“Rolling the R’s” Forum Response: Allan Punzalan Isaac

I met Zack Linmark in 1996. Rolling the R’s had just been released. Now, almost two decades later, Rolling has become a mainstay in my and many other Asian American literature classes across the United States. Hearing Zack speak about gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, postcolonialism, alternative Englishes, and experiments with genre and voice in his writing has complicated students’ cognitive map of Asian America and American society as a whole. In Rolling as well as in his novel Leche, “place” is woven in as if it were a character that contributes to the web of interpersonal relationships in the work’s development, adding complex layers to the way place and physical movement relate to identity formation. His prose bears the marks of his poetry as found in numerous anthologies and his collection, The Evolution of a Sigh—multi-vocal, lyrical, and irreverent.

From New York to San Francisco and from Honolulu to Manila, Zack has been a generous and generative interlocutor for ideas on literature, teaching, and writing as a process. We continue to discuss trends in American, Asian American, and Philippine writing and the question of our relationship to “home” and diaspora communities and multiple allegiances. His articulation of cultural trends and issues as a writer has contributed productively to my own inquiries as a scholar on race, gender, and sexuality. The following is a recent exchange over email about Rolling while I was in New York and he in Manila and San Manuel.

Allan Punzalan Isaac: When I’ve taught Rolling, I usually have students take turns reading aloud passages or take parts in plays within the novel to hear not only the kids’ voices but also the cadence of the writing. I’ve also seen you do an incredible job in your readings. It has struck me that the novel is better heard while read. Why is the performative so important in the text?

R. Zamora Linmark: I’m glad you’re getting the students to read parts of Rolling the R’s out loud because it’s one of those books, like Huck Finn, that is meant to be read out loud. It’s the only way, I think, to get them to hear the music that is Pidgin, especially if they’re not familiar with the Hawaiian-Creole English language, which is the dominant vernacular among locals in Hawai‘i. Another reason is that the texts are very performance-based. Many of the forms are written in monologues or dialogues; the characters come alive when they’re speaking. Their language, Pidgin, is at the core of their local identity. Plus, these characters, particularly the kids, are always role-playing. The final reason is obvious: some of the stories are in the form of poetry, which should always be read out loud anyway. To read it silently—you might not be able to hear the music in their language, you might not hear the stories they are trying to sing to you.

When you teach the novel, how much do you focus on Pidgin, on its history, its lack of orthography? Do you find it easier to have a dialogue with your students after they’ve read it out loud?

API: I think it’s important to situate Hawai‘i and Local literature. Discussing Hawaiian and Pidgin really reveals the specific colonial and labor history of Hawaii that configures its racial politics differently from those of the mainland. I’ve had students read out loud short excerpts from Lee Tonouchi’s Da Word and listen to him lecture online about Pidgin in preparation for Rolling and Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging, but also to appreciate Pidgin’s structure, aesthetics, and politics. I don’t know about easier, but reading aloud certainly energizes them. I think reading aloud and listening make for a different experience of literary texts. The bodily encounter encourages students to think differently.

RZL: Wow! I’m glad to hear that you’re also teaching Lee’s and Lois-Ann’s books. Hawai‘i’s local literature is so rich (but underrated and rarely taught), and Pidgin is one of the roots of it.

API: I’ve noticed how prose and poetry seem to mix in both your poetry and your prose work. This is true in Rolling as well as in your poetry collections. What does this blending or overlap do for you as a writer and is there a difference for you?

RZL: The form, where prose melds with poetry, is called haibun, practiced by classical haiku poets like Bashō. The shift can be for various reasons (reasons which I used purposefully in my writing)—to highlight a moment, and also to create a flow with deliberate breaks. Think of the form as a journey, like those of Japanese itinerant monks who, throughout their pilgrimage, took rests to take in nature that they then transposed into prose and haikus. Plus, it’s hard for me to divorce the two genres from each other, because of my formation as a writer. I began as a poet who read lots of fiction. The writers I first gravitated to were fiction writers who also wrote poetry. Thus I was both, with a background in theater.

API: Theater! That’s why your readings are so rich and actorly. Sometime ago you expressed that you had gotten a bit tired of the novel itself?

RZL: Do you get tired teaching it? LOL. Rolling got tiring, or, rather, reading from Rolling got tiring. It was physically demanding. Like I said, it’s not a book that one could read in front of the audience without channeling the characters. Plus, after Rolling, I’d also written three poetry collections and another novel, Leche. I wanted the readers to know that I had a life as a writer outside, and post, Rolling. But don’t misunderstand me: I am grateful for the success of Rolling, and if I end up being known as the writer of Rolling—then I’ll accept it, and with gratitude.

API: Twenty years later, what part of Rolling still puzzles or fascinates you?

RZL: Rolling opened a lot of doors for me. It allowed me to really take my time with my second novel (ironically, the sequel). But at the same time, I was also faced with the challenge of: how the heck do I top a book like that? What could I possibly offer to the readers now? I didn’t want to repeat myself. I also didn’t want to bore myself. When I wrote Rolling twenty years ago, I had no particular audience for it. I was writing it because it was my passport out of graduate school. It was my MA thesis. But mainly, I was just writing, building a world that gave me numerous lenses to view my childhood, or what my childhood could’ve been. And because I had no notion of it ever becoming publishable, I took risks and didn’t care. So when Rolling came out and received all this attention, mostly via word of mouth (the big papers didn’t review it), it was very exhilarating and frightening too, because the pressure was now on the next book.

API: One thing my students tend to struggle with is the age of the characters, around ten years old or so? Does it have anything to do with the epigraph from JM Barrie’s Peter Pan about innocence and heartlessness?

RZL: A lot of students—and profs—seem to struggle with that issue, the age of the characters, even after you hear on the news that children nowadays are capable of committing—sex, crime, etc. I’m surprised it’s still an issue. Did you have the same problem?

API: Yes, especially when it comes up in class discussion. We would then talk about social views and fantasies we hold about childhood, our own included.

RZL: I didn’t want to write another coming-of-age/coming out. I wanted to depart from the dominant view that growing up begins in tween or teen hood. And since the novel is grounded on the world of presupposition anyway, then why not build a what-if universe in which the characters are going through what many tweens and teens are, but two or three years younger. Plus, keep in mind that these kids went through life-changing experiences at a very early age—the trauma that comes with displacement and homesickness (for immigrant kids like Florante and Vicente), the physical violence that results from coming out, getting beaten up by bullies and homophobic fathers (Edgar), the stigma of coming from a one-parent household (Katrina). These kids were forced to grow up fast. They had no choice.

API: What attracted you about the world, Kalihi in particular, in that decade? You said you started writing about the 90s of Manila but wound up writing about Kalihi in the 70s.

RZL: I’d have to leave this question to the mystery of writing and its process. Writers are not always (or never) in control of their projects’ destinies. Writers are always getting distracted or rerouted. The novel I intended to write when I first sat down, a novel about reverse culture shock, I would eventually write—this novel became Leche, twelve years in the making. But back then, in the early 90s, perhaps I wasn’t ready as a writer. I had just started writing. I was, as a writer, five or six years old. I had the intellectual resources for this book (since I, too, had gone through a similar experience), but I didn’t have the maturity as a writer to tackle a theme, a story, that is as old as Odysseus. Looking back, I also didn’t have the language that I felt comfortable writing in, to articulate the protagonist’s unwelcoming return. So when I sat down and realized that I was completely writing a different story that was set in a different place and at a different time, I had to make a decision right there and then: either pursue and explore further the world that I was being given or return to the original intent. Obviously, I went with the former. Writing about the 70s was fun. It also gave me the opportunity to revisit my childhood. As it turned out, this novel is directly related to the one I had initially wanted to write, for one of the characters would return to the motherland after so many years of absence. Rolling, you could say, is the can of worms that I would open and, years later, would become the source for Leche and the novel I’m working on at the moment.

API: Why do you think vignettes did a better job of telling the characters’ stories in Rolling than a more or less traditional narrative?

RZL: The vignettes complemented the energy of the characters, as well as the times they were living in—disco-paced, dizzying, in which the stories lasted for as long as a dance track. Do you teach it linearly, as a novel, from beginning to end? Or do you skip around?

API: Hmmm, I don’t think I’ve ever taught any novel linearly. I tend to obsess over opening paragraphs though.

RZL: Same here. It’s one of the hardest things to write—that damn first paragraph of a new novel or a story that, sometimes, does not end up being the opening of the novel. And the difficulty, the obsession, is magnified because I don’t structure my narratives linearly.

API: One can read a novel linearly but not usually think and discuss it linearly. Rolling, however, lends itself readily to skipping around—like tracks on vinyl, as you say. So there is a musicality there.

RZL: Most definitely. The whole book could be viewed as a non-stop remix. Think of “Stars on 45” where they mashed up a bunch of 50s and 60s Beatles songs, all connected with a refrain. In Rolling, the thread is threefold: setting, thematic, and linguistic. Kalihi, desire, and Pidgin.

API: You’ve always talked about place, like Kalihi, as a character in your novels. Could you say something a bit more about this liveness of place

RZL: It’s an asphalt jungle, hot, searing, bursting with energy. You get what you see in Kalihi. It has no qualms, no time for pretense, even for gentrification. I don’t see gentrification happening soon in Kalihi (perhaps in the valley) because it is the entry port for immigrants, particularly Filipinos, Samoans, Tongans, and, lately, Micronesians, and also because it is where the majority of the housing projects in the state is. It has been, and perhaps will always be, a working class community where, until today, cultures from these different places are still preserved. For many immigrants, it is their home; for others, it is that transitory space where you can still hang on to who and what you are before expanding your identity. You’ve been to Kalihi. What’s your experience of Kalihi?

API: Your nephew introduced me to these delicious coco-puffs at Liliha bakery. I grew up in Jersey City, another port of entry for immigrants and home to many communities of color, so some parts reminded me of the smaller Filipino neighborhoods there. However, Kalihi is a maze of warehouses, bakeries, small eateries, houses, projects, strip malls, often oddly juxtaposed then cut by a main road or highway.

RZL: A maze of warehouses. Hmmm. I never thought of Kalihi as a maze but you’re right.

API: I met you through another writer when I was still a graduate student right after Rolling’s release. It was my second trip to Honolulu, the other time covering the sovereignty movements. How are you connecting the overlapping and also conflicting histories of Hawai‘i and the Philippines in Kalihi as your locale?

RZL: Both have a particular shared history of U.S. oppression. Both became part of the U.S. empire at around the same time, turn of the 20th century. Hawai‘i was annexed in 1898, at the insistence of American sugar barons in the islands. The U.S. took control of the Philippines when Spain, which lorded over the archipelago for three centuries plus, lost the war in 1898. As we both know, this resulted in the even bloodier Filipino-American War that lasted until 1901 (though the fighting continued in certain parts of the islands). Both were exploited for their land, resources, and their strategic locations; they became the symbols for U.S. empire in the Pacific. And although one became a state and the other was granted its independence, both continue to be main sites for military bases. That said, Filipinos living in Hawai‘i, in communities such as Kalihi, see it as a unique place, unlike the other states. It is also like yet unlike the Philippines. I see Kalihi as that purgatorial site in the tropics, neither the Philippines nor the United States but including certain aspects of both cultures in its identity formation.

API: We’ve travelled together a lot to, from, and through Manila, Honolulu, San Francisco, Detroit, Rio, Buenos Aires, Tangiers, Paris, and so on. Some of those places you have stayed in for a while to write. How has this wanderlust affected your writing in Rolling and onwards?

RZL: I love cities, especially cities that are able to transport me to a different space but also give me little reminders, or awaken small memories, of the cities I come from—Honolulu and Manila. I’ve always been curious what role a place plays in a scholar’s work. Do you feel the need to stay in that place that you’re researching about for a longer period of time? Living in Manila, I sometimes hear the criticism on Fil-Am scholars, some of them anyway, on how they write about Manila but really don’t know it. They come here, take what they need, then leave. What are your thoughts on this?

API: I think experiencing the everyday of a place transforms you and your perspective. Observing and learning about a place take time and commitment, like commitment to learning another language and more importantly, its nuances, rhythms, and internal contradictions.

RZL: I agree. It’s labor, it’s method. But it’s my way of understanding not only the place but why I’m even there in the first place.

API: Right, it’s relational, sometimes self-reflexive. Those subtle observations are harder to translate. Then, whether you speak the language or not, there is always much to challenge your presumed entry points in places that are not home or places that are in-between home/not home. Manila like all other places endlessly resists and deforms easy theories, translations, and presumed access points. There is something to be said for experiencing these challenges and resistances bodily and sensorially to inform one’s writing and thinking. How have travels and itinerant life affected you?

RZL: Sometimes they’re disparate, other times, they’re striking and life-pivotal, such as when I first experienced Madrid, which, along with the novels Dogeaters, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, that I just so happened to be reading at the time, began to awaken the longing that had been dormant within me for thirteen years: the desire to return to the motherland.

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