Prof. Gemino H. Abad of the University of the Philippines was kind enough to send me Volumes I & II of Underground Spirit – a compilation of short fiction from 1972 up. They are handsome volumes and offer quite a spread on Philippine short fiction in English, since the imposition of martial law. I believe that more volumes are forthcoming. Prof. Abad inscribed the volumes to me with the words "one's country is what one's memory owes allegiance to..."
Which reminded me that for years I had planned to write or say something about one of the great prose stylists of the Philippines, Gilda Cordero Fernando, who is constantly underrated as a writer, even by herself, methinks. But then Gilda has never been one for the “struts and charms of trade” as Dylan Thomas puts in, so her literary presence tends to be constantly drowned out by those who do strut.
Her long story People In The War has no equal in Philippine literature. I read it when very young and it has never left me and it taught me, from the moment I finished it, that large themes like invasion, occupation and violence are comprised of small acts of humanity and inhumanity – both inflicted upon ordinary beings and into acts of which they are forced. Hey, to know how tremendous that was, think of how many words and pages it took Tolstoy to say that in War and Peace. This lesson from Gilda was the root of my oft-repeated thesis that one does NOT write for the people but rather one should write as one of the people, thereby undergoing the process of becoming declasse.
Once in a while, I am seized with the urge to read that Gilda story again and re-experience the seismic shock of understanding a Truth about human beings. Gilda reminds me of the equally underrated Katherine Anne Porter, whose Flowering Judas was a consummate treatise on revolution and betrayal.
Gilda’s writing world is a world of women – though not as didactically dry and self-pitying as Kerima Polotan’s; it is a world magical indeed, long before magic realism rose out of Latin America, imbuing with mythic resonance the small, the daily, the minutes, rather than the years, of Time. She has a housewife capture a duende (elf) ; a hairdresser create subtle narratives from hairstyles; and so on. From all these, one draws a sense of women’s quiet strength and Gilda was doing it before feminist values became the “common sense” for women even in the West.
Gilda was also the force in the creation of books on various aspects of Philippine history and culture, which brought together artists and writers, antedating the manga novel fad from Japan. Truly, she’s done crucial work but is under-recognized for it, and I am inclined to think that it’s not simply because she is female but because she is gorgeous and intelligent, to boot. Ah, well, every woman out there will understand that.
So, here’s to you, Gilda; let’s raise a glass of EF THEM! to all the dead and/or dying old men overrated as Philippine national artists – which of course you will never do, gracious person that you are.
My, this started out as a piece of recommendation that you all buy Underground Spirit – please do so – and became a short discourse on Gilda Cordero Fernando. But if you can manage it, please read People In The War. -- ##