Cal State Hayward, the University of Washington, and UCLA.

He was the 1997 National Artist for Literature of the Republic of the Philippines.  Among his books are: A Grammar of Dreams, Bread of Salt and Other Stories, The Winds of April, Look Stranger, on This Island Now, Mindoro and Beyond, The Novel of Justice, A Season of Grace, and the Bamboo Dancers.  

He died November 28, 1999, in Manila, after suffering a stroke on November 25.  He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Narita, four children, and five grandchildren.

 

N V M

By Isagani R. Cruz

(The following article is reprinted by permission of Dr. Isagini R. Cruz. This article was first published in the column "Mini-Critiques" by Isagani R. Cruz in The Philippine Star, Manila, Philippines, 2 December 1999, page 12. Dr. Isagani R. Cruz is a multi-awarded playwright, critic, and short story writer, who writes in both Filipino and English.)

Everyone is sharing her or his memories of NVM Gonzalez. Let me share mine.

Three encounters with NVM stand out in my memory.

The first time I worked, sort of, with NVM was from a distance. In 1987, Louie Reyes approached me to edit an anthology of Philippine fiction in English for Vera Reyes Publishing. NVM had been pushing him to do such an anthology, and had recommended me as editor even though I was not his peer nor had I even been his student. (He had always been, to me, the old master who wrote unforgettable novels and short stories and, on a more personal basis, the father of my friend Nim.)

It was a massive project. We were going to come out with an Encyclopedia of Philippine Fiction - several novels and two anthologies of short stories. I put together a team - Fr. Miguel Bernad, S.J., Salvador P. Lopez, and Bienvenido Lumbera - and we sifted through the history of our writing in English and came up with what must still be a definitive canon. We had encoded most of the novels and had gathered most of the needed permissions from authors, when Vera Reyes ran into trouble and had to give up both itself and the project. (Fortunately, Tahanan Books has taken over the short story portion of the project and will soon come out with an anthology of the best short stories of the century.)

Every time I would meet Louie Reyes, he would always tell me that NVM said this and NVM suggested that. That one man could inspire such a huge project says a lot about NVM.

The second memory I have is that of seeing NVM in action in 1992. I was invited by Paulino Lim to attend a conference on Filipino American Literature in Long Beach, California. NVM was the featured speaker. I almost fell from my seat when he said to the largely American audience, "I write in Tagalog." I stopped myself from raising my hand and informing the audience that here was an English writer. But I do remember saying to myself, "NVM, you're pulling these non-Filipinos' legs!"

NVM then said all sorts of nice things about Tagalog - about how it was the language he grew up with, about how it was the only language that could faithfully mirror Tagalog experience, and so on. Then he said something I shall never forget. Continuing his sentence, NVM said, "I write in Tagalog using English words."

Later in my life, I would hear Bienvenido N. Santos say practically the same thing: Santos said he wrote "in Capampangan using English words". But in 1992, despite my expertise in Philippine literature, the thought had never entered my mind that Philippine fiction in English was not "in" English but in vernacular languages. (Of course, Gemino Abad had been saying all along that Philippine poetry was not "in" English but "from" English, but that was but poetry and not about fiction.)

No critic of Philippine writing in (or from) English has ever, to my knowledge, taken seriously the suggestion by NVM, Santos, and Abad that the impact of the vernacular languages on our English writing must be investigated, or that it is impossible to read our literature in English without knowing the vernaculars. I have, therefore, a suggestion for doctoral students searching for a dissertation topic: why not study the works of NVM or Santos or Abad or any Filipino writer in English from a translinguistic point of view? (Hint: Abad's poetry is in Cebuano using English words.)

My third NVM story has to do with his becoming a National Artist. I chaired the Literature committee of CCP that acted on dozens of nominations in 1997. There had been a long gap in the annual awards, and everybody - dead or alive - had to be considered. After cleverly assigning some sure winners to other committees in order not to exceed our committee's quota (Rolando Tinio became a National Artist in Theater and Literature, for instance, therefore being a nominee of the Theater committee; also winning in the same fashion were Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero and Levi Celerio), we ended up with three finalists - NVM, F. Sionil Jose, and Edith Tiempo (now it can be told!).

Jose formally declined the nomination because he had himself nominated NVM. Tiempo was younger than NVM and, in one of the strange unwritten norms of the National Artist competition, age was a major factor. (The correctness of our judgement, by the way, was confirmed in the very next National Artist selection; Tiempo was named National Artist and will receive her award this month.) Our committee was confident that we had a winner in NVM, and sure enough, when our recommendation was voted upon by the body at large, NVM topped the list of the new National Artists.

Why did we choose NVM over dozens of other writers? He had, of course, all the necessary requirements (a substantial body of excellent work, an international reputation, tremendous influence on his peers and on younger writers, and so on). My own reason was simple enough - he wrote in both English and Tagalog. I wanted to correct an obvious imbalance: except for Amado Hernandez, all our National Artists in Literature before then wrote in English. (So does Edith Tiempo, but if you read her writings, you will see that she has consistently urged writers to use Filipino material even if the language is borrowed. In her essays, she praises vernacular literature again and again, sometimes even questioning the very use of a borrowed language! In any case, with Tinio and Celerio, we now have National Artists that wrote in Filipino, so the imbalance has been partially corrected, though not entirely, because writers in Ilocano and Cebuano are still unappreciated.)

NVM was a prizewinning short story writer in Tagalog, a fact not too many people know. He had even, in his critical essays in English, in typical ironic style, urged writers to abandon English and to write only in Filipino!! The few times I met him since 1992, I tried to convince him to give DLSU Press his Tagalog writings, but though he agreed in principle, his disease overtook this particular project. (I understand, though, that he had been writing feverishly in Tagalog before his death, so perhaps the project may still be alive, after all.)

I was never his student, but I learned a lot from NVM. What was the most important thing I learned from him? I would say it was his being so supportive of younger writers. He had not worked with me, yet he pushed me, through Louie, to edit an encyclopedia. The too few times I saw him in person, he was always urging someone or other to continue writing, to finish some writing project, to keep the literary faith. That openness to younger writers is even more obvious in his prose; I remember particularly well that, when - in our crab mentality - literary critics had once savaged a novel by a young Filipino writer, he wrote a long article showing the good points of the novel.

I know that NVM was loved by young writers. His becoming a National Artist merely formalized his being loved by a whole nation. As he himself would probably say were he with us today, may his tribe increase!

~end~

 

 

 

* * * * *

THE OLD PEOPLE TALKING

By Nadine R. Sarreal


<< Dear Cecilia,
I thought you might want to know that NVM was discussing your latest story
(the one that appeared in the Graphic) with his wife, Narita, shortly
before he passed away during dialysis. Narita told me of it. 
JING >>



It's comforting to know
their voices weave safety
over our sleepy heads

NVM talking about Cecilia's story
with his wife, Narita

Reminds me of childhood
How the walls didn't quite reach the ceiling

I could hear Mom and Dad
Talking about us, 
Me, Audrey, Cindy

Our follies and glories of the day
The shoes that were wearing out
How we were doing in school

We are growing old now, 
Older, anyway

And the people who talk about us
Are going off, one by one,
They leave us 
To worry about the shoes
The stories, the work

They leave us
To take up the weaving

~end~

* * * * * 

  TO THE ISLAND
For NVM Gonzalez

By Luisa A. Igloria


There is a boat, no--
a couple of boats; islands
fringed with palm and coconut,
wild grass, sand in an un-
broken skein, warm sheen of sun
cupped like an unseen hand
around the basin of the sky's
blue skull, causing the cheek
to flush as though it
had been loved

             This blue sky, an egg
cracked on the valley's lip
where it breaks open again
to flood the roof of the mouth
with heat and unspeakable
longings

           The audacity of it-- poetry
blooming at the end of a long
walk, on the lone typewriter
in the dusty town hall

                    The boy wakes to the earth's
restless rooting at dawn, hears the sound
of shoots pushing through loam;
the dark earth's loins and thighs
opening to the miraculous
sprouting of seeds and leaves,
a litter of pigs emerging
through the wet, umbilical dark

Everything returns
at last to this island

              The leaf, the boat, turning
and nosing

Toward a memory of sweets
stuffed into the pocket
because once, the boy was ashamed
that his love would see how he hungered

                For love,
for the music, yes,
but also for food

On the belly of the island
the sun beats a steady warmth
so everything that was flung away
like salt over the shoulder, over the dark
and shining rooftops

Can rise again
like bread

*

Luisa A. Igloria
(previously published as Maria Luisa A. Carino)
1 December 1999
Norfolk, Virginia

~end~

* * * * *

NVM Gonzalez: A True Filipino
By Tony N. Serran

Almost everyone knows the literary genius of NVM. His novels, short stories, and poems have touched millions of readers worldwide and have been published in several languages. 

What I will most remember about NVM, however, is not his celebrated literary works but his humanity and his understanding of the Filipino psyche. If Jose P. Rizal is considered the "First Filipino," I consider NVM the "First Filipino Who Understood the Filipino." 

He lived his life with his beloved wife, Narita, and their children, the way a true Filipino should live his or her life--with honesty, integrity, understanding, and compassion. 

NVM was a renaissance man whose head was a cauldron for ideas. He loved sharing his ideas with everyone, and he never underestimated anyone's intellectual capacity to understand his ideas no matter how esoteric they were. Frankly, I understood one of ten ideas that he had shared with me as we sat in a coffee shop or restaurant in Hayward, California. No matter. He was going to share his ideas with you whether you understood them or not. Interestingly, a few days later, you read the ideas he had shared with you in print.

NVM also had a gift for humor. He was fun to be with. He could relate to both the young and the not-so-young. He loved young people and young minds. He saw their minds as vessels that, if they were willing, he would fill up with ideas to ponder. Above all, he was concerned about their understanding of who they really were as Filipinos or Filipino Americans.

Although NVM's body has died, his spirit and ideas will live on forever. If anything, he has left all of us a legacy of ideas. Nothing would make NVM grateful and proud than for all of us to ponder his ideas imbedded in his literary works and to build on them to the betterment of our selves, race, and nation. 

~end~

* * * * *


EXODUS
(for N.V.M. Gonzales)
by R. Zamora Linmark


I lit my computer screen and was about to tell
America, yes, I've just about had it with the bilingual
Maids next door doing laundry at four in the morning.
"What do you want me to do? They can't go to the
Wet market naked." This from my landlord
Of four months. I nearly went ballistic.
Whatever happened to courtesy, noise control,
Tenant's rights, lease on life? But before I could
Tell my mother to fix the lock on the door, don't make
A spare, move William back to the couch, expect
Me in a week, two at the most, a hundred letters
Jammed my 14-inch mailbox. All by people
I didn't know or couldn't place, sadly informing me
The passing of Philippine National Artist N.V.M. Gonzales.

Little did my electronic informants know I was just
Around the corner ---- only traffic separated me from
The man of letters - getting ready to bite into a slice
Of a belated birthday cake when a professor and friend
Of the writer entered the teacher's lounge to say, "N.V.M.
Collapsed while undergoing dialysis, and is now brain-dead."
Silence and sobs choked the room before the news
Vacated into the adjoining department, for grief no
Matter how controlled it is, can pass even through the
Thickest walls. Immediately I lost my appetite
For the sweetest things in life and was replaced
By a recollection of my first encounter with
The writer whose main contribution to literature
Are his narratives about exiles in their own country.

Flashback: A crowded room about to be covered with
Kundiman music. The celebrated writer, for he
Had just been named National Artist, was in his cap
And cane. A poet, Abad, I think, introduced me to him.
"I commend you," he said, tapping his cane, "for using disco
Lyrics as a metaphor for the immigrant's all-American dream."
He then asked if I, too, practiced the aesthetics of simultaneity,
Or what he later explained as the ability to write and occupy
Two disparate spaces at the same time." "I don't know,"
I said, "but if you mean crossing a Manila street in front of
Moving vehicles with a poem in my head then the answer
Is yes." A friendship was formed in the here
And there. Unexpectedly, a thought invaded my head

Pushing a smile across my mouth. Don't you get it? I wanted
To shout to the faculty members. The man was gifted with
Words and symbolism: He was cleansing his blood
Before making his exodus, that cheeky guy. But I muzzled
Such epiphany and went straight to Utopia Cybercafe.
Inside the chat room, I told my friend Lori in Seattle all about
The tragedy in Manila, the absurd thoughts that interrupted
My lament, how the word dialysis for some reason kept
Going in circles in my head. "A stubborn entry is always
Worth looking up," Lori, an etymologist, typed. "What
Are you hinting at?" I asked. "Break the word apart then
Go back to Greece," she said. Later that night, I looked up
dialysis in the Oxford Reference Dictionary. What I found
Was a noun describing a ritual, i.e., purification via separation.
Then, sure enough, there it was: dia, meaning "through" or
"Across" and lysis, a suffix from luo, which is to set free.
And taking etymology into consideration, I, as an exile,
Comrade of Gonzales, and student of words, dutifully obeyed.

R. Zamora Linmark
December 3, 1999
San Francisco

~end~


* * * * *

* * * * *

GRAY NOVEMBER

By Marjorie Evasco

(Reprinted with permission by Marjorie Evasco and Weekend Sunstar 
where this article appeared in Marjorie Evasco's Column Dreamweaving, December 5, 1999)

 

Two days after November's full moon, we received word while at a meeting that NVM Gonzales had collapsed after his dialysis and fallen into a coma.  When we finally went to Cardinal Santos Hospital to visit, NVM's life companion and wife Narita allowed us into the ICU and told us that their children were all arriving within the next few days.  She had begged the doctor to do all he could so the children could still see and talk with their father.  That Saturday at midnight, their youngest, Lakshmi, arrived from the U.S.  She had one whole day at the bedside of her father.  At 11:30 p.m. of November 28, NVM Gonzales, National Artist for Literature, passed away.   NVM Gonzales turned 84 last September 8, and we had trooped to his house at UP Diliman to celebrate the occasion with him and Narita.  He was hale and hearty, exclaiming to me that he had just had his dialysis that morning and was feeling good.  "In fact," he reminded us with a naughty chuckle, "I now have the waistline I used to have when I was 25!" 

We had just come from the opening of the creative writing center of UST on Espana Avenue., and we had our fill of the delicious merienda cena there.  However, NVM wouldn't hear of our not partaking of the birthday feast, which included crispy lechon, which we graciously refused.  But he made sure that `dem finicky women' (Carla Pacis and I) had the biggest slices of the birthday cake.  He was one who believed that writers should know how to eat. And like the teacher he always was, he even had a roll call.  Ma'am Narita told us at the family lounge of the hospital that last Nov. 25, NVM had brought to the National Kidney Center two manuscripts he could read while he was having his dialysis.  One was the story of Cecilia Manguerra Brainard which had just been published, and the other was a creative writing thesis of Erlinda Panlilio, who had been successful in getting the National Artist to sit in her panel.  "He propped the manuscripts on his stomach," Ma'am Narita recounted, "and somehow it took his mind off the dialysis."  Like the rest of us, she was caught by surprise with NVM's sudden turn of health.  He had even just come back from a trip with her and the Abad family to the beach in Calatagan, Batangas.  And NVM had swam and fished to his heart's content.  In fact, he had enjoyed Calatagan so much, he did not want to go on a side trip to Nasugbu, saying "This is probably the last beach I will ever enjoy."  Little did Narita know that his words were prescient.

Of his short stories and his novels, I especially love "Children of the Ash-Covered Loam and Other Stories," published in 1954, 20 years after he had his first literary break as a student, winning the Graphic essay contest on Theodore Roosevelt's visit to Calapan, Mindoro.  NVM's stories are deeply rooted in the Mindoro he learned to love when he went there with his family as a four-year-old.  And when he began writing for the Graphic, he would even walk for five hours from his barrio in Wasig to Mansalay, just to type his stories at the municipal hall and then mail it to the magazine. 
 

Among the stories that I love to teach is "Wireless Tower," an initiation of a boy into young adulthood, the process given a symbolic structure in the boy's act of climbing the wireless tower on a hill at the outskirts of the barrio.  On this climb, the boy feels in his very bones the possibility of becoming more than the usual things--the view from the tower changes his view of the life he lived in his community. 
 

More than his fiction and essays, NVM loved to be with young writers still learning their craft.  When he came to Cebu two years ago the Philippine-British Literature Conference, he was one of those who staunchly supported writers writing away from English to tend the field of writing in Philippine languages other than Tagalog. In Bantayan for the UP Writers Workshop, he learned a Cebuano word from the young writers which became his favorite Cebuano word: Kalandrakas.  And every chance he got, he would say the word like a mantra and say with amazement: "Imagine that!"
 

My personal encounter with NVM's kindness to young writers was when he was the UP Writers' Workshop writer in residence in 1978.  I was doing my graduate work in creative writing in Silliman University and had finally gotten a fellowship to the workshop in Diliman.  We were all billeted at Molave Hall and it was there where I saw how NVM took time out to talk with the young writers after the formal workshop sessions.  I can still see him strumming his guitar for us and telling us why words must sing.  I also remember that in that year, NVM donated his honorarium as literary prizes for the best pieces in the workshop.  The UP Likhaan Creative Writing Center brought portable white Olympia typewriters with the money. 
 

Several months after the workshop, when I had the chance to visit UP again, Franz Arcellana kindly handed me my "NVM prize," and said that it was Estrella Alfon who went up the stage to receive for me the typewriter from NVM. Franz said that both NVM and Estrella had wished me well on my journey to the frontiers of the imagination. 
 

NVM and Estrella have gone further beyond these frontiers, and many of the old guards would soon follow.  Yes, it is a "gray November," but I will remember what NVM had said: surely, every season is a season of grace. 

~end~

* * * * *

ONCE MORE, OF NVM
by Erma Cuizon
From the Sun.Star Weekend, Cebu City, Jan. 23, 2000 issue; reprinted with permission by the author and SunStar.

Are you going to write about NVM Gonzales, a friend asks.  It's because everyone seems to know him somehow, or had been touched by him in some ways, as student, writing fellow, co-writer, or/and friend.  In fact, Cebuana fictionist in California Cecilia Brainard did write about him, too, which was expected.  Especially when she learned from NVM's wife Narita that the old man was talking about a new short story of Cecilia's when he was already confined to his bed before his death.  Cecilia also sent us a copy of what others have written from the California front.  NVM, the writer, was written much about in his lifetime and especially at his death by columnists, poets, essayists (including Isagani Cruz and Marj Evasco). From California, Nadine Sarreal, R. Zamora Linmark and Luisa Igloria, too.  

But we love best Sarreal's poem: 

It's comforting to know
their voices weave safety
over our sleepy heads

NVM talking about Cecilia's story
with his wife, Narita

Reminds me of childhood
How the walls didn't quite reach the ceiling

I could hear Mom and Dad
Talking about us, 
Me, Audrey, Cindy

Our follies and glories of the day
The shoes that were wearing out
How we were doing in school


We are growing old now, 
Older, anyway

And the people who talk about us
Are going off, one by one,
They leave us 
To worry about the shoes
The stories, the work

They leave us
To take up the weaving


I saw NVM Gonzalez only once.  I sat beside him in a dinner after the first day of a writers conference.  I didn't say anything much because food was heady, headier.  It was after the moment was over that I realized I let go of a chance to talk to the author of A Season of Grace.  And the story comes back to mind now--a novel about simple farmers in Mindoro and the simple life there.  It's a story of surviving, growing crazy over the worst of choices in life: to be a mediocre farmer or a better-paid servant of some rich man in town.  Somewhere in his life, the farmer Doro gave in to the comparative ease of being an errand boy of rich man, firewood concessioner Epe Ruda.  But he yearned to be a farmer. 

By weaving the tale, NVM easily lets the reader into the character's deepest hearts--the reader who in turn doesn't mind being lured there, to live there in Doro's hut with his wife Sabel, or cross the river to Alag farm, or do the clearing, harvest the corn.  There was Doro, young farmer.  We remember a picture of him after he came back to his hut from gathering buri shingles for his walls.  He came with so much of it.  "There was a rich scent of sunshine in the leaves," thought Sabel who saw him come with the buri leaves.  "He had flung them to the ground and, emerging, had become a stranger smiling at her.  How could she not recognize him?  How could she not see how pleased he was over the noise that the leaves made, tumbling from down his shoulder to the ground?  Iron roofing sheets, such as those which rich folk use for their houses in town, could not have made half that much noise."

Sabel hardly spoke, helped in the harvest and worked quietly, thinking of her two small boys, like the eldest Eloy lying on the mat that had been spread in the corner--"fast asleep, like a seed."   In her quiet way, she felt a bit deprived, being so poor.  One night Doro came home drunk and saw her wearing a bright new camisa.  He demanded to know where she got it and she refused to say.  She said she hadn't had a new dress for a long time.  He asked if she traded her honor for the camisa and she bristled, taking it off, throwing it to him, saying, "I've never before covered my nudity with clothing that was not mine.  For days, I worked over there, I swept the yard and washed clothes...."

She told him to take the camisa back, to Epe Ruda, to go there and then.  Then she sorted out her clothes calmly.  He walked to where she was, knelt and held the camisa over her head.  "Put it on," he said.  "She did not make any effort to stop him.  He slipped the camisa easily over her head. As he pulled it down, his hands accidentally touched her shoulders and brushed her breasts.  They were heavy and full and shook gently..."

Then she picked the boy Eloy up and her small bundle of clothes and walked quietly to the door.  The conditions of Doro's life had formed him into the person he was--product of a cyclic lifestyle which is itself dictated by the turn of the seasons, the seeding and harvest, dry and rainy, good days, bad days.

A Season of Grace is understated, like the life led by the reclusive Filipino farmer and his wife. But the muted story found between the pages of the book grows into my brain and stays there. 

~end~

* * * * *

A TRIBUTE TO NVM GONZALEZ
MAY HE REST IN PEACE!

 

OTHER LINKS TO N.V.M. GONZALEZ SITES:
AN AFFAIR OF LETTERS
N.V.M. TRIBUTE IN PHILIPPINE POST
EMANILA SPOTLIGHT

 


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