Why you should care
Because Southeast Asia is the only region in the world that hasn’t seen the Nobel Prize in literature.
It is dusk, and Francisco Sionil José is tucked away in his writing den at the Solidaridad Bookshop, a tidy store nestled between a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and a crumbling building in Manila’s Ermita neighborhood. A black beret on his head, José looks the classic literary sage: hunched at a desk with fraying papers and unfinished manuscripts strewn all over, scribbling away to meet his end-of-the-year publishing deadline. José is old-school, so he writes everything by hand. He’s in the zone and in his prime — at the ripe age of 91.
José has been a quiet contender for the Nobel Prize in literature for years now — at least in the Philippines, where the literati have long rested their national aspirations on his narrow, sloping shoulders. (Bookmakers for the prize, to be announced tomorrow, put his odds of winning at 50-1 — in the same league as Don DeLillo and Karl Ove Knausgaard, but far from, say, Haruki Murakami.) His wall-to-wall shelves overflow with the novels he’s written, and his works have been translated into 22 languages. Surprisingly, he’s a best-seller in Russia, more than 5,000 miles away from his hometown in the Philippines. If awarded the Nobel, he would be the only Southeast Asian author ever to receive it. So far, there have been 111 laureates.
José leans into me as he hobbles on his cane. There are three things that you never want to pass up when you are an “old dog” nonagenarian, he declares: “a restroom, an erection and a good story.” His novels and short stories — scrawled in English — explore weighty topics like revolution, colonialism, crony politics, class struggle and abject poverty. “Life is always sad,” José writes in his book The Pretenders. “That’s what makes suicide so tempting, because life is all that we really have and haven’t … and yet sometimes we are life’s happy victims.” Good thing he flunked biochemistry in college, which marked the beginning of his foray into the world of fiction. In his nine decades, José has won just about every award out there for his work, from the Fulbright scholarship to the Pablo Neruda Centennial Award. Except the big one, which he’s always viewed as “distant and unreachable,” he says, shrugging.
Make no mistake: José is out to prove that Filipino fiction writers can compete with the old guard of the Western canon. As he limps out of the bookshop, José piles the “Rosales Saga” novels — five tomes that dive into the depths of Filipino society, a national epic — into my thin arms. It took him 22 years and long periods of total isolation to complete the massive project. The books are now required reading in the Philippines, much as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby are widely read in classrooms across America. José’s work has always expressed a kind of political obligation to the sprawling island nation, long occupied or colonized by greater powers. “We are the sick people of Asia,” says José, who grew up poor in a tiny farming village. His daughter and editor, Brigida Bergkamp, says she grew up “eating revolution for breakfast.”
Even though José is something of a literary luminary in his country, experts say the tight-lipped Swedish Academy committee is unlikely to pluck a little-known author like José from obscurity. Southeast Asian literature isn’t quite on the map yet, and “writers from less politically dominant regions of the world may end up receiving less consideration” from the committee, notes Stanford University English professor Paula Moya. If “certain countries or certain people are overlooked,” says Ellah Allfrey, a Zimbabwean literary critic who lives in London, “the selection always has to do with who’s on the committee.” The 18-member Swedish Academy, composed of, well, Swedes, didn’t respond to OZY’s requests for comment.
Time is not on his side. The Prize cannot be awarded posthumously, unless the winner dies after the announcement. And in recent months, some of the luster came off José’s reputation. In June he set the Philippines’ multicultural community afire when he wrote about the looming “Chinese problem” that his country faces. “Many of our ethnic Chinese will side with China, so I will not ask anymore on whose side they will be if that war breaks out,” he argued in his op-ed. When I ask him about it, he suggests that his words had been taken out of context. Of the Chinese-Pinoys, he says: “They should be assimilated into our society … Culture has to change. There’s nothing sacrosanct or permanent about it.”
Setting his Nobel Prize ambitions aside, José wants to continue breathing new life into Southeast Asia’s young culture of modern literature, down to his last breath. “My major worry at this decrepit old age is how we can get out of this rut,” he says. Like an uptight grandpa sitting on his porch and shooing away the mischievous neighborhood kids, José purses his lips at his nation’s new generation of “yuppie” Pinoys who are “chasing the peso.” People are the Philippines’ largest export, with more than 10 percent of its 101.6 million citizens working abroad.
Even if his Nobel dreams are all but forgotten, he says his legacy in the Philippines will always serve its purpose: “If I left a book, it will not last forever … But every answer starts with a story.”