By Rose Churma
Gilda Cordero-Fernando, the author of this short story collection, is not only a fictionist, but also a “writer, publisher, producer, artist, fashion designer and cultural icon” as described by her son, Chef Mol Fernando when he announced her passing last August 2020. Since “she already orchestrated her wake earlier,” her son announced that “there will be no need for funeral services.”
This book review is a tribute to her – a cultural icon that had influenced famous writers and artists as well as ordinary folks like me. I first read one of her short stories, “The Visitation of the Gods”, when I was in high school. In those days at my school, Filipiniana books – the term librarians use to designate books published in the Philippines, was shelved separately in a locked glass-covered cabinet in the library. It would require the librarian to bring out her keys and open the glass panels before one can borrow a book. I remembered Gilda Cordero-Fernando’s name because it was occasionally a topic of conversation among my parents and their former classmates from Saint James Academy of Malabon – where they were high school classmates soon after the war.
During my high school years, the required reading in Language Arts assigned to us were mostly from the US, UK or other European countries and only in English. So it was a breath of fresh air to discover the Filipiniana books in that locked cabinet, and in particular Ms. Cordero-Fernando’s first anthology of short stories published in 1962, The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker, where most of short stories in this collection were first published.
Her stories are able to capture the local color of that point-in-time in the Philippines. Despite her use of a borrowed language (she wrote in English but with Filipino protagonists and usually in a Philippine setting), the dialogue in her stories never sounded stilted or forced. She was one of the first Filipino authors writing in English that I encountered – and it changed the way I reacted to writing in English or reading books. Prior to that, it had been a chore: something to get over with so I can get a good grade. Reading her stories changed all that, because in reading her works, I came to understand the universality of the Filipino experience.
The last story in the collection, “Love Story” – unlike the 17 other stories, has a US winter setting, but the nameless protagonists are immigrants, longing for home, but also wary of going back home to the Philippines. In the story “A Cake Left Out in the Rain,” one of the stories from the 1973 collection, A Wilderness of Sweets, describes the life of a housewife after her husband leaves her and her encounter with an American Peace Corps Volunteer who rents one of the houses she owns.
The fiction in these collection were written from 1952 to the 1970s and are considered the cream of that period – written during her “early housewife” years before she embarked on her non-fiction, children’s literature and other creative pursuits. She was also a trailblazer in the publishing field with her roster of illustrated Filipiniana books such as Philippine Food and Life, History of the Burgis and Turn of the Century, among others. Her book Jammin on an Old Saya contained photographs of the fashion show she staged at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. The recycled ternos, consisting mostly of applique from the deteriorating gowns, breathed new life to the terno as wearable art.
The visuals in that book were so fascinating I wrote her a letter asking permission to use some of the photographs. Not only did I receive permission but an invitation to visit her home and borrow some of the gowns! These wearable collectibles were actually displayed at an event hosted by the Filipino Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii in 1997.
When I picked up the gowns at her home, I was intrigued by the huge colorful paintings she had on her studio walls. Soon after, a children’s book she wrote and illustrated was published titled Ningning, about a girl whose father is a kapre and her mom an aswang – Ms. Cordero-Fernando’s fable on the importance of diversity.
A multli-awarded creative icon, Gilda Cordero-Fernando will forever continue to inspire through her books, paintings and digital versions of her events. The Story Collection showcases only one aspect of her versatility. Most of her books are now out of print, but for those seeking a copy of the Story Collection, send an email inquiry to Rose Cruz Churma at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ROSE CRUZ CHURMA is a former President of the FilCom Center. She is also the co-owner of Kalamansi Books and Things, an online bookstore promoting works by Filipino Americans. For inquiries, email her at email@example.com.