To the best of my knowledge, the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature was launched at the Philippine Columbian Club on Taft Avenue in the early fifties, the brainchild of Carlos Fernandez, an executive at the Compaña Maritima, and NVM Gonzalez, writer and editor at the Evening News Saturday Magazine. It must be recalled that the Columbian Club in those days was a cultural center; it had a big library and was the venue of convocations addressed by renowned writers like the English historian Arnold Toynbee. Carlos and NVM convinced Charlie Palanca, himself a member of the Columbian Club, urbane and very well-read, to be the patron of the award.
The Palanca Award was originally for short stories and poetry in English only but soon, it came to include longer literary works including novels and plays in Tagalog, Ilokano and Cebuano. To my mind it is the only award of its kind in Asia that has lasted this long. When my short story, The God Stealer, won the first prize of 1,000 pesos in 1958, I got the check personally from Charlie, who I knew very well. My wife bought our first refrigerator with 700 pesos, the rest went to our children’s needs. In those days 1,000 pesos was a lot of money, and the refrigerator was a status symbol. In some homes it was displayed in the living room.
How The God Stealer came to be
In December 1949, I joined the United States Information Service on Dewey Boulevard as assistant editor. I was supposed to graduate in March the following year but now that I was earning money, I did not see the need to finish school.
At the USIS, I met two writers, D. Paulo Dizon and Juan Gualberto Planas. All three of us were already being published in the national papers. I left the USIS after less than a year to join the Manila Times Sunday Magazine as associate editor. On occasion I visited the old office to see my writer friends. I remember the American cultural officer at the time to be a good man; he was kind to his staff. His assistant was from Ifugao. He was taller than most Filipinos, and hefty as well. He was very proud of being Ifugao, and at the first opportunity, he would proclaim his ancestry.
On one of my visits, I learned that he and the American cultural officer were planning a trip to Banaue to see the ancient rice terraces. He asked me to come along. We took the bus to Baguio, slept there that night, and the following morning, the Dangwa bus took us to Banaue. The road then was not as good as it is now; it was narrow and graveled. The traffic was scant, and the many pines along the way were lofty and wreathed with moss. We got to Banaue--then just another big village--in the late afternoon. There being no hotel, we stayed in the house of Bill Beyer, the son of the anthropologist, Otley Beyer.
There was a small souvenir shop near the house. It had a few items -- baskets, handwoven cloth and a couple of bulols, or granary gods. The American cultural officer was fascinated by them and he started haggling. His assistant took him aside and told him not to waste his money. That night, the assistant said, he would just go to the terraces--some gods were there to keep watch on the harvest – and he would just steal one for his boss.
His offer sank immediately into my consciousness. By the time we got to Manila a couple of days later, I already had the story plotted out.
The God Stealer is my most anthologized story. It was made into a play by Victor Torres in the 1990s. With it, I illustrate how symbolism may radiate from literature not as an artificial construct but as an organic element in the story itself.
The “God” in The God Stealer represents the Filipino soul. A nation's soul is an organic construct – we ourselves shape it with our dreams and aspirations, our ideals. It is not something that can be imposed. We grow to love this soul and develop loyalty to it.
I named the American cultural officer Sam Christie, to represent America and Christianity. The Ifugao assistant’s name is Philip, for Philippines, and Latak, an old Tagalog word for sediment but latak has a much deeper meaning.
The story has been interpreted as a commentary on the Filipino identity, on the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, and on the friendship that can develop between them. I had intended for it to be a story of what happens when we hold little regard for our national soul, and it is stolen and given away.
This is the ending of The God Stealer:
“You are not a friend,” the voice within the grass hut had become a wail. “If you are, you wouldn’t have come here searching for gods to buy
“We are friends,” Sam insisted, toiling up the ladder and at the top rung, he pushed aside the flimsy bamboo door.
In the semi-darkness, amid the poverty and the soot of many years, Sam Christie saw Philip Latak squatting before the same earthen stove aglow with embers. And in this glow Sam Christie saw his friend – not the Philip Latak with a suede jacket, but a well-built Ifugao attired in the simple costume of the highlands, his broad flanks uncovered, and around his waist was the black-and-red breech cloth with yellow tassels. From his neck dangled the bronze necklace of an Ifugao warrior.
Philip Latak did not even face Sam. He seemed completely absorbed in his work and, with the sharp blade in his hands, he started scraping again the block of wood which he held tightly between his knees.
“Leave me alone, Sam,” Philip Latak said softly, as if all grief had been squeezed from him. “I have to finish this and it will take time.”
Sam Christie’s ever-observant eyes lingered on the face. Where had he seen it before? Was it Greece – or in Japan – or in Siam? The recognition came swiftly, savagely; with watery legs and trembling hands, he stepped down and let the door slide quietly back into place. He knew then that Philip Latak really had work to do and it would take some time before he could finish a new god to replace the old one, the stolen idol which he was bringing home to America to take its place among his souvenirs of benighted and faraway places.