Meeting Leoncio Deriada

This week I was fortunate enough to meet one of my great literary influences, Dr. Leoncio P. Deriada.

To list Sir Leo’s accomplishments would be a great labour, for the man’s curriculum vitae is one of the most voluminous in Philippine Literature. It will suffice to mention that, among other awards, he is a Palanca Hall of Famer, having won in the most categories and in the most number of languages in the prestigious Philippine literary prize. The man is also a seasoned man of the academe, having taught and served as administrator in schools all over the country. He writes in English, Filipino, Cebuano, Hiligaynon and Kinaray-a, and one of his greatest accomplishments is the birth of Kinaray-a literature, whose young writers only began writing in the tongue upon his urging. He continues to influence young writers by paneling in various writers workshops around the country.

I have always been something of a Deriada fan. The fact that he graduated AB English from the Ateneo de Davao (my own course and alma mater) is a point of particular interest to me. I have read almost all of his stories, and during my time as SALEM president I promoted his works to young AdDU students. I ended up studying two of his short stories as my undergraduate thesis.

I sent this very thesis to him in Iloilo after I defended it (it got a 98 out of 100!), and through his daughter ma’am Dulce, I learned that he was quite pleased with it. I looked forward to meeting him during this summer’s Iligan Writers Workshop, where he panels, but I had already committed to a fellowship in Silliman and I had to turn the Iligan fellowship.

Just last week, ma’am Dulce informed me that she and Dr. Deriada were coming to Davao to attend the funeral of sir Leo’s deceased sister, and that the great writer wanted to meet me. I was elated! I quickly arranged for students and writers in Davao to meet him.

They arrived from Iloilo on a Saturday but proceeded directly to Mawab, where his sister’s wake was. Bu they returned to Davao the next day.

It was a rainy evening when I first met sir Leo, at the residence of one of his nieces at San Rafael Village, near Marfori Heights. The family was kind enough to welcome me for dinner.

My first chat with sir Leo was immediately fruitful. We talked of the Davao of his childhood, of the Ateneo during his day. He laments the denudation of woodlands in the Davao area, and fondly recollects his experience with the Philippine Eagle. Then he shared my frustration at the neglect the Ateneo de Davao is showing on the literary arts (and the arts in general). “What we had that you don’t have now were good teachers” he declared. With the leaving of Dr. Mac Tiu and sir Don Pagusara from the Ateneo faculty, AdDU would be a literary no man’s land if not for the efforts of sir Dom Cimafranca. I was delighted to know that since he had retired he had been writing, and now he he had two novels waiting to be published. What excited me even more was when he said a “People at Ateneo Jacinto” novel was in the making. Finally, the most fantastic thing I heard was that in his childhood he recalled squirrels going up trees and gnawing Durian shells in Calinan.

Later that evening we went to another relative’s residence in Villa Abrille subdivision, the Robin family’s lovely home. There we continued chatting, and this time the chat became even more revealing. He talked about his old friend the local playwright Rolando Bajo, and recollected old but nevertheless intriguing personal details. Sir Leo came from Barotac Viejo in Panay, but they moved to Davao when he was in early elementary. He would go on to finish his AB English in the Ateneo de Davao, then serve as administrator at Assumption College in Nabunturan. Here, he shared that he sent a story to a publication in Manila, but Nick Joaquin, the editor, refused to publish it because of his back address (who would publish something from a far flung village in Mindanao?). he would then return to Davao to teach in the Ateneo de Davao, then take his master’s degree at Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro. Finally he would go to Silliman University to take up a PhD.

When the conversation touched Silliman, I asked if in case he was ever asked, he would panel in the Silliman Writers Workshop. His answer took the conversation to a stage of the most explosive revelations.  Without betraying the details (he intends to use the details for his works), he gave his own unheard side to the infamous Tiempo-Deriada War of the ’70s. He had a bitter fight with Silliman’s Literary giants, Dr. Edilberto Tiempo and the National artist Edith Tiempo, which ended with his moving to UP Visayas in Iloilo and the Tiempos’ exodus to Iowa. He also revealed some hitherto unspoken of scandals surrounding the personages involved in the whole affair. But he did say that the conflict was ultimately resolved many years later, when common friends, among whom was National artist Rio Alma (Virgilio Almario), mediated to reconcile the two parties. Having just been a Silliman fellow this summer, the revelations concerning people I’ve met and come to love was provocatively enlightening for me.

The night ended with him giving me a free signed copy of his novel, People at Guerrero Street, and we agreed to meet again the next day.

With sir Leo at Yellow Fin

The next day I served as his tour around Davao. We first went to Magsaysay Park, where he bought fresh durian. From there, we had lunch at Yellow Fin, where we continued to chat about language. Over Fish Laing and Lengua I learned a Hiligaynon word, dihon, which was untranslatable in exactitude. It means to craft poetically, and such words, we agreed, ought to be added to the Filipino language to expand its lexicon.

Sir Leo chattng with Sir Mac Tiu at USEP. Photo courtesy of sir Jondy Arpilleda

Sir Leo meets Rolando Bajo after decades

After that we proceeded to the University of Southeastern Philippines, where my friend Macky Marquez, president of USEP’s UneLites, organized a lecture by Mac Tiu and Rolando Bajo in partnership with SALEM and UIC’s LSS. Also present was Dr. Jondy Arpilleda, who brought his legion of Holy Cross of Babak students. There, sir Leo got to meet sir Bajo for the first time in decades. In the middle of the lecture he was asked to share his own thoughts, and the  USEP, Ateneo, UIC and Holy Cross students present got to hear his provocative and not too good opinions on Ed Tiempo and National artists Nick Joaquin and Jose Garcia Villa.  He reiterated the need to write in one’s own language and about one’s own worldview.

After the lecture we went to Chicco di Cafe Roxas, where several members of Ateneo de Davao’s SALEM, led by promising writer Greysh Tubera, met him. Sir Leo talked about the Davao and Ateneo of his day, and proceeded to give a lecture on good poetry. After the gathering, the SALEM members purchased his books and asked for autographs. I gave my old club a copy of his “Little Critiques, Little Workshops.”

Sir Leo talks about the Tiempo-Deriada wars with ma’am Aida and sirs Mac and Ricky over dinner.

Sir Leo with me and members of the Davao Writers Guild. Photo courtesy of sir Jondy Arpilleda

We then proceeded to Apong Kula, where the Davao Writers Guild had arranged a dinner with him. Present were sir Mac (whom we just met at USEP), ma’am Maria Virginia Yap-Morales, sir Ricky de Ungria, ma’am Aida Rivera-Ford and sir Jondy. Sir Ricky revealed that he was working on a historiography on Davao Literature, and asked sir Leo questions. Sir Leo shared his experiences in Silliman, and the innocent ma’am Aida could only express surprise at the shocking revelations from ages past. With sir Leo around the conversation will always go to language. Observations were made, such as how Hiligaynon seems to be the language of romance while Cebuano the language of combat, or how Tagalog seems to be more related to Visayan languages than with the other tongues in Luzon (sir Leo even concluded that Tagalog is a Visayan language). Amidst the conversation my attempt to get a teaching fellowship in Silliman came up, and sir Leo jokingly asked “you’re not trying to follow my footsteps aren’t you Karlo?” A shiver came down my spine as I laughingly said I forgot to apply at Xavier University.

I dropped him to the Robins Home later that evening and said good bye.  He thanked me for the time, and said if it weren’t for me he wouldn’t be able to meet young and established writers alike, We both knew were to meet again soon.

On my way home I recalled the past two days, and could not help but feeling that the meeting with sir Leo showed how much I was a part now of the vast, vibrant and colourful world of the Filipino Literati. I was finally starstruck, but I was starstruck at the thought that in Philippine literature you can be starstruck.

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3 Comments on “Meeting Leoncio Deriada”

  1. inday bisaya says:

    lamat kaayo:-) di na siya kahinumdum siguro sa kadaghan na niyang studyante apan kami ang 1st batch pagbalhin niya sa up iloilo.

  2. inday bisaya says:

    basahon pa nako imong blog, nakit-an nako ni mientras gapangita ko ug material bahin kay sir deriada (na-under ko niya sa 1st yr, what a privilege it was). salamat sa picture niya. para lang nako, siya ang usa sa pinaka sikat kung hindi ang sikat dyud sa mga pinoy nga manunulat, labi na nga kabalo pud siya mosulat sa mga sinultiang bisaya.
    good to see him looking great:-).


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