I started teaching Rolling the R’s when I first taught the Pilipino Literature class (AAS 363) at San Francisco State University in 1999, and continued to teach it over the next decade in AAS 206: Introduction to Asian American Literature, and in AAS 214: Second Year Composition, when I taught the course focused on queer Asian American literature and when I taught it focused on Asian American men’s issues. I’ve taught this book a lot!
One of the biggest challenges for students is the book’s language (Hawaiian Pidgin is not easy, as I found out in 1997 when I first taught All I Asking for is My Body, by Milton Murayama—students complained that the title was missing a verb!). I am not a native speaker of Hawaiian Pidgin, but Linmark’s work, like other books written in this dialect, will reward the diligent reader who takes the time to quickly look up a few words and phrases. The language is rich and challenging. Much like Zorah Neale Hurston’s capturing of a specific Southern dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Linmark’s achievement in setting this language down in written forms is not to be underestimated. As a creative writer I can attest that writing in “standard” English is the easiest because there are so many models and it is what we are trained in, while writing in dialect is notoriously difficult because we have to rely mostly on our own knowledge. While the tradition of writing in Hawaiian Pidgin is rich (see Milton Murayama’s All I Asking for is My Body, Darrell Lum’s No Pass Back, and anything published by Bamboo Ridge Press), Linmark’s work provides another dimension by focusing on speakers who have Tagalog in their family background, rather than Japanese or Chinese, which dominated Hawaiian Pidgin literature.
As a teacher, I find the interrelated short story and poetry forms eminently useful in the classroom, especially the poem, “They Like You Because You Eat Dog,” which of course echoes the title of Jessica Hagedorn’s novel Dogeaters, and is also usefully compared to “The Look-Alike Women” in Her Wild American Self by M. Evelina Galang. The structure of the book can be introduced to students as being like a group of friends talking each time you get together. Some of the same stories get retold, with information unfolding more deeply each time.
Thematically, I find the way the text deals with the sexuality of children supremely nuanced. This is difficult stuff to write about, especially because he is so good at capturing that pre-adolescent voice, and at the same time letting us know as adult readers that what the kids might think is ok is maybe not so good (compare to Galang’s Wild, which deals more with gender roles and immigration, but somehow manages to be less overtly sexual).
In particular, having a proud young queer protagonist who is the smart (and smart-ass) bright center of the book really makes this a joy to teach. If taught well, this book has the potential to help all students feel more like insiders and less like outsiders. Additionally, given the Association of Asian American Studies controversy (it happened in a hotel ballroom in Hawaii, and I was there!) over LoisAnn Yamanaka’s narratives about the depiction of Filipino men in Hawaii as sexual perverts (Blu’s Hanging), Linmark’s open discussion of complex dimensions of queer Filipino sexuality provides an important perspective, if not an example of how to do it in a way that allows more space between the narrator and the author.