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Edilberto Tiempo, Philippine literary pillar

by Jeric Olay

“This was the family I had not experienced… the intoxicating intelligence of literary conversation making every meal a noble, gallant feast of the senses, as around the table Mom Edith and Dad Ed, the precious scions Rowena and Maldon…” – Alfred Yuson
When Alfred Yuson described such occasion as feast of the senses, he did not exaggerate. He was then sharing a meal with the literary icons, Edilberto and Edith Tiempo.
In the travel essay of Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, prize-winning fictionist, she named the Tiempo couple as gods in Philippine literary pantheon.
As we celebrate Reading Month, may we read the works of these two literary pillars, one of whom came from Southern Leyte.
Edilberto was born in Maasin in 1913. He spent his boyhood in this small town before he left for Dumaguete to study Education at Silliman. He learned creative writing in this institution, but his interest in writing had already been manifested while in the Maasin Institute, now The College of Maasin (CM). He became editor of the school publication Hilltop News. The young Edil could not find publication opportunities in Maasin; however, his story Postscript was later published in Philippine Graphic magazine in 1934. The story was included in the annual selections of Best Filipino Short Stories (1934) as cherry-picked by Jose Garcia Villa, a prominent literary critic. It received three asterisks, indicating his work as excellent.
Then Edil met Edith Lopez. Their legacy, as married couple, in the country’s literary scene was the establishment of the Silliman National Writers’ Workshop in 1962. It is the oldest creative writing program in Asia. Their workshop was modelled after the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the US.
The Silliman Workshop has accepted thousands of emerging and established writers since its conception. Their works have been evaluated using the Western lens, where the focus is centered on the structure and form. Some fellows have started conducting their own workshops. Merlie Alunan, a fellow (1982) and panelist of Silliman workshop, created the Lamiraw Creative Writing Workshop in 2004. In 2018, Jan Aries Baco, aspiring poet from Ichon, Macrohon, was one of the fellows of Lamiraw.
In 1983, Edilberto received the Ferdinand E. Marcos medallion for Literature as distinguished son of Southern Leyte. He could have received the highest national award in Literature during the Marcos administration. Unfortunately, another writer, a dead poet, was cited at Malacañan Palace. In a recorded interview kept by Iowa University in its Digital Library, Edilberto frankly said, “the dead poet who was not a good poet.” The recognition wasn’t conferred to him, he revealed, because the Marcos family might not have liked the title of his third novel, “To Be Free.” In 2018, years after his death in 1996, he was nominated for the country’s highest literary recognition, which is the Order of the National Artist.
As a realist, Edilberto employed plausible plot. His fictional works picture the everyday life in the town or province. In his story, The Witch, the details of the setting, according to her daughter (Rowena Tiempo-Torevillas), portray the rural Maasin. The lore, tales, and people in this town became the inspiration for his stories.
His award-winning novels and collection of stories are hard to find. Fortunately, I found autographed copies of Watch in the Night, Cracked Mirror, and Rainbow for Rima in the CM library. The provincial library has also kept some of his books, like the collection of stories titled The Paraplegics and Five Short Stories.
Southern Leyteños have little or no knowledge about the life and works of Edilberto Tiempo. If we want to bring Tiempo into the consciousness of Southern Leyteños, college and high school teachers should include Tiempo’s fiction in the course syllabus. The City Culture, Art, and Tourism Office must craft detailed biography of Tiempo for public education.

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