Biography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899

Nestor Vicente Madali Gonzalez (guhn-ZAH-lehs), who sometimes adopted the surname spelling “Gonzales,” was born into a family of educators, his mother being a teacher and his father a school supervisor. When he was four years old, Gonzalez moved with his family to the barrio of Wasig in Mindoro. This locale had a seminal influence on his writing, as the titles of his works “Hunger in Barok,” “Life and Death in a Mindoro Kaingin,” and Mindoro and Beyond suggest. From 1927 to 1930, Gonzalez stayed with aunts and uncles in Romblon, his last year being spent at Mindoro High School.

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Gonzalez failed his University of the Philippines entrance examination, but in 1949 he became the first to teach college courses there without holding a degree. In 1933 Gonzalez visited Manila and met famed Commonwealth period president Manuel Quezon y Molina but quickly returned to Mindoro. The next year he went back to Manila, where he joined the Veronicans, certainly the finest literary organization in the pre-World War II Philippines, noteworthy for such luminaries as Manuel A. Viray among its members. In that same year, Gonzalez entered an essay commemorating Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to Calapan in a students’ literary contest (Gonzalez did two years of college studies at National University and Manila Law College). Noted poet and literary critic A. E. Litiatco awarded Gonzalez the five-peso first prize. This was the first of numerous awards, prizes, and other honors Gonzalez garnered. Among the most prestigious were an honorable mention in the First Commonwealth Literary Contest (1940) for The Winds of April; Rockefeller grants in 1949-1950, 1952, and 1964; a Republic Award of Merit (1954), and a Republic Cultural Heritage Award (1960) for The Bamboo Dancers; a National Artist Award for Literature (1997); and a Philippines Centennial Award for Literature (1998).

Although his renowned works are in English, the language was acquired; Hiligaynofl is the native tongue of Romblon. He also was accomplished in Tagalog, as his third prize in the 1943 Liwayway Short Story Contest for “Lunsod, Nayon, at Dagat-dagatan” (city, town, and lake) attests.

After the war, Gonzalez served as literary editor of the Evening News Saturday Magazine and This Week magazine, both newspaper supplements, but his principal profession was college professor. After his Rockefeller grant work at Stanford and Columbia Universities, Gonzalez returned to the Philippines in 1950, whereupon he taught at the University of Santo Tomas and at Philippine Women’s University. In 1951 he joined the faculty of the University of the Philippines, where he remained until 1967. He served as visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, from 1966 to 1968 and thereafter earned tenure at California State University, Hayward, from which he retired in 1982 with the rank of professor emeritus. In spite of his affiliations with American universities; including a professorship at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the English department and the Asian American Studies Center, he never considered himself a Filipino American writer, and he retained his Filipino citizenship.

He was recognized by a City and County of San Francisco proclamation of March 7, 1990, which named that day “Professor N. V. M. Gonzalez Day in San Francisco”; a 1993 Filipino Community of California Proclamation “honoring N. V. M. Gonzalez for seventy-eight years of achievements”; and a City of Los Angeles resolution declaring that October 11, 1996, was “N. V. M. Gonzalez Day.” He died in 1999 at the age of eighty-four.

His sixty-five-year literary career began propitiously, with publication very early in well-respected magazines. He was only sixteen when his poem “Guitarist” appeared in the March, 1932, issue of Philippine Magazine, the most prestigious periodical in the prewar Philippines. In September of the following year, he reprised his precocity in prose fiction: “Black Bonga” was in the September, 1933, issue. January, 1934, saw publication of four brief poems under the title “Notations” in Poetry magazine, the revered project of Harriet Monroe.

Although Gonzalez concentrated his efforts on prose fiction and built his reputation on short stories and novels, he never abandoned poetry. Four of his poems, “A Wanderer in the Night of the World,” “The Deepest Well in Madras,” “How the Heart Aches,” and “I Made Myself a Path,” appear in Returning a Borrowed Tongue: Poems by Filipino and Filipino American Writers (1995), edited by Nick Carbó. Gonzalez also remained active as a prose fictionist: “Confessions of a Dawn Person” is included in the 1997 collection Contemporary Fiction by Filipinos in America, edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard. Gonzalez, despite many years of service as a professor, produced no significant scholarly studies; instead, he wrote a substantial number of essays that contextualize Philippine literature and address problems faced by writers. Again, these efforts were a career-long commitment, ranging from the 1951 “Trends in Filipino Writing” to the 1997 “Filipino American Literature” (with Oscar Campomanes).

Gonzalez’s fictional milieu is rural. His one major work with predominantly urban settings, The Bamboo Dancers, has generally not been favorably received; it has been faulted for formlessness and stasis. Poet and critic Petronilo Bn. Daroy excoriates it as trivial and “a mere travelogue” (University of the Philippines Research Digest, July, 1966), although Leonard Casper does defend the novel as “a narrative fable treating the second law of thermodynamics.” It is the timeless rhythms of rural peasant life that readers admire, however. The style is uncluttered, direct, empirical; the interaction with nature is localized yet cosmic in implication. Especially admired is the idiom of the kaingineros (farmers of woodland clearings created by burning off the bush), whose speech patterns Gonzalez so successfully replicated in English.

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