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Manoa 18.1 (2006) 51-57

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Spirit and Literature

F. Sionil José was born in 1924 in Rosales, Pangasinan, Philippines. In 1965 he established the publishing firm Solidaridad. His work includes ten novels, five collections of short stories, a book of verse, and a collection of stories for children. His masterpiece is the five-novel Rosales saga: The Pretenders; Tree; My Brother, My Executioner; Mass; and Po-on. His works have also been translated and published in various languages. Random House has recently released Three Filipino Women, Sins, Dusk (Po-on), Don Vincente (My Brother, My Executioner and Tree), and The Samsons (The Pretenders and Mass)—the last three books in Modern Library Editions.

José has received numerous fellowships and awards: the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the most prestigious award of its kind in Asia; the ccp Centennial Honors for the Arts; the National Artist Award for Literature; and the Pablo Neruda Centennial Award.

In our part of the world, a lot of phenomena cannot be explained by rational analysis or cold, scientific deduction. Some would easily dismiss all these as ancient superstitions, sleight-of-hand occurrences, or even products of fervid imagination. But they persist because, in a very real sense, they exist.

It is no wonder then that even highly sophisticated political leaders would consult in Indonesia the dokun, in the Philippines the fortuneteller, for good signs that would assure them of success in their ventures. To this day, I cannot get over the sight of long lines of women, and some men, waiting for their chance to consult a fortuneteller who has positioned himself and his candle on a Tokyo sidewalk.

I grew up believing in ghosts, in spirits, in small creatures that inhabit the bowels of the earth. I have sometimes brought these up in my fiction, not as incidents of rural culture, but often as metaphors and as a way by which I explain people's eternal fascination with the unknown.

In ultra-modern Singapore, they have a Hindu festival—Thaipusam, I think it is called. On this day, the devotees go to the Hindu temple, their [End Page 51]

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faces smothered with gray ash. Some of the men have their cheeks and tongues pierced with skewers of iron. There is no blood, and they go about as if nothing extraordinary has happened to them. The most amazing sight—it was difficult for me to believe it when I saw it—was of men with hooks in the flesh of their backs. These hooks were attached to carts or sleds that they hauled as they walked. There was no pain in their faces, no blood streaming from their backs.

In the early sixties my family was in Sri Lanka, which was then known as Ceylon. On the week of our arrival, I was asked if we wanted to see fire-walking. I have seen firewalking in the Philippines, but on a small scale.

We arrived in this Tamil village outside Colombo early in the evening. The village was surrounded by coconut groves, and the villagers were pre-paring the site for firewalking. The site was a dozen meters long and a meter and a half wide and was covered with stones laid close to one another. On top of the stones, the villagers were piling dried coconut leaves and burning them. Judging from the mound of ashes that had been gathered on the side, the leaves had been burning for some time. While they burned, the villagers chanted and danced nearby.

By the time the last leaves were burned and their ashes removed, the stones were glowing like coals; the heat was so intense that a leaf thrown into the bed would immediately burst into flames. The dancers then filed onto the glowing bed of stones, dancing and chanting as if nothing was under their feet. What amazed me was that the children who joined in also seemed to enjoy dancing on the stones. A woman's sari caught fire, but she quickly extinguished it. This went on...