By Juan EY Arcellana
MANY years ago a student dropped out of professor Gemino Abad’s poetry class at the University of the Philippines because he was in the midst of chasing a girl who later in the summer would drown in the sea off Vigan. Mr. Abad was puzzled why the student suddenly quit as the course requirement of 10 poems, or at least a first draft of it, had already been submitted, and in fact was entitled “Ten poems for the wife.” There was no wife; only the Vigan sea at high noon, 1978.
Thirty-seven years later, Mr. Abad is keynote speaker at the 65th Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, and he is saying that without imagination, without language, there can be no memory and no culture. It is the writers and artists that make a country what it is, give it its identity and place on the map. According to racial memory, the Philippines resembles a birthmark southeast of the South China Sea, but its literature extends well past its borders, well past disputed territories into other Asian countries, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas, even Africa.
The Palanca awards receive easily more than a thousand entries the world over each year covering different categories, where only 50 plus writers win, take home modest cash prizes and certificates of recognition and, in the case of the first place winner, a medal. Of the 57 winners this year, 33 are first-timers. And of the grand prize winners in the novel in Filipino and in English, one is in her early 30s and the other 20 years old. This is underscored by Dang Cecilio-Palanca, who spoke on behalf of the family.
That there are more first time than veteran winners would belie previous claims that the house of Philippine literature is burning down, if not long reduced to ashes due to literary cabals and cliques that tend to coral the fellowships, grants, awards to a select few, accommodating the occasional acolyte to further the bata-bata system of patronage. In so-called culture there can be politics as well, the essay written by Katrina Stuart some years back for a men’s glossy seemed to say, and that it was best to burn the essay after reading.
While it may be partly true — one can line all the politicians against the wall and they will only be replaced by new ones, albeit also writers — contests such as the Palancas offer a window for formerly obscure writers to make their mark, or their presence felt. Others truly gifted may even find contests superfluous, though the price of their genius, as in the case of Jun Lansang, can be a madness rare and scary — there but for the grace of God go I.
Of course, placing in the Palancas can change a writer’s life, as it could very well change, say, that of 2nd prize English essay winner Jennifer Balboa, whose “Violence, a biography” is a riveting take on her growing up years fraught with domestic violence, and was it her stroke-afflicted dad who attended the awards in a wheelchair? Arkaye Kierulf, 2nd prize English poetry winner for “There are no monsters,” was in the Dumaguete workshop in 2009, four years before Ms. Balboa was fellow. Does their winning Palanca awards welcome them into the secret fellowship, real or imagined?
The writer Cesar Ruiz, commenting on a poem by Kierulf in that Dumaguete workshop, said that riding a bicycle invokes a memory like no other, because the bicycle rider cannot but remember the first time she rode one. Which is to say, one never unlearns how to ride a bicycle, just as one can never unlearn how to play billiards, or how to drive. The first cut is the deepest and at times seeps through cloth — tagos, but maybe I am remembering Mr. Ruiz’s remarks wrongly.
On the awards night itself there was no beer, but wine, whisky, and brandy — and the 2nd prize winning one-act play, Looking for Ulysses, by Jose Bueno, set in the last bookstore in the world with Banaue Miclat and Bart Guingona, which evokes romance in a world running out of the printed word. Maybe the house of literature hasn’t really burned down, but rises from the sea like Venus in Vigan.
Photos courtesy of CID, Inc.