Clinton in 1996. Photograph by Lita Puyat.
Culture Spotlight

Clinton Palanca remembered: “He wasn’t just one of us, he was ours”

If you were an aspiring young writer in the 90s and lucky enough, Clinton Palanca would have given you a glimpse of his private world.
Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta | Jun 03 2019

If you were a writer just starting out in the late 90s to the early 2000s and you were lucky enough to know someone who knew Clinton Palanca, you would likely have been invited by the latter to his flat in B. Gonzales where he would have served you afternoon tea—the silver teapot straight out of an estate in North Hampshire.

Because it was Clinton’s Proust phase, he might have served you madeleines to accompany the tea—and while you would have known the reference, you would have been too young to have a past to remember. What you remember is the afternoon tea—the long snout of the teapot glistening in the Katipunan sunlight, the strange way it both belonged and felt out of place in a small flat in Quezon City—that, and Clinton’s soft voice and signature lisp telling you how to survive in the literary scene in Manila.

"The story of that shoot is that I was doing portraits of many creative people and artists and I asked Rea [Gomez, then Lita's apprentice] who is Clinton Palanca. Because I knew his work and he even had a novel already at the time and he was only 23  Then Rea tells me that Clinton was her teacher in Ateneo! So she told me she could get him to come for a portrait session. So that day I met and photographed Clinton." Photograph by Lita Puyat.

 

Clinton on ANCX:

 

Because it was Clinton, you would only remember the voice, the manner, and not the advice. It would be decided that he didn’t see himself as a guru, being young himself—he was still young enough to be the appointed wunderkind of Philippine letters. He would have just been beginning to win awards, and you would have been sitting in awe because you had just read his novelette Identifications, and you would not have read anything like it. The sentences long-winded and elegant, allergic to periods, prone to couplings like “vagrant clemencies,” or “facile pathos.” For someone so young, these were sentences already hewn by a master.

You would have counted the age difference between the two of you, which would have been a little more than half a decade. You still had that long, you would have told yourself, to write like Clinton Palanca, and you would have been mistaken—no one could write like Clinton Palanca. There would have been many awkward silences, no real give and take, no real back and forth, and Clinton would have produced long, gold-tipped black cigarettes from his fridge. He would have offered you one and you would have smoked together in silence, realizing that sometimes words had no vagrant clemencies and that between you was the facile pathos between writers.

 

They would seem excitable, as though maybe they had found Joaquin’s heir
apparent. “So what do you think of this Clinton Palanca?” one of them would have asked.

 

Shortly after that meeting, you would have been in some writers’ gathering. You would have heard his name among the luminaries of both Philippine letters and the art world. They would have been holding familiar amber bottles in their hands. They would seem excitable, as though maybe they had found Joaquin’s heir apparent. “So what do you think of this Clinton Palanca?” one of them would have asked. You would have heard the answer.

Twenty years later, he would be another kind of titan: the country’s premier food critic, and one of the leading scholars of Philippine culinary culture (and by logical extension, of Philippine culture itself). It also seemed he was no longer writing fiction. When you’d run into him at the mall and recall the fiction he used to write, he would have told you, “It’s so nice that you still think of me as a fiction writer.” You knew him that way first, and at such a young and impressionable age that there was no other way to think of him.

Back when “he was still young enough to be the appointed wunderkind of Philippine letters.” Portrait by Lita Puyat

Some months ago, you took an out of town trip with him to explore Pampanga’s culinary scene. He finally gave you the advice he’d quietly withheld those short decades ago. “Write for this digital platform,” he said, “not that one.” “Stay the course with this project, develop the brand.” As you dropped him off at home, he did something uncharacteristic. He gave you a short, tight hug. “That was nice,” you said to yourself. You’d explain the gesture as one reserved for friends you might not see for a long time.

You heard the news at 11:30 in the evening. You were half-asleep. You thought that just as much as, say, the Eraserheads belonged to the Philippines, Clinton belonged to Philippine literature and culture—that he wasn’t just one of us, he was ours. What do you think of this Clinton Palanca? someone had asked at that party so many years ago. He’s the best writer of his generation, a luminary had answered, but he needs to get his heart broken.

Less than a week ago, he broke ours.

 

Special thanks to Rea Gomez.