The passing of a writer, whether, as they say, in the prime of life or at the end of a long career, is like the dropping of a stone in a pond. There are ripples of grief, radiating out and seemingly tsunami-like in intensity to the small, quarrelsome but ultimately mutually supportive community of writers who take such news seriously; but which quickly vanishes into the vast, placidly indifferent expanse of a society for whom the arts in general, and literature in particular, are less than relevant things.
So it has been in the week since he passed. Wonderful words of tribute have been published in the pages of this newspaper and other publications. He was a fictionist, an essayist, a critic, a chef; he was also a teacher, an editor and a mentor to many aspiring writers and restaurateurs.
Rizal, in a famous oration, once declaimed, “genius knows no country.” But he also said that every genius bore the indelible stamp of the country that produced that genius; and that in the creations of that genius, the very nature of the land of that genius’ birth would find expression. Yes, I’ve used that word—genius—five (now six!) times, because that is what Clinton Palanca was. And I emphasize this not out of partisan hyperbole as a friend, but as someone who first came to know him as most others have—through his words.
One instantly got the impression—increasingly validated over time—that he was a writer who always respected his readers, believing both for himself and about them that dumbing things down was as objectionable, demeaning and ultimately lazy as imprisoning one’s thoughts in a prison of jargon.
Just as many aspects of Clinton—as a son, a husband, a father and a friend—must, because of limitations of space, be glossed over, so too have other aspects overshadowed his many other achievements. Let me identify just one: his technical brilliance, which manifested itself literally behind the scenes. As an editor, he was punctilious but not dictatorial; like the best of them, he was a nurturer of talent, adept at the quiet diplomacy and time-outs to provide encouragement the work demands, the mentorship that younger writers require and the collegiality and confidentiality that older ones crave.
And because he was drawn, inexorably, as we all know, to food: as a consumer of both his writing and cooking, I strongly feel the obvious must be said because oddly enough it is sometimes overlooked. His writing on food was informed by his appreciation of, actual competence in, and having grappled with the ruthless, even merciless, nature of the food business, and the physical, not to mention emotional, demands of working in and running a kitchen.
Add to this his study of food anthropology, and you have as well-rounded a capacity to write on food and its place in the human condition as it is possible to have in any one person.
But there were things he could never escape. One conversation I’ve never forgotten.
Acquaintance: “Ah, your friend Clinton Palanca has opened a restaurant?”
Me: “Yes, he has.”
Acquaintance: “What’s it called? Prosperous?”
Me: “No, no. Prospero’s.”
Acquaintance: “Yes, yes. Prosperous. Does he serve sweet and sour pork?”
And all because of Clinton’s ancestry, which therefore somehow limited his options to opening a Cantonese short-order place. The easy, callous—because ingrained—racism of our society has always been there, easily brushed aside when simply a matter of the doltishness I described above. These past few years, when bigotry has become increasingly assertive, Clinton never failed to speak out, not as an attention-seeking polemicist, but as the best kind of citizen, the kind committed to the resistance of the seductions of hate.
Teodoro M. Locsin, in a tribute to his friend Philip Buencamino III who was killed in the prime of his life, described how he, Buencamino, and Jose W. Diokno worked together in a newspaper during Liberation. Diokno, he recalled, kept the paper together even as it threatened to go to pieces every day; while he (Locsin), “thundered and shrilled; that is, I wrote the editorials.” As for the third man in their triumvirate, it was Philip’s “particular pride,” he recalled, “to give every man, even the devil, his due. While I jumped on a man, Philip would patiently listen to his side.”
This passage has always remained with me because even as it was written in remembrance of the unique alchemy that brought those three friends of that era together, it spoke—and speaks—to me of Clinton and his friendships. While I am not alone in being a friend who thundered and shrilled, he was unique in his generation in terms of possessing that ability to listen and be fair.
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