FEATURE: Palanca winner embraces role as vernacular writer

The young Ilocana underscores regional writers’ duty to provide future generations with a good grasp of their identity and culture

Sherma Benosa laughed so hard when she found out she won the Palanca Awards.

“I just laughed and laughed when I was told over the phone by a woman from Palanca that I won first prize,” said the 32-year-old freelance writer and editor who received the first prize in the Iluko short story of the 60th Palanca awards.

But far from her being flippant at such great news, laughing was a reaction borne of disbelief and happiness after all her serious hardships in the less-chosen path of regional writing.  “I’m exultant, shocked. I still couldn’t believe it. Winning the Palanca makes me feel pressured and inspired to do better.”

To most writers in the literary community, receiving a Palanca award is proof that one has arrived in his literary career.

Indeed, Benosa has arrived: a feat which is anything but laughable especially in the field of regional writing.

Having a father who is a vernacular writer, Benosa was exposed to regional literature at an early age.  But like any child, Benosa did not immediately warm up to the idea of becoming the similarly inclined kid of a brilliant parent.

“It’s not out of embarrassment or disrespect towards my mother tongue that I shunned being a regional writer.  I was just not one to follow someone’s footsteps, especially if that someone was family,” said Benosa.

Accordingly, her first published short stories were in English.

Her calling as a vernacular writer became apparent when she was warmly welcomed in GUMIL (Gunglo dagiti Mannurat nga Ilokano iti Filipinas), the Association of Ilocano Writers.

Being in the company of distinguished Ilocano artists woke her desire to write in her regional language, but the main catalysts were her fiancé and her realizations regarding her language and role as a writer.

“I realized that regional writing was the next step to my evolution as a writer.  It saddened me that I could write in other languages but not in my own. Enriching our mother-tongue literatures not only in turn enrich, but also complete the landscape of Philippine literature.  Until we have read the greatest works in the vernaculars, we do not really know what Philippine literature is,” said the young Ilocana.

Tongue-tied

In this country with more than 100 regional languages, regional writers like her lament the fact that writing in the vernacular does not share the same prominence as writing in Filipino or English.

“Regional writing is unjustly perceived as second class to writing in Filipino and English. Our vernacular writers are turning in great works without the benefit of learning and using their language in school. Before they could even write in their language, they would have to go through the rigorous process of learning the grammar, the orthography, the stylistics and nuances of their mother tongue first — and on their own!” said Benosa.

The country is using the bilingual educational system which means that regional languages, more so creative writing in regional languages, are not taught in school, although that might change soon with the mother-tongue based multi-lingual education being implemented beginning this year.

Benosa herself started writing in the vernacular using the ‘backward process’ wherein she writes her story in English and then translates it into Ilocano.

But it’s not all bleak for regional writers. In 1997, the Palanca Awards opened the category of regional writing in Ilocano, Hiligaynon and Cebuano to widen the collection of Philippine literature and to preserve the different mother tongues. Since that period, the state of regional literature has vastly improved.

“I think Ilocano literature has become vibrant. We have more regular competitions, groups and projects which promote Ilocano writing and literature.,” Benosa said.

Indeed, from a writer-in-denial, Benosa has shifted quickly to being an impassioned regional writer.

In a short period of time, she has won awards for her works in the vernacular and has been selected as one of the recipients of the “Ubod” grant.  The grant is a publication assistance program by the National Commission on Culture and the Arts for authors who have yet to publish their own book.

“Except for one short story, all the four stories in my book, Dagiti Babassit nga Alipugpog (Minute Twisters, a Collection of Short Stories) have won awards,” she shared.

The voice of the ‘estrogeneration’

The strong female voice with which she projects her mother tongue is an equally important aspect of Benosa’s works.

“I delve on socio-political issues.  I’ve dealt thus far with diaspora, pedophilia, and sexual harassment. I subscribe to the idea of ‘arts for a cause’ or ‘arts with a social conscience. My writings serve as my commentary to our social conditions,” she said.

Her Palanca prize-winning story, “Dagiti Pasugnod ni Angelo (Angelo’s Pains), is about a ‘baby spirit’ who had been aborted by his mother when he was barely two months in his mother’s womb.

Told from the point of view of the aborted fetus who names himself Angelo, the story opens in present time wherein Angelo still lingers around his mother who already has a 3-year-old child of her own.

Angelo talks of the pain he felt when his mother got rid of him and explains why he still lingers.

When asked if she knew the story would win, she replied, “I thought it was a strong story with a nice voice and a great message. I just felt it was a Palanca material.”

But more than the prestige of winning the Palanca, she reiterates the responsibility of regional writers like her. “We who have been blessed with a language other than English and Tagalog should realize that we have a duty to provide our children with literature that gives them a good grasp of their identity and culture,” Benosa said.#