Whatever other people might say, the Palanca is still the most sought-after literary prize in this country. On September 1 this year, the only place to be was at the Rigodon Ballroom of the Manila Pen where the literary stalwarts toasted the year’s winners. All came in what they thought best expressed their individuality. In similar social situations, the consensus among celebrities is to exude glamour, youth and sexual energy. At the SONA, it is all about power enveloped in staid stateliness. Here at the Palancas, it is—as Sting advices in that song about the queer Englishman—be yourself, no matter what they say.
There were winners who dug up gowns from their prom; A-line numbers in dainty aquamarine. While others were more experimental. One guy from the south wore a Barong adorned with a rainbow scarf pinned with peacock feathers. A fashionista who flew in from the US, wore a baby pink suit complimented with fly-away hair which perfectly suited his personality. They didn’t seem to mind being gawked at by the others. They reveled in their unique flamboyance, I could tell.
Playing fashionably safe were Ms. Debbie Tan, Tara FT Sering, Eman dela Cruz who dressed in black, except for Mr. Allan Lopez who has found his new black in fire engine red. I espied many who wore the traditional Barong (among them Mr. Dennis Marasigan and Mr. Ian Casocot, their jusi crumpled just right from all the congratulatory hugs. While Mr. Danny Untalan, who came from Ilocos, popped up the volume wearing a shiny silver version in see-through vertical stripes so popular in many a Santacruzan. Mr. Butch Guevarra was Saville Row through and through with his properly fitted three piece suit and bright pink tie. The shy types wore what they thought would be inconspicuous street clothes in brown or black paired with matching dungarees. When they went up the stage, we thought that they accidentally stepped onto the stage and were now forced to wall through from stage left to right. Instead they bashfully, almost hesitantly received their certificates or medals. The audience cheered them, nonetheless, with yelps of encouragement as if acknowledging that simple looks are deceiving.
This democratic rainbow is what I’ve always admired about the Palanca. In the years that I’ve had the great fortune of being invited to the awards, I have noted that the topics covered by the entries are as colorful as the people who claim their prize. The Palanca judges have hailed works regardless of content and never withheld a prize (as far as I know) on the grounds that it would offend general public sensibility or for political considerations. Peruse the works in the past entries and you will find a gold mine of plays, poems, essays and stories that mirror the circus of our life.
The Palanca has given prizes to writers of outstanding works denouncing political repression or advocating acceptance for severe homosexuality. Traditionally, the Palanca has been the space with no sacred cows. This, I think is the strength of this competition. More than its longevity and—some say—the inconsistent quality or reputation of the judges, the Palanca, has always been the literary Plaza Miranda, a bastion of the right of free expression; the venue for free-thinking.
I hope that people will not forget that the Palanca stands not only for literary merit, but as the symbol of freedom that continues to strengthen and encourage writers to speak of human experience and to speak out against tyranny in many forms (of which our society, alas, has not run out of).
The Palanca family has been very generous in throwing a yearly party and welcoming the family of writers regardless of how they are dressed. May that they continue to honor the writers by respecting what they have to say.