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Lessons in Writing, and in Life, from Manong Frankie


Manong Frankie

It was the second time I met Francisco Sionil José, or Manong Frankie as many young writers call him. Like the last time, I took home three things: books, wonderful stories, and valuable writing tips.

Manong Frankie is 95 years old. His age, however, does not hinder him from being a prolific writer, an inexorable voice against social injustice and national amnesia, just as he was many, many years ago. Even now, he still scales the three flights of steps going to his writing alcove above the Solidaridad Bookshop in Manila, which was where we had our recent one-on-one.

Naturally, it’s not every day one gets to converse with a National Artist for Literature, which was why I asked a lot of questions any budding young writer would ask: How does one become like Manong Frankie?

He guffawed at the question, saying, “Why do you want to become like me? You don’t know I also lived a miserable life. No, you develop on your own, hijo.”

There are always challenges in life that a writer faces. Manong Frankie warned me of two. The first, he explains, is how you make yourself better than you were the day before, to always keep improving. The second, one that he expounds on, is how to give your work and your life meaning.

“Writing is not enough. Doctoring or soldiering, or whatever profession is not enough. You have to give your job more meaning. Ikaw na bahala dun (this depends on you). Sometimes people search for meaning for the rest of their lives, sometimes they are born with this meaning kaagad (immediately).” For the veteran journalist-writer, his life’s meaning is to make his writing purposeful to society. Simply put, he says, “It is not just art.”

“You have to be good at what you are doing. You have to be committed first to your craft and then to the country. Because if you are not committed to the craft, anong ibibigay mo sa bayan mo? (What will you give to your country?)”

Here are some things I learned from our tete-a-tete.

Manong Frankie 2

PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST F. Sionil José’s works, originally written in English, have been translated into 28 languages and are sold around the world


“I thought I’d never get to be 50 years old. But when I got to that age, I thought I’d never get to be 60. Then when I got to 70, ‘di ko na pinapansin (I stopped minding),” he bursts into laughter. “When we look at Rizal, del Pilar, Mabini, all of them were young when they died. Ang pinagyayabang ko (What I am most proud of) when I was 30 years old, I already had three published novels.”


“There are certain rules. You have to be a craftsman first before you can make a leap into art. You have to know the basic rules [of writing], even if at the end you have to break them. I distrust writers who don’t know their grammar. I distrust painters who don’t know how to draw.”


I got curious as to which among his works he was most proud of.

“I like them all,” Manong Frankie answers without a hint of hesitation. “Writing them is a kind of liberating experience. Honestly I cannot say I like one better than the other.”

After a moment of thought, he adds, “But my most memorable is Mass, the finale of the Rosales Saga. Because unlike the other novels that I created bit by bit, part by part, it was the only novel I wrote from beginning to end in one concentrated writing. Tuloy-tuloy (non-stop). Sometimes I did not eat for two days. It was very intense, a kind of ‘trip,’ like with the drugs. A very good trip!”

Manong Frankie started to work on Mass during an eight-hour plane ride from Hong Kong to Paris in 1976.

“Back then, I had money, but only for subsistence,” he began telling his story on conceiving the iconic book, the memories flooding back to him, “I was paying seven dollars a day for my room. It had no bath, just a sink and a toilet bowl. I did not take a bath for a month, and it was summer back then.”

“At the ground floor of my apartment was a public market. And since apricots were in season and were very cheap, I was subsisting on bread and apricots,” he reminisces, and the details and lyrical storytelling make it feel like I were there with him living a life of dream. “My stomach was sour. Sige lang, okay lang (I had no problem with it).”

I am reminded of our first meeting, when he taught me about passion, that every writer should be as passionate about their craft as people who are in love, as people willing to make the greatest of sacrifices.

His exact words back then were: “What is it that you love the most? When I say love the most, what it is that you are willing to sacrifice your time, perhaps even your life for?”

We are bound to face many difficulties, problems that could either be trivial or just too much, but a passionate writer will never stop pursuing his passion.


Forty or so minutes into our dialogue, I ask Manong Frankie about his opinion on the state of local literature.

“It is not going to die,” he says with such certainty. “The problem is not with the state of literature, but with the state of learning. With so many sources of information now, the predicament is how to digest and ingest the information. There is fake news and the change in reading habits.”

He emphasized how people now do not read long articles anymore because their attention span has become so limited.

“Some of the best things in literature and philosophy requires assiduous reading, reading that will make you think,” he says. “The development of the mind is not instant, it’s a slow process. That is why conversations are also important, whether between peers or with people who belong to another discipline.”

To young writers he gives one final tip: “Read, read, read, and write, write, write! You have to be good at what you are doing.” And it all will lead back to being committed to the craft, and then to the country, and then to the world and life itself.

Source: Manila Bulletin

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