Over the years, I have taught (and continue to teach) Rolling the R’s in creative writing classes for the same reason I assign As I Lay Dying. As with all of my favorite books, when I share it what I actually want to share with people is that initial reading experience—the excitement, the enchantment, the exhilaration—which I hope will be sparked in them too. I wish I could share with them my jolt of recognition that came from seeing Filipino objects, family life, religious artifacts, and people in an American setting. Normally I can’t; but there are other fruits to this manuscript and its parts. I remember, the first time I read Rolling, being blown away by the bravery of an author being willing to put himself into a narrator’s thoughts, to capture them so truly and honestly and to express them without fear that people would mistake them for his own. (Faulkner advised young writers: do not judge your characters. Does this mean that Faulkner embraces every dark, venomous barb voiced by Jason Compton? Of course not. No more than he thinks in diagrams of coffins, or believes Jesus is blameless for killing Nancy. He’s telling us not to hold back, to get rid of the self-protective armour. Comedy is a self-defense mechanism against uncomfortable emotion—embarrassment, hostility, taboo-breaking, humiliation, awkwardness, shame.) There is a certain kind of ironic distance—and certain kind of judgement— most writers put in place, especially when humor is involved, to make it very, very clear to the audience that the author does not share these ugly thoughts, these wrong opinions. But the author ends up holding back, and our encounter with the character becomes diminished (or, worse, dishonest). Something is missing.
The spark of my first reading must also involve language, the rhythms of it when emotive and imaginative, how it can power you through a chapter. I loved the way Zach could move seamlessly from a prose story to end it as poem, without really knowing when a line was crossed. He taught me that you can do what you want, once we are hooked by character and language and the momentum they can create.
It is one of those special books, like As I Lay Dying, that allowed me to write my first novel, American Son.
The great thing about Rolling is that you can pick and choose pieces to share, depending on need.
If I ever feel like a student is stuck, I let Zack Zamora show them the way. If their prose is stilted and scared (or their details generic and uninteresting), I let “Our Lady of the Mount” whisper lyricism into their ear, blow an eye for interesting detail into their eyes. If their people are afraid to narrate, I show them “F for Book Report” and tell them to pick a narrator and favorite book and let them articulate. To ones like the young woman from Appalachia with the lyrical accent who was ashamed of the way she speaks, I have them read that same story, then tell them to read “Our Lady of Kalihi” and reset their story to where they are from. If they feel confined in a scene by the present, I point them to “Portrait” and its memory of a bloody Easter and its razors and self-lacerations; you should see their shocked faces. They say, I didn’t know you could do that. Here’s another one: open the book to a random page, read it and sleep and dream with an empty page by your beside, for when you wake. You never know what you might end up with, I tell them. Like me, you might be surprised.