Thursday, April 19, 2012

KCAT CAN: The Cinderella who loves to read

The Cinderella who loves to read
by Maria Kathrina Lopez Yarza 
April 16, 2012

Cinderella was one of the first Disney movies that I watched as a kid. I have loved it since then. Even now that I am not able to hear the sweet and alluring voice of Cinderella anymore, I know it by heart.

I met Josephine Litonjua through a common friend, and we have been in constant communication ever since, talking about anything and everything. Yet it was only through her blog write-up on Junying Kirk, a Chinese-British author that I learned about Josephine’s interesting life, which is quite similar to that of my favorite Cinderella tale.

Once upon a time, when Josephine, or Jho, was only 10 months old, her mother died of cerebral hemorrhage due to aneurysm. But unlike, Cinderella, Jho had two other older siblings — Mae and Jojo (whom she met when she was already 15 years old).

At very young ages, their father left them, so they had to be separated.  Jojo was sent to their paternal grandparents, while Jho and her sister were under the care of their maternal grandparents.

Her childhood was good although people thought of her as strange and weird since she was the quiet and reserved type, one who did not like playing dolls but loved to read books instead. “That’s because my grandmother taught me not to talk when you are not being spoken to, so I just smiled,” Jho remembers.

Their grandparents passed away when Jho was 10 years old, and so she had to live with an aunt and family. It was a traumatic experience for her because she had to endure watching how her uncle would often beat almost everyone in the family, except her. She witnessed her cousins being whipped by electrical wires until their fragile bodies were all black and blue. Jho saw her cousins being placed inside a sack and hung upside-down.

Jho could bear the poverty and hunger, but it was the mental torture that she was not able to bear each time her cousins got such an inhumane treatment.


The day came when She could not bear it any longer and so she left her aunt’s home at age 13. She asked her elder sister who was then living with another relative in Manila to take her in. Jho and Mae both left their small town in Samar. For a year, they had to live from one relative’s house to another until Mae decided to contact their father.

Jho met her father for the first time and got to chance to live with him, her stepmom and her half siblings in Alabat, Quezon. Jho experienced how living with a family was like. She still had to face difficulties but it was not like what she had experienced in Samar.

“My father considered himself a genius, and anybody who didn’t know Science and History and so on as he did was beneath him,” Jho relates.

During the summer before her last year in high school, Jho was sent to Pasig where she spent her entire summer as a household helper in order to earn money for her school needs. Before she left her home, Jho overheard her stepmom saying to her father that if they had not taken her in, Jho would never have been able to continue her schooling. She was upset and wanted to prove them otherwise and left their home at 16.

“It was the last straw for me. It felt like something inside me snapped and I didn’t want anything to do with other people anymore. I wanted to be left alone. I wanted to show to the entire world that I didn’t need an adult in order to live. In my point of view, all the grownups ever did was to cause me pain. I wanted to stop all the drama in my life by staying away,” Jho shared.

Jho and her sister had to sell sandwiches and various stuff in order to get by. It was hard, but thanks to her scholarship grant and to her perseverance, she was able to graduate from high school and was accepted at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños (UPLB) where she was granted a scholarship.

One of her aunts discouraged her not to study college anymore because of lack of money, although she never asked any of her relatives to support her, living independently on her own means. During that time, she did not believe that there was such thing as “impossible’’ anymore.  Life may be hard, but for as long as one perseveres, good things in life can happen.

When Jho entered college, she only had P2,000.00, her scholarship, a few set of clothes, her pillows, bed sheet, blanket, and a dream to graduate from University of the Philippines, no matter what.

It was quite difficult to live on her own means, but Jho considers college days as the best experience in her entire life. It changed her and made her a better person. She met a lot of people who taught her how to laugh, cry, get exasperated, and so on.

Not only did she earn a bachelor’s degree in Agribusiness Management, she also took up Effective Business Communication Course (as a scholar still), and earned a degree in Development Communication.


She also met Mark, who is now her husband.

When asked if Mark is her prince charming since she is Cinderella, she answered, “Yes, he is, but at the same time, he is better than Prince Charming — because he’s the real deal.”

Mark has been awed by Jho’s perseverance and skills, and has been supportive of her ever since.

“He makes me laugh, he makes me talk, makes me feel exasperated sometimes. He makes me feel loved. He believes in my dreams and it’s for the people in my life like him that makes me want to make things happen,” Jho gushes.


Jho shares that aside from her friends and the teachers who inspired and mentored her, as well as the people who helped her, the other thing that was constant in her life was books.

During her difficult times, her books gave her comfort.

“It was easier to forget the horrors of my life. Not to mention that books were safe,” she continues, “I can choose which books to read, and I can read books that will make me feel like there’s really happiness and hope outside of my life.”

One day, upon waking up and opening her eyes, she told herself, “I am going to publish books!” Right there and then, she decided that she will make it come true.

The next thing she knew, she was asking her friends to join her. If Cinderella had a couple of mice that helped her, Jho had a couple of supportive friends who have helped her realize her dreams of putting up Isshin Dream Publishing — a Pinoy Indie publishing house that  prints children’s books, graphic novels, and romance books, among others.

“Its name Isshin — which means one heart — represents its people who share a longtime love affair and passion for reading, writing, and drawing,” Jho unveils. “Isshin Dream Publishing intends to touch the hearts and lives of the readers and aspires to help bridge the widening literacy gap in the Philippines by encouraging and inspiring more people to read, hence our tagline: Touching stories. Moving hearts. Changing Lives,” she says.

To end, let me borrow what Junying Kirk said in her blog, “Despite such a harsh start in life, our heroine, Josephine, took control of her destiny and proved herself an amazing success story. It shows that human spirits can triumph against all odds.“

***erratum: Josephine mom's died when she was 10 days old not 10 months. And she was 13 when she first met her brother.

Here are some of the un-edited answers of Ms. Josephine Litonjua:

How was your childhood when you were still living with your (deceased) grandparents?

     My childhood was unconventional. I feel like I were a weird kid. I suppose I was like that because long before I even learned how to read, my grandmother would tell me: you should not talk when you are not being spoken to, or you should use po and opo, etc. My grandparents were the type who didn’t talk very much. As a result, I was really quiet and I don’t really play with my dolls that much. So, when I learned how to read, I read a lot instead. My love for reading was encouraged by my elder sister. She was the one who taught me how to read—showed me our cabinet full of books—and told me that I should read because it would take me to places when I grow up. Thanks to Tagalog komiks and our collection of books—which were mostly Science books and a collection of Filipino Literature (a collection of Palanca award-winning works)—I learned how to read fast. My sister thought it was a fluke—she thought I didn’t really know how to read and was only able to memorize the contents of the books that was why I can read them out loud. But when you think about it, how could I memorize them if I didn’t really know how to read? When I turned seven, my aunt and her family lived with us. She also loved reading and was the one who influenced me to read Tagalog and English romance pocketbooks. The first Tagalog one I read was entitled, “Pag-ibig, Paalam na nga ba?” by Helen Meriz while the English one was Bride for a night by Anne Hampson. I fell in love with romance instantly. From then on, I never opened my parents’ Science and Medical books—I never could understand them anyway, not really. As for their collection of Filipino books and stories—they were brilliantly written—no questions about that—but they were a tad too depressing for a kid. A kid reading about a kid who was gambling [kara y krus] in order to buy his mom food and medicine only for him to come home and find her dead… or read about rich people trying to steal some poor farmer’s land… I’ve forgotten the titles of these stories and about the only thing I remember was Francisco Soc Rodrigo’s Sa Pula Sa Puti because it was hilarious. 
     But I guess, it was thanks to these that I was able to surpass all the things that had happened to me. At such an early age, I understood poverty; I understood that there were mean people, but at the same time, I knew that there were good people too.  
When u left your aunt's home when u were 13, where was your sister? Did she come w/ u or stayed there? Where did you go?
     My sister was living with another relative in Metro Manila. I wrote to her regularly and told her once my first year in high school was over that I no longer want to stay in Samar. She went to fetch me and I have been living from one relative to another. The last relative who took me in was willing to send me to an exclusive school but my sister was probably afraid that that won’t happen and wrote to our father instead. I was fourteen when I first saw my father.      
     My aunt and her family lived with us when I was seven, my grandparents died when I was ten and the beating started probably because my grandma who had a heart condition, was no longer alive to reproach my uncle from doing what he wanted to do. I was nine when my sister went to Manila to study college but that didn’t happen. When our grandparents died, my sister went back and stayed for a year pero namasukan sya sa kamag-anak namin sa Las Pinas when I turned 11. She wasn’t there my entire 6th grade [I was 11 til I was 12]When I went to Manila at 13, it was then that I met my brother, Jojo, for the first time.
How did your mom die (if it's ok)? Do you have any siblings?
       Well, her death certificate states that the cause was cerebral hemorrhage due to aneurysm. As for the circumstances, only my elder sister Mae knew, she was seven at the time. Ten days after giving birth to me, apparently our parents had a fight because it was already 12AM and my nanny was nowhere to be found. Long story short, when they found her, my dad slapped her—that prompted her to leave in the middle of the night and an argument escalated between my parents as my Mom was worried that something will happen to the nanny in the streets. Somewhere in the middle of that, my sister fell asleep, only to be woken by a racket that my dad was causing. The neighbors were everywhere and he was holding my mom while he was shouting for everyone to get a taxi, a car, a jeep, whatever. My sister was taken care of by our aunt and she was told that our mom will come home soon. And she did, my sister recounted, days after they left… but the next time she saw her, she said—she was already inside a coffin and everyone around her was crying. 
      I have two full siblings—Mae our eldest, then my elder brother Kuya Jojo, then three half-siblings—Kuya Jun Lee, Kuya Jok, [me], and then a younger sister, Josa
How was your college life?
     It was the best, ever! I met wonderful people—ones who taught me how to laugh, cry, get exasperated, etc. I wasn’t really looking for friends but students would keep on arriving on my dorm and dorm room and would hang out with me and ask me to eat with them. These people were stubborn and you could hardly tell them to get lost every time they show up just because they were in the way of my reading, LOL! The next thing I knew, I find myself laughing with them, talking with them, caring for them. Suddenly, I already know what the words like happy, sad, mad, love truly mean—words that I only read about. 
      Don’t get me wrong, I have found extraordinary and kindhearted people before. But I think it was because I was away from all the people who created all the drama and disasters in my life that I learned how to appreciate the new people in my life. I seriously owe my friends. They saved me from self-destruction. They saved me from a life full of sadness and pain and for that, I’ll always be grateful. 
      Some friends also helped me financially; one of my best friends would send me money for over a year while in college in order to help me out. She’s my childhood friend. I didn’t tell her about the beatings but she accidentally found out because she was wondering why, at 2PM, our house was still closed.
What were you doing after you graduated from college?
I found a job right away, but I was offered a writing job by an uncle and I accepted. While I like writing, I love reading more, hence my decision to go into publishing.

What the story behind Isshin Dream Publishing? When did you start deciding that you're going to publish books? What were the obstacles you encountered and how did you manage to get through with it?
     I just woke up one day—literally opened my eyes and blurted out: I’m going to publish books! The next thing I know… I was already doing an industry analysis on publishing and was asking my friends to join me. Two years and three books later—we are still struggling with the sales of our books. We have thought of a few measures how to resolve it—ones I’m not willing to divulge though. Probably the hardest thing though, is when not so many people support and believe in my dreams and aspirations. But that is fine, to each his own. I’ve always been a single-minded person, when people tell me otherwise, it may be painful for me but what I do is ignore it, suck it up, and work hard into proving them otherwise.

How did u meet your husband? What's his name? What does he do? When did you get married? How did he influence your life? You said that your life is a classic Cinderella tale, so is heyour prince charming?
     Mark and I met online 11 years ago.  We became textmates but we didn’t meet in person after almost a year. We’ve been together ever since; we got married last Oct. 12, 2009. While my friends turned me into “humans,” some of them still complained about my stoic demeanor. It’s still very hard to get a rise out of me. But with Mark, I feel like I’m becoming more and more “human” every day. He makes me laugh, he makes me talk, makes me feel exasperated sometimes. He makes me feel loved. He believes in my dreams and it’s for the people in my life like him that makes me want to make things happen. 
     I always say that my life is a classic Cinderella tale—only it’s more gory; I say that because sometimes, it was better to think that what had happened were that—a fairy tale. Yes, he is, but at the same time, he is better than Prince Charming—because he’s the real deal. 

"If there’s one thing I learned about all these, it’s that we really should learn how to care and reach out to other people."
-Josephine Litonjua

Also read: Interviewing a Publisher... by Junying Kirk and know more about Jho and her inspiring story.

Josephine is a graduate of Agribusiness Management from the University of the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB). Because of her love and interest in reading and writing, she also took up a Business Communication Course from the University of the Philippines Diliman and then eventually took a master’s degree on Development Communication at the University of the Philippines Open University (UPOU).

She learned how to read at the age of four and has not stopped ever since. Jho believes that everything that she has done since she was a kid has prepared her to this path. Her love for reading had driven her to establish what she considered her greatest brainchild to date, the Isshin Dream Publishing.

It was Josephine’s birthday two weeks ago and she made my birthday wish as her birthday wish as well will hold a fund-raising event on April 28. Visit A Birthday Wish on Facebook to learn more about it.

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