you remember your voice / because you are American
because you are a dark Pilipino-American / and that they will balisong your tongue
because they can tell you speak / unlearned English.
Undoubtedly, the United States has long exploited the lack of basic historical literacy among its people, especially among those who tend to benefit from hierarchies and power dynamics that are invisible or euphemized within dominant historical narratives. During the 1990s, queer theorists grappled with the ways in which, alongside unprecedented mass culture recognition of historically marginalized people, power was being concentrated by dissolving Americans’ self-understanding as citizens, as members of a common, public culture. As Lauren Berlant explains, the period’s ascendant narratives “[downsized] citizenship to a mode of voluntarism and privacy” (5), which fundamentally shaped marginalized people’s experiences of sudden visibility in mass culture. Practices of inclusion remain managed by melioristic narratives that depoliticize and dehistoricize what visibility means, while obscuring ways of imagining more politically confrontational alternatives. With these concerns in mind, when I began teaching post-Stonewall LGBT/ Queer literature and culture courses over a decade ago, I knew that texts I assigned would need to meet some essential criteria if they were to be included. They would be out, and not rely on euphemism and code to treat sexual content; they would be sex affirmative, and whenever possible, sex positive; they would be politically conscious and politically diverse; and they would situate sexual identity within a field of intersecting gender, ethnic, sociocultural, geographic, and class contexts. This anniversary forum is an opportunity to focus on one of those texts and examine its location in the course sequence at a critical intersection of LGBT/Queer and Asian American literary and cultural histories.
Set in 1970s Hawai‘i, Rolling the R’s resonates with confrontational politics and poetics the period’s young Asian American writers developed to explore the dominant racial, gender, and sexual discourses that structured their marginalization. Specifically, Linmark recalls cultural reappropriation practices by members of the Aiiieeeee! group, such as Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan, who used ironic affirmation of dominant stereotypes and narratives as a key strategy of undermining their efficacy. Chin, for instance, reconfigured the historically pejorative “Chinaman” as a term that could describe an outlaw political-linguistic hybridity; the empowering Chinaman identity, he believed, was best understood as a “miracle synthetic” which confounded persistent attempts to contain, and in turn, continue to marginalize and degrade Asian Americans (Chickencoop 8). Similarly, LGBT Asian American literature and criticism extend this disruptive tendency by exploiting the ways in which Asian Americans have long been “queerly” positioned along ethnic, national, gender, and sexual axes, both within and against dominant U.S. historical/cultural narratives. Certainly subjected to profound forms of discrimination and marginalization, queer Asian Americans are also uniquely positioned to identify and intervene in what Chin described in 1970 as “all the space that no one was occupying” (Chinaman 111). Exploring points of contact between ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, and doing so within the histories of American national identity and colonialism, Rolling is a key text in the 1990s “emergence of a distinct and visible queer Asian American identity…willing to engage actively in the discourses of both Asian American and queer politics but unwilling to bifurcate… identities into the racial and sexual” (Eng and Hom 3-4). Furthermore, Linmark’s position as a Filipino American writer, his predominantly Filipino American characters, and their Pinoy cultural sensibility, present additional challenges to normative categories by drawing on the especially fraught position Filipino Americans occupy as ethnic-national ciphers within dominant U.S. culture and its literary history.¹
Although densely populated, especially for such a brief text, Rolling focuses on a small group of preteen Asian and Asian Pacific Islander Americans who are immersed in the novel’s 1970s popular culture context and articulate its recurring themes of ethnic and sexual marginalization. Here I show how two consecutive chapters illustrate Linmark’s mapping of marginalized people’s responses to assimilation pressures and how his explicit treatment of ethnicity helps readers grapple with similar pressures in domains of gender and sexuality. By exploring the ways in which young people’s ethnic, gender, and sexual abjection often produces internecine conflict, Linmark also encourages readers to see his characters’ attempts to develop critically inclusionary strategies of resistance. Rolling thus contributes to an LGBTQ reading sequence that provides a diverse critical, and explicitly political, historical context for assimilation pressures which have dominated mainstream discourse and political agendas for the past two decades. The novel responds to these pressures by juxtaposing normative and disruptive—or assimilationist and resistant—responses to dominant American cultural trends and motifs, whose tendency is to obscure and marginalize precisely the queernesses those young Asian Americans represent, as well as the threat they pose to a reductive ethno-sexual order.
Most striking about Linmark’s novel is its ability to articulate the experience of marginalization along various axes that resonate with each other yet do not simply cohere into a single undifferentiated whole. Linmark maintains significant (if not essential) distinctions among ethnic, gender, and sexual identities, even as he examines how marginalization touches each in similar ways, and together, amplifies experiences of abjection. As he shows, pressures to assimilate are ubiquitous; and—whether ethnically, sexually, nationally, or in some combination—when dehumanized and degraded by dominant narratives, vulnerable people are especially susceptible to promises of rewards for acquiescing. The juxtaposition of chapters, and the ways in which events are articulated through various and often conflicting perspectives, illustrate the stakes of individuals’ and communities’ responses to assimilation with either concession or resistance.
One of those chapters, “Our Lady of Kalihi,” examines the price of concession, when, in the wake of a storm that fills Kalihi with the island’s garbage and decapitates the local Madonna, the Roman Catholic parish bankrupts itself to rebuild the statue of its patron saint. Although these efforts may have led inevitably to financial ruin, Linmark focuses on specific features of the replacement image purchased by Kalihi locals’ donations:
It was so expensive it came with a free crown and a makeover fit for a Halston runway show: Sophisticated with the jaguar eyes of Bianca Jagger, pout of Sophia Loren, cheekbones of Laura Hutton, arched brown of Brooke Shields, and the attitude of a Studio 54 Disco Mama…She does not look at you serenely as before, but points her catty eyes toward the ships anchored at Pearl Harbor, prowling to see which sailor will crown her Notre Dama de Noche (21).
On the surface a cautionary story about economic exploitation, the chapter is also concerned with the statue’s contribution to Kalihi’s abjected status. Purchasing an object for worship that stands monolithically as a reminder of the distance between Kalihi residents and images of desirability, locals perform and reinforce their own subordination as objects for sexual and economic exploitation. In this case, the agent of subordination is no longer any of the external ones identified throughout the novel—white tourists, Pearl Harbor, elementary school curricula, TV shows—but now internal, apparently emerging organically from among the locals themselves and their parish priest.
In contrast to Father Pacheco and his congregants’ uncritical reproduction of their own colonized status, Linmark surveys Kalihi’s outsiders to show how a more critical, ironic appropriation of ubiquitous images threatens to short-circuit dominant-marginal relationships, particularly along ethnic and sexual axes. While “Our Lady of Kalihi” shows how mainstream images reinforce the abjecting distance between locals and normative ideals of beauty and desirability, Rolling’s next chapter, “Kalihi in Farrah,” identifies ways in which marginalizing images are susceptible to the kinds of reappropriation that Chan and Chin believed would produce a stereotype-disrupting “noise of resistance” (65). As on the mainland, the late 70s Farrah Fawcett craze affects every young person in Kalihi, from straight teenage boys like Ernesto Cabatbangan, who finds in her the ideal object for his sexual desire, to Edgar Ramirez and Katrina Cruz, whose responses range from exuberant fandom to precocious analyses of Charlie’s Angels’s “socio-politically charged issues…such as prostitution, lesbian undertones, and Orientalism” (23).
While most Kalihi locals relate to Farrah as an external object of interest/desire, the chapter focuses on Filipino immigrant Orlando Domingo’s queer reproduction of Farrah’s trademark hair and fashion styles. Rather than simply mimicking the model, Orlando embodies Farrah as a means of articulating a queer Pinoy identity that destabilizes injurious linguistic and cultural stereotypes. Farrah provides Orlando an alternative orientation to the English language and U.S. history, the normative institutional uses of which conspire to degrade him; no longer (only) standing for Filipino, “F [is] for Farrah” (23), and by wearing his hair like Farrah’s, he transforms the pejorative “Flip” into a site of collective resistance for himself and other “Filipino Farrah wanna-be queens” (24). Informing them that “A Flip is a Flip is a Flip” (24), Orlando’s re-appropriation of pejorative language and stereotypes empowers the queer Asian American community. Moreover, Orlando’s increasingly outré appearance confronts the Kalihi community’s unexamined commitment to normative behavior and prompts corrective action “before our boys catch this madness and start huddling in skirts and pom-poms” (24).
If Ernesto’s desire to be inside Farrah reproduces normative, consumptive responses to the pop culture phenomenon, Orlando responds by locating—and simultaneously transforming—the Farrah inside himself. Juxtaposing these reproductive and disruptive orientations to the Farrah image, Linmark recalls similar strategies by Chan and Chin, who “mean to reverse the charges with our writing…to inject our sensibility into the culture and make it work there” (79). Ernesto’s straight, masturbatory focus on Farrah’s image reinforces a normative Orientalist logic that renders any reciprocal relationship (sexual or otherwise) between white women and Asian American men unthinkable outside the realm of symbolic fantasy. The Ernesto-Farrah relationship also obliquely echoes the position of Asian American women, whose persistent representation as exoticized objects for white sexual consumption similarly denies their agency and centrality in sustaining Asian American identity and community. In contrast, Orlando’s Farrah performance incites panic among supporters of the ethno-sexual norms on which Kalihi’s values rest and, moreover, confounds official attempts at sanction when Principal Shim “squirms at the thought of Orlando turning the tables and charging him…with discrimination against a Filipino faggot whose only desire is to be Farrah from Farrington, as in Farrah, the Kalihi Angel” (25). Now imagined as a sacred messenger, Orlando not only provides Kalihi’s straight Asian American boys with a disruptive alternative image of their ethno-sexual identities, but more broadly presents an alternative to a community that, in the novel’s preceding chapter, had placed its faith in a bankrupting and abjecting disco Madonna. His noise of resistance thus introduces a sense of precarity into normative dominant-marginal relationships and the pop culture symbolic order that maintains them.
The conflicts in Linmark’s novel shape an argument about resistance as a collective, yet ironically heterogeneous, endeavor of ethnically and sexually marginalized young people and their allies who develop community through sharing experiences of both degradation and self-assertion. By engaging simultaneously with concerns of two periods of LGBTQ history—revolutionary gay consciousness building in the 1970s and the Queer Nation/queer studies movements in the 1990s—Rolling contributes to developing a historical consciousness among readers who desperately need one. If, as Jen Manion writes, “[w]idespread ignorance about the history and diversity of LGBTQ people and communities still stands as a significant obstacle in the movement for freedom and equality” (125), a diverse core curriculum that includes work like Rolling can challenge homogenizing, melioristic historical narratives and encourage students to critically historicize their own moment as one of possibility, rather than simply resign themselves to it. There may be nothing essentially wrong with contemporary tendencies to see marriage—or other currently dominant issues like childbearing, adoption, and military service—as worthwhile personal goals; however, for Manion, marriage’s apparently unquestioned social status as the “single most significant gay rights issue of our time and the shallow, polemical, and ahistorical debates that framed it…signal not how far we have come but rather how systemic and powerful heteronormativity really is” (116). Surrounded by entreaties from dominant culture and prominent gay organizations to make themselves desirable to the very society whose institutions marginalize and degrade them, young LGBT people are rarely encouraged to seriously entertain ways of mobilizing queer sensibilities to change the self-understanding of dominant culture instead.
By exploring intersections of ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, and examining how “sexual and racial difference come into existence only in relation to one another” (Eng and Hom 12), Linmark’s novel joins a set of core texts that trace an affirmatively heterogeneous queer historical narrative. Equally important, the novel also provides readers with opportunities to explore connections between LGBTQ and ethnic critical traditions, including those in which we might least expect to find them, as with Chin and Chan’s work in the 1970s. In both ways, Linmark’s novel incites a desire for historical literacy among students and provides opportunities to explore supplemental texts that productively problematize the novel. In my own course, Linmark’s setting in the 1970s connects with literary texts of the period which students have already read, such as Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) and Larry Kramer’s Faggots (1978). That setting also provides an opportunity to introduce critical texts that illustrate revolutionary consciousness raising and the intersections of identity axes, such as Latino author John Rechy’s The Sexual Outlaw (1977), which echoes Linmark’s cautions about assimilation as a form of self-abjection. Likewise, the novel’s publication in 1995 connects it to the period’s literary texts, such as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1990, 1991), and to critical queer theories, such as Urvashi Vaid’s Virtual Equality (1996) and Thomas Yingling’s “Fetishism, Identity, Politics” (1995), which question institutional legitimation strategies in queer studies’ “canonical moment” that prevent us from sounding relations between sexuality and “other ‘species’ of difference like race, class, and gender…as carefully as they might be” (155). Twenty years after its initial publication, Linmark’s novel not only remains a significant Asian American work and contribution to queer Asian American writing, but in fact increases in significance for today’s readers who must grapple with contemporary pressures to assimilate into the very norms and narratives that have produced and continue to reinforce marginality.
¹ See, for instance, Gonzalez and Campomanes’s Deleuzian assessment of a Filipino American identity and literary history which confounds normalizing discourses with a sensibility that requires “unrecognizable different or alternative kinds of imaginations of nationality in Filipino literatures and predicaments” (84).
Berlant, Lauren. The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.
Chan, Jeffery, and Frank Chin. “Racist Love.” In Seeing through Shuck. Ed. Richard Kostelanetz. New York: Ballantine, 1972.
Chin, Frank. The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon: Two Plays by Frank Chin. Seattle, U of Washington P, 1981.
—. The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R.R. Co. Minneapolis: Coffee House P., 1988.
Eng, David, and Alice Hom. “Q&A: Notes on a Queer Asian America.” In Q&A: Queer in Asian America. Eds. David Eng and Alice Hom. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1998. Print.
Gonzalez, N.V.M., and Oscar V. Campomanes. “Filipino American Literature.” In King-Kok Cheung, Ed. An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997. 62-124.
Linmark, R. Zamora. Rolling the R’s. New York: Kaya, 1997.
Manion, Jen. “The Absence of Context: Gay Politics without a Past.” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 1.2 (2014): 115-31.
Melo, Michael. “Unlearning English.” In Returning a Borrowed Tongue. Ed. Nick Carbó. Minneapolis: Coffee House P, 1995. 152-56.
Yingling, Thomas. “Fetishism, Identity, Politics.” In Judith Roof and Robyn Wiegman, Eds. Who Can Speak?: Authority and Critical Identity. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995. 155-64.