All My Lonely Islands, VJ Campilan’s debut novel about a young woman’s coming of age in a foreign country, won the 17th Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book award recently, more than two years after its manuscript clinched the Palanca Grand Prize for the Novel in English.
In a ceremony held at the University Hotel of the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman, Quezon City, on December 1, All My Lonely Islands, which was published by Anvil Publishing Inc., bested three other finalists for the prize.
These were Mariposa Gang and Other Stories by fictionist Catherine Torres, The Reddest Herring by the late poet Francisco Guevara and Writing Naked: A Memoir by essayist Arnie Quibranza Mejia—all published by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House.
Poet-scholar Gemino Abad, sociology professor and newspaper columnist Randy David, and fictionist and former winner Angelo Rodriguez Lacuesta made up the panel of judges for this year’s award.
In a September 2015 interview, Campilan described All My Lonely Islands as a “coming-of-age story, spanning a decade of the life of a young woman, Crisanta, and how she has to come to terms with being a Third-Culture Kid (TCK), or a kid who grows up in a country other than his [or her]homeland.”
“It explores Crisanta’s struggles with her identity as a Filipino and as an international citizen, and how a personal tragedy leads her to lose faith and find it again,” she said.
According to the author, winning the Madrigal-Gonzalez award was a shock.
“I didn’t prepare any acceptance speech, precisely because I wasn’t expecting to win. My fellow finalists were all very deserving and talented, and my assumption was that the award was going to go to anyone else but me. It was also very intimidating that they were all from the same publishing house,” Campilan said in an interview on Wednesday.
“I’m very grateful that the panel of judges chose my book and it was really amazing to receive this recognition on the month that marks the anniversary of [the novel’s]publication. It’s a wonderful way to close the year and it’s very encouraging to see all these established writers whom I look up to welcome this book and support us first-time writers,” she added.
Campilan said the win came at a point when the novel “is just making its way out there without any help from me whatsoever. It still surprises me when I get messages from readers telling me that they can relate with my main characters, but at the same time, I don’t really expect these messages anymore. I’m just really glad when other people share this book with their friends and families.”
“I’m perfectly fine with how it’s probably going to outlive me. We often remember book titles more than their authors and some writers resent that, but to me it’s actually a compliment! I’ve always thought myself as under the service of the story and not the other way around,” she added.
The author revealed that she’s working on a new manuscript that recently earned her a fellowship at the 57th UP National Writers Workshop, to be held in April. She said the “story revolves around an alternative history of the Philippines as an affluent nation and how we managed to ‘win’ the ‘war on drugs’ through scientific violence.”
“It’s also a meditation on our futile quest for perfection,” she added.
Established in 2001, the Madrigal-Gonzalez award is administered by the UP Institute of Creative Writing and sponsored by the family of the late Gonzalo Gonzalez, a former member of the UP Board of Regents. It is bestowed on the best first book by a Filipino writer, and alternates each year between books in Filipino and in English.
Previous winners were Life Before X and Other Stories by Lacuesta, Paghuhunos by Ellen Sicat, Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan, Makinilyang Altar by Luna Sicat-Cleto, The Sky Over Dimas by Vicente Garcia Groyon, Mga Tulang Tulala: Piling Tula sa Filipino, Bicol at Rinconada by Kristian Cordero, Love, Desire, Children, Etc: Reflections of a Young Wife by Rica Bolipata Santos, Pagluwas by Zosimo Quibilan, El Bimbo Variations by Adam David, Agaw-dilim, Agaw-liwanag by Lualhati Milan Abreu, The Highest Hiding Place: Poems by Lawrence Lacambra Ypil, Bugtong ng Buwan at Iba Pang Kuwento by Will Ortiz, Body Haul: Poems by Allan Pastrana, Ang Pasipiko sa Loob ng Aking Maleta by Alwynn Javier, Mona Lisa: A Portrait by Celine Beatrice Fabie, and Überman by Zero A.D.
All My Lonely Islands is the third novel to win both the Madrigal-Gonzalez award and the Palanca grand prize, after Smaller and Smaller Circles, and The Sky Over Dimas.