A Tribute to Clinton Palanca
Clinton Palanca taught us how to write. Or, perhaps more precisely, what to desperately wish for in our writing. His was a language that, even in the things he wrote in his 20s, unfurled entire landscapes out of the smallest of gestures and delivered volumes of thought in the quietest of moments. From the very beginning of his career, his stories and essays immediately became models of the form, and set a bar so difficult to reach that we simply gave up attempting to write like him. All we could do was read whatever he chose to write—stories, essays, columns—and wonder, where on earth could anyone learn to listen to reality this closely and this keenly?
He taught us how to cook. As a young restaurateur, he set a similar standard; there was simply no other place in the country where you could find escargot prepared the way his kitchen prepared it. And you had no choice but to follow his intimate cafes as one closed and another opened, from Quezon City to Makati, wherever he chose to put them.
And then he taught us how to eat. When he situated himself outside the kitchen and wrote about food, his was a voice of precision and persuasion, his gentle descriptions and pronouncements delivered with polite and untouchable authority. We found ourselves with no recourse but to follow his taste as far as we could, from Binondo to BGC to Paris, from holes-in-the-wall to three-starred establishments, from starter to sweet finish.
It was in this manner that Clinton taught us how to live richly; that is to say, to live life in all ways and see everything from all sides. He had certainly done more than teach it—he demonstrated it.
He confessed, in one of his columns, how he had traded, for the better part of a decade, one kind of life for another: “In my 20s, I subscribed to the adage about spending all my money on books, and if there was some cash left, I’d eat. In my mid-30s, I went through a period of great disillusionment with literature, and not only stopped buying books altogether—I stopped reading…. I took countless photographs, was drawn to shiny objects and glittery people—fast cars, fast highs, fast pleasures.”
And then he confessed his return and reconciliation. “It was all a rebellion, of course, trying to prove that I could survive away from the keyboard, from the nights of tapping away while the rest of the household slept. What I discovered was that literature owes you no favor…Literature will not call you back plaintively and ask, “Why have you abandoned me?” It is you—to be specific, it is I, who had to come crawling back on my hands and knees, having made peace between myself and the written word.”
In short, Clinton showed us how to know things the only way they must truly be known—deeply, fully, with equal parts distance and surrender, with an absolute understanding of that ever-present moment in which the thing happens: the construction of a sentence, the preparation of a dish, the arrival of a morsel on the tongue, the shaping of an opinion, the perfection of a craft.
“…at the end of the meal you have to come back to the present,” he once wrote. “And that’s a good thing, because in the present is where we have to live.”
And while we may never live to ever have the gifts he always had within easy reach—his perfect ear, his beautiful tongue, his terrific palate—we will always have his writing at hand: a shelfful of books, a trove of essays and reviews, a rewarding and eternally repeatable feast.
Read some of Clinton Palanca's works for Esquire.