José García Villa once insisted that “Biography I have none and shall have none. All my Pure shall beggar and defy biography.” He was requiring that his identity be sought exclusively in his poems, his purer self. For most of his life, he maintained just such distances, shunning intimacies.
Whenever he boasted that his physician-father was chief of staff for General Emilio Aguinaldo during the Revolution of 1896, he identified himself less with the healer, in that figure, than with the power of the prototypical rebel. In fact, he strenuously resisted his father’s attempt to make a doctor of him. At the University of the Philippines, he turned instead to the study of law, whose logic and case-history specifics he also soon found too constraining. He was temporarily suspended from college in June, 1929, for having written “Man Songs,” a poem too sexually explicit for the times and the authorities. In that same year, for his story “Mir-i-Nisa,” a fable of native courtship, he became the first recipient of an award in what was to become a distinguished annual contest in the Philippines Free Press. Because he felt unappreciated by his father and inadequately recognized by his fellow Filipinos, he spent the prize money taking himself into exile in the United States. He was determined to be answerable only to himself.
In 1932, he received a B.A. from the University of New Mexico, where his literary magazine Clay published the first work (a poem) by William Saroyan, the early writing of William March, David Cornel de Jong, and others, as well as many of his own short stories. These attracted the attention of O’Brien, who dedicated The Best American Short Stories of 1932 to Villa and placed eleven of his tales on that year’s list of distinctive stories. Elated, Villa went to New York City, taking Clay with him, the magazine that O’Brien...
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