At first glance, he seemed like everyone’s doting grandfather.
Those kind eyes. That subtle mix of a smirk and a smile. Childlike, but never naïve. A “cute fully-grown man,” as my wife Che was wont to say. A voice too limber and soft for a giant.
Yet there was nothing infinitesimal about him. He was the mind behind the libretto, the tragedy and the drama, the rendition into Filipino of classic plays.
He was the scholar-activist. The groan and the revolution.
A humble man, a dedicated teacher, that well-nigh invisible radiance.
Ka Bien to his friends, National Artist for literature Bienvenido Lumbera was a colossus in the republic of letters. Like every other writer belonging to the Order of National Artists, Ka Bien brought home the lion’s share of awards and local and international recognition.
The Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation, and the Ateneo de Manila’s Gawad Tanglaw, among others, had rightfully conferred on him the distinction he long deserved.
Yet my memories of Ka Bien are no different from everyone else’s: a humble man, a dedicated teacher, that well-nigh invisible radiance behind many a young writer’s dream of making it big in the world of literature.
No hour went by where you’d catch him “unguarded” as though the sheen of his humility was all for show. Not a single narcissistic bone exists in his body, none of the deadly conceit which dogged the navel-gazing sort of artist. Ka Bien’s humanity was the real deal.
But, for me, above all, he was a fellow Batangueño, a kindred spirit in that other world aglow with the glimmer of the balisong, the strong scent of liberica, and the memory of heroes who fought American colonial tyranny to the last man and woman.
What began as little more than passing acquaintance soon turned commonplace. Meeting Ka Bien on several occasions were such a pleasure. One memorable incident was when he showed more than fleeting interest to a paper I submitted to the Philippine Center of International PEN in 2012.
Good writing is so much more than form. It is more importantly about content. It is writing about your country.
The paper, "Neither Slaves to Lesser Gods: Revisiting Erudition and Enchantment,” which is now included in my 2013 book, Blood Republic, discussed the different views of Filipino authors S.P. Lopez and José García Villa on the subject of “art for art’s sake” and “committed” writing.
As scholar-activist, Ka Bien was not one to hail aesthetics more than socially relevant material. As close to one’s experience as possible, he would say. His own words confirmed this during an interview with fellow journalist Ina Roldan Silverio:
“Good writing,” he said, “is so much more than form. It is more importantly about content. It is writing about your country, its history, its culture, and what will inspire Filipinos to use their inherent power to free themselves from poverty and exploitation.”
His words went in harmony with the creed of two other National Artists, namely Cirilo F. Bautista and Nick Joaquin. In this current political dispensation where university libraries are censored and journalists openly persecuted, even killed, for speaking truth to power, it pays to remember their words:
There can never be a ceasefire in the writer's war with the irrational, the incompetent, and the corrupt.
Joaquin a.k.a. Quijano de Manila wrote in his book, Reportage on Crime, “[C]ensorship may be a cure that's worse than the disease, for we would be surrendering freedom of judgment in exchange for peace of mind. Not only our children but we ourselves may eventually find ourselves deprived of the right to distinguish for ourselves the difference between right and wrong, between good and evil.”
Cirilo F. Bautista, in his Notes on the Literary Life, places the writer’s role in much stronger terms: "There can never be a ceasefire in the writer's war with the irrational, the incompetent, and the corrupt.”
It is significant to the role of any National Artist to be relevant. To be abreast with the times. To singularly, if not collectively, speak in favor of human dignity and not use his or her platform to enable oppressors to go scot-free.
To be a bastion of hope and justice and all that our rights and freedoms seek to confer on the people: what more is there to say?
Little can be said of National Artists who side with deniers and executioners, with the exception that perhaps it’s time for Filipinos look past the glitter and the glam of titles, and accept or reject such artists based on their contribution to the work of emancipation.
Anything less, however artistically done, renders the oeuvre as intellectually dishonest and corrupted to the core. For what is art, meaningful and eloquent, but defiance? One author aptly defines literature as “never innocent”.
Ka Bien Lumbera’s passing on Sept. 28—to include the passing of Bautista and Joaquin—may, for some, signal the end of an era. Rightly so if, perchance, that is the case.
But their true body of work remains: young and seasoned writers who’ve sat under their wings, bringing faith and fire to a tired and benighted nation.
We may have lost a scholar-activist in Ka Bien, a virtuoso in Quijano de Manila, and the poet-warrior in Toti Bautista. But they are replaced by a legion of wordsmiths no less brilliant and bold as their mentors were in life.
In life, they were named National Artists; in death, national treasures.
(Banner photo: Lumbera and Bautista taken by the author, Joaquin from Fringe magazine)