Kate Torralba brought her father’s bones to Palanca night.
It was the first thing she told me as we settled into our seats at Table 24, where the winners for the Short Story in English were assigned, which was very conveniently located near the buffet tables inside the Francisco Dagohoy Reception Hall at the Philippine International Convention Center.
And true enough, when I peered closely, I saw what looked like shards of bones sealed in a plastic bag, and deposited deep in Kate’s purse; she showed them to all of us at the table, announced its presence with that deeply excited voice she would display all throughout the ceremonies.
Her mother beside her was her contravening echo: quiet, quick to explain her daughter’s dazzling exuberance [“Kate is always like this. She’s into fashion. She’s into music.”], and also happy to note that at our table, we were free to speak in Binisaya.
The Torralbas are from Cebu City, and Renz and I were only to happy to be among other Bisaya in this sea of Tagalog speakers.
Later I told Kate, “You are probably the most excited Palanca winner tonight.” Of course, she responded: she considered the night to be the equivalent of her wedding, and for that she even had two photographers in tow to record everything.
“Oh wow, you may be the first one to bring along a photo crew for Palanca night!” I said to her.
Exie Abola, first prize winner in our category, corrected me: “Last year, Atom Araullo brought along an entire camera crew.”
Kate laughed at that.
But she was indeed excited to win her first Palanca, for a short story she penned in four hours while cooking Binisaya pochero for her late father for a deadline in Jing Hidalgo’s fiction workshop not too long ago. “This story has taken me places,” she said. “It brought me to the UP Workshop, and now it has won me a Palanca!”
I was not immune to Kate’s excitement, and her overwhelming charm. It was easy to be drawn to her. She had a presence that demanded attention, but none of the common annoyances that often accompany that dazzle. She was a Main Character, because she really was.
But that excited spirit in Kate was also evident all throughout the 71st Palanca Awards: this was the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been privileged to attend the ceremony in the past two decades, ever since I won my first award in 2002. [This does not include that crazy year, in 2008, when Palanca Night suddenly became a free-for-all for high-prized raffles that came out of the blue: I had won 3rd prize for the short story for children that year, but I was also lucky to have won a P50,000 raffle from Mar Roxas, who was a guest.]
You could see the excitement on the faces of the winners, many of whom were first-timers, like Vince Agcaoili, John Dante, John Patrick Solano, Ross Manicad, and fellow Sillimanian Keisiah Dawn Tiaoson, who won 3rd prize for Tulang Pambata.
You could feel it in the stride of writing veterans, who took the night as a chance to have a reunion with writer fiends they have not seen in ages, because of the pandemic.
It was good to see friends and mentors alike, like Edgar Calabaia Samar, Susan S. Lara, Krip Yuson, the National Artist for Literature Gemino Abad, Neni Sta. Romana Cruz, Rody Vera, Russell Molina, Joel Pablo Salud, Nicholas Pichay, Jose Y. Dalisay, Marne Kilates, Trish Shishikura, Mikael Co, Charles Lee, David Corpuz, Jeffrey Jeturian, Joshua Lim So, Russell Stanley Geronimo, CD Borden, and Luis Gatmaitan, who gave a fantastic keynote speech about winning the Palanca for a genre—children’s literature—that remained undervalued even among the literati.
But the epitome of that excited spirit was Peter Solis Nery, who came clad in a dress made entirely of feathers. The Hall of Famer won first prize once more, this time for the Short Story in Filipino—something he worked on for almost a decade, and considered the prize just rewards for that labor of many years. He looked gorgeous in his gown—and on the way to the afterparty later that night, he would proclaim: “Dugyot talaga ako for the rest of the 364 days in a given year. Pero sa Palanca, just for one night, dapat bongga!”
Yes, there was an afterparty, hosted by Kate. Perhaps the first Palanca afterparty I’ve ever attended, this time in the intimate confines of an upstairs room in Rafael’s Tapas Bar in Resorts World—where I got to meet friends I have not seen since the pandemic, like Yvette Tan, Moira Lang, and Myrza Sison, and I got to meet for the first time Sherad Anthony Sanchez, BJ Crisostomo, and Ed Cruz!
In all the excitement, I don’t even remember eating—not at PICC, nor at Resorts World. I came home to my hotel tired and happy, and hungry, at 2 a.m. Early the next day, Renz and I flew home to Dumaguete.
Earlier that night at the PICC, I was asked what it felt like to win a Palanca—much less three in one night. The thing is, it is always a joy to win a Palanca. The first one will always be a singular win, of course, because it is a high for any writer to receive this distinction especially at the beginning of their career. [In my case, it was a much-needed boost: in 2002, I was about to give up on writing altogether; that first Palanca was the lifeline that made me decide to persevere.] But the other awards that follow also become much-needed reminders about the need to churn out stories that only you can write.
That’s how I think of the Palancas: I think of it as a personal derby to keep me on my toes writing-wise, a deadline to consider in my need to contribute to an inventory of personal stories. Telling stories is a need. Getting rewarded for it is just affirmation that you have an audience out there ready to become your readers.
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