Bienvenido N. Santos was born in Tondo, Manila, on March 22, 1911. When Santos started school, the Philippines was already a colony of the United States and instruction was in English. In his early attempts at creative writing, Santos developed an ear for three kinds of communication: Pampango in the songs his mother sang at home; English in the poems and stories his teacher read at school; and Tagalog in the street life of the Tondo slums.
Santos left for America in September 1941 as a pensionado (scholar) of the Philippine Commonwealth government. Thirty years old and an established short story writer in English at home, he enrolled at the University of Illinois in the master's program in English. When war broke out in December, he found himself an exile in America, cut off from his homeland and his wife and three daughters he left behind. The heartbreak of this separation during his first sojourn in America is crucial to Santos's development as a writer.
Exile defined the central theme of his fiction from then on. In the summer of 1942, he studied at Columbia University with Whit Burnett, the founder of Story magazine, who published his first fiction in America. After studying Basic English with I.A. Richards at Harvard in 1946, Santos returned home to a country rebuilding from the ruins of war. He came back to America in 1958 as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. His first two novels, Villa Magdalena and The Volcano, written under a Rockefeller grant and a Guggenheim fellowship, were published in Manila in 1965, the year Santos won the Philippine Republic Cultural Heritage Award for Literature.
In 1972, Santos and his wife Beatriz were on their way to the Philippines to "stay home for good," when news of the declaration of martial law reached them in San Francisco. The new regime banned The Praying Man, his novel about government corruption, and he was once again exiled from his home. From 1973 to 1982, Santos was Distinguished Writer-In-Residence at Wichita State University. In 1976 he became a U.S. citizen. His short story, "Immigration Blues," won the best fiction award given by New Letters magazine in 1977. In 1980, the University of Washington Press published Scent of Apples, his first and only book of short stories to appear in the United States. The next year it won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Santos died at his home in Albay on January 7, 1996.
Santos's stories can be grouped into three literary periods. The first period, the prewar years in the Philippines (1930-1940) are set in the fictive Sulucan slums of his Tondo childhood and the rural towns and villages in the foothills of Mayon volcano in Albay, where Santos married Beatriz Nidea, started his family, and built his house. These stories are in the collections Brother, My Brother and Dwell in the Wilderness. Santos's exile in America during the war years produced stories set in Chicago, Washington, New York, and other cities, where he lectured extensively for the Philippine Commonwealth government in exile. You, Lovely People, The Day the Dancers Came, and Scent of Apples belong to this period. In the postwar years Santos set his stories in different places as he commuted between the Philippines and America. These years mark a period of maturation and experimentation, and a shifting away from the short story to the novel form.
His use of memory--or, rather, a fictionalized memory--evokes empathy for his characters. A variation of this technique is Santos's use of other "I" narrators, like the Pinoy old-timer Ambo, he of the trembling hands ("The Door" and "The Faraway Summer"), or Tingting, the tennis player, in the San Francisco novel. But even with the voices of Ambo and Tingting, the stories are told from within, as if Santos had been inside them and felt their pain. Santos believed it was important for a writer to feel compassion for his characters: "When you have cr