The story has been told many times it has become stuff of legend.
In 1929, when José Garcia Villa was suspended from the University of the Philippines for publishing what the school authorities viewed as erotic poems (“Man Songs”) and was fined by a Manila court for obscenity, he decided to migrate to the United States.
Coincidentally, in the same year, he won the P1,000 Grand Prize in the very first Philippines Free Press Short Story contest for his piece “Mir-i-nisa.” A big amount then, he used the prize as his travel expenses and pocket money to start a new life in the US.
Eighty-two years later, among local literary contests, the Philippines Free Press Literary Awards—now with two categories, Short Story and Poetry—still holds the distinction of having the biggest amount being given to the winners: P80,000 for the First Prize; P50,000 Second Prize; and P30,000 Third Prize.
On July 12 this year, the best short stories and poems published in the weekly newsmagazine from January to December the previous year (2010) were awarded during the annual Philippines Free Press Literary Awards, which took place at Club Café, Makati Sports Club.
Free Press president and general manager Enrique L. Locsin with wife Susan gave the prizes and trophies to the winners present at the event.
It was a delight to see two giants in their respective fields at the same table, National Artist for Literature F. Sionil José and Ambassador Alfonso Yuchengco. Both have been very supportive of the annual contest and the newsweekly magazine for decades.
For Poetry, the winners were: “Weight Without Gravity” by Andrea B. Teran (Third Prize); “How to Kill a Whale Shark” by Timi Siytangco (Second Prize); and “Zeno’s Paradox” by Luisa A. Igloria (First Prize).
Other entries that made it as finalists: “Variations on the Expulsion from Eden” by Eliza Victoria (last year’s Grand Prize winner in the Short Story category); “The Painted Prince” by Frank Penones Jr.; “Duwende” by Myrna Peña-Reyes; “Love Is How We Come Undone” by Amado Bajarias; “Warrior’s Wife (After Li Po)” by Antonio Adrian M. Habana V (Ino Habana); “The Widow, upon Learning that Her Old Lover Had Returned to the Island of San Antonio” by Merlie Alunan; and “Weight of Words” by Michellan Sarile-Alagao.
This year’s judges for Poetry were Noelle Leslie de la Cruz of De La Salle University, acclaimed poet Marne L. Kilates, and the panel chair, Gemino H. Abad.
On choosing the winners, Abad explained: “Especially as regards poetry, I have two general criteria: one, mastery of the evocative power of language by which, through imagery, rhythm and metaphor, language is enabled to transcend its inadequacy. The words then constellate to form that wandering star called poem.
“Second, the execution, the rhetorical strategy, the skill or craftsmanship, by which the poem’s theme [insight] is endowed with power to persuade and move its readers [readers who have a fine discriminating sense for language].
“Obviously, from reader to reader, the understanding and application of any given criterion will vary. First, Second and Third prizes depend on degrees of perfection of those two general criteria: a matter of both objective and subjective judgment.”
Abad is no stranger to the Free Press Literary Contest. He has won Third Prize for his short story “Tarang” in 1992; First Prize for another short story “Introibo” in 1997; First Prize for the essay (then still a category) “A Day in One’s Life,” also in 1997; and Second Prize for the poem “A Description” in 2000.
For the Short Story category, this year’s judges were Celeste Flores-Coscolluela, Alexis Abola and panel chair Charlson Ong.
The winners: Third Prize, “Erscheinung” by Michelangelo Samson; Second Prize, “When You See a Dog” by Jenette Vizcocho; and First Prize, “Recuerdos de Patay” by Caroline Hau Darang.
The finalists included “After the Body Displaces Water” by Daryll Jane Delgado; “Sweet” by Marguerite de Leon; “Spawn” by Popi Laudico; “Desert Winds” by Jean Gerald Anuddin; “Numb” by Jenette Vizcocho; “A Study of Insects” by Irene Carolina Sarmiento; “Works Cited” by U Z. Eliserio; and “Fade to Red” by Twink Macaraig.
Ong, like Abad, has won various prizes in the Free Press contest, mainly in the Short Story category. In an online interview, he talked about the top three winning entries.
“All three stories are well told and betray ambition. The personal conflicts of the characters describe as well social crises, and in a sense the national condition. The stories take risks. They ask difficult questions and do not settle for easy answers, but explore the nuances of character and moral choice.”
As in the previous years, the works published from January to December of a particular year automatically qualifies in the contest, except for employees (and immediate relatives) of Free Press and the contest’s sponsors; San Miguel Corporation; Yuchengco Group of Companies; Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office; Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation; and the National Book Development Board.
Literary editor Joel Toledo said: “The annual PFP Literary Awards signifies the magazine’s commitment to the country’s finest literary works and writers, some of which have become part of most universities’ required readings for literature—from Villa’s win in 1929 for the short story ‘Mir-i-nisa’ to the back-to-back placing of Bienvenido Santos’ ‘The Day the Dancers Came’ and ‘Faith, Love, Time, and Dr. Lazaro’ by Gregorio Brillantes.”
Toledo’s predecessors were among the giants of Philippine literature, history and journalism, such as Ambassador Leon Ma. Guerrero, Teodoro M. Locsin Sr. and National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin.
Abad spoke highly of Locsin, who was writer, editor and eventually owner and publisher of the magazine for nearly half-a-century: “Doubtless, Locsin’s greatest cultural legacy is Philippines Free Press which, since 1908, has served as the writer’s laboratory and endured as the major dynamo of our literature in English.”
A magazine originally owned by a brilliant immigrant-journalist from Edinburgh, R. McCulloch Dick (1958 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts), Free Press was eventually taken over by Locsin as editor and owner in 1963, until it closed in 1972 because of martial law. It was revived in the mid-1980s just in time for the Cory Aquino presidency. Locsin continued to edit and write till his death in 2000.
His sons, Enrique (or Henry to many), manning the business side, and Teodoro Jr., (Teddy Boy) on the editorial side, kept the magazine afloat over the years, despite successive political and socioeconomic crises that made publishing a difficult business venture. Veteran journalist Guiller de Guzman has been serving as managing editor since the 1990s.
While with some publications the first to go is the literary section, Free Press’s remains intact. As Ong has observed: “By maintaining a literary page and an annual competition, Free Press has kept many writers as well as readers interested in Philippine Literature. It has served as link between generations.”
Ong also paid tribute to the old man: “Teodoro Locsin Sr. himself was a man of letters. He wrote fiction, poetry and essays. He was also an insightful commentator on the politics of his time. He played the role of public intellectual and Free Press has continued to be a magazine for an intelligent, critical readership.”
The winning works in this year’s contest, the weekly short stories and poems, a few selected pieces of Locsin Sr. including his historical novel on José Rizal, “A Heroic Confession,” as well as searing commentaries and editorials of his son, Free Press executive editor Teddy Boy Locsin, can be read at www.freepress.com.ph.
For the 2011 Philippines Free Press Literary Contest, the magazine (available in selected National Book Store and Mercury Drugs outlets) has been accepting and publishing entries since January.