RENOWNED writer and publisher Gilda Cordero-Fernando, known for her musings on Philippine arts and culture and a great supporter of the arts, passed at the age of 90 on Aug. 27.

Her death was confirmed by her family who wrote that there was “no need for funeral services” as Lola Mad (as she was called) “held her own wake earlier,” according to a Facebook post by her son, Mol Fernando.

Mr. Fernando was talking about a 2012 column Ms. Cordero-Fernando wrote for The Phiilippine Daily Inquirer where she talked about having her wake while still alive because she wanted to enjoy it. She talked about being inspired to do so after hearing “Oh Moon of Alabama” sung by Marianne Faithful. She also talked about wanting a paper house mansion (because she always wanted to own a mansion) like those found in Chinese wakes as the Chinese believe that burning paper embodiment of material goods (paper, houses, cars, etc) will make the spirit have it in the next life. She found one in Ongpin but found it so expensive, she just decided to make one. Ms. Cordero-Fernandez also chose 10 “shock-proof” friends (Eric “Kidlat Tahimik” de Guia, Jose Estrella, Mariel Francisco, and Rody Vera, to name a few) to make three-minute presentations to celebrate her life.

Celebrating a wake before her actual death is indicative of what kind of personality Ms. Cordero-Fernando had as a multi-hyphenate creator (writer, publisher, visual artist, fashion designer, art curator, playwright, and producer) and lifetime patron of the arts. National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin once said of her: “We have no other writer capable of such sublime nonsense.”

In a more scholarly form, she was described by the Ateneo Library of Women’s Writings (ALIWW) as the “Philippine culture’s towering figure, for the broad, impressive range of her accomplishments.”

Her short fiction titles, The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker (1962), A Wilderness of Sweets (1973), and its compilation version, Story Collection (1994) were said to “ring in the reader’s ears in well-turned English and fill the mind with curious characters — people in the war, sunburned Filipinos with the American twang, queer designers in the world of high fashion, the humble folk cooped in a bust, a Dust Monster, even the Anti-Christ,” ALIWW noted.

She also wrote the book Philippine Food and Life (1992) with Alfredo Roces and worked on Filipino Heritage, a 10-volume study on Philippine history and culture in 1978. She founded GCF Books that published a dozen titles about Philippine culture and society including Turn of the Century, Philippine Ancestral Houses, and The History of the Burgis.

She won many awards in her life including the Carlos C. Palanca Memorial Award for Literature and the Philippines Free Press award. Her Palanca-winning stories are “The Morning Before Us” (1954), “Sunburn” (1957), “A Wilderness of Sweets” (1964), and “Early in Our World” (1967.)

The Cultural Center of the Philippines awarded her its highest honors, the Gawad CCP Para sa Sining for Literature and Publishing, in 1994.

As a visual artist, she painted a series of women portraits now sold as a card set. In 2001, she produced Pinoy Pop Culture, a show and book for apparel company Bench. It was a night filled with Filipino novelty and pop songs and camp with a burgis audience.

Her shows were things that defied basic definition: in 1995, she staged “Jamming on an Old Saya,” a show at the Cultural Center of the Philippines to launch the book of the same name. It was a play, it was a fashion show, it was a celebration of the Philippine traditional dress, and it had an almost-nude man painted in gold on stage. She also held a birthday celebration for the wheelchair-bound hero of the Revolution Apolinario Mabini where she and other artists bedecked wheelchairs with wings and other decorations, turning them into mobile art.

“This is my theory in life: Some people create the same things over and over and over — and they make masterpieces. I don’t like doing the same thing again and again, ever. Sometimes I’m doing a play; sometimes I’m doing a fashion show; sometimes I’m doing whatever. I will never do the same thing. My happiness is the change, the movement, the difference in the things I do,” Ms. Cordero-Fernando told High Life magazine in 2017, and no words could describe her better than the words she used to describe herself. (

Such was her character and contribution to Philippine arts that it feels like writing an obituary would be a disservice to her when her life is better told in her own writing, as an author of books and short stories, as a columnist for the Manila Chronicles and Philippine Daily Inquirer, through her various stages and exhibits, and through countless anecdotes.

Gilda Cordero-Fernandeo was born on June 4, 1930 and passed on Aug. 27, 2020. This writer hopes she got the mansion she wanted. — Zsarlene B. Chua