Alberto Florentino on
FRANCISCO ARCELLANA, 85, 1916-2002
New York City, August 5, 2002

I met Francisco Arcellana some 50 years ago when I attended the first CPMAL (Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature) award for the short story in English, for his short story "The Flowers of May." At that time (1951, the birth date of the longest-running literary award in ENGLISH), he had not PUBLISHED a book under his name: not a sheaf of poems by the poet; not a trilogy of stories by the short story fictionist; not a pamphlet of literary essays or criticism by the literary historian or chronicler. I published Arcellana's first book, the first of 15 books by some of the country's best writers. In the end (ca. 80s) I had published 21 titles by 6 or 7 authors who, 10 or more years later would be proclaimed National Artists, the highest literary award from the government and the incumbent President.

Selected Stories by Francisco Arcellana, the 4th title in my peso book series, was printed on the obverse and reverse pages of only TWO sheets of bookpaper on a flatbed letterpress in the UP Printery in the basement of the UP Library. The two pages were fed by hand into the machine and manually folded, by mostly women printery workers, 4 times to make two 32-page signatures,in a 5x7 format, saddle-stitched and covered with a heavier stock of white board paper.

I reprinted four to five short stories that Arcellana had published in the latter part of his career, during his "postwar" years, in weekly magazines and literary supplements. I cannot specify the number of stories and the titles as I lost most of my library books in a fire. Budgeted at P500 a title (my very first title was supported by a cash donation from a stranger (the painter Fernando Zobel de Ayala), Purita Kalaw Ledesma, and Brigido Lobrin, a total of P400). I rushed the printing of Arcellana's peso book in only 2 weeks or 15 days because the author had second thoughts about coming out with his first book containing reprints of previously published works. He wanted me to hold (stop) the press and to wait until he had written new, original (in the sense of unpublished) short stories. But before he could change his mind, I had printed his peso book and finished five to 9 other titles which Bookmark (President Bienvenido Tan, Jr. and office manager Eddie Makabenta) had offered to finance and distribute. The print run of the first 5 or 10 titles went direct from the press to the Bookmark warehouse.

The peso books were printed at a cost of 33 centavos each and priced to sell at one peso, with a royalty of 10 centavos to the author and the rest (57 centavos) to the financier, distributor, and retailer. Somehow I forgot to pay myself through the 75 titles and two decades. The inventory of the peso books stayed in Bookmark's warehouse and book shelves for five to ten years, their retail price pegged (like the PH.peso to the US.dollar up to the 60s) at one peso. The Philippine peso started at an exchange rate of P2:US$1, sliding down to P25:$1 in the 60s to P50:$1 today. Thus, in today's inflated value of the peso, a peso book was selling at two red cents or a British "tuppence."

Towards the end of the first-and-only edition of Arcellana's Selected Stories, the book was remaindered at 50% off (down to P0.50) until the last copy was sold before martial law. In the late '90s, during a writers "auction night" at Bahay Kalinaw on the UP Diliman campus, I espied a collectible copy of the book selling at P100 and could not buy it because I had spent my last P100 on another title. In 1990 Francisco Arcellana was declared by the president of the country as a National Artist for Literature. The basis of the award was, of course, the dozens of short stories and other literary works that he had published during his "prewar" or "peacetime" years, from his first story in the 30s in magazines whose tattered copies could then (ca. 50s) be found only in musty libraries or museums; or available in old, out-of-print anthologies of the 50s and 60s. The National Artist Award for Literature for Francisco Arcellana was also based on the first BOOK I published of his short stories (see above) and on the second book which I published 12 years later: 15 Stories by Francisco Arcellana (#5 of the Storymasters Series). And also on The Francisco Arcellana Sampler, printed in the UP Press under the imprint of the Creative Writing Center (of which Arcellana was the first and founding director).

The content of the Sampler published by the UPCWC was essentially the same short stories in the first Peso Book and in "15 Stories" with the addition of a few more non-fiction pieces (essays, articles, columns, etc.) unearthed by an avid researcher and included in the Sampler to add to its length, import, and heft. It was the first clothbound edition of an Arcellana book. In short, a "real" book.

When Francisco Arcellana won the most coveted National Artist Award for Literature in 1990, not a few people felt that he should not have won it--or not YET, anyway. There were thought to be other contenders-writers who were older, or "younger-but-actively- writing" authors of BOOKS of full-length works: a 5-(or 3-) decker novel, a full-length or three-act play, or a
1,000-page tome, by other authors' heavier, bigger books than Arcellana's 64-page, 10-oz. booklet or pocketbook. In fact, one major contender had written and (self-)published an (almost) ten-foot shelf of his literary works.

But the value and worth of a writer's works and his literary life are not to be measured by the poundage of, nor by the count of the pages, in his few books. He could also be measured even by only a quartet or a "baker's dozen" of his briefest short stories, or even a slender sheaf of poems, or a selection of essays or columns. Towards the end of his life an author could be known and recognized for only one or a few literary pieces that have stood out: like "The Wing of Madness" / later aka "The Yellow Shawl," running from 6 to 12 pages. Or add "Divide by Two" or "The Mats" or "The Flowers of May." Another poet could have won a National Artist Literary Award on the basis of only one poem, one where every precious word is separated from others by commas: "The Anchored Angel." Or another fictionist on one of his (oxymoron) long short story or novella or novelette: "Lupo and the River"; or alternately, on a slim novel of the soil, Children of the Ash-Covered Loam. Or still another on only one short story, "Guardia de Honor", or better, a trio of them (adding "Three Generations" and "May Day Eve"). Or on his single play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.

Or on a single book of a novel: Without Seeing the Dawn. Or on one "debut" novel, written in a foreign tongue (Spanish): Noli Me Tangere (or add its sequel, El Filibusterismo). Or on one single novel, the life and autobiography of its author: America Is in the Heart. Or on the basis of having created a summer writing workshop that started as a conjugal project by a tandem in academia in the South (Silliman U, Dumaguete City) in 1962, which is still ongoing as you read this, and may last until the end of the life of the orphaned spouse. Or based on the writing and publishing of 12 coffeetable books, started by the author's first title, Philippine Contemporary Art.

Or for writing a trio of coffeetable books that started with "Philippine Dance," ending in "Sayaw" (Dance), which is also the author's latest and 25th title, an achievement of 51 years of his life and 30 years of writing and publishing. Or for writing while in prison, hours or days before his summary execution by musketry, a poem! by an eye doctor and novelist: a 14-stanza valedictory poem (and forgetting to affix a title, a date or an authorial signature): "Mi Ultimo Adios," again in a foreign tongue (Spanish). Or for writing one poem/ lyric of half-a-dozen lines that, if sung a cappella, last no longer than 3 minutes: "Sa Ugoy ng Duyan. Or for a thousand pop and folk songs, composed in a lifetime, including some performed with a greenleaf as musical instrument at the Carnegie Hall. Or for a poem: "Sa Tabi ng Dagat", or for another poet's poem: "Buhay". Or for a posthumous award for an anonymous composer or poet/ lyricist who lived many millennia ago and bequeathed to his people an oyayi or boat/ rowing song: "Ang Tamuneneng Ko"; or another folk poet's poem, a kumintang: "Jocelynang Baliuag". Or for one single, singular, gem of a poem, probably written more than 500 or even 5,000 years ago, a 4-line poem as old as, or much much older than, a Great Anonymous Folk Poet's "O Western Wind": A Tanaga:

Katawan mong madudurog, Uuuri't mabubulok; Siyang sinusunodsunod, Hinihimas, iniirog.

If the title "National Artists" is co-opted by other institutions, let us crown these Poets, Writers, or Authors our "National Treasures," our "Living Treasures," or our "Natural Resources".


 

Franz Arcellana--Source: National Commission for Culture and the Arts Web site
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Prepared by Alexander Martin Remollino and Ederic Eder of Tinig.com under the guidance of Alberto Florentino, September 2002