IN BICOL’S tight-knit literary scene, Niles Jordan Breis and Jerome Hipolito are akin to rock stars.

Both are published and award-winning writers: Breis bagged the first prize Palanca Award for poetry in 2003 and the essay in 2012, and Hipolito claimed second prize in the poetry category of 2008’s Premio Tomas Arejola para sa Literaturang Bikolnon.

Bries and Hipolito had never written a novel before — until, that is, they each submitted entries in the Bicol language that ended up winning the first Premyo Valledor.

Founded by Victorio C. Valledor, a native of Catanduanes and the president and CEO of insurance brokerage firm Lockton Philippines Insurance and Reinsurance, Inc., Premyo Valledor is an annual search for the best original novel written in the Bicol language. Open to Bicolano writers of all ages, the competition places no limitations on a novel’s theme, style, or length.

Of the eight entries submitted, Breis’s Kalatraban sa Alkawaran and Hipolito’s Dyurnal Intris were two of the four short-listed finalists. At awarding rites held at the Ateneo de Naga University last April, a panel of judges deemed both novels and their authors worthy of the grand prize. Bries and Hipolito each received a trophy handmade by Daet artist Paolo Gerero and a cash award of P50,000. Both novels will also be published by the Ateneo de Naga University Press and circulated in book tours to encourage locals to read and appreciate modern literature in their native tongue.

“For a first contest, the response was great,” said award-winning poet and translator Marne Kilates. “For me, it proves that the Bicol language is alive, well, and thriving.”

“They each had their merits,” added poet and journalist Frank Peñones of why two winners were chosen. “The Bicol novel is a neglected genre, but the quality of writing produced by this contest indicates the effect of the renaissance in Bicol literature.”

“If Bicol literature is to survive, it has to serve the readers,” said film educator and critic Tito Valiente. “One uses formal language and is a very graphic narrative on how dirty militarization can be, the other is a cool piece written like a journal, with mistakes and incomplete sentences. As jurors, we’re sending out the signal that we are not close-minded.”

Set in post-martial law 1985, Kalatraban sa Alkawaran tells the tale of the uncorrupted body of a desaparecido (a person who has disappeared) that surfaces after 32 years — and the best friend who comes home to authenticate it. The piece took Breis about four months to complete and, in a scenario that seems to have come straight out of the pages of a novel.

“Every night, while drinking beer in a dark and noisy videoke bar,” said Mr. Breis who writes in longhand. “I like that kind of disruption because I’m forced to focus. Pero titigil ako kung gusto ko yung kanta! (But I would stop if I liked the song)”

For this native of Tabaco City, Albay, writing in the Bicol language is deceptively simple, though he says the language’s sensibilities “affect the way I write in English and Pilipino. The diction, the nuances, the rhythm of my poetry is peculiar to those who write and speak in pure Pilipino.”

Speaking of poetry, that’s going to take a back seat for the moment; Breis has already begun work on his second novel. “I’ve always wanted to write a novel,” said the writer, who is a human resources specialist by day. “I think I’m a natural storyteller rather than a poet.”

Hipolito turned to creative non-fiction (and the Bicol of Naga, which is used in his hometown of Calabanga) to come up with a novel about the journal entries of a young student who always wanted to write a novel. “Parts of the journal entries were already written way before the contest,” he said. “Writing a novel had always been in the back of my mind, so when the call for entries came, I continued it.”

While fellow poet Breis can bang out pages even in the most non-conducive of work environments, Hipolito prefers to write in bed and during what he calls “moments of brilliance.” Fortunately, they come often: besides his award-winning novel, this creative writing teacher at the Central Bicol State University of Agriculture (CBSUA) has penned poetry, essays, and short stories. He also founded the CBSUA Writers Workshop and San Miguel Bay Area Writers Workshop, which he organizes annually in his hometown.

If Hipolito enjoys the experience of creating his first novel it’s because “I made sure my character is a poet, so it’s autobiographical. I like the form but it really takes time to write.” Still, he’s already got an idea — a moment of brilliance, if you will — for his follow-up to Dyurnal Intris. “Another novel,” he reveals, “this time from the point of view of the teacher.”

The deadline for submission of entries to the 2020 Premyo Valledor is on November 2019.