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BIOGRAPHY of Nick Joaquín

Resil B. Mojares

He was the greatest Filipino writer of his generation.


Over six decades and a half, he produced a body of work
unmatched in richness and range by any of his
contemporaries. Living a life wholly devoted to the craft of conjuring a world through words, he was the
writer’s writer. In the passion with which he embraced his country’s manifold being, he was his people’s
writer as well.

Nick Joaquín was born in the old district of Pacò in Manila, Philippines, on September 15, 1917, the feast
day of Saint Nicomedes, a protomartyr of Rome, after whom he took his baptismal name. He was born
to a home deeply Catholic, educated, and prosperous. His father, Leocadio Joaquín, was a person of
some prominence. Leocadio was a procurador (attorney) in the Court of First Instance of Laguna, where
he met and married his first wife, at the time of the Philippine Revolution. He shortly joined the
insurrection, had the rank of colonel, and was wounded in action. When the hostilities ceased and the
country came under American rule, he built a successful practice in law. Around 1906, after the death of
his first wife, he married Salomé Márquez, Nick’s mother. A friend of General Emilio Aguinaldo, Leocadio
was a popular lawyer in Manila and the Southern Tagalog provinces. He was unsuccessful however when
he made a bid for a seat in the Philippine Assembly representing Laguna.Nick Joaquín’s mother was a
pretty, well-read woman of her time who had studied in a teacher-training institute during the Spanish
period. Though still in her teens when the United States took possession of the Philippines, she was
among the first to be trained by the Americans in English, a language she taught in a Manila public
school before she left teaching after her marriage.Leocadio and Salomé built a genteel, privileged home
where Spanish was spoken, the family went to church regularly, had outings in the family’s huge
European car (one of the first Renaults in the city), and the children were tutored in Spanish and piano.
Salomé (“who sings beautiful melodies and writes with an exquisite hand,” recalls a family member)
encouraged in her children an interest in the arts. There were ten children in the family, eight boys and
two girls, with Nick as the fifth child. The Joaquín home on Herrán Street in Pacò was a large section of a
two-story residential-commercial building —the first such building in Pacò— that Leocadio had built and
from which the family drew a handsome income from rentals. In this home the young Nick had “an
extremely happy childhood.”Leocadio Joaquín, however, lost the family fortune in an investment in a
pioneering oil exploration project somewhere in the Visayas in the late 1920s. The family had to move
out of Herrán to a rented house in Pásay. Leocadio’s death not long after, when Nick was only around
twelve years old, was a turning point in the life of the family.

Reticent about his private life, Nick Joaquín revealed little about his father. In the manner of fathers of
his time, Leocadio must have been a presence both distant and dominant. He was already an
accomplished man when Nick was born. One has a glimpse of him in the character of the proud Doctor
Chávez in Joaquín’s short story “After the Picnic,” the father who lives by a strict patriarchal code and
yet is all at once remote, vulnerable, and sympathetic. In an early poem, Joaquín vaguely alluded to
what in his father was somehow beyond reach (“the patriot life and the failed politician buried with the
first wife”). Yet he mourned the void his father’s death left: “One froze at the graveside in December’s
cold, / childhood stashed with the bier. Oh, afterwards / was no time to be young, until one was old.”
The young Joaquín dropped out of school. He had attended Pacò Elementary School and had three years
of secondary education in Mapa High School but was too intellectually restless to be confined in a
classroom. Among other changes, he was unable to pursue the religious vocation that his strictly
Catholic family had envisioned to be his future. Joaquín himself confessed that he always had the
vocation for the religious life and would have entered a seminary if it were not for his father’s death.

After he left school, Joaquín worked as a mozo (boy apprentice) in a bakery in Pásay and then as a
printer’s devil in the composing department of the Tribune, of the TVT (Tribune-Vanguardia-Taliba)
publishing company, which had its offices on F. Torres Street in Manila’s Santa Cruz district. This got him
started on what would be a lifelong association with the world of print.

Very early, Joaquín was set on crafting his own voice. Writing in 1985 on his early years as a writer, he
said that it appeared to him in the 1930s that both an American language and an American education
had distanced Filipino writers in English from their immediate surroundings. “These young writers could
only see what the American language saw.” It was “modern” to snub anything that wore the name of
tradition and, for the boys and girls who trooped to the American-instituted schools, Philippine history
began with Commodore Dewey and the Battle of Manila Bay. “The result was a fiction so strictly
contemporary that both the authors and their characters seemed to be, as I put it once, ‘without
grandfathers.’” He recalled: “I realize now that what impelled me to start writing was a desire to bring in
the perspective, to bring in the grandfathers, to manifest roots.”

This was Nick Joaquín recalling in 1985 what it was like in the 1930s. Back then, the young Joaquín was
just beginning to find his way into a literary life. He was gaining notice as a promising writer, publishing
between 1934 and 1941 a few stories and over a dozen poems in the Herald Mid-Week Magazine and
the Sunday Tribune Magazine. The literary scene was vibrant in the Commonwealth years, as writers
and critics debated the role and direction of Philippine writing and formed feuding groups such as the
Philippine Writers League and the Veronicans. Joaquín stood at the periphery of this scene. He probably
had little time to be too reflective. He was already trying to fend for himself while quite young. He was
also growing into a world that was marching toward the cataclysm of a world war.

Through the war years, he continued writing when and where he could. He finished “The Woman Who
Felt Like Lazarus,” a story about an aging vaudeville star, and the essay “La Naval de Manila.” Both
appeared in the wartime English-language journal Philippine Review in 1943. A monthly published by
the Manila Sinbun-sya and edited by Vicente Albano Pacis and Francisco Icasiano, the Review also
published Joaquín’s story “It Was Later Than We Thought” (1943) and his translation of Rizal’s Mi Ultimo
Adios (1944). Readers were beginning to take notice. He cultivated a persona inaccessible and
mysterious. When he was asked to fill up a biographical form for the Review, he simply wrote down: “25
years old, salesman.”

Back in the Philippines in 1950, he joined the country’s leading magazine, Philippines Free Press, working
as a proofreader, copywriter, and then member of the staff. At this time, Free Press was so widely
circulated across the country and so dominant a medium for political reportage and creative writing, it
was called “the Bible of the Filipinos.” Practically all middle-class homes in the country had a copy of the
magazine.

In 1955, his first play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino: An Elegy in Three Scenes, was premiered on
stage at the Aurora Gardens in Intramuros, Manila, by the Barangay Theater Guild. He had written the
play sometime around 1950 upon the urgings of Sarah Joaquín, who was active in Manila’s theater
circles. Though it had been published in Weekly Women’s Magazine and Prose and Poems in 1952 and
had been aired on radio, the play was not staged until 1955. It proved to be an immense success. It was
made into an English-language movie by the highly respected Filipino filmmaker Lamberto V. Avellana in
1965, translated into Tagalog, adapted in other forms, and staged hundreds of times. No Filipino play in
English has been as popular.

Joaquín enjoyed his travels. He traveled all over Spain, lived in Madrid and Mallorca, visited France,
stayed a year in Manhattan, went on an American cross-country trip on a Greyhound bus, crossed the
border to Laredo, and had fun exploring Mexico. Spain and Mexico fascinated him (“my kind of country,”
he says). He would, in the years that followed, take trips to Cuba, Japan, China, Taiwan, and Australia.
Yet he was clearly in his element in his homeland and in Manila, the city that has been his imagination’s
favorite haunt.

From the time he rejoined Free Press in 1957 until he left it in 1970 (during which time he rose to be the
magazine’s literary editor and associate editor), Joaquin was as prominent in his persona as Quijano de
Manila (a pseudonym he adopted for his journalistic writings when he joined the Free Press in 1950) as
he was the creative artist Nick Joaquín. He churned out an average of fifty feature articles a year during
this period. He wrote with eloquence and verve on the most democratic range of subjects, from the arts
and popular culture to history and current politics. He was a widely read chronicler of the times, original
and provocative in his insights and energetic and compassionate in his embrace of local realities.

One of his contemporaries remarked: “Nick Joaquín the journalist has brought to the craft the sensibility
and style of the literary artist, the perceptions of an astute student of the Filipino psyche, and the
integrity and idealism of the man of conscience, and the result has been a class of journalism that is
dramatic, insightful, memorable, and eminently readable.”

Since he joined the Free Press, he had been a full-time writer. The only other “job” he took was an
appointment to the Board of Censors for Motion Pictures, from 1961 to 1972, under both presidents
Diosdado Macapagal and Ferdinand Marcos. He took the post because, in large part, he loved the
movies and practically did no cutting or banning of films, believing in the intelligence and good sense of
moviegoers. He described this stint: “I was non-censoring.”

In the 1930s, when he started writing, he was already a writer apart. At a time when the United States
was viewed as “the very measure of all goodness,” and “history” and “civilization” in the Philippines
seemed to have begun with the advent of America, Joaquin invoked a deeper past. At a time when to be
contemporary was to be “secular,” Joaquín evoked the country’s Christian tradition. At a time when
“proletarian literature” was the “correct” line for young writers to follow, Joaquín was the skeptic who
felt it was one more instance of local literary hierarchs’ “parroting the Americans, among whom
‘proletarian’ was then the latest buzzword.” He wrote: “I can see now that my start as a writer was a
swimming against the current, a going against the grain.”

He had always been a writer engaged but apart. Part of the explanation resided in his character.
Engaged in a public profession, with a very public name, he was a very private person. His reclusive
character was formed early. In a rare, affectionate piece his sister-in-law Sarah Joaquín wrote about him
in Philippine Review in 1943, she spoke of the young Nick as a modest and unassuming young man who
was ill at ease with public praise and shied away from being interviewed or photographed (“he hadn’t
had any taken for fifteen years”). Even then he lived his days according to certain well-loved rites. He
loved going out on long walks (“a tall, thin fellow, a little slouched, walking in Intramuros, almost always
hurriedly”), simply dressed, shoes worn out from a great deal of walking (which helped him cogitate),
observing the street life of the city, making the rounds of churches. “He is the most religious fellow I
know,” Sarah wrote. “Except when his work interferes, he receives Holy Communion everyday.” He was
generous with friends and devoted to the family with whom, even in his teens, he shared what little
money he earned.
He translated Spanish works into English, something he had done intermittently for years. His most
important in this field was The Complete Poems and Plays of José Rizal (1976). Nick also returned to
theater. He adapted the stories “Three Generations” and “Summer Solstice” as the plays Fathers and
Sons (1977) and Tatarín (1978), respectively. In 1976, he wrote The Beatas, the story of a seventeenth-
century Filipino beguinage, a religious community of lay women, repressed by a male-dominated,
colonial order. The subversive message of the play, in the particular context of martial rule, lent itself to
a staging in Tagalog translation in the highly political campus of the University of the Philippines in 1978.
These plays later appeared in the volume, Tropical Baroque: Four Manileño Theatricals, published in
Manila in 1979 and in Australia in 1982.

In 1972, the University of Queensland Press in Australia published a new edition of his fiction under the
title, Tropical Gothic. An important feature of this edition was the inclusion of three novellas that
originally appeared in Free Press, “Cándido’s Apocalypse,” “Doña Jerónima,” and “The Order of
Melkizedek.” These novellas are powerful, historically resonant narratives that probably best represent
the inventiveness and depth of Joaquín as fictionist. They are among the most outstanding pieces of
Philippine fiction that have been written.

He went back to writing poetry, something he had not done since 1965. El Camino Real and Other Rimes
appeared in 1983 and Collected Verse, the author’s choice of thirty-three poems, was published in 1987.
Ranging from light verse to long narrative pieces, these poems —robust, confident, expansive, elegant—
are markers in the development of Philippine poetry. They demonstrate, says the poet-critic Gémino H.
Abad, a level of achievement in which the Filipino is no longer writing in English but has indeed
“wrought from English, having as it were colonized that language.”

In 1976, Nick Joaquín was named National Artist of the Philippines in the field of literature, the highest
recognition given by the state for an artist in the country. Conferred in Manila on March 27, 1976, the
award praised his works as “beacons in the racial landscape” and the author for his “rare excellence and
significant contribution to literature.”

Joaquín kept his distance from power, studiously resisting invitations to attend state functions in
Malacañang Palace. At a ceremony on Mount Makiling, Laguna, attended by Mrs. Marcos, who had built
on the fabled mountain site a National Arts Center, Joaquín delivered a speech in which he provocatively
spoke of freedom and the artist. He was never again invited to address formal cultural occasions for the
rest of the Marcos regime. He was too unpredictable to suit the pious pretensions of the martial-law
government.

He was criticized for “writing too much,” producing commissioned biographies of uneven quality, and
forsaking creative writing for journalism. While his Aquinos of Tarlac was a masterful interweaving of the
life of a family and that of a nation, May Langit Din Ang Mahirap (1998), his biography of former Manila
Mayor Alfredo Lim, seemed like a hurried, paste-up job. While his talent could be quite profligate, there
was no mistaking the genuineness of his appetite for local life and drive to convert this to memorable
form.

In 1996, he received the Ramón Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative
Communication Arts, the highest honor for a writer in Asia. The citation honored him for “exploring the
mysteries of the Filipino body and soul in sixty inspired years as a writer.” Accepting the award on
August 31, 1996, Joaquin did not look back on past achievements but relished the moment, saying that
indeed the good wine has been reserved for last and “the best is yet to be.” This from a man who was
about to turn eighty when he received the award.

Though he largely played his life and career “by ear,” Joaquín relished how he had moved in the right
directions. On the one hand, he could trace himself back to the times when Plato and Cervantes or the
Arabian Nights and the Letters of Saint Paul were all “literature” and there were no fine distinctions as
to which mode of writing was belle and not belle enough. On the other hand, he had foreshadowed
current trends that had broken down the generic boundaries of fiction and nonfiction or “journalism”
and “literature.”

In the Philippines, Nick Joaquín was a keeper of tradition and a maker of memory. He grew up in what
he called an “Age of Innocence” in Philippine history, an era when Filipinos, seduced by the promise of
America and modernity, distanced themselves from their Spanish colonial past and slipped into a kind of
amnesia. He saw—having grown up in a home where his father told stories about the revolution and his
mother encouraged a love for Spanish poetry—that it was his calling “to bring in the perspective, to
bring in the grandfathers, to manifest roots.” In his writings, he traced a landscape haunted by the
past—pagan rites in the shadows of the Christian church, legends of a woman in the cave, strange
prophets roaming the countryside, grandfathers who seem like ghosts who have strayed into the
present. He conjured a society stranded in the present and not quite whole because it had not come to
terms with its past.

The problem of identity was central in Joaquín’s works. In an impressive body of literary, historical, and
journalistic writings, Joaquín was a significant participant in the public discourse on “Filipino identity.”
What marked the positions he took was his refusal of easy orthodoxies. An outsider to government, the
political parties, and the universities, he kept his space to be an independent thinker on the issues
confronting the nation. From the 1930s to until his death, he was consistent in his role as the critic of
what passed for the politically “correct” of the day. In this manner, he opened up spaces for the Filipino
to imagine himself in novel ways and act on this basis.

Nick Joaquín lived through eight decades of Philippine history and witnessed the slow, uneven, and
often violent transformation of the nation—the American idyll of the prewar years, the violence and
degradation of an enemy occupation, the Communist insurgency and the hard choices it confronted the
Filipino with, the dark years of martial rule, the waxing and waning of hopes for a better nation. It is
history that tempts many with despair. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Nick Joaquín, the
writer, was that his was always the voice of a deep, inclusive, and compassionate optimism in the
Filipino.

NICK Joaquín lived in the city and country of his affections and continued to write until his death in April
2004 at the age of eighty-six.

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