The Literary Giant that was Tony Enriquez

Jun 22, 2014

by Sammy Santos

 

MANILA, June 20, 2014 – It is sad to note from the scanty comments to Mike Banos’ Facebook posting on the death of Antonio Reyes Enriquez (1936-2014) in Cagayan de Oro last June 14, that few Zamboangueños (and Filipinos) were aware of the life and works of this literary giant who placed Zamboanga City in the world map through his novels and short stories.

 

Antonio R. Enriquez

While young Zamboangueños hardly know him, Enriquez, or Ñor Tony to friends, once walked with the country’s literary greats and was often compared to Nick Joaquin, Bienvenido Santos, F. Sionil Jose, Jose Garcia Villa, Carlos Bulosan, and NVM Gonzales.

 

Born in Barangay Labuan, Zamboanga City in 1936, Tony Enriquez wrote novels and short stories that were published here and abroad. Most of his writings won international acclaim and some of his short stories were translated into Korean and German.

 

He won the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Grand Prize for Literature twice: 1982 for first novel, Surveyors of the Liguasan Marsh, and again in 1993 for his third novel, Subanons. Earlier, he won First Prize in the Short Story Category for Spots on their Wings(1973) and Third Prize for the same category for The Icon (1969). The Palanca Award is considered the most prestigious award for literature in the country.

 

His second collection of short stories, Dance a White Horse to Sleep and Other Stories was the first work of fiction by a Filipino writing in his own country to break international publication. It was published in Queensland, Australia in 1977.

In 1996, he was recognized with the Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas Award for Fiction in English by the Writers Union of the Philippines (UMPIL).

 

In 2000, Enriquez was presented by the Thai Royal Family with the S.E.A. Write (Southeast Asia Writers) Award in Bangkok, Thailand. In 2013, he was recognized by the Ateneo de Zamboanga University with the Fr. Eduardo Hontiveros SJ Award for Culture and Arts.

 

Reviewing his novel Dance A White Horse to Sleep and Other Stories, Australian literary critic Elizabeth Perkins of the James Cook University said: “It is difficult to claim greatness of soul for any man until his life’s work is known, but there is a breach of understanding, a depth of insight, a sensitivity and a flexible creativity in the work of Antonio Enriquez that give his short stories already an intimation of greatness.”

 

“Enriquez is a generation younger than the better known Nick Joaquin and Francisco Sionil Jose, but already his work invites comparison with theirs,” Perkins added.

 

According to the book The Unseen War and other Tales from Mindanao published by Giraffe Books in 1996, Enriquez grew up in Zamboanga City “like the heroes in his novels.”

 

His parents wanted him to take up medicine and sent him to a Manila university but after several schools and courses, he returned to Zamboanga City without a college degree. Enriquez later did various odd jobs including writing news and features for various newspapers and magazines. He once had a stint with a surveying company in Cotabato where his experiences provided him with the setting and characters for his novel Surveyors of the Liguasan Marsh.

 

A writing fellowship award brought Tony Enriquez to Silliman University where he graduated with a liberal arts degree in creative writing. He later taught in that university where he met some of the country’s top writers today.

 

Enriquez’s second novel The Living and the Dead was published by Giraffe Books in 1994 while another collection of stories The Night I Cry was published by New Day Publishing in 1989.

 

The Chronicle, a newspaper in Australia, had this to say about Enriquez’s work: “This collection of short stories is cast in an unusual setting—the island of Mindanao, its principal city of Zamboanga, and the rural and coastal areas.

The stories are characterized by strength of atmosphere, a forceful fluidity of style, and a deep perceptiveness as they delineate the various types of people—the simple, humble fishermen with their fears of superstitions, the struggling farmers, the city-bred types with their different problems—all with their loves and hates, ambitions and, often, bitter memories.”

 

“There is love, faithfulness and unfaithfulness, conflict and death in the stories, which have action, colour and commentary on a way of life not so very different from ours.  The author of these often stark tales of the Philippines is himself a Zamboangueño,” The Chronicle noted.

 

I must confess I knew little of Tony Enriquez literary work when I met him in Zamboanga City in the early 1980s. I was an aspiring reporter, fresh out of campus journalism, while he was deputy regional director of the Ministry of Public Information now known as the Philippine Information Agency (PIA)).

 

I met Tony, the beer drinker, first before I met Tony, the literary giant.

 

Relaxing over bottles of beer while enjoying the famous Lantaka Hotel sunset view, I would find Tony in the distinguished company of my editors Rene Fernandez and Rolly San Juan, National Press Club President Tony Nieva, Philippine News Agency’s Felino Santos, senior reporters Bob Jaldon and Roy Ramos, government information officers Rick Villanueva, Al Mendoza, and the late Romy Enriquez.

 

At that time, I knew that Tony was already an award-winning literary giant but I never had the chance to read any of his novels since books were scarce in Zamboanga City and money to buy them was hard to come by for a financially struggling young reporter then.

 

I read Tony’s novels and short stories after I moved to Manila in 1986 and took frequent trips to the many book stores here on payday. When the Internet came, the astonishing reviews of Tony’s literary genius became even more accessible.

 

I liked Tony on our first drink. Despite his fame, Tony remained humble, modest, and unassuming. He was the quiet type but he was always generous with his compliments and words of encouragement, even for impertinent and intoxicated young men like me.

 

Very vividly, I remember Tony’s characteristic patience and tolerance for me and my rowdy gang of young reporters like Joel Fabian, Pal Marquez, and Raymond Enriquez as we would blabber about our dreams and aspirations in the journalistic (and literary) worldin Tony’s presence after having one San Miguel beer too many.

 

Tony’s humility inspired young people. His advice to us then was simple: “Just keep on reading and keep on writing.”

 

Tony liked to laugh a lot. I do not remember him bad mouthing anybody. He hardly criticized people and since he was connected with the Ministry of Public Information then, he never spoke against President Marcos and his authoritarian regime. He projected an image that he was apolitical.

 

Years later, I would discover that some of the major characters in his novels were inspired by the antics of the late Zamboanga City Mayor Cesar Climaco, then one of the heroes of the political opposition in Mindanao who led the struggle against human rights abuses and the rampant corruption of the Marcos regime.

 

In fact, I was already with the Philippine Senate when I came across his book The Activist, a historical novel that tells the life, struggles, agony, and death of fictional activist Lorenzo Diaz Jr. under the brutal Marcos dictatorship.

 

As Tony wrote it, Diaz’s character was based on two persons—Mayor Climaco who was assassinated 1984 and Senator Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr. from Cagayan de Oro—making him an idealist, an advocate for justice, and a freedom fighter.

 

Nene Pimentel was still a senator when I got a copy of The Activist and had it autographed while we were having leisure coffee at the Senate Lounge one afternoon.

 

Nene and I had a long talk about our mutual friend Tony and reminisced about the many dark years of Martial Law we endured in Mindanao. It was too bad Tony was not there to share the moment.
Nowadays, after giving up my 20-year career in print media to join the Philippine Senate as its print media director, I still get the chance to share drinks with accomplished writers and “literally giants.”

 

My favorite beer buddy now is PDI columnist Conrad de Quiros (though he stays with his red wine under pain of gout attack) as we frequent a common music bar in Quezon City called Conspiracy.

 

Every now and then, we would get lucky and our table is enhanced by the presence of poet, writer, and editor Pete Lacaba; award-winning writers Krip Yuson, Bien Lumbera, Marne Kilates, and Charlson Ong. These are the regulars in Lacaba’s Salinawit singing sessions where artists interpret Lacaba’s Pilipino translations of English, French, or Spanish songs.

 

Conspiracy is also the favorite hangout of extraordinarily fine writers and poets who match words with music such as Gary Granada, Joey Ayala, Noel Cabangon, Cooky Chua, Lolita Carbon, Bayang Barrios, Mike Villagas, Mel and Nori Villena; but that is another story, for a different column.

 

With Tony now gone, I can only wish that I had the chance to bring him to the Conspiracy bar. The beer there is always ice-cold, just the way Tony liked it.

 

Postscript: Tony is survived by his wife Joy Viernes Enriquez, daughter Vanessa and son-in-law Ulysses, and grandchildren Anton Vladimir, Julien, Nikka Eloise, Dominique Ysabelle, and Andrei Joshua. They request the pious reader to pray for Tony’s peaceful journey to the afterlife.

His wake was held at Palermo Chapel, Cosmopolitan Funeral Homes, Gen. N. Capistrano Street, Cagayan de Oro City. Final vigil and neurological services was done last Wednesday, June 18 after which his remains were cremated at Forest Lake cemetery in that city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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