Born in Manila just seventeen years into the century, NICK JOAQUIN witnessed as a boy the slow metamorphosis of his home city as it awakened from three hundred years of languorous Spanish dominion and quickened to the newer rhythms of America and the modern age. Schooled in the neighborhood of Paco and, for two or three years, at Mapa High School in the old city of Intramuros, he set out early on a life of his own. While working as a typesetter for the Tribune newspaper at the age of seventeen, he submitted a poem to the editors. It was published and thus began his life as a writer.
Years of menial work and wartime followed, but in 1945 a JOAQUIN short story won first prize in a Philippines Free Press fiction contest. The next several years yielded brilliant short stories such as “Guardia de Honor” and “The Summer Solstice” and JOAQUIN’s classic play “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino,” set in a faded and beaten post-war Intramuros. In these and other early masterworks, JOAQUIN revealed his preoccupation with the Spain-and-America-infused Filipino psyche and its deep roots in a pre-Christian past–for in NICK JOAQUIN’s Philippines, the past always haunts the present.
Following two years at St. Albert’s College in Hong Kong, in 1950 JOAQUIN joined the Philippines Free Press and rose eventually to associate editor. As Quijano de Manila—his now famous nom de plume—he chronicled the high life and low life of Manila’s politicos and crooks, starlets and famous lovers and, in trenchant essays and articles, examined intimately the mores and passions of the city. Prizes and fellowships permitted him to travel widely and return to fiction. He concluded his signature novel, The Woman Who Had Two Navels, with the postscript: “Madrid-Mallorca-Manhattan-Mexico-Manila, 1960.”
Siding with workers in a labor dispute in 1970, JOAQUIN left the Free Press for the Asia Philippines Leader, where he served as editor-in-chief until the Marcos dictatorship shut it down two years later. Working independently now, JOAQUIN brought out several collections of articles and wrote three new plays, several children’s stories, and a detective novel–Cave and Shadows. In 1976, the year he was named National Artist of the Philippines, he also published lyrical translations from Spanish of the poems of Jose Rizal. And beginning in 1979, he launched a new series of narrative oral histories about Philippine notables; today, twelve volumes later, he is the country’s most prolific biographer.
JOAQUIN also mastered the Philippines’ most popular and widely-read literary form, the newspaper column. In offerings titled “Jottings,” “Small Beer,” and such, he dished out regular rounds of history, opinion, and gossip with such flair, candor, and intelligence that he managed to raise this quotidian newspaper exercise to an art.
Long recognized as the Philippines’ premier literary artist, JOAQUIN has influenced and inspired generations of aspiring writers. English is his preferred metier and he uses the language masterfully to convey his own quintessentially Filipino persona. As he explains, “Whether it is in Tagalog or English, because I am Filipino, every single line I write is in Filipino.”
Notoriously publicity shy, JOAQUIN prefers a life of anonymity, camaraderie, and work. Today at seventy-eight, his days are busy, still, with writing. When asked once if he ever intended to retire, JOAQUIN is said to have responded, with typical verbal mischief, “I’m not retiring and I’m not resigned.” He was sixty-five at the time, twenty-three books ago.
In electing NICK JOAQUIN to receive the 1996 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the board of trustees recognizes his exploring the mysteries of the Filipino body and soul in sixty inspired years as a writer.