My first literary prize

Aside from the few fan mail that I got because of the prize, something wonderful also happened. After we left the WG premises, I noticed for the first time a change in my companion’s tone of voice.

They say that no matter how many medals you receive in your life, the first one is always the most important. The same is true for literary recognition. I got mine when I was in my third year in college, back in 1966. I was a working student, employed in a Caltex laboratory by day, studying Chemical Engineering at night and staying at the old YMCA lodging house behind Manila City Hall. I was editor-in-chief of the university paper (The Adamson Chronicle) when I saw this student literary competition sponsored by The Weekly Graphic and Rado Watch and I decided to join in. I had previously contributed twice to WG’s Student Writers corner but this was the first time they announced that they were giving out prizes.

I sent in a short story named A Jew in History, which was about Samuel Belibet, the Wandering Jew who was punished by God for insulting Jesus on his way to Calvary. I described the angst that was bedevilling Samuel as he wandered around in the cities of the twentieth century. He talked bitterly about the unfairness of his situation, questioning why he was condemned to roam the earth forever for some careless remarks he made while the soldier Longinus was healed of his blindness for thrusting a spear into Christ’s body. He talked about his countless attempts at suicide, dreading the day when the rest of humanity evolved into something else while he remained as a frozen fossil of the past. Most of all, he talked about the pros and cons of immortality

To my surprise, I received notice a week or so later that I won the collegiate level competition and that I was to be given a Rado watch, together with another young man who had won the high school level. To say that I was excited was an understatement because the award would be handed out by no less than Gemma Cruz Araneta, the former Miss International 1964.

At that time, I was already grateful to Weekly Graphic because the two student-level stories I had sent before had caught the attention of the literary department of Adamson University and they were the ones who offered me the stewardship of the university paper. I at first hesitated in accepting that post because I barely had time for my studies since I was working by day and studying by night. Nevertheless, they were able to convince me and so, by the time I won the Weekly Graphic award, I was already editing the school paper for about three months.

Also, at the time, I was courting a classmate from our hometown, a girl I had known since high school days. I had made my feelings clear to her on several occasions but she had responded ambivalently to my amorous approaches. But we were close friends and so she agreed to accompany me to the WG awarding ceremony.

On the day of the prize-giving, we arrived early at the Weekly Graphic premises. To our disappointment, our hosts told us that Gemma Cruz Araneta had asked to be excused that day and that the prizes would be awarded by her husband, J. Antonio Araneta, then president of The Weekly Graphic. Nevertheless, the ceremony proceeded without a hitch. In addition to the Rado watch, I was also given a coffee table book about Gemma Cruz Araneta’s reign as Miss International two years earlier.

The story did not end there, though. Aside from the few fan mail that I got because of the prize, something wonderful also happened. After we left the WG premises, I noticed for the first time a change in my companion’s tone of voice. She was a very demure girl, even when we were in high school, and I think that was what attracted me to her. After the ceremony, I noticed that she did not mind if our shoulders bumped against each other. And her glances had more meaning. I did not know it then, but in that auditorium, my life was changing for the better, corny though that may sound. It was like we went to battle without formally declaring war. In the next few months, we became closer and she helped me sort out my shambolic literary files. We got married five years later and she accompanied me on every literary awarding ceremony that came my way afterwards. In 1982, we migrated to Australia, together with our three kids, where I continued to write short stories sporadically for magazines like Focus, Asiaweek, Quadrant, etc.

Two years ago, I came full circle by publishing my last short story in the magazine that started it all. I wrote a fantasy short fiction called This Man and it came out in the April 11 issue of Philippines Graphic, the current incarnation of the old Weekly Graphic. When the story came out, it felt like I had, after 52 years, arrived back home. And I celebrated that homecoming with my wife, our three kids and seven rambunctious grandkids. Here’s hoping that’s not my last short story.




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