Filipinos are mourning the passing of writer, book publisher, and Inquirer columnist Gilda Cordero-Fernando, who died on Aug. 27 at the age of 90 after a lingering illness.
Chef Mol Fernando announced his mother’s death in a post on his Facebook account, describing her as a “writer, publisher, producer, artist, fashion designer and cultural icon. We will miss her dearly and love her always.”
He noted that, as his “Lola Mad” already held her own wake earlier, “there will be no need for funeral services.”
“Last year, I orchestrated a rehearsal for the wake I wanted when I died,” Gilda wrote in a 2014 column.
She said then she found her husband’s wake too staid. What she wanted was “a living wake, with all our more improper friends around.”
She wanted Marianne Faithfull songs to be played, and her ashes buried under the hundred-year-old “santol” tree by her gate, “to fertilize the Earth. To be of some use.”
Cordero-Fernando had been rushed to Capitol Medical Center in Quezon City for pneumonia and a spike in her blood sugar.
Born in Manila on June 4, 1930, Gilda graduated from St. Theresa’s College in 1951 with a BA and BS in education; she gained a master’s degree in English literature from Ateneo de Manila University.
She first gained acclaim in the late 1950s as a short story writer in English, inspired by her father Narciso Cordero who gave her P30 for every short story she published, leading to a body of work that remains critically acclaimed, and winning Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature and Philippines Free Press literary awards.
National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin was an admirer of her prose style and once said of her: “We have no other writer capable of such sublime nonsense.”
Gilda wrote about the lives of the Filipino urban middle class with a wit and insight not seen before in Philippine literature.
Her early fiction is collected in books such as “The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker” (1962), “A Wilderness of Sweets” (1973), and her “Story Collection” (1994).
Gilda is perhaps better known as a passionate explorer and advocate of contemporary Filipino culture. Close friend and writer Mariel Francisco called her a “national cultural visionary… an outstanding voice in the expression of the evolving Filipino world view.”
The vehicle for this expression was her own publishing house, GCF Books, which she started in 1976. Among the landmark titles that came out under her imprimatur are “The Streets of Manila” (1977), “Turn of the Century” (1978), “Philippine Ancestral Houses” (1980), “Being Filipino” (1981), “The History of the Burgis” (1987), “Folk Architecture” (1989) and “The Soul Book” (1991).
Even in her later years, Gilda retained a curiosity about contemporary life and culture and an openness to new ideas that kept her outlook fresh and youthful. Projects such as the book-cum-fashion show “Jamming On an Old Saya” (1995), the play “Luna: An Aswang Romance” (2000) and the Bench-sponsored book “Pinoy Pop Culture” (2001) bridged the traditional divide between high and low culture.
Ateneo de Manila University Press director Karina Bolasco, a friend of Gilda’s and her former publisher at Anvil Publishing, said: “While the air these days is wild with fragility, Gilda didn’t go because she was fragile. She just knew it was time to go, just as she always knew what next turn to make, what next road to take. It’s as if she was born with a map in her head, that has marked her long path to a vibrant life. From writer to publisher to theater producer to fashion designer to visual artist. A cultural icon, worthy of veneration because she loved all that we are as Filipinos, perhaps first as instinct, and so she interrogated it with the best minds she worked with, in all disciplines. Her love for being and becoming Filipino was such an influence on an entire generation of cultural workers so that now the leading lights of arts and culture were all her groupies, groupies of this rock star.”
‘I don’t belong anymore’
Gilda wrote columns for the Manila Chronicle and Veritas before writing a column for the Sunday Inquirer Magazine that she called “Occasional Column.”
Later, she started another column for Inquirer Lifestyle called “Forever 80” (later “Forever 81”) from 2011 to 2017, only stopping when she suffered a stroke a few years ago.
In a rare low moment, she confided to her friend Babeth Lolarga: “What I’ve really lost is the desire to live. I don’t belong to this world of travels, countries, and restos I’ve not been to. I’m not part of the techie world, I’m marginalized, I don’t belong anymore, period. Still productive, but till when? I keep plagiarizing myself from books I’ve written and published.”
Though wheelchair-bound in her last years, Gilda could still be seen attending art fairs and cultural events until her failing health made it too difficult.
Through the years, she had been a friend to many a writer—female writers in particular. The last known such group she formed was called 2002, with friends like Lorna Kalaw-Tirol, Chit Roces, Melinda de Jesus, Francisco, and Lolarga.
Later, a similar group of friends would rechristen themselves the “GCF fan club,” gathering to see Gilda as often as they could.
In a keynote speech at the 2014 Palanca Awards, she summed up her career: “All the so-called successes of my professional life were due to ‘tigas ng ulo’ (stubbornness). Because I never learn. Even that ‘I never learn’ I fought for. I kept forever hitting my head against closed doors … .Today there are many more closed doors to new things that I know nothing about. But when you are sure you have a good original idea and convinced that it will work, bang a determined head against the door. It will split open faster than your head will. And there will be magic behind that door that you never dreamed possible. An experiment finally gaining respect, opening a new path for neophytes to follow and improve upon.”
She wrote, in “The Gilda Cordero Fernando Sampler,” published by Anvil: “So what credible thing can one teach the artist about marketing himself? How to dress up? How to project a smart image? How to charm a prospective buyer? Surely not. It is ever and always how to be authentic. And how to devote one’s every talent to the creation of a life molded in honesty and truth.”