One of the most pleasant surprises of my visit to the British Museum in 2019 was to see Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic (Penguin Books) on display in its bookstore.
I first met National Artist Nick Joaquin when I was 12 years old. I was part of the Metro Manila Children’s Choir that sang Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” while the dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. sat on the big stage at the inauguration of the National Arts Center (NAC) on Mount Makiling.
And so wearing our angel’s costume of white cotton, with white carton wings attached to our sides and a halo trembling atop our heads, we had a final rehearsal at the NAC three days before the inauguration.
We were sweltering in our angel’s costume that morning when a helicopter hovered into view and slowly descended on a plateau 500 meters away from us. The first thing I saw was a silk scarf in red and black, floating languidly in the air, while a tall woman in blue jump suit stepped out of the helicopter. And then I saw the black bouffant hair and the face of the woman hiding behind big, black sunglasses.
It was the First Lady, Imelda Romualdez Marcos, and she was walking toward us. She stopped in front of us, was given a microphone, and then she spoke. “Good morning, children, I was told you have such beautiful voices. Your voices complement the costumes of angels that I had made especially for you. Now, I would like you to hide behind that hill,” she added, indicating a hill around 500 meters away, “and begin singing behind that hill as you walk towards the National Arts Center. If you do that, my foreign guests might think that angels have actually descended on top of this mountain.”
And so we did walk to the hill, hid behind it, and sang as we slowly wobbled in our angelic costumes. The First Lady swooned over our singing, and then she said goodbye, and boarded her helicopter once more. In a few seconds she was gone.
On inauguration day we arrived early, fortified by a packed breakfast of orange juice in Tetrapak, a leg of fried chicken and bread given by the Metro Manila Authority, whose governor was the First Lady. Then we boarded the blue Love Bus in front of the Quezon City Hall for the trip to Laguna.
We were told to stay at a holding area behind the NAC and then the guests arrived one by one. One of them was a tall and sullen man wearing a Barong Tagalog. He smiled when he saw us, complimented us for the “sheen” of our costumes. Our teachers (including my mother, who was also Music teacher) asked him for his autograph and also posed for photographs with him. The man said he did not like being photographed, “but for you I will say yes, because my late mother was also a school teacher.”
This man was Nick Joaquin. Later during his speech, he would retell the story of Mariang Makiling, the legendary goddess of the mountain, who lashed at the greedy people who felled the trees and ruined the rivers of Mount Makiling, all the while looking directly at his hosts: Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and his wife, Imelda.
Later I would learn that Nick Joaquin only accepted the National Artist Award for Literature after his protégé, the poet and journalist Jose “Pete” Lacaba, was released from the military’s torture chambers.
The second time I met Nick Joaquin I had just graduated from Ateneo de Manila University and I was attending the launching of his book, Collected Verse, published by the Ateneo Press. I bought the book and joined the long queue seeking his autograph. When it was my turn, he asked for my name and after I gave it to him, his voice boomed: “Danton, it was good they didn’t behead you.”
I just smiled and said, “At least my name is not Robespierre,” and then he laughed his signature boisterous laughter. He asked what do I do and I said I just graduated from college and would like to write. He looked at me earnestly and said, “Well, boy, good luck and send me your stuff. You can get my address from the Ateneo University Press.”
The next time I met him was at the University of the Philippines National Writers’ Workshop. I sat beside a girl whose long-form story was being discussed; beside her sat her boyfriend. When it was Joaquin’s turn to speak, he said that the story is just too long and it could be edited (the word he used was “pruned”). He added that there was also something wrong with its structure.
Just then, I heard a sniffing beside me and I saw the girl in tears. Her boyfriend stood up gallantly to defend her. “Mr. Joaquin,” he said, “my girlfriend wrote that story that you dislike. I was in this workshop last year and you also disliked my story.”
Like a flash of lightning came Joaquin’s crisp reply: “Then you deserve each other.” He stood up and stormed out of the workshop. I ran after him, wanting him to stay, but he walked so fast and hailed a jeepney and was soon swallowed up by the darkness inside.
Penguin Books has finally introduced him to the West through the book, The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic, with a fantastic cover design by Kristina Collantes. Gina Apostol wrote a brilliant foreword that I read with my heart in my throat, while Vince Rafael’s introduction gave the cultural context for Joaquin’s work.
The book has received rapturous reviews. The British Broadcasting Corporation has listed it as one of its Best Books while The New York Times’ Melissa Chadburn noted that Joaquin “summoned a space between languages” to create his memorable fiction. It adds: “It is rare for any woman to be granted clarity in desperate times – to be described as anything but hysterical. But this is Joaquin’s way: He writes sentences that are precise yet lyrical, tiny emotional ramps leading us to the truth – to the original wound – with dignity.”
One hundred and four years after he was born, our National Artist Nick Joaquin still lives in the sheer magic of his words.
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Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Danton Remoto’s novel, Riverrun, has just been published by Penguin Books.
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