Palanca Interview 2010November 6, 2011 by Sherma E. Benosa filed under WRITING | 1,595 views
Been asked to publish this September 2010 interview online last year, and I said yes, but it’s only now that I got around to doing it. Sorry…
Kindly give a brief background of your writing career – awards you’ve won, published works (more details please on the ‘Ubod’ series) etc.
I started my professional writing career when I published my first short story in Philippine Graphic in 2004. That same year, I was hired as a writer for Health and Lifestyle, a monthly full-color glossy by Friendly Alliances and Media Expressions (FAME). Within two months, I became section assistant editor and, in less than a year, became the Copy Editor of the magazine. I was able to publish another story in Graphic towards the end of 2004 before I stopped writing fiction because of my hectic schedule at work. At that time, I was also a part-time graduate student at the University of the Philippines (MA Language Education).
I started writing fiction again upon my resignation from FAME in September 2007 to become a freelance writer. It was then that I shifted to Ilocano fiction. I wrote my first short story in Ilocano in December 2007.
The awards I received from 2008 to 2010:
First Prize (October 2010)
Short Story: Dagiti Assideg a Tugot
3rd Reynaldo A. Duque Awards for Iloco Literature
First Prize (September 2010)
60th Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature
Short Story (Iloko): “Dagiti Pasugnod ni Angelo” (Angelo’s Pains)
Dagiti Babassit nga Alipugpog (Minute Twisters, a Collection of Short Stories)
Published by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the Ateneo de Manila University
First Prize (April 2010)
Second Cabie PINILI
Short Story for Children: “Ti Sarukod ni Raya” (Raya’s Wand)
Second Prize (April 2009)
1st Cabie PINILI
Short Story for Children: “Ni Anya Manilenia ken ni Balong Promdi” (Anya Manilenia and Balong Promdi)
Second Prize (October 2008)
First Reynaldo A. Duque Awards for Iloco Literature
Short Story: “Dagiti Babassit nga Alipugpog” (Minute Twisters)
Honorable Mention (October 2008)
Gawad Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino
Short Story: “Galunggong” (Mackarel Scad)
Second Prize (April 2008)
AMMA Foundation Literary Awards for Amateur Writers
Short Story: “Alona”
The Ubod is a publication assistance provided by the NCCA together with the Ateneo de Manila University to unpublished (book form) authors. Except for one short story, all the four stories included in my collection have previously won awards (Dagiti Babassit nga Alipugpog, Alona, Galunggong and Pasuksok). Pasuksok was not entered in any competition.
The Ubod project gives writers a shot at having their works published in book form. It is especially helpful for writers in the vernaculars whose chances of having their books published is much slimmer compared to their Tagalog and English counterparts because presses favor works written in languages for wider communication (ie Tag and English). In order for vernacular works to be published, they generally need to be translated to either Tagalog or English first. Ubod not only publishes works in their original languages, it also allows some works in a collection to be translated.
What is your profession at present? Are you currently writing for a publication?
I am a freelance writer/editor. I contribute to several publications, including the magazines published by FAME, Inc (Travel Plus, ZenHealth, H&L) one of which, I used to edit. I also manage Arts Awake, the NCCA page in Manila Times which comes out every Friday, as well as some newsletters by private institutions.
(Update 2011: Fultime Student and Freelance Writer/Editor)
At what point did you recognize you had a talent for writing?
Early and late.
Let me explain.
Writing always came easy even when I was young. This, however, didn’t make me think I could become a writer. I thought it was the same with the other kids. Eventually I learned writing was a bit easier for me than it was for my friends, but I just I thought perhaps I simply got my way with words from my father (He’s a fictionist writing in the vernacular).
It was when I was in high school that I realized I had the talent. I used to write short stories for my classmates and friends. But I thought I was more talented writing non-fiction. So I wanted to become a journalist. (I took up linguistics, not journalism in college, however. Still, I somehow found my way towards publishing and even journalism.)
The realization that I could actually do fiction — real fiction — came much later. I was published only in 2004. My first short story (English) came out on my birth month… a little over a week before I turned 26. Of course, before that, I wrote mini short stories as practice pieces, but I didn’t consider they were publish-worthy. For a long time I was called “writer-in-denial” by many of my friends, especially whenever they would beg to read what I had written and I wouldn’t let them. I just didn’t think I was good enough. And I felt exposed whenever I allowed them to read my thoughts. I had since overcome that.
What inspired you to write in regional language?
I think the stage had always been set for me to become a vernacular writer; I was just slow in realizing it. Or perhaps the better word is stubborn, because there was a conscious effort on my part to shy away from Ilocano writing at first, not because I looked down on my own language or was ashamed of it. To begin with, I always had high regards for Ilocano literature. I’ve been exposed to it since I was a kid. My main reason for not readily writing in Ilocano was my father. Like I said, my father is a writer in the vernacular. But while he inspired me to write in Ilocano, I didn’t want him being there paving the way for me. I am not one who would follow someone’s footsteps, more so if that someone was family, so I tried to make a path for myself, by writing and getting published in English. I wanted to know if I could really write, if I could get published on my own, so I explored other avenues. Luckily, I got the answers I needed. And thank God, they are in the affirmative.
There was also GUMIL, the Association of Ilocano Writers, into which I was welcomed unconditionally, long before I published in Ilocano (although by then, I was already published in English). Though at first I wasn’t active with the organization, I was able to shake hands with Ilocano writers who I used to know only by name, having read their works in Bannawag. My association with them inspired me to write in the vernacular. I thought, ‘Shucks, I am friends with famous Ilocano writers, and here I am, tugging along, and not being able to write? How shameful!’ So slowly, the desire to write in the vernacular was awakened.
The main catalysts for my language shift, however, were my fiancé who encouraged and challenged me to write in the vernacular (he even practiced with me) and the realizations I had about my language and my role as a writer.
Having done things backward (writing in English first before learning and mastering the grammar of, and then writing in, my native language), at some point, I began to see writing in my own tongue as the next step to my evolution as a creative writer. I began to understand just how important the native tongue is in many aspects of our life. Slowly, I realized how sad it was that I could write in other languages but not in my own. I began to ask myself: If all of us would set aside our own language, what would become of our own literature? Our heritage?
I also began to realize that enriching our mother tongue literatures not only in turn enrich, but also complete the landscape of Philippine literature. Right now, there is a popular but misguided thinking that national literature is Tagalog and Philippine English literature. But that is not so. Without the vernacular literatures in the picture, we don’t have a complete picture of Philippine literature. And until we have read the greatest works written in the vernaculars, we do not really know what Philippine literature is.
I also thought that as a writer, I owe it to the younger generations to work with other Ilocano writers in providing them with reading materials mirroring their culture and speaking their tongue. I think we, who have been blessed with a language other than English and Tagalog, should realize that we have a duty to our children to provide them the oral and written literature they need in order for them to have a good grasp of their identity, their culture.
Finally, I don’t want my mother tongue to be lost to oblivion. Language is part and parcel of culture, as well as a vehicle of culture. If we lose our language, we’d lose our culture as well. Similarly, if we lose our culture, we are also in danger of losing our language, our identity. Writing in the mother tongue is documenting it and the culture of its native speakers. It helps ensure that the language would stay; or, if it must fade, at least it won’t fade away without a trace. I want to help ensure that my mother tongue will have a sizable body of (quality) written literature. I emphasize this because the sad scenario in the country is that, up to now, many minority languages still do not have established writing system, much less written literature. And to make matters worse, many of these languages have dwindling number of speakers, and are on the verge of extinction.
Many do not appreciate the vernacular writers. I myself have felt the discrimination against vernacular writers. When you are introduced to folks as vernacular writer, or a recent winner in an Ilocano competition, they just say, “Ahhh…” in a dismissive tone. It’s like they think you are writing in the vernacular because you cannot write in the more ‘prestigious languages.’ It’s very sad. But instead of feeling bad when I feel discriminated, I usually talk about how great it is that I am now able to write in Ilocano, how I struggled to learn to write in my language. I usually take the situation to impress upon other people how important it is that there are people who would actually struggle to write in their mother-tongue. Because come to think of it, our society owes the regional writers a lot for taking it upon themselves to ensure that their native languages have written literature to speak of, and in turn, helping complete the panorama of Philippine literature.
How long have you been writing in regional languages? What are the challenges in writing in the vernacular?
I started seriously practicing writing in the vernacular in September 2007 when I resigned from my fulltime job as editor of a health and lifestyle magazine. My first real short story written directly in Ilocano was penned in December 2007. I had published sometime in 2004 or 2005 a short story in Ilocano (Pasuksok), but that, I wrote first in English.
Writing in the vernacular poses lots of challenges. First is the commonly held perception that regional writing is second class, at least when compared to the so-called national literature, that is, English and Tagalog (Filipino).
There is also the limited readership (as compared to Tagalog and English), and less support from government and private institutions. Publication is also a problem, as most university presses prefer works written in the languages of wider communication (i.e. Tagalog, English). In order for vernacular works to be published, they need to be translated first either to Tagalog or English.
But the greatest challenges are the fact that our regional languages are not taught in school and there is no creative writing subject taught in the vernacular. Hence, many writers who are native speakers of other Philippine languages (non-Tagalog), having been taught in English and Filipnino, prefer to write in these languages which they acquired through the combined effects of our bilingual education system and the mass media, not only because it is easier to write in these languages, but because these languages are viewed as more ‘prestigious’ and hence, have wider reach. The writer who would opt to write in the vernacular, on the other hand, would have to learn the grammar, the orthography, the stylistics, the nuances of his written language first — on his own! And then, after that, he will have to contend with few venues to publish his works.
How would you characterize your works? What are your usual themes and subjects?
My works delve on philosophy, socio-political issues, family, etc. Some of the subjects I have focused on include abortion, diaspora, pedophilia, sexual harassment, family issues, and many more told from the perspective of a strong woman.
Because I subscribe to the idea ‘arts for a cause’ or ‘arts with a social conscience,’ my writings serve as my commentary to our social conditions. I write not simply to entertain or to tell a story. I write because there is some perspective I want to add to the diverse perspectives with which we see our social conditions, our individuality. It is my hope that after reading one of my works, the reader would reflect and rethink things. Or gain a different insight. Or be inspired. Or be strengthened. And hopefully, even change for the better. Or simply find hope in this seemingly hopeless pit we live in.
I also like to think that through my works, I am able to put forward other ways of looking at our social ills, and how we as a society, and ‘you’ and ‘I’ as an individual member of the society can move forward. I hope that my works are both 1) a realistic painting of our imperfect human nature in this imperfect society we live in and 2) a stone cast on water that causes ripples that touch other people and hopefully, inspire hope and even change.
Aside from Ilocano, are there other regional languages in which you are proficient?
What inspires you to write? What is your writing process?
Everything. Anything. Good. Bad. They all inspire me to write. When I’m down, I write. When I’m happy, I write. When there’s not much to do, I write. When I am very busy, I write. I write about whatever comes to mind. Social issues, political conditions, my inner conflicts, my inner peace, my conversations with friends, my neighbors being loud at night, the ants, the tangled cords of my laptop, my nephews, etc.
I don’t know a life that does not include writing. I am always writing. I write feature articles (lifestyle, medical, arts and culture, travel) for a living. I conduct and write researches because I have to, for school, and so I can contribute knowledge in my area of study. I write reflections for myself — to heal when I am in pain, to share a bit of myself, to try to find a different perspective and angle to everything I see, to know and understand myself more, to recognize my weaknesses and change for the better. And I write fiction because I need to unload the conversations, the ideas swirling in my head. I need to share what I see around us, and what I think, and what I feel of the things that are happening — and not happening — in our society, in this life, even beyond.
For fiction, I only sit down and write when an idea comes to mind. My work entails lots of writing, so I could do fiction only when the idea is there, which usually comes when I am very busy, or when I am trying to beat a deadline. Often, I set aside my work to seize the story idea. I have to do that because if I don’t, the idea and the mood will never come back. So it’s difficult, and draining, because sometimes I end up writing two things at the same time — fiction and article for work. Or, having chosen to shelf the other (work) I will have to work double time after I’ve seized and written the story to still be able to beat the deadline. I also need to finish the story in one sitting — at least the structure — in order to have a complete product. If I don’t, the likelihood that the story will never be finished is very high. I have lots of unfinished stories because I had to give in to sleep, or prioritize other things, like work.
For my reflective pieces, I only write when I can find the time to reflect, which has become very seldom. For my feature articles, I write almost everyday, for my deadlines. For my assignments and researches, I write on deadline, which is, for this semester, every week and even coincides with my weekly deadline at work.
Who are your favorite writers? your mentors?
Mentor: my fiancé. We mentor each other. He comments on my work. He’s the only one from whom I could get an honest-to-goodness feedback. He would tell me when he thinks my story is weak, if it has a chance of winning. He also serves as my walking dictionary (he’s very good in the Ilocano language and although he is not a published writer, he could write well). I also comment on his. We even fight when we do not like what the other is saying about our works. It’s almost like being in a workshop, albeit online as he is based abroad.
In GUMIL Metro Manila, we also get pieces of advice and feedback from senior writers, like Reynaldo Duque, Cles Rambaud, and of course, Juan S.P. Hidalgo, Jr. I also learn from my contemporaries and the younger ones.
How would you compare writing in English, Filipino and vernaculars?
It’s still easier to write in English (even in Tagalog) than in Ilocano. But I find it’s more fulfilling to write in the vernacular.
How would you characterize the state of regional literature in the country?
I can only speak for Ilocano literature. I think it is vibrant. There are many regular competitions so writers are encouraged to write. GUMIL Filipinas, together with its chapters, is also finding ways to publish anthologies by its members, still through the Tagnawa system. It also has new programs, like Pasnaan (workshop for amateur writers), the soon-to-be-launched traveling Ilocano poetry reading competition for students, and there are new projects being cooked up which I cannot preempt. GUMIL Filipinas also has its own website and newsletter (Balikas, meaning ‘word’) through which it can keep its members informed and continually encouraged to write. Of course, its long-running annual convention (now 43 years) is an important event for many Ilocano writers.
There are also new players in the field — SPADE and Timpuyog that also conduct programs for the promotion of Ilocano literature. Cinemajarlika, a new film outfit that focuses on Ilocano culture, has also just came out with its first link-up project, a traveling film-festival cum acting and scriptwriting workshop in Ilocano-speaking provinces. The Nakem Conferences which is actively promoting Ilocano and other Amianan (northern) languages is also tremendously helping boost the Ilocano literature. Moreover, the academe is also now much more involved in the promotion of the Ilocano literature.
Facebook, blogging and other new media are also playing an important role in the development and promotion of Ilocano literature. The writers are also able to share inputs and ideas through Facebook. New activities are also being promoted. There are websites that are helping promote Ilocano literature, among them Bilingual Pen (bilingualpen.com) which I manage, dadapilan.com, mannurat.com, Iluko.com and the personal blogs of the Ilocano writers. Writers are also now bloggers, and the net now hosts many works by blogging Ilocano writers. Writers who experiment with new forms and style of writing may now utilize the internet to see how readers receive their works.
In the past two months, GUMIL writers especially those based in Metro Manila, also became active in performing their works onstage (first at mag:net café and now, at Conspiracy Café every Tuesday). Through these performances, new Ilocano poetry forms were introduced, such as danirak (rock poetry), duata (literary, “you and I” a micro-play) and bitniw (oratorical poetry); and old forms were reintroduced, such as the dallot and coronation poetry.
Do you think it has improved over the years? How do you think it can be supported or promoted?
Yes, the situation of the Ilocano literature has definitely improved over the years. But Ilocano (and other regional literatures) still badly need all the support that the government and private institutions can give. We need workshop and publication support, among many other things.
I think the single most effective way to support regional literatures is strengthening and advancing the regional languages. If we give the mother-tongue-based multi-lingual education (MLE) a chance, if we truly promote it, we not only solve the problem of content teaching and poor quality of education (as studies have shown very young pupils taught in their mother languages understand the content better and end up learning other languages better than when they are taught primary education in Filipino or English) but we also produce young children who are proud of who they are, and will tend to speak and even write in their mother tongue. Because they know the grammar and orthography of their own languages, nothing would stop them from reading their mother-tongue literature and even delving in writing in their mother tongue. This in turn, will help solve the challenges of vernacular writing I outlined above.
How do you think award-giving bodies such as the Palanca Awards can further support writing in the vernacular?
By adding more categories in the vernacular languages and adding more languages, such as Waray Bicol, Pangasinan, and Kapampangan, etc.
Can you give us some examples of your favorite regional works? Your favorite regional writers?
Those stories written by Juan SP Hidalgo Jr. Works by Joel Manuel. Some of the works by Ariel Tabag, Roy V. Aragon, Cles Rambaud, Rey Duque. Of course, my Dad. I have lot of reading to do in Ilocano literature, because while I started young, I didn’t get to read works from 1995-2007, so I am sure there are good works and writers whose works I missed.
What is your advice to those who wish to write in regional languages?
Persevere and keep going. It would be tough at first, but when you get the hang of it, it wouldn’t be so hard. Being able to write in your own language is very fulfilling. There’s nothing like being able to beat your perceived limitations.
A writer, as an artist, has a great responsibility to himself, to his society. As writers in the vernacular, we can do a lot in the preservation of our mother tongue. Our mother tongue depends on us… because only the native speakers of the vernaculars can ever write in their respective mother tongues and thereby enrich their own literature, unlike Tagalog and English which have nonnative speakers who prefer to write in them.
Let us try to explore other forms of expressions, other styles of writing. Let us also try to be the voice of our society.
Kindly give a brief synopsis of your winning story.
(Will translate the synopsis given to Palanca. To follow).
How long did it take you to write it?
The draft, I wrote in one sitting. But the editing took me months. I shelved it, and only read it and edited it when I had spare time. It’s the only story I entered in a competition that I shelved that long. Usually, I write only when the deadline is very near. There were even one or two instances when I wrote my entries for other competitions/awards on the day of the deadline.
What inspired you to write it?
It’s my take on a particular social problem. There was this message I wanted to tell womenfolks. I wanted to say it in a creative way, so I wrote it in a poetry form. While writing it, an idea clicked, and I decided to turn it into a full-length story.
How do you feel about winning in the Palanca’s 60th year? Exultant. Shocked. Sometimes I still couldn’t believe it. There are still times I’d still shake my head in disbelief. I also feel both pressured and inspired to write something better than that.
How did you find out you won?
I got a text message from them asking me to call them up. I already got a hint… And when I called them, the girl on the other line said they were trying to send me a letter. Immediately I knew what it meant, so I laughed and laughed and thanked her while laughing. She laughed with me, too. Then she told me I won first prize. Again, I laughed and laughed and thanked her repeatedly for giving the good news. And again, she laughed with me. I think she was sincerely happy because I was happy, or for bringing me good news, or both. I appreciate what she did… laugh with me, a stranger, who was just so happy.
What thoughts were running in your head when you were receiving your award?
I was thanking God as I walked to the stage. I also wished every member of my family around, wished my fiancé was there, and I also wished my paternal grandparents were still alive so I could dedicate to them the award, for all their love, and for being my greatest fans (I think they were my only fans. All the other members of my family are critics). When I was already on the stage and actually receiving my awards I had no thoughts at all. My mind was blank. I just kept smiling.
How is the Palanca Awards viewed by the regional writers’ community?
It is viewed as prestigious. The literary event of the year.
How do you view the Palanca Awards?
I see it as both as ‘Wow, Palanca!’ and ‘Just Palanca.’
‘Wow Palanca’ because it is very prestigious. It is often regarded as the meterstick of one’s writing ability. If you have won in the Palanca, you are said to “have arrived” in your literary career.
But when winning becomes so overwhelming, I tell myself, “It’s just Palanca. You still have a lot to learn, and to prove.”
Did you think you would win first place?
I had a very strong feeling the story could win me a slot in the Palanca, but I didn’t dare think it would be first place. I thought it was a strong story with good twists and nice voice and a great message, which is why I didn’t enter it in any other Ilocano literary competition, even if it was written before the February 2010 deadlines of these other competitions. I just felt it was a Palanca material. I don’t know why, it was the first time I felt that strongly about a story I wrote.
How do you feel about being recognized as a regional writer?
It feels good to be recognized. More so because just three years ago, it seemed so impossible for me to ever be able to write in Ilocano. But I have learned to write in it. So I am thrilled because again, I have overcome a perceived limitation. Again, I have beaten myself.
But it also makes me feel pressured. And challenged. I see recognitions as a challenge to become better. The more recognition I get, the more I feel I should try harder to better my craft. I consider the literary journey as unending. It’s like a stairs without final landing, just series of steps. You never get there. You never arrive. You just keep stepping forward.
For me, the message of (literary) recognition is: “You did a good job in that particular work/competition. Congratulations. Now let’s see if you can come up with something even better.”