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The joys of ‘First Draft’

By Noelle Q. de Jesus Published Apr 01, 2024 5:00 am

As I write this, I’m trapped in the aftermath of COVID Plus, which cursed me before Christmas. Now that daughter and son have left, I perform only necessary tasks, and must recover in a stupor of cough syrup and antibiotics.

That’s when First Draft: Personal Essays By Ten Women (Tahanan Books) landed on my lap, a compendium of pieces by 10 admirable Filipino women of diverse backgrounds and experiences who regularly gathered together for meals and sessions for more than a decade at the behest of their beloved friend, guide and mentor, the late Gilda Cordero Fernando, herself a magnificent writer but also a magnetic and inspiring spirit.

Lorna Kalaw-Tirol, Rita Ledesma, Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Mariel N. Francisco and Elizabeth Lolarga. Standing: Edna Zapanta Manlapaz, Fe C. Arriola, Chit Roces-Santos, Melinda Quintos-de Jesus and Karina Africa Bolasco

Laying my cards on the table, here is some unabashed name-dropping. One of the writers is my still-working, almost-80-year-old mother, writer, editor and CMFR director, Melinda Quintos de Jesus, who continues to devote her life to helping develop Philippine press freedom. Four are family friends: the book’s editor, Lorna Kalaw-Tirol; my first publisher, Karina Africa Bolasco; Mariel Francisco who penned the introduction; and my college literature professor, Edna Zapanta Manlapa. While I wasn’t Tita Gilda’s close friend the way some of my good friends (Robert Alejandro and Myrza Sison) were, I regarded her with much affection and treasure my memory of when I saw her the last time, in 2015 at a book event, when she paid me a precious compliment I don’t wish to repeat.

Thoughtfully designed, the book is a bang for your buck in 340 pages. It starts with a piece from Cordero-Fernando herself. “The Beginning And The End,” is a phenomenology of life’s stages, and it ends with her easy, breezy “Space Clearing,” an admonition to pause, empty the bodega, so one can again, start anew.

Nestled in between are the self-selected personal essays with a helpful bio-note and a photo of the writer with Gilda herself. These photos make a pleasing feature in elegant black and white, with a few group shots in color of the entire First Draft group, including a poignant one of their last gathering in 2019 to celebrate their mentor’s 89th birthday.

There are meditations on family and parenting, love and death, philosophy and faith. There are missives on travel, work, and the domestic rhythms in a Filipina life. Some are sad; many are thought-provoking, and a good number are funny. Every segment immerses the reader in the writer’s complex, idiosyncratic character. In that vital way women ably nurture one another as in exclusively female African and South American communities, one gets to learn from and be enriched by the wisdom of a new friend. Of course, all ten share their connection with Gilda herself, highlighting her influence—a nice finishing touch to what is ultimately, a tribute, after all.

Fe Maria C. Arriola’s “Mothering” engaged me (maybe I should try that!), and I burst out laughing over her essay, “A Mother’s Love Letter.” Karina Africa Bolasco’s “Precious, Precious Walks” resonated, while her “Happy People, Sad Republic” struck a deep chord of shared melancholy. Mariel Francisco’s “Mother’s Day,” about the way she nurtures friendships in her seaside haven, and her descriptions of the sea made me wish to go as much as I was entertained by her story about planning a party for Gilda.

Melinda Quintos-de Jesus and Fe C. Arriola

The late Rita Ledesma taught me about Silay in two essays that reminded me of a beloved childhood book, What My Great Grandmama Taught Me. Elizabeth Lolarga’s treatise on the aging physical body, “Knees Don’t Fail Me Now,” is a harbinger of pitfalls to come, and I found the interview, “Why I Do What I Do,” a tough reminder of the worth of the freelance writing life.

Edna Zapanta Manlapaz confronts aging, recalling the tender mercies triggered by her 90-year-old mother with Alzheimer’s: “Perhaps she is remembering what I am myself recalling” is a sharp, poignant line, as is the pieces that start, Dear Edna. Chit-Roces Santos’ “A Writers Wife” is a different kind of meditation on marriage, and her “The Magic of Lowlights” describes the unique First Draft camaraderie.

Edna Zapanta-Manlapaz and Chit Roces-Santos

I enjoyed Tita Lorna’s “Flowers in My Life,” a biography in unseen photos, and also “My Life Back,” which celebrates her retirement from newspaper work, and the chance it afforded her—meta!—to edit this very book.

Naturally, I pored over my mother’s pieces with extra-rapt attention, and I texted her that I loved both “Domestic Affairs” which made me laugh—(because it’s just funnier when you know the players), and “The Pause As The Pandemic Ends,” which threw me into a day-long “ugly cry” as my late sister Mariel would say, complete with uhog and hikbi. Mom (being Mom) texted back, “You didn’t like The Pain of the Unkissed Cheek or Homesick?” Let me say now, mentioning pieces does not mean I disliked those I didn’t mention.

Lorna Kalaw-Tirol and Mariel N. Francisco

This book is a delightful gift, a keeper to grace the bookshelf, into which female readers can dip at whim. It’s appropriate for younger women starting out, to be sure, but also for those who’ve been around the block themselves. These impressive women writers beyond “that certain age” offer many perspectives, wise and wonderful, insightful and true. They demonstrate that a reflective life is one gracefully lived.

Such reflection is possible while one recovers from illness and can tarry on the sofa between coughing and nose-blowing with an exuberant book like this. And every woman should be so blessed by the supportive mentorship of someone like Gilda Cordero Fernando and grateful, as Mom wrote, for “the experience of her friendship, the lightness of her being, and the love with which she lived.”