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Arts and Culture

Character-driven stories

KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson - The Philippine Star
Character-driven stories

When I taught a Fiction class in Ateneo in the mid-2010s, I always made sure to include a story among those we’d take up in my ever-changing list that defied a set syllabus.

That story was “The Lowest Blue Flame Before Nothing,” the title story in Lara Stapleton’s first short story collection, from Aunt Lute Books in 1991. With more time, I’d share yet another story from the same book. Such was my admiration for the prose of this author, a Fil-American writer born and raised in East Lansing, Michigan, but who had long been a New York City resident when we met.

We had first corresponded after being made aware of one another through email engagement with a group of Filipino and Fil-Am writer-friends in the Big Apple. One time when I visited, we met for a meal and a drink at the then trendy Filipino restaurant Cendrillon in Manhattan.

Subsequently, on a balikbayan visit to catch up with her long-missed aunts and cousins, Lara joined a meet-up I had arranged with fellow poets and writers at a Loyola Heights resto. It was a memorable evening when we killed a quaint Scotch whisky bottle labeled Writers Tears, and wound up reading poems and fiction excerpts to one another.

I don’t think she ever got to join us at Rock Drilon’s popular Mag:Net café-bar, where poetry readings and music gigs were the fare. Nor had I succeeded in inviting Lara to speak before my Ateneo class; I can’t recall why.

When the premier Fil-Am poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil, another New Yorker fave of mine, had visited, I scheduled her for such an appearance before my Poetry class, but a health issue kept her away. So it was only Patrick Rosal, yet another premier Fil-Am poet, who managed to privilege my Ateneo students when he visited home.

In any case, I continued corresponding with Lara, occasionally encouraging her to proceed with another short fiction collection, if not a breakthrough novel.

Finally, after a couple of decades, Lara Stapleton has come up with nine new stories for her second collection, The Ruin of Everything (Paloma Press).

Weighing a short fiction collection, one often succumbs to a studious delineation of the variety of POVs used. It surprised me to discover that only one of the nine stories here uses the all-knowing narrative voice. All others employ the first-person POV, with one of these done subtly, starting out with omniscience before the I-persona almost silently slides in, well into the story.

The first story, “Alpha Male,” is all exposition, with broad sweeps of recounting and recollection that leap from one principal character to another. The writing is of the first water.

“How she saw herself: one for whom her adorers would do anything. And so she collected such adorers in her life. There she was, storming out in righteous anger and there they were, following, supplicant, arms spread.”

The second story, “Intention Neglect,” is a similar take on the borders and boundaries transcended by willful or reckless migrants of varying multi-racial identities. E pluribus unum is an unvoiced slogan that rings through generations of bohemians and accidental travelers in urban settings.

It’s the only story told in the third-person convention, again mostly as exposition, if involved more than distant. There is hardly any dialogue, unlike in the earlier stories in the author’s first collection.

The Fil-American student Violet’s academic path is traced until she begins to succeed as a teacher, through quite a number of nearly inadvertent lovers even if she’s hardly the romantic or lustful sort. But her peripheral connection with a brother introduces his contretemps of personality as well, before segueing into a few other characters that also leap out of the pages, thanks to the author’s agility with hopscotch structure and expertise at character-driven narratives.

The brother Antonio’s death has nothing to do with 9/11, which Violet experiences, but it spells corollary anguish.

“She was near the new amphitheater at the screech of the sky and as ten, twenty, two hundred million eyes turned toward the bottom of the city. She ran with others to stand on the overpass and watch the world turn into something where anything unspeakable could happen. The black smoke streamed off at an angle in that one section of the sky and from where they were twenty, no thirty, blocks away, they could see the bodies leaping from the buildings and all it meant was that Antonio was dead and he would always be dead for the rest of her life.”

Several stories read like creative non-fiction, as autobiographical passages or snippets of memoirs. Ah, but these are subjected to evident fictional turns, where the imagination, however personal, meanders into a universality of insight.

Back stories that start from the author’s own origin in Michigan catch up with the present, grazing past NY’s 9/11 and New Orleans’ Katrina, plus a homecoming in Manila, all the way to the current vicissitudes brought about by the pandemic.

Remarkable is the jaunty use of identities, as with a bizarrely comedic police lineup, to the point of including the author’s own name as a cameo entry in more than one story. The lost lover in some stories is similarly named Tommy. And the title phrase also appears quite cannily in two of the stories.

Stapleton appears to have set out to navigate crisscrossing lives by simply allowing the characters, especially the I-persona, to adjudicate between everyday instances of hope and anguish. These sentiments are never stated outright, but limned in terms of collateral victims of friendly fire.

The navigation is skillfully conducted through shifting maps of loneliness, angst, and the occasional ruin of everything. The inherent intricacies develop a matrix of resultant debris that keeps the story-telling in the throes of deep engagement.

The Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc. (PAWA) and Paloma Press will host a virtual book launch party to celebrate the book’s release on Oct. 19 at 8 p.m. EST via Zoom and FB Live. Publisher Aileen Cassinetto and PAWA’s Edwin Lozada will host the launch, where Lara Stapleton will be joined by Filipino American writers Eileen Tabios, Beverly Parayno and Ricco Siasoco.

On Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. EST, it’ll be a “Flesh and Blood” book party at 3 Bleecker @ Bowery in NY, featuring Ligaya Mishan, writer for The New York Times and T Magazine, and co-author with chef Angela Dimayuga of Filipinx: Heritage Recipes from the Diaspora, and Nerissa S. Balce, Asian American Studies scholar and author of Body Parts of Empire.

Lara Stapleton received a Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation Grant for Writers and was a two-time winner of the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Award for Fiction. She has also won the Columbia Journal Fiction Prize. A graduate of NYU’s creative writing program, she writes that “her greatest pride is for her students at Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York.”

She is presently at work on a show about a self-destructive multi-cultural community in Brooklyn and another about a Filipino-American restaurateur with Nicole Ponseca.

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