The Palanca Awards and Book Notes
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - November 18, 2019 - 12:00am

The Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature celebrated its 69th year last week, acknowledging 56 authors out of 1,167 entries in 22 categories. The Awards are profoundly important to our cultural growth and nationhood. If I had the power, I would give the Palanca Foundation the highest honors this Republic can bestow.

To the best of my knowledge, the Awards were founded by the entrepreneur, Carlos Palanca Jr., in the early 1950s in honor of his father. It had been first suggested to him, I think, by the late NVM Gonzalez, who was then a regular pillar of the old Philippine Columbian Club on Taft Avenue and was a personal friend of Carlos Fernandez.

The Philippine Columbian Club was the intellectual hub of the city from the 1940s to the 1960’s. It was here where the world’s leading writers and intellectuals gave lectures. I got my first Palanca in 1958 for my short story, “The God Stealer,” which became my most anthologized fiction. The award check of one thousand pesos was handed to me by Carlos Palanca himself.

I have travelled extensively in the region and elsewhere and I know of no institution working assiduously year after year to promote literature like the Palanca Foundation. I take my beret off to Sylvia Palanca Quirino, Charlie’s daughter, and to the rest of the Palanca family for their devotion to a cause that serves the nation.

The young writers, the new generation of writers that the Palanca Awards addresses and inspires, so many of them, from all regions of the country, have refocused their aims. Some are now writing extensively in the vernaculars, all recognized by the Palanca Awards and included in the entry categories. 

I talked shop recently with the talented writers, Kit Kwe of the University of the Philippines Creative Writing Center and Arnel Patawaran, Lifestyle editor at the Manila Bulletin. Kit will soon release her first collection of short stories. Arnel has one of each – a book of short stories, essays, and a poetry collection. 

Kit has spiced her fiction with politics and I assured her of Lenin’s pronouncement that all art is propaganda but not all propaganda is art, that she must always apply the tenets of art and literature in her writing and when judging if a work of fiction is simply propaganda. This is not easy to do. Sometimes a writer’s work though purely imaginative becomes politically forceful. The writer then crosses the border. This does not diminish him. Rather, it elevates his work instead to the classics.

Arnel Patawaran circulates in a much wider circle than most writers – the chichi crowd included – and has excellent chances of writing about it as Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe did on New York’s cafe society. To these two we may add Norman Mailer, tough-minded and a politician as well. All three wrote of the generation of Americans that flourished after World War II and lived the moral passions and crises of that period. They were fortunate they were immediately appreciated in America. In the beginning, William Faulkner was not, and it took some time before the appreciation of Faulkner’s writings in Europe reached the United States.

This is pretty normal -- innovation, new forms, often repel. Parisians did not appreciate the Eiffel Tower in the beginning nor did the Mexicans approve of David Alfaro Sequeiros or Diego Rivera when their paintings of Mexican peasants and revolutionaries first appeared after the Mexican Revolution. Mexican elites raised in the European cultural tradition did not like the unusual characterization of their people but this, later on, became identified as the Mexican Renaissance. Our own Carlos Francisco was influenced by this Renaissance as illustrated by his murals.

American literature continues to influence our English writers today. That influence was strengthened shortly after the war when some of our writer academics went there and imbibed the tenets of the New Criticism. Thank God, that influence is no longer as strong as it was as Filipino writers are getting to write more deeply about the Philippines, its history and, most particularly, its incredible politics. An interesting development is the growing interest of movie producers in our own literature.

Book Notes

Meanwhile, here are my recommendations for your library. The writers of these new works of fiction are all in their mid-careers. These new releases bode well for our literature. 

The Collected Stories of Jessica Zafra, Ateneo de Manila University Press

Both Jessica’s journalism and fiction are delicious. She is a wry observer of Filipino society, and her stories are gems of social history.

Broken Islands by Criselda Yabes, Ateneo de Manila University Press

Criselda’s second novel revolves around the catastrophic typhoon Yolanda, which devastated Leyte and its environs four years ago. Here is exquisite writing evocative of exotic places like Poppong, of battered lives and battered dreams. Criselda, an outstanding journalist, is sensitive to detail and character.

Tiempo Muerto by Caroline Hau, Ateneo de Manila University Press

This is the debut novel of a distinguished historian and sociologist. It illustrates how scholarship can morph into very readable literature, with flashes of history, ghosts, and subdued sensuality. A virtuoso performance.

The Betrayed: A Novel by Reine Arcache Melvin, Ateneo de Manila University Press

Another brilliant performance. Set in this country’s troubled times, two sisters live different lives marked by conflict and rigid loyalties. Here, too, is a sensitive rendition of feminine sensuality. Reine Melvin is easily one of the finest Filipino novelists today.

Nuestro Perdido Eden, A Novella on Manila by Virgilio A. Reyes Jr., Ateneo de Naga University Press

The author, a retired diplomat, will surprise his friends and colleagues with this superb presentation of a dysfunctional society and its leaders wallowing in wealth and apathy. Some of the author’s characters seem familiar because we see the likes of them preening in our newspapers. Shorn of the glitter, they are nonetheless interesting enough to evoke the conclusion that, indeed, a Duterte is necessary.

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