I wrote this review in 2004 and it was published in Businessworld. I thought I’d repost it because, after six years, there’s already a new generation of Filipinos who should know who Jose Ma.Sison is, what his politics are and what the Movement he represents seeks to achieve for the Filipino people and the country.
To read Ninotchka Rosca’s Jose Maria Sison: At Home in the World not just to discover the controversial man, but to learn the political and economic history of the Philippines, understand the nature of global conflict, and to find that there is hope for genuine justice and freedom for the poor and working people.
Jose Maria Sison’s politics is well known, but not well-understood. Through the malicious efforts of the media and other information agents of the Philippine government and the United States, Sison’s reputation is as much based on purported infamy as it is on widespread respect. Rosca has written a book that succeeds in explaining the Sison way and introducing the turbulent history of the Philippines with sensitivity, intelligence, and genuine warmth.
Through Rosca’s eyes, the way she has documented her conversations with Sison, Sison as never before is revealed in all his aspects – a revolutionary, ideologue, and as an ordinary human being who chose to attempt the extraordinary and noble: build a people’s liberation movement that has survived three decades of fascist and puppet governments as well as potentially mortal errors.
Literature and Politics
Acclaimed novelist Ninotchka Rosca has written and put together a book that is certain to go down in Philippine literary and journalistic history as one of the most definitive documents of the nation’s political and historical development. Though it is titled to be a biography, reading though it one will immediately grasp that it is much more than a description and narration of the personal saga of one extraordinary Filipino and leader, but an incisive and critical telling of the Filipino nation’s past and present, and offers a glimpse into what challenges lie ahead for the country and its people.
Jose Maria Sison: At Home in the World is an amazing read. Even those who are practically clueless and tragically uninformed regarding the true state of the nation and world developments will find it compelling.
For one, the subject of the biography, Jose Ma. Sison, is one of the most known individuals that ever made a dent in the public’s consciousness. This is, no doubt, an understatement as Sison, as it is well-documented and brilliantly depicted in Rosca’ book, has not only influenced politics in the country but actually shaped and even directed the course of the nation’s history and impacted on the lives of millions of Filipinos and even peoples of other nationalities.
For another, it is written by Ninotchka Rosca, one of the few Filipino journalists and literary writers who are respected not merely for their craft, but for their advocacy and politics.
At first it was a cause for a little disappointment that the book it mostly comprised of transcriptions of conversations between the author and the celebrated subject. After all, Rosca is an established literary voice, and it would have been more than a treat to read her own words describing Sison, giving shape and image to the man known to be both an ideological behemoth and a notorious joker and wit.
But reading through the book, one realizes that Rosca did make her distinctive literary mark in her treatment of the subject. It came out not just in the autobiographical sketch wherein she introduced her subject and gave a hint of the kind and extraordinary humanity the subject possesses NOT separate from the larger than life cause he has chosen to embrace and further, but in the questions she asked her subject, and how she has phrased them.
The man is his politics and ideology
The biography being divided in to five chapters could be mistaken to be a straight, chronological account of Sison’s life and times. For the most part the biography is bound and outlined by time; but the topics jump back and forth and interconnect seamlessly, like a mobius strip.
The chapter titles give an idea of what each segment contains Chapter 1, for instance, titled “A Dangerous Existence” details how Sison was forced into exile by the Corazon Aquino Administration and what he did to continue his revolutionary work abroad. But it also gives insight into Sison’s thoughts and feelings and more importantly his experiences not just as the intellectual and ideologue, but as an actual living, breathing Red Fighter.
It’s not well-known to all that Sison had and has it in him to be physically acting out his convictions. The descriptions of how he led rallies were not new; and the experiences of joining demonstrations and getting arrested by police, especially for the members of the Philippine legal, democratic mass movement are ordinary. But in his conversations with Rosca, Sison gives a plain but all the same harrowing account of his ten-year imprisonment and torture during the Marcos dictatorship.
His description of the torture – the dehumanizing, soul-killing treatment he suffered inside the prison cells is given in his own words – plain and simple, straightforward language. But the very plainness, the sobriety of the description are what precisely gives the shock-effect; jolts the reader into realizing that even a fraction of what the Sison went through would have broken a lesser man or woman.
Sison, however, survived and lived to tell the tale with no self-aggrandizement or drama. (It would be good to note that in previous video interviews, Sison has narrated the experience of torture with humor, and this makes one all the more amazed at the strength of the man’s spirit and the force of his interior will.)
In the meantime, Sison, for years has been accused of being nothing more than a pencil pusher, issuing commands via press statements and other documents. Through Rosca’s incisive and – yes, even gossipy questioning- however, bits and pieces of Sison’s lively personality and distinctly strong and surprisingly down-to-earth character have been revealed like never before.
More importantly, Rosca succeeded in making Sison explain, in his own words, using his own prodigious grasp of Marxist analysis, Philippine history and world developments. Questions regarding Sison’s work and study habits, his personal quirks and relatively trivial travails (such as his former problems quitting smoking, and how he feels and reacts to slurs and attacks against himself in the media)are given answers that inevitably end up as analysis and narration of economic and political developments.
Queries on specific developments in the aformentioned areas, on the other hand, are answered with personal anecdotes. For instance, when Sison is asked about the murder by the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM)of labor leader Rolando Olalia and what it implied in the context of peace negotiations with the then Aquino government, Sison’s answer is deeply heartfelt: he felt a measure of guilt and responsibility for Ka Lando and his aid Ka Leonor Alay-ay’s murders because he, Sison, was most likely the original target.
The plainness and calmness of Sison’s words all throughout reveal not just a keen intellect or an expansive memory for detail, but a deep sincerity and feeling as well. The weight and depth of the subjects Sison discusses with Rosca in the book is equal to that of mountains and oceans, and Rosca has chosen to allow Sison to give his explanations in his own words, his own particular nuances, and his personal emphasis.
This all made for a book that is both political and personal; historical and biographical. Unlike most biographies that center on the life of the individual and his or her thoughts and feelings about his or her own self, JMS: At Home in the World is a biography not just of a man, but of nation and a people.
Philippine and World History 101
As mentioned in previous paragraphs, readers with no background or interest in world developments or even local politics would find themselves compelled to read At Home in the World.
The story behind the infamous terrorist branding of Sison and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CCP) and the New People’s Army (NPA) is explained in the book, and the issue is made simpler to comprehend: Sison is a fairly large and painful thorn on the side of the agents of US imperialism and Philippine bureaucrat capitalism, and all means must be exhausted to get him out of circulation. No accusation is too baseless and absurd, hence the terrorist label.
Clarifications and explanations regarding the 2nd Rectification Movement of the Philippine revolutionary movement are also presented; and readers who are either unfamiliar with the phenomenon (which once hogged the headlines back in the early nineties and even up to the present is referred to by political analysts and pundits as a turning point in Philippine political history) or familiar and outraged by it will find Sison’s account of what happened (the errors committed by the mainstream Left, the damage wrought, and the struggle to recover and reclaim lost strength) yet again clean, honest and humble.
As for the candid answers on the workings of the CPP, the NPA and the National Democratic Front, they all serve demystify the said organizations which are the constant and steady targets of the govenrment’s propaganda machinery. Often demonized by the state-run media and agents of the US’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) masquerading as journalists and political analysts, the CPP, NPA and NDF are revealed to be revolutionary organizations of the Filipino people; groups whose main mandates are to defend the Filipino people and carry forward and bring to reality their dreams and aspirations for a nation free from exploitation and oppression.
All throughout the book, various names and events are mentioned and discussed. It’s a crash course on the Who’s Who in Philippine mainstream politics and the Left Movement. For martial law babies who are now in their late 20s and early 30s, it is appalling to read the names of certain officials and leaders of the Marcos administration and realize that they are still officials in the current administration under Pres.Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. It is also no less than a reason for outrage that the events that shaped the turbulent 70s – the violent dispersals, the police abuses and the military operations that resulted in vicious human rights violations and serious attacks against civil and democratic rights continue to present day.
What counter-balances the anger generated by the paragraphs detailing these, however, is the sheer hope and certainty that justice will triumph also generated by Sison’s description and analysis of the continuing tasks of the progressive people’s movement in the Philippines.
These and reports of the ever-increasing ranks of Filipinos and people of other nationalities who come from the workers, peasants, urban and rural poor and other working and progressive sectors who stand united against US imperialism and its interference in the internal economic, political and military affairs of what should be sovereign nations.
Guidebook for young activists
Finally, the book also serves as Sison’s guidepost for young activists and progressives.
Sison is an inspiration for young activists, particularly those with a peti-bourgeois background. Awareness of his life and the way he has lived and continues to live it serves to strengthen young activists’ faith and conviction in the correctness of the Revolution, continuous study, the forging of discipline, and cultivation of humility.
Anecdotes involving Sison’s colleagues in the NDF, including wife and comrade Juliet de Lima Sison; and how they do their work for the Philippine revolution abroad also give further insight into what it is like to be a revolutionary. Sison and the others in the NDF office in Utrecht, the Netherlands by and large started off as ordinary beings- Filipinos with strong family values, distinctly Pinoy humor, everyday hobbies – but they have become extraordinary because they chose to devote their lives – heart, body, mind and strength – to the Philippine revolution and the international proletarian struggle.
What is most particularly inspiring about Sison’s life, at least for this reviewer, is the way he has through the years maintained his essential lightheartedness. Through all the personal and political attacks from the various enemies of the Filipino people and the vicious accusations leveled against him and the movement he has helped build, Sison has succeeded in keeping his humanity more than intact. There are countless anecdotes revealing his essential self – his quick humor, his intellectual brilliance, his warmth and consideration for comrades and colleagues.
In the end, At Home in the World only re-affirms the basic truth that his enemies assiduously try to obfuscate and destroy. That the kind of person Sison is only reflects the kind of movement he belongs to, the kind of revolution he is helping to lead and give direction to. Sison is not only at home in the world, he represents one of the strongest forces that help shape and change it.#