Gilda Cordero Fernando, writer
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - August 29, 2020 - 12:00am

I first read Gilda Cordero Fernando’s book called The Butcher, The Baker, and The Candlestick Maker while on Holy Week break in my parents’ hometown of Oas, Albay. It was the summer of 1982, the year before I would become a senior college student at Ateneo de Manila University.

?I had begun writing by then, harmless little poems that had no teeth in them. A few of them had been published in Heights, the literary journal of Ateneo. But I wanted to write more but didn’t know how. All I knew was that there was this deep and nameless urge to pin down words on paper, watching them reveal other worlds.

?After I had eaten the rice cakes, the taro leaves simmered in coconut milk, and the wonderful halo-halo of Oas, I walked around the living room of my grandparent’s house and saw Gilda’s book. What a delight it was in the coma-inducing heat of summer!

?Her stories were like dippers of water, cooling the skin and transporting the mind to different places. Her first book of stories had a dust monster, people caught in the war, lonely housewives, people living in what used to be old buses. What struck me was the way she drew her characters. With a few deft strokes, she captured the physical looks and, more importantly, the inner worlds simmering within.

?She also wrote an English that was easy to read, almost conversational even, but done with such elegance and style. You could see that she was brought up in an English-speaking household, for her characters had dialogues that flowed like water, unlike the stilted, self-conscious English words one sometimes found among the writers of her generation. Read her stories aloud, especially “People in the War” and “A Wilderness of Sweets,” and you will know what I mean. There is no single false note in those stories.

?I first met Gilda in person after I had returned from a year’s stay at the University of Stirling in Scotland, to take my M.Phil. in Publishing Studies on a British Council Scholarship. I had been teaching English and Literature at Ateneo when Dean Leo Garcia appointed me as the Director of the Office of Research and Publications. I was 27 years old.

?The first book I published was Father Albert Alejo’s Tao Po, Tuloy, a philosophical book on the Filipino concept of the loob (inner being). Both as a publisher then and now as a university administrator, my leadership style has always been consultative. I asked Albert, who was my classmate at Ateneo, if he had an idea for the cover design. He said he wanted a photograph from one of the books published by Gilda under the imprint of her GCF Books.

?So I looked for Gilda’s telephone number and wanted to ask her for permission. This happened 30 years ago, but I still remember her assistant Beni talking to me and I was asking her if I could talk to Gilda. I could hear Gilda in that trademark voice of hers, telling Beni to ask me what was it about? Then and now, Gilda suffered no fools. Later on, when I met her at the house of my teacher Mariel Francisco for lunch, she said she didn’t want to talk to me because she thought I was one of those researchers from a TV network who’d ask not just permission for a photo but would also pick her brains.

?She apologized to me and since then, we had not stopped talking. One day, the historian Ambeth Ocampo and I just came from Ateneo and we happened to be driving on Panay Avenue when a strong rain suddenly fell. I told Ambeth that the other end of Panay was prone to flooding and in a eureka moment, he said, “Let’s go to Gilda’s house!”

?And so we did. Gilda and Beni came out with umbrellas, with Gilda saying, “Were it not for the strong rain, both of you won’t visit me!” And because it was raining, she asked her cook to prepare for us champurrado with tuyo in olive oil from a newly opened bottle. We had moist and lovely leche flan for dessert.

?I had eaten several times in her house, in her kitchen when she held a welcome dinner for Gigi Duenas, in her studio with its large and beautiful paintings. We even brought there the British writers, Alan Hollinghurst and Romesh Gunesekera, whom I invited to attend the Conference on British Literature sponsored by the British Council and Ateneo. Alan and Romesh told me later that they liked Gilda “and her spirit,” the Filipino food she served, and her Japanese-style house and garden. Alan would later win the Man Booker Prize for his novel, The Line of Beauty.

?Gilda always attended my book launchings. She even lent one of her paintings, for free, as the cover of my book of essays in Filipino called Rampa. The last time I saw her was before I left the Philippines in 2017, when we both attended the Philippine International Literary Festival at the Raffles Hotel. She always teased me as looking like “a studious film star” in my radio-TV show “Remoto Control” at Aksyon TV 41 and Radyo 5. I told her my show was patterned after the important books she wrote about the Philippines. It featured our lively arts and heritage, but this time delivered in brisk and breezy Filipino for the commuters coming home, or the OFW listening on the livestream.

?When my father died on September 19, 2009, Gilda sent me a touching text message. She likewise sent another text message when my mother died a month later. She thanked my parents for bringing me into this world. And for someone grieving deeply his parents’ successive deaths, her words were cascades of water on sand.

?Gilda died on August 27, and the night before that I dreamt of her: we were in her garden, eating and talking and laughing, with the wide sky above us, blue as a ceramic bowl.

?Comments can be sent to danton.lodestar@gmail.com.Penguin Random House has just published my novel, “Riverrun.” My website is www.dantonremoto.com

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