Interview with Lara Stapleton
by Golda Sargento
The first time I spoke with Lara was months after she and I had been e-mailing each other from one coast to the other. Until then she was all fonts and capital letters. I knew what kind of mood she was in by the length of her sentences. When I finally talked to her, I couldn’t get over her humanness, her power. Some people walk the walk and some people just talk. I am not a person easily moved from my section of the sidewalk, but I might make room for Lara.
Golda Sargento: You seem kind of allergic to the “good girl” character…where is it you want to take the female characters in your writing?
Lara Stapleton: Well—by avoiding the ‘good girl’ I don’t mean so much that I want to avoid the woman of high moral standards. What I want to avoid, really, is simplicity. I want my characters to be complex. I think that, particularly as people of color, there is a lot of pressure on us to make sure our characters are ‘good’ so that we don’t poorly represent the race, on one level and so that we are no threat, on another. If I want to explore anger or shame as an artist, I don’t know any reason why I shouldn’t. Think of all the greatest novels throughout the novel’s short history: how many of them are peopled with “he without sin”?
I want complexity. I think we women—if we see ourselves as victims too much, we miss our power, we miss our complexity. We are full human beings—we manipulate and are cruel as much as we give and nurture. I think, that because we are mothers, we hate to believe this. I do not mean, by this, that we are not persecuted. Men rule the world, obviously, and those unlike they in power suffer. But the most practical way to go on, to progress, I think is to say: okay, men rule the world. I see it. I hold no illusions. How can I do everything in my power to achieve, despite people unlike me holding the power, despite the disbelief I’ll face?
GS: Was it then a particular obstacle writing from the point of view of a man?
LS: No. There are ways, I think, that I am very masculine in mind. I enjoyed it.
GS: Your characters seem to come from all over the place: what kind of research did you do for your stories?
LS: I had a few conversations about boxing and numbers running. Often times, I’ll begin research on a novel which eventually evolves into a short story. I did some reading about the Philippines during WWII—although most of my knowledge of that time comes from family stories. I went into a clarinet store and asked some questions…but I don’t think being ‘realistic’ should be all that important to an artist. I think it’s much more important to be interesting. It’s fiction, after all.
GS: More about your writing process…are you more conscious of “process” because you teach writing?
LS: Well—I certainly have learned about academic writing, about how creative an act reading is, not to be scared of the essay—because I teach literature and composition. I have written few essays, but now I have an interest in them. I have been confirmed in my belief that there are no rules—but for the sake of a freshman comp course, you have to come up with something.
GS: Your Nuyorican reading session is about you being the facilitator while others read—does being the audience help your perspective on writing?
LS: Well—the series (which I am unable to do now, but hope to do soon again) was more about trying to expand the notion of story. I wanted a forum for the best and most innovative writers I know, to share work and feel community and hopefully to expand others’ idea of what a story can be. We are in a very conservative era in American Letters. It is my long-term goal to do activist work to expand our notion of story. I’d like to see us open up to other forms outside of realism.
GS: Okay, speaking of “opening up forms”, you don’t write the typical immigrant story—is this a conscious move away from that type of story line?
LS: Yes. I do not want to make it sound like I have any disdain for my life as the child of an immigrant. Not at all. I think it’s very interesting. It’s a joy to me. We simply have, I think, written too many of the same books. I am very interested in discussions of otherness, of culture, color—but I think we need to expand the way that we do it. To paraphrase my friend Veronica Gonzalez, a brilliant writer: even if the books are NOT barely disguised memoirs, the books being published by immigrant writers have often read as such, as the barely disguised memoir. This implies we are not really artists creating worlds, but simply folk explaining our curious lives. I would like to mention what has arisen in England: think of Rushdie, Ishiguro. These writers are known as intellectuals and are known for their innovation (Ishiguro’s Pale View Of Hills knocked the wind out of me—my god, what a book, what a brilliance of form, the innovation, its never been done before!)
GS: Any fears of being pigeonholed as an ethnic writer?
LS: Well, I will never complain if somebody calls me a Filipino writer. I am. Being mixed, I think it is even more important to me to be accepted as such, I’m aware of being an ambiguous figure. I have friends who hate that idea. That one will be known by one’s ethnicity: that Toni Morrison is a black writer. My only problem with that is the idea it implies that to be white somehow is to be race-less and objective and to be of color is to be subjective and race-full. So that a white writer is a writer and a Filipino writer is an ethnic writer. As if Europe has no ethnicity. But no, I grew up without much being able to explore the Malay in me, the history of colonialism—so it is a great satisfaction to be able to do so. I mean, really, when it’s not painful, it’s totally delicious. It has taken me work to find places where I am able to do so comfortably—I didn’t grow up with that comfort. What does bother me, is the idea that I am supposed to only tell a certain kind of story, in a certain form, and that I am not supposed to be an intellectual.
GS: With that in mind, did you find it difficult to publish an entire book of short stories?
LS: Yes. It took four years. It was a horrible struggle. It affected me all those years. (Thank God Aunt Lute finally came along!) I am afraid that that experience has changed me in a way I don’t like. It was harder to publish it than to write it—and writing it was damn hard.
GS: And finally…I hear you’re writing a novel. How does it differ from writing your shorts?
LS: Writing a novel is so vastly different!! It’s much scarier. First of all—I’ve never been a big editor. I’ll think a story for three months before I sit down to write it. So it’s pretty much ready in my head, then there is fiddling of course, and knocking out whole sections, but mostly, I write as I walk, not as I sit. But the novel is much different, there is much more going back into it, much more discovery as I go along. After ten years of short stories, it’s a big change.
Lara makes sense to me. She writes like no one’s watching and that frees her up to write characters who live their lives like no one’s watching. I think she’s right. There is plenty of room for a new story that makes no excuses for itself. Thanks, Lara, for getting us all off the hook. –GS