Ex-nun inspires ‘writers by heart’ through first Palanca win

To Ma. Elena Paulma, writing is simply a lifetime passion, and winning a Palanca award is something beyond her farthest dreams.

Encouraged by friends and teachers who believe in her talent in writing, the 41-year old teacher from Butuan City submitted her very first Palanca entry not expecting to win.

But as fate would have it, her short story entitled “Three Kisses“ won first prize in the Short Story category of the prestigious Awards this year, making Paulma one of Palanca Awards’ first-time winners this year.

A literary love affair

Taking inspiration from ‘night-till-dawn’ conversations with women friends and relatives, Paulma explores the familiar ‘Filipino’ phenomenon of diaspora and narrates the remarkable love story of a Filipina and her Belgian husband in “Three Kisses”.

“My writing of that story was my own exploration of relationships, my way of trying to understand something as incomprehensible as living with someone who will forever be a stranger. Aren’t we all strangers to each other? But then, there’s love,” shared Paulma.

Despite the single life she leads, Paulma remains fascinated by the married lives of her peers. She draws characters from listening to other people’s stories – some of which she has brought to life in her first Palanca award-winning work.

She thus proves that great stories on love are not only written by those who are romantically involved with another. The ‘heart’ in her stories is her own, celebrating life and love, and touching even more hearts than one.

Interestingly, Paulma had also spent five years of her life as a nun with the Cenacle sisters, with whom she learned the values of self-examination and reflection.

Like Three Kisses, Paulma’s portfolio of short stories feature Filipino women who are empowered by their own shortfalls.

“Most of my characters are displaced Filipinas in search of love, identity, relationships, growth. They all know the meaning of loss, of discovery. They have gone through pain and lived through it all,” added Paulma.

Striving for the ‘heart’

As a literature professor of Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro, Paulma continues to nourish her love affair with writing, inspiring many more youth and students of literature through her teaching.

A true lover of prose narratives, Paulma is also currently finishing her PhD in Creative Writing from the University of the Philippines, where she also graduated with an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing and a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature.

Heeding her professors’ words, Paulma seeks to always touch the ‘heart’ in her writing.

And surely she did so as “Three Kisses” touched the hearts of the judges, and bested other short stories screened at this year’s Palanca Awards.

Shared Paulma, “What I tried to do was write, that’s all, not win Palancas. Now that I have one, I can maybe believe what my friends and teachers have been telling me: I can write.”

With this exceptional win, Paulma serves as a fresh inspiration to many Filipinos who are just a ‘right push’ away from holding their own award and joining the outstanding roster of Palanca Awards winners, who, for six decades and more, have embodied the Filipino creative mind and spirit.