I was living in Upstate New York back in 2003 when I got the call from Zach. He was apparently in New York City and bored out of his mind. I had never met Zach. In fact, knew very little about him then. The writer Evelina Galang had given him my number because she knew I was roughly (very roughly) in the area. The conversation was a little awkward. He was trying to figure me out and I was trying to figure him out. We circled and circled around topics like who we knew in common, what there was to do once he got to New York, who to meet, and I kept wondering, Who was he? Why was he calling?
Zach was hitting on me. Yes, he hit on me for a good fifteen minutes over the phone. I’ve always been a dense person when it comes to these kinds of things. There came a point, however, when I finally figured out what he was doing and I’m pretty sure he figured I was interested in women. I’m pretty sure we figured each other out right around the same time. Then a whole other cascade of minutes flew by once we got ourselves “straightened out,” so to speak. We said our goodbyes, figured out ways to get in touch with each other, and then that was that.
The very next day I ordered Rolling the R’s. How could I not? I read it quickly from cover to cover on a snowy Saturday. I was intrigued by its polyglot. Its hybridity. Its cacophony. Really, it’s a remarkable novel that’s as shapeshifting as the pop culture that much of it invokes.
Zach’s playful and wonderful conjuring of the 70s immediately brought me back my family’s early years in the U.S. My family had emigrated from the Philippines in 1972 when Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. We were part of the “brain drain”—the intellectuals and professionals of the country were leaving in droves, encouraged by the Marcos regime to leave. It’s easy to rule a country when those who could oppose you are gone. And though my family experience and my own family life were different from the Hawaii of Edgar, Vicente, Katrina, Loata, Mai Lan, Florante, and the host of characters in the book, there were enough parallels to my own story of growing up. I grew up in farm and ranch country. An exile of sorts, and in many ways I was awkward and teased in the same way Edgar was for being one of three Asian American students in my high school.
But I had the greatest affinity for Florante, and the piece from the novel that struck me immediately was “Requiem.” The line “Memory is a mosaic of tongues licking dirt, of lies / embroidered to protect the King of Martial Law” was particularly resonant because my family lived it. We had to leave the country because my uncle was on the “blacklist” of the Marcos regime. My father, sensing our danger, immediately stood in line at Camp Creme for a visa enabling my mother, father, and myself to leave. And what ensued was a strange and lonely life that certainly ensured that I would become a writer.
Years later I had the opportunity to read at the University of Miami where both Zach and Evelina work. We had a good laugh remembering our initial awkward exchange. And we rejoiced at having so much in common.