Contortionists and Conjurers

By Lara StapletonDecember 2, 2014

Contortionists and Conjurers

IT IS A YEAR AND SEVEN DAYS after Haiyan, the strongest storm ever to have hit our earth, landed in the central Philippines. Of course, we hear the tales of terrible waste that follow any natural disaster: millions living — as they did weeks after the storm — in temporary shelters, nightmare bureaucracy, lost shipments that could have fed and clothed suffering thousands. The Guardian claims the distribution of aid was hampered by a “Shakespearean family rivalry” between the Marcoses and the Aquinos, an epic tale that pits the nephew of the dictator (Alfred Romualdez, the mayor of Tacloban, the worst-hit city) against the son of the major opposition figures from the Marcos years (Benigno Aquino III, more Clinton centrist than Che Guevara, and the current president). The Guardian says supplies were not distributed to Romualdez-supporting districts, but people I trust tell me the opposite; though I can’t know for sure, sitting in Brooklyn, my instincts tend toward the clan, the Aquinos, who stepped in as martial law collapsed and the brutal power of the oligarchs morphed. Things are only a little better, but they are better.

The Philippines is the country most likely to be hit by our near future’s apocalyptic storms. What if another typhoon hits the same region? What if it hits Manila?

I came to know Tacloban the way I came to know Macondo or Yoknapatawpha County, through the work of a writer. But unlike Macondo or Yoknapatawpha, Tacloban is a real city, and I am not sure, in this moment, what I heard about the place from friends and family and what I learned from the fictional world of Gina Apostol. Some of her works she set in Tacloban, and some she set in places like Tacloban, and though I can tell these smaller places from the megalopolis Manila, I can’t always remember what is fictional and what real. Most of what I know about Tacloban, I have learned from Gina Apostol, who has long been a friend.

These three literary writers imagine towns that are products of the colonial era, of wayward ships and maritime advances, yes, Yoknapatawpha too, lest we forget. Tacloban was Imelda Marcos’s hometown, a place where women of a certain age wore bouffants and lived a contortionist’s denial, choosing to believe in the grace and decency of their idol, Mrs. Martial Law, Mrs. Torturer. It is a place of old Spanish colonial homes, mansions of wood, lacking upkeep. A great-granduncle was a senator, important in the old guard, but the bank accounts have dwindled and the family lives on, its self-worth tied up in the notion of a name. Across town are the shanties.

Apostol writes archetypal tales of the Philippines, and so, archetypal tales of the indifference, impunity, and outright aggression of the powerful toward the not powerful. The United States has proved its heartlessness toward the islands for over a century. They/we are, perhaps, too far from the scene of the crime for people to notice.

Filipinos are an uncensored people; I consider this much more a blessing than a curse. The aunts who hug us and tell us we’re fat give us a healthier body image than the American media and we laugh over such things; it just plain feels like affection. I think the sex jokes our grandparents tell, even our nun aunts, also prove a certain comfort with the body. But that uncensored way has a sinister downside: the ladies with bouffants say the hills are full of savages. Consider the postings I read during the storm, where the comfortable spoke, from their laptops, of “looters” and argued that “they” should just wait for the delivery of food, be it five days after the storm. One man’s dry goods store is worth another man’s life, or 12, or 100 lives.

But next to such indifference to suffering, there are also the great and cunning humanists, who continue to believe fiercely and heartbreakingly in human decency. And not all of these great humanists, I should say, manage to stay alive, and this is another archetypal tale of the developing world: the Suddenly Disappeared Beloved Professor from the university.

I went to sixth grade in Quezon City in Metro Manila and was raised by my Filipina mother in East Lansing, Michigan. I love being Filipino, although with some complicated feelings because I’m mixed, and have some anxiety about what and who are really mine. I love being Filipino because gestures of affection are of the highest priority, and often what is mine is yours, including my family and friends. Visit a far away place and the friend of a friend will take you for dinner with four of her own. A certain amount of time each day, even for the most workaholic businessman, the most conscientious scholar, is devoted to fucking around. And by “fucking around,” I mean telling corny jokes and making puns around a table, engaging a community. We Americans, especially we well-educated types, we are not prone to such gestures. Frankly, we are a withholding people. We don’t want to waste too much valuable time, in which we should be accumulating accomplishments. A while ago, I read a dumb essay in The New York Times about how it’s virtually impossible to make close friends after 30, a very sad and cold way to live. And, well, a solid decade and a half after 30, I have no idea what the writer was talking about. I know many people who don’t live by that self-fulfilling prophecy at all, people with jobs and children and artistic projects, who still find time for the big table full of friends, the piles of noodles and pork. This is how much of the world lives, those of us lucky enough not to labor endless hours, and even many who do; these “it’s impossible to keep friends” types, I think, are the exception.

In the Philippines, we have the word barkada. I’ve never found it in old Spanish dictionaries. It seems some combination of a fleet and a boat, a wonderful metaphor. We are all expected to have barkadas, old ladies have them, my 75-year-old mother has one. It describes: the fools with whom you run the street, one’s group of friends.


Tacloban was wiped out. One in 10 buildings stood, that remaining building strained, missing a wall, wires tangled and matted like the hair of the mad. The internet was filled with lists of survivors (no one listed the dead), tales of clinging to coconut trees, a toddler surging from a mother’s arms. The shantytowns were evacuated to high schools, and roofs blew off the high schools. A giant ship spun like a die, crushed a house to smithereens, a merciless boot. They tell us of 100, 1,000, 2,000, no, 5,000 dead, but how will they ever count those who were just heaved up into the ocean? Apostol’s family survived, the entire clan, over 20 people, packed into the one surviving floor of the one surviving house. Some watched the roofs spin off their homes, wrapped in sodden blankets to avoid the heaving shards. A student told me his cousins lived in shanties, and I turned away so he couldn’t see what I was thinking, but that didn’t work at all, and we both stood, embarrassed, suddenly intimate, wishing not to cry. Later in the week, a friend from New Orleans said many of the old people died in the months following Katrina because of the stress.


Apostol wrote, in The New York Times: “On Red Beach, America will soon rumble onto Leyte’s shores with its ships, returning, like MacArthur, to Tacloban’s rescue, on the heels of a planetary emergency for which it feels no guilt or will to fix.” A Chomskian tale of swaggitude we know dearly, John Wayne on the deck approaching the shore, in a contortion of denial, since our country’s emissions help stir up storms in real time, monstrous waves, sudden surges, leaving the ravaged survivors, orphans, the bereaved pressing squares of cloth against their mouths against the stench of the bodies, bloated in indignity on the lawns of unidentifiable structural remains. There was an obese man on the lawn of Imelda’s family home, face down, another tossed form in the debris, the work of an atomic bomb, so it seemed. Some say fire, some say ice. We know now, wind. This man on Imelda’s lawn, his arms splayed, had swollen grey. Perhaps he hadn’t been obese in real life. Perhaps this is what a drowned body looks like three days later.

In my reckless nation of birth, the United States, we let the corporations make their coldhearted calculations of quarterly profit, beat back the science, a thousand thousand scientists, a legion, an army of very smart women and men, telling us it will only get worse. And now our latest government pledges war against the Environmental Protection Agency.


I spent Thanksgiving with Apostol, her partner of many years, Ken, and more friends from the Philippines. All of this is happening in a very New Englandy, Western Massachusetts. Nastasia, Gina’s daughter, named for a character in The Idiot, now a University of Chicago graduate, shares that she grew up thinking all Filipinos read Borges and discussed him at holidays over too much red wine. She was mistaken, of course, but was right about the national inclination toward boisterousness and passionate discussion. We’ve had annual Thanksgiving long enough that we have a set of running jokes about years past including the limoncello incident, and that student of Ken’s who never got over the girl of the Brazilian autumn like some misty Marquez character.

Likely, our dumb jokes would not be funny to anyone else, but this is the way of the barkada, we develop a language together, a culture over time. To be able to be Filipino and American at once is one of the great joys of my life. My beloved home, New York, allows for both; it’s where I found both fleet and boat.

Gina wrote her Times essay between rounds of chemo. Her sister, Marie Apostol Harvey, a labor organizer, formed an organization, Kusog Tacloban, to get boots on the ground and raise money from New York, Manila, Honolulu, and Perth. A cousin, Daryll Delgado, also a writer, got two vans in and evacuated their clan of 20-some stunned relatives, including a pregnant woman and three injured, brought straight to the hospital. It was a 40-hour journey. I’ve bragged much about the Delgado-Apostol clan, and they are my primary connection to Tacloban, and last year Gina’s cousin, this sorceress, this conjurer-of-the-van, Daryll Delgado, won in 2013 the same award Gina had won in the past, the Philippine National Book Award. The ceremony was a few nights after the storm, but she forgot to go.

Cultures have types. Hollywood has nerds and bombshells, but most often heroes built of cool, just enough underdog to reify our impulse to democracy. In nations of impunity, the heartless can contort, murder, neglect, and justify, but the brave everywhere conjure from pure emotion, from the will of that lovely muscle, and bend toward the sun.

Please donate to Kusog Tacloban.


Lara Stapleton is the author of The Lowest Blue Flame Before Nothing and the co-editor of Juncture and Thirdest World.

LARB Contributor

Lara Stapleton is the writer of a television series 1850 set in New Orleans before the Civil War, about mixed people, mixed couples, taboo and the color line. She is partnered with producer and co-creator Rachel Watanabe-Batton and producer Djaka Soare. Lara is also the author of the short story collection The Lowest Blue Flame Before Nothing (Aunt Lute, 1998), an Independent Booksellers' Selection, and a Pen Open Book Committee Selection. She edited The Thirdest World (Factory School, 2004) and co-edited Juncture (Soft Skull, 2007). Her work has appeared in dozens of periodicals, including The Los Angeles Review of Books, Ms., Poets and Writers, Glimmer Train, and The Indiana Review. She was born and raised in East Lansing, Michigan. New York City has long been her home. A graduate of NYU's creative writing program, she teaches for Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!