Gilda's World: Visitations from a Filipino Writer We Love
Me at 12, frozen in the afternoon light in our small living room extension, looking out at a backyard of tall and unkept grass. The phone is ringing. A record is playing. This might have been the summer when girls happened to me. Or the summer before, because I am reading my mother’s copy of Gilda Cordero-Fernando’s The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker. Someone is in the kitchen, unseen, chopping something for dinner. I imagine it is Gilda there.
She had quietly entered our inner world—company car, split-level bungalow, grandparents in the morning, bicycles and ice candy in the daytime, cold cream and TV at night—and lived among us. She was sitting quietly beside me on the rattan couch, content with looking at the untended garden. She was in our dining room, dishing out gossip, scraping suman from a dish with a fork. She was in the dressing area in a brassiere and a half-slip, eyeing the mirror, and then at me, the intruder who entered the room. My father always had a crush on her, I’d been told.
I had not met her yet, and I don’t think I even knew what she looked like, but that summer, Gilda led me by an invisible hand across the threshold into Filipino writing. I knew nothing much about her beyond her inner voice that threaded through her magazine columns and her stories. But this voice also threaded itself through the stories that dwelled in our own household.
Gilda crystallized the wartime tales of the old folks with clarity and certainty. She energized our family dramas with contemporary sophistication and fantasy. She dignified and celebrated the mundane with such language that the details gained unheard-of brightness and dimension. I would read The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker many times over throughout that summer.
Anmie Katigbak, Gilda Cordero-Fernando, and Mariel Francisco at our wedding reception
When I finally met her, decades later, at some art opening or a book launch, I wanted to tell her of how much she spoke to me, and how I spoke to her whenever I wrote, and how she seemed to listen. But I never told her because I felt so uncool, like I was 12 again, even when I found myself in her dining room trading gossip, or in her hallways admiring her art.
As I grew to know her more, I saw how unfathomably larger she was than any ordinary writer could ever be. In this manner, I learned instead what a writer should want to be. There was sharpness and wit, purpose and character in what she touched: a coffee table book was a concept, everyday style was a statement, every routine was a ritual. And everything, always effortless, always true to the source—she was never not the woman who wrote also of heartbreak, betrayal, and tragedy; they were always there, in her life, in the lives of others she observed closely, or in the life of the culture and the nation she loved.
I thrilled to every invitation, every chance encounter. There were countless autographs and dedications. Years onward, I asked her to write me a blurb. She said no, and then told me my work felt incomplete, and then wait, and then wrote the blurb anyway. I asked her to be our godmother. She said yes, and called me weeks before the wedding to berate me like a child, asking if she was still going to be ninang because I never bothered to call her. At the reception she was the first to grace the dance floor. She began to make many appearances in our photographs and gatherings.
“You know, you remind me of your late father,” she told me once. We were among friends, sitting cross-legged in a circle in someone’s vast den after dinner, writhing slowly to weird music in an upper-body dance she had invented for that moment. “He would have danced with us, too.”
“If that had happened,” I quipped, “you would have been my mother.” She laughed, caught off-guard—she must have decided that I had finally accomplished something. I felt that I had finally earned my place. And then I realized, as I strained and stretched to the rhythm she had dictated, that this would always and forever be her world, and we were all just lucky to be in it.