Identity crisis

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November 3, 2011

11:39 PM

It is not often that something comes along that is so shocking — and yet refreshing — that you know it’s a sign of something different. Like the crisp air of a new spring day, you know it was meant to come.

For associate theatre professor Francis Tanglao-Aguas, this breath of fresh air was R. Zamora Linmark, a Filipino-American poet, novelist and playwright.

“Back in 1995 … I heard through the grapevine that there was going to be a new novel coming out of Hawaii,” Tanglao-Aguas said. “It wasn’t about people escaping exile or life in World World Two, but it was about being Filipino, and that was very important because, at that point, the work that was [coming out of Hawaii] was mostly about politics. It wasn’t personal. It wasn’t about being young and growing up. So when ‘Rolling the R’s’ come out, we just ate it up. And it spread… [Linmark] spread like wild fire.”

“Rolling the R’s” was Linmark’s first book, published in 1996.

Linmark recently came to campus as part of a book tour for his new novel, “Leche,” which was published earlier this year. He describes discovering his love for, as he said, lying (or, in other words, fiction) in college. While he writes fiction, he has sought to do something tantamount to what Walt Whitman did for America: be a voice for a people and for a nation.

He writes about the Filipino experience, both in the Philippines and abroad, and described wanting to give a voice to Manila.

“Manila is one these so-called developing cities, and it can easily fall into the [characterization] of Bombay or New Delhi or Bangkok,” Linmark said, “And I didn’t want that. I wanted to give character to Manila.”

Linmark gives this voice through a unique style, wit and the personal character of his writing.

“You read a lot of writers, and you get the history and are getting a lot of facts, but you can get bored with that,” Wilma Consul, who was the director for the staged reading of “Rolling the R’s” and with Linmark during the book tour, said. “With [Linmark], he uses humor. It’s different when you have truth done in humor. It’s a bit more biting, and I think it’s a bit more effective.”

“Leche,” which does not come from the Spanish word ‘milk,’ but from the not-as-innocent Filipino word ‘leche’ — follows the character Vince, a twenty-three year old returning to his native country after being away for thirteen years. His homecoming isn’t quite what he had expected.

After his flight arrives in the Philippines, he finds the customs line designated for Filipinos, but is told to leave the line. Despite being born in the Philippines, he is, as a customs officer points out, a “blue book holder” — a US citizen, not a Filipino. He argues that in Hawaii, Filipinos don’t see themselves as American. But there is no welcome home. He is ushered out of the Filipino line.

Ideas of homecoming and identity are woven throughout the novel.

Linmark, in his characteristic way of writing, doesn’t hold back in his description of Manila. After describing Vince almost passing out upon arriving in Manilla because of the pollution and humidity, he further criticizes the air quality, or lack therof, in Manila.

“You need a third lung to get to the kitchen from the living room, a fourth to answer the front door and an oxygen tank to cross the street,” Linmark writes in “Leche.”

In setting out to capture the voice and character of Manila, Linmark realized he may have gotten into something larger than he bargained for. While “Rolling the R’s” took a matter of months to write, “Leche” took him over a decade.

“I realized I had taken on a task that I wasn’t ready for, but I didn’t know; I thought I was ready,” Linmark said. “In fact, the first version was accepted [by the publisher], and it could have been published as early as 2000.”

However, due to complications with publishing companies, the publishing of the book was delayed. This gave Linmark time to revise, something for which, in looking back, he says he was grateful.

“I’m glad it gave me the opportunity to write it, and to really labor over it, because I don’t think I could have been as content and really say that the book was done.”

After revising, Linmark produced not only something he was content with, but a valuable addition to the voice of Filipinos and the Philippines. It was an added breath of fresh air that Linmark thought a city like Manila needed greatly.

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