“Linmark’s Gift” by John David Zuern

 

Ten years ago, in March 2006, Zack Linmark gave a reading at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa to mark the release of his collection of poetry Prime Time Apparitions. On that occasion, I had the privilege of introducing him, and in addition to extolling the remarkable range of styles and tones in Linmark’s poems, I took the opportunity to express my personal gratitude for Rolling the R’s, a book I had been assigning regularly in my classes at UHM throughout the previous decade. I had arrived in Hawai‘i in 1995, the year Rolling was published, and I had been fortunate to attend the uproarious event Linmark organized to celebrate its launch. That evening he shared the stage with a group of long-time friends, who lent their voices to the novel’s characters and acted out some of its most memorable scenes. Part literary reading, part carnival, part drag show, the performance brought Rolling vibrantly and hilariously to life, but in my memory it also serves as an early testament to Linmark’s generosity as an artist. In Rolling, as in all the fiction and poetry that has followed, Linmark creates a space for a diversity of voices—the voices of children, immigrants, women, queers, the poor, the crazy, the lost, and the lovelorn—all speaking languages inflected with long histories of displacement and trauma, invasion and exile, survival and revolt. He gives oppressors—teachers, school officials, parents, husbands, bullies—a chance to get a word in, too, not only to satirize them (which he does brilliantly) but also to reveal the anxieties and longings that fuel their violence. Virtually every character in Rolling gets a speaking part, and the parts all speak to the capaciousness and, ultimately, the compassion of its author’s imagination.

It was this dense polyphony that initially made Rolling so appealing to me in the late 1990s as I, a haole from the continental U.S., took on the uncomfortable role of an English teacher in Hawai‘i, where the politics of language are always close to the surface, especially in the classroom. At that time Pidgin, the common language of Rolling’s main characters and of a broad swath of the islands’ inhabitants, was still a source of sanctimonious frustration for too many teachers and a source of shame for too many students. Hawaiian was gaining ground in immersion schools and university classes, and then, as now, the languages of the Philippines, Samoa, China, Vietnam, and many other homelands punctuated Honolulu’s urban soundscape. The discordant symphony of voices in Rolling gave me the opportunity to talk with my students about the linguistic fault lines they navigated in their everyday lives. Rolling’s scenes of traumatizing grade-school instruction in Standard American English resonated with similar scenes in a striking number of the other works of local literature I typically assigned, such as Milton Murayama’s All I Asking for Is My Body, Alani Apio’s Kāmau, and Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging. They also resonated in the memories of many of my students, either as first-hand experiences or as stories they had heard from parents and grandparents. The novel’s nuanced depiction of humiliating impositions of a colonizing language gave me the opportunity to link our reading of Rolling with critiques of linguistic imperialism ranging from Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s “The Language of African Literature” to Brian Cox’s “Teaching Standard English” to the Tongan poet and theorist Konai Helu Thaman’s “Of Daffodils and Heilala.” Likewise, I could point to how the social and political tensions refracted through the collisions among the novel’s many languages intersect with Mikhail Bahktin’s concepts of dialogism and heteroglossia, as well as with Fredric Jameson’s account of the political unconscious of literary texts. The novel quickly became one of the core texts on the syllabus for my version of the theory-and-methods course for undergraduates in my department, a class I still frequently teach, not only because of its openness to a wide assortment of critical approaches but also because it compelled me to articulate—to myself as much as to my students—the strengths and limitations of theoretical frameworks and critical vocabularies I was importing from my American and European training in literary studies.

In keeping with its epigraph from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Rolling is a book that never grows old, which is not exactly to say that it never grows up. The novel’s historical setting—the early 1980s—was “dated” even when it was first published, and as time passes, more and more of the cultural touchstones from that period—Charlie’s Angels and Love Boat, the film Making Love—need explaining for today’s undergraduates. Nevertheless, Rolling has retained its unsettling vitality and, from my perspective as a critic and teacher, it has kept pace with and at times even seems to have anticipated developments in the discourses of cultural and literary studies, queer theory in particular. Its young characters’ strategies for forging affective and erotic alliances outside conventional boundaries line up with the counter-hegemonic intimacies and counter-public formations Lauren Berlant, Samuel R. Delany, Lisa Duggan, and Michael Warner have sought to describe. Its representation of the ineffectual but damaging impact of heternormative institutions’ efforts to “protect” children points us toward Lee Edelman’s argument in No Future, while at the same time the poignantly inchoate ambitions of Edgar, Vicente, and Katrina participate in the queer futurity José Muñoz imagines in Cruising Utopia. The diversity of individual identities and desires Rolling gathers together, all of them situated within broad geopolitical and historical contexts, speaks to the questions Martin Manalansan raises in Global Divas about categorizing sexualities across cultures and to Gayatri Gopinath’s examination of the complicated passions of diasporic life in Impossible Desires. Most powerfully for me, the novel’s affirmation of children’s divergent, devious fantasies and pleasures, along with its acknowledgement of their profound vulnerabilities, allies it with Eve Sedgwick’s project, throughout her work but explicitly in “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay,” to conceive of a world in which queer young people are not merely tolerated but are rather treasured as a “precious desideratum,” as indispensible to the flourishing of human social life.

Propelled largely by years of reading Rolling alongside the expanding corpus of queer theory, in 2008 I designed and taught a senior-level class called “Literature’s Queer Language,” which aligned a selection of these texts with theories of semiotics and literary style, and of course Rolling featured prominently among the primary materials on the syllabus. Working with the astonishingly talented students who enrolled in this class intensified my longstanding appreciation for Linmark’s achievement. I had always recognized that the novel offers much more than fodder for the canon of contemporary cultural and literary theory, and I had always welcomed and tried to facilitate, within the parameters of the academic setting, what for some of my students were deeply personal responses to it. Rolling has been an inspiration to the next generation of Hawai‘i writers, and it has shaped the imaginations of the many UHM graduates who go on to teach in the Hawai‘i public school system and the community colleges. The enthusiasm and intellectual rigor with which students in my 2008 class engaged the novel brought home to me Rolling’s power to mobilize thinking and creativity. It not only spurred some lively classroom discussions; it also prompted some of the undergraduate and graduate students participating in the class to propose a panel session devoted to Rolling for the 2009 conference of the Association of Asian American Studies, which was held in Honolulu.

I was fortunate to be a part of the team that put together the AAAS session, and in the end two PhD students, Aiden Gleisberg and Steven Tanaka—both of whom ultimately included analyses of Rolling in their dissertations—and I gave papers on the novel, and two undergraduates, Loraine Kanervisto and Keir McCoy, produced a photographic essay on Kalihi, the neighborhood of Honolulu in which Rolling is set, which was displayed on a screen throughout our session. Although Loraine and Keir photographed many of the places that appear in the novel, such as the Kalihi Uka Elementary School, the Kamehameha Shopping Center, and Our Lady of the Mount, their aim was not so much to provide illustrations for the novel but rather to look at the realities of present-day Kalihi through the lens of Linmark’s fiction. The commentary they composed to accompany the images, a revised selection of which is included below, reflected on what they saw on the delightful evening in March 2009 all five of us spent exploring Kalihi with Rolling’s roadmap as our guide.

As I said in the conclusion to my 2006 introduction at Linmark’s reading, being able to tell my students that a book so brave, so compassionate, so scrupulously researched, and so beautifully composed was written by someone who had graduated from their own cash-strapped public university, who had once sat in the same broken-down desks in the same decrepit classrooms they are sitting in now—that is truly a gift. No book has given me so many opportunities to connect with my students in so many different ways, and few books have so steadfastly held my attention and admiration over the course of so many readings. I am very grateful to the editors of AALR for giving me yet another chance to say thank you.

 

 

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