Philippine novelist Francisco Sionil Jose, whose widely translated works delved into the Southeast Asian country’s painful colonial past and social injustices, died Thursday, according to a literary guild he had founded. He was 97.
In a prolific writing career spanning seven decades, Jose penned more than a dozen novels, several short story collections, essays and a regular newspaper column. He also owned a bookshop.
He died at a Manila hospital one day before he was to undergo an angioplasty, the Philippine Center of International PEN said in a statement on its Facebook page.
His death was also announced by The Varsitarian, the student paper which he had edited at the Manila university where he studied.
A self-declared “agnostic,” the writer took to Facebook earlier Thursday in what would effectively be his last words, thanking God as well as his “brave heart” for “this most precious gift” as he waited for his blood vessel procedure.
“Now, that I am here in 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,” he wrote.
The son of a church minister and a dressmaker, Jose grew up in a poor rural village in the northern province of Pangasinan — where he developed an early love for reading and later set many of his novels.
His writing was deeply influenced by the Philippine national hero Jose Rizal and he was best known for his “Rosales Saga.”
The five-novel series follows several generations of two families over 100 years from the Spanish colonial period to martial law under former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, exploring issues such as social inequalities, land rights and insurgencies.
“One of the greatest tasks of Filipino writers is how to make Filipinos remember. Not only to remember but to love this country,” Jose said in a 2011 interview.
Born under US rule
Jose was born on December 3, 1924, when the Philippines was an American colony.
After working in the US Army Medical Corps during World War II, he studied literature and edited The Varsitarian, the student publication at the University of Santo Tomas in the capital Manila.
He quit college before finishing his degree.
After a stint at the now-defunct United States Information Agency at the US embassy in Manila, Jose joined the Manila Times newspaper where he worked for a decade.
In the early 1960s, he moved to Hong Kong to edit Asia magazine. He later returned to the Philippines, where he opened the Solidaridad bookshop in 1965 in what was then a middle-class neighborhood of the capital.
Jose described Solidaridad as a “literary saloon” for political figures and local writers to discuss social issues.
After he founded the Philippine chapter of PEN International in 1957, the bookshop also served as its headquarters.
A married father of seven, Jose was a prominent member of the country’s literary scene where he was known as “Manong Frankie,” or “Old Man Frankie.” He was rarely seen without his trademark black beret.
The notoriously acid-tongued writer earned plenty of detractors for his forthright, derisive and cantankerous manner.
Jose was branded a racist and bigot in 2015 after suggesting the Philippines’ ethnic Chinese population could not be trusted if conflict broke out with Beijing.
And he was accused of sour grapes after suggesting Philippine journalist Maria Ressa did not deserve the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, saying on Facebook he had not “read anything memorable by her.”
Jose, who wrote mainly in English and signed his works as F. Sionil Jose, is one of the most translated Filipino writers, with novels printed in more than 20 languages.
He was named National Artist for Literature in 2001, the highest award accorded by the Philippine government to writers.
In 1980, Jose won the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize — but to his apparent chagrin never received the latter.
In a 2019 interview with CNN Philippines, Jose said he wanted his epitaph to read: “He wrote stories and believed in them.”