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Our young writers make us proud

Scholastic Asian Book Award top winner Sophia Marie Lee (third from left), with her literary mentors Susan Lara, Grace Monte de Ramos and Marj Evasco

A couple of young ladies we had as writing Fellows in last year’s Batch 2013 of the Silliman University National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete recently made us proud.

Sophia Marie Lee, who had impressed us with her fine manuscripts two summers ago, was initially shortlisted last April for her story submission to the 2014 Scholastic Asian Book Award, a biennial search for new Asian children’s stories written in English, as organized by Scholastic and the National Book Development Council of Singapore.

Her draft novel, “What Things Mean,” was eventually awarded the grand prize on May 30 in a highlight ceremony concluding the Asian Festival of Children’s Content held at the Singapore National Library Building.

The award was presented by no less than Singapore Minister of Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong. It meant a cash prize of SG$10,000 as well as a publishing deal from Scholastic.

Another Filipino writer, Catherine Torres, ranked first runner-up with her story “Sula’s Voyage,” while India’s Vivek Bhanot ranked second runner-up with his story “Robin and the Case of the Summer Camp Kidnapping.”

The judges were literary experts and renowned authors: Sayoni Basu of India, Ken Spillman of Australia, Marjorie Coughlan of Canada, Sarah Odedina of United Kingdom, and Wanitcha Sumanat of Thailand.

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The Indian head judge reported: “We were pleasantly surprised with the high quality in the manuscripts submitted this year, which demonstrated greater depth and diversity in their stories, and more sophistication in writing craft as compared to previous years. The universality of the themes will enable all children in Asia and across the world to identify with the stories.”

I recall how part of Sophia’s draft manuscript was taken up by our set of panelists on the third week of the SUNWW in May of 2013. If memory serves me right, that particular session was held in a room at the Bais City Hall, where we had sat down around long tables after a fabulous lechon lunch at a fabulous setting: the sandbar off Bais Bay where our two pumpboats had anchored after a dolphin-spotting cruise.

And we all had high praise for Sophia’s evident gravitas of thematic concern and plotline, the unique narrative flow based on dictionary words, and her sophistication of language and diction. We knew that here was a writer of note, in the making or almost already made.

It seems that despite our encouraging words, as well as those from her creative writing teacher in UP Diliman, Heidi Eusebio Abad who urged her to enter the manuscript in the SABA, Sophia thought nothing would come out of it.

“I’m a very insecure writer,” she confesses, “and I thought it would be a good way to start facing rejection.” She adds: “Just to hear I was shortlisted, I was already blown away.”

As happenstance had it, her family had swung by Singapore with her on the day the awards were announced and given. She was shocked when she was named the SABA winner.

“I was shaking,” she relates. “I was so worried they would ask me to give a speech and I wasn’t prepared. I (went there) not expecting to win, and it was such a pleasant surprise.”

“What Things Mean” is about a girl named Olive who is looking for her father whom she’s never known. Each chapter is marked by a dictionary entry.

“I wanted it to reflect Olive’s search for meaning, and I was fascinated by definitions and how words can have different meanings. My motivating thought was for the reader to take away that they don’t have to be defined by just one thing, and that they can choose to define themselves, giving their own brand to their personality.”

Hearty congrats and kudos, Sophia Marie Lee! We all look forward to Scholastic’s publication of your first book.

* * *

It was a Pinay one-two win at SABA. For first runner-up Catherine Torres, who has worked at our embassy in Singapore (and has won prizes in Philippine STAR’s writing contests, “the second time was the charm after having joined the SABA in its inaugural run in 2011.”

“Sula’s Voyage” tells the story of a vagabond child’s flight to Mindoro to escape from a broken promise, and the treacherous journey back to save a friend and discover her origins.

“That was my first attempt at children’s writing,” Catherine relates. “And I realized I had no idea what it’s about. I’ve always been writing; I’ve had short stories and essays published, but always for a grown-up audience. I’ve even written ‘Sula’s Voyage’ as a short story for grown-ups and I’ve tried placing it in journals, but it didn’t work out. The story stuck with me, though; I really wanted to tell that story. I realized it was for a different audience so that’s when I started rewriting it (as a children’s story) and entered it for this year’s SABA. Basically, it’s a story about identity and a girl’s journey towards discovering herself.”

Catherine Torres’ fiction and essays have been published in anthologies in the Philippines, Singapore, and the United States. She also translates Korean works into English with her husband, a Korean scholar. Her work as a diplomat has taken her to postings in New Delhi and Singapore, together with her husband Sohn Suk Joo and their son Samuel. She is at work on her first collection of short stories.

We congratulate Catherine for her latest literary accomplishment, and we are sure there will be more. We also look forward to reading “Sula’s Voyage” in book form.

The Scholastic Asian Book Award aims to recognize “excellence in fiction” and “to showcase the diversity of literary talent within Asia, and to encourage and inspire more books and stories with Asian content.”

Aspiring writers may now submit their entries to the 2016 Scholastic Asian Book Awards. Deadline is on September 1, 2015. You may visit its site for details and the entry form.

* * *

Another SUNWW 2013 writing Fellow, Isa Lorenzo, we must also congratulate for being the second winner of the W&N and University of East Anglia Short-Story Partnership Award, which was announced early last month.

The firm W&N partners with UAE’s creative writing program, where Isa has gained a fellowship since last year, to showcase the best short stories written by its students. Four winning stories are posted throughout the year. The UAE’s website announcement has it:

“Our second winner is Isa Lorenzo. Born in Manila and raised in California and Quezon City, Isa worked in journalism and development before turning to creative writing. Her short story ‘Little Italy’ was published in Outpouring: Typhoon Yolanda Relief Anthology. She was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Bursary to pursue her Masters in Creative Writing (Prose Fiction) at the University of East Anglia. Isa is currently writing a novel set in contemporary and World War II-era Manila.”

I also recall an outstanding fiction piece by Isa that we took up in Dumaguete. The story was tiltled “Balak-Laot,” and here are brief excerpts that should show the clarity and quality of her writing:

“I grew up on the water. I learned to row a boat almost as soon as I could walk. There is no other way to get around in our town. We live right next to the sea and over the years, it has spilled over into our homes.

“I am only twelve, but I can row a boat, just like a man. I like paddling around our town, listening to the chatter of neighbors as my oars dip in and out of the water. If only it didn’t smell like poop. I’m used to the smell, but you can tell who the visitors are by the way they wrinkle their noses.

“All of the houses are now raised on stilts. But it wasn’t always this way. Mama showed me an old black and white picture once. It showed a girl and her friends standing on the cemented courtyard in front of the church. The water claimed the church a long time ago.

“ ‘Ay, ay,’ the old people shake their heads. They’ve been shaking their heads for a long time. We don’t have any toilets — the sea also took those. Now people cut holes into their floors and go right there. Others, who despair of the smell, keep a plastic bag attached to the hole and cover it. When the bag is almost full, they tie the ends and try to sink it somewhere far away from their homes.”

Brava, Isa! Keep up the great good work! 

* * *

I also understand that Vida Cruz, SUNWW 2012 writing Fellow, has gained another writing fellowship, this time in the prestigious 2014 University of California in San Diego (UCSD) Clarion Writing workshop, which has specialized in “Teaching Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing” since 1968.

A junior desk editor at GMA News Online, Vida also participated in the Iligan National Writers Workshop as well as that of Ateneo de Manila University. Now who says that such workshops ae meaningless and lead to nothing?

Congrats to you too, Vida Cruz!

Then too, earlier this year, the results of the International Poetry Contest of Writing Ventures 2013 — organized by our good friend, internationally acclaimed poet, scholar, critic and writer Kirpal Singh of Singapore — showed that no entry was considered meritorious enough to bag the hefty US$10,000 grand prize. But that three entries, among them by a Filipina, were found to be worthy of the Merit Prize of US$1,000 each.

Our Filipina winner is Carissa Mae Almazan, while the two other Merit prizewinners are Amanda Chong of Singapore and Sarah Rice of Australia. Their poems will be published in the online WV Best Poems of 2013 anthology, together with other exceptional entries chosen by judges Tina Chang of NYC, Dennis Haskell of Australia, and Prof. Singh. Among these are poems by our very own Isabela Banzon and Mark Anthony Cayanan.

For 2014, the top prizes have been increased to: US$12,000 for first prize, US$6,000 for second prize, and US$3,000 for third prize. Poems can be about anything, but no longer than 25 lines. Only unpublished poems are eligible. Winners will be announced in December 2014, and the award ceremony will be held in Singapore also on that month. For details, check out Writing Ventures’ website.

And finally, special congrats & kudos to our special writer buddy Patricia Evangelista, who did it again, oops, by winning yet another international prize — this time for Best Short Film at the 6th Asian Ministerial Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction (AMCDRR) in Bangkok.

Representing Rappler, for which she did the short film on a visit to Haiyan-plagued Leyte last year, Patricia bagged the prize for “The Barber of Guiuan,” which was selected from entries among Asian countries for the professional media category. She received the award and the US$2,000 prize at the Gala Closing Ceremony of the Ministerial Conference in Bangkok only last Friday, June 26.

The competition was organized by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) under the theme “Promoting Investments for Resilient Nations and Communities.”

Patricia directed, wrote and edited the Rappler video with audio assistance from Naoki Mengua. It tells the story of “barber Alan Alcantara, whose Guiuan barbershop was destroyed after the onslaught of typhoon Haiyan in November 2013. Alcantara’s broken storefront became a hub for survivors after the storm, where those who lost family, friends and property told their stories.” This story was first published on Rappler on Nov. 23, 2013, and has since been updated.

Recounts Patricia Evangelista, SUNWW 2006 writing Fellow:

“It was a three hour shoot. I was using my Panasonic AF100, old Zeiss lenses and one zoom lens. It’s not the smartest equipment to lug around a disaster zone, but I’m a creature of habit.

“I got a phone call that morning from my editor Glenda Gloria. I was maybe a week in, and had been filing story after story of the dead and the lost. You can’t help it in Haiyan country, the streets are lined with corpses, there are babies inside backpacks. My boss told me to get out of Tacloban and find hope. We drove out to Guiuan, and I saw this shirtless man cutting hair in the middle of all that debris, laughing with the old man whose hair he was trimming. The broken red barber’s chair was sitting in a pile of debris. That was it. I still have to go down there again to hunt him down and give him the good news. No phones or street signs back then.”

Once again, well done, Pat. We await the whisky treat at Oarhouse.

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