This spring, we are pleased to publish an original and exciting voice in fiction: R. Zamora Linmark. His first novel, Rolling the R’s, is one of the most iconic stories of the Filipino Hawaiian experience, and his latest, Leche, continues his unique brand of storytelling: nonlinear, deeply historical, cheeky, and original. It has been praised by Publishers Weekly (starred!), Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Library Journal, and many other publications for its colorful and evocative portrayal of the cross-cultural experience.
Something to think about: What book introduced you to a completely foreign place? Or what book most reminds you of home? Feel free to comment on this post with your reply.
As we near the publication, Linmark will be traveling across the country to promote Leche, including an East Coast book launch at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop on April 16th, and a West Coast launch at San Francisco’s Manilatown Center on April 28th. For a full listing of R. Zamora Linmark’s tour stops, check out his RSS event feed here: http://www.coffeehousepress.org/?feed=gigpress&artist=15
We’ll leave you with an interview between author R. Zamora Linmark and Robert Diaz, a professor of Asian American studies and Queer Studies at Wayne State University, on the origins and inspirations for Leche.
Robert Diaz: In what ways do you see Leche as being related to or departing from earlier writing, like Rolling the R’s for instance?
R. Zamora Linmark: Leche’s main relation to Rolling the R’s, aside from it being partly set in Hawaii, is the character of Vince. Leche is all about Vince because he was the one character in Rolling that I wished I had explored more. Leche was going to afford me that second chance. But before I started working on it, I laid out some ground rules, the most important of which was that Leche had to have its own distinct look, its own identity, which meant I had to write against Rolling, invite other risks, use a different narrative structure, a different style. Whereas the vignettes in Rolling are told from a number of “I’s,” Leche is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator who possesses a warehouse of knowledge about the Philippine—its history, culture, geography, cinema, and relation to the United States.
Q: What inspired you to use Leche as the novel’s title? It seems to have many meanings throughout the book.
A: I chose this title precisely because the word leche has many, sometimes contradictory, meanings. In Spanish, it’s “milk.” To Cubanos and other Latinos, it’s slang for “semen.” To Filipinos, it’s a cuss word equivalent to “shit.” I remember hearing it from grown-ups, especially in my abuelita’s house in Manila. I didn’t know it was a bad word until my great-grandmother made me kneel on a bed of salt in front of an altar after I said it. I couldn’t defend myself, because at the time, I did not know it also meant milk. How leche devolved from “milk” to “merde” I don’t know, except to say Filipinos constantly play with the language of their former colonizers. Another example is the verb “to salvage,” which means the complete opposite to Filipinos. To them, it’s “to annihilate” or “to rid of.” In the novel, I worked with this idea that nothing is fixed: not language, not a place, not a memory; as they evolve, they take on (or lose) meanings.
Q: Do you think Leche encourages its audience to think of the “balikbayan” story in new or unconventional ways?
A: I hope so. This is why I used an unconventional structure to tell Vince’s homecoming narrative. By doing so, it gave the narrator lots of room to play in, to combine Vince’s balikbayan adventures with smaller stories, like his nightmares and childhood memories, as well as to insert brief digressions on Philippine history, politics, showbiz, and tourist tips. The nonlinear approach was also the only way I felt I could contribute something new to a theme that is as ancient as Homer’s Odyssey and as close to home as Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, especially since every writer who had left home only to return to it had written about this subject. Then why even bother writing it? Because I had a new or refreshing perspective to offer the readers about the subject of homecoming. And because I had to.
Q: This nonlinearity also seems to echo both your work and those of other Filipino writers. Have you thought about why this is an attractive notion of timing?
A: The one striking difference between novelists in the Philippines and those writing outside it is that the novels by North American writers like Hagedorn, Bino Realuyo, and Miguel Syjuco are non-linear, whereas those from the Philippines, like Jose Dalisay’s Killing Time in a War Place, Katrina Tuvera’s The Jupiter Effect, and F. Sionel Jose’s novels tend to be more conventionally linear. I think it has to do with the simple truth that we are writing about what was once home, so we are “re-remembering” it, as Toni Morrison called it. And what better way to illustrate memory, with its cut-and-paste-like body, than the narrative collage? Besides, I can’t tell a straightforward story and with a single narrator. I tried, and got bored. Perhaps one of these days, I’ll challenge myself into writing a linear novel. But right now, the world of the novel, as I see it, is much too complex and dynamic to confine it to one narrator or style or genre.
Q: The novel seems to be preoccupied with key historical events in Manila, and, to a larger extent, the Philippines. Do you see these events as shaping your thought process?
A: A lot of important political, cultural, and natural events took place in 1991, of which the most controversial was the fate of the U.S. bases in the Philippines, the largest military installations in Asia. Not renewing the treaty meant putting an end to U.S.’s hundred-year-old military presence in the country. The highly debated issue was put to rest when a volcano, after six centuries of dormancy, decided to wake up one June morning, around the time of Philippine Independence Day, and forced U.S. military personnel to vacate the bases, which were situated near the volcano. A month before the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in May, the country’s premier filmmaker, Lino Brocka, died; many saw his death as the beginning of the end of Philippine cinema. A month after the U.S. closed down its bases, the Marcoses ended their five-year exile in Hawaii and returned to the Philippines without the body of Ferdinand Marcos; his corpse was flown in shortly thereafter, but was not allowed a hero’s burial. I was in the Philippines that year, from May to February of the following year, and I witnessed all these key historical events, including the campaign for the 1992 presidential election. Although the novel is set in 1991, nothing about it is dated or obsolete. The president back then was Corazon Aquino; the current president is her son, Noynoy; his sister Kris remains a bankable a star as she was back then. The U.S. military has not left completely; it’s still in the Philippines under a new treaty called the “Visiting Forces Agreement” (as opposed to the Military Base Agreement). There are as more entertainers and crooks now in politics than ever before.
Q: What was the most difficult thing about writing this novel?
A: One difficulty was finding the right language to narrate Vince’s memories, his conflict, his nightmares, his desires and adventures. I had the intellectual and emotional resources, but neither the language nor the narrator was mature enough to do justice to Vince’s experiences. And by maturity, I mean the ability of the narrator to be objective, distance himself from Vince so he could show the larger picture. Another difficulty was getting my portrayal of Manila just right. Not the Manila of Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, or Realuyo’s The Umbrella Country, or Syjuco’s Ilustrado, or the Manila of non-Filipino writers like Alex Garland’s The Tesseract, but my Manila. In the earlier versions, Manila was missing. It was pointed out to me by my mentor, the poet Faye Kicknosway. I was in trouble. How could I set a novel in a city that was lacking in character? So I went back every year, living in the city months at a time. I paid attention to its nuances, smell, appearance, heat, cough, traffic, chaos, and contradictions. The one thing that helped me process what I went through was poetry. While I worked on the novel, I also wrote poems about Manila and Hawaii, my other home, and published two volumes of poetry with Hanging Loose Press. Looking back now, it was poetry that helped me locate the language and rhythm for Leche.
Q: Do you think this immersion is an ethical prerequisite to adequately writing about postcolonial spaces like the Philippines? More flat-footedly, is this a responsibility a writer should take on?
A: Most definitely. In order for me to write about a place, I either have to know the history of that place or let my reader know my position before writing about it. By doing so, it gives me creative license to play in it. I’m old school this way. There are writers who can write about a place straight from the imagination, but I cannot. I have to write from what I know. I have to have either been there or possess enough knowledge about the place in order for me to recreate it. It’s also a way of being responsible and showing respect for the people who are from there. It only enriches the story.
Q: In terms of aesthetics, is Leche’s style significant to how the novel progresses? How might you see the postcards, or various tips to tourists, or dream sequences, as functioning in the work?
A: The postcards, the nightmares, the tourist tips—these are all windows to Vince’s complex world. From them we get a sense of his character—his sense of humor, his thoughts, his anxieties, his frustrations, his fears, his desires, his sadness. I used tourist tips and postcards for the obvious reason that Leche is also an adventure novel, though the tourist tips function more like a combination of a survival kit and Philippines 101. Likewise for the postcards, many of which are from the turn of the twentieth century and serve several functions. The images on these postcards already come with their own narratives, e.g., a dead Chinese man next to a Filipina nurse, an American schoolteacher in 1908 being carried on a chair by two natives. I use them to compliment or contrast Vince’s experiences, which he shares with his siblings, his mother, and his best friend Edgar.
Q: Local film and celebrity culture also seems to play a significant role in the novel. Were you preoccupied with these elements as you were writing Leche?
A: Pop culture is as important to Filipinos as it is to Americans. It’s the one thing that the rich have in common with the masses. Pop culture brings politicians closer to their voters. In Rolling, I dealt with the American disco culture of the seventies. In Leche, it’s Philippine pop culture via Tagalog komiks, OPM (original Pilipino music), a tacky talk show hosted by the First Daughter, and nc-17 melodrama flicks with sociopolitical messages. I also play with Andy Warhol’s adage that everyone in the future will be famous for fifteen minutes, except that, to my spotlight-driven characters in Leche, the future is everyday and “famous” is interchangeable with “notorious.”
Q: A lot of the novel also seems to provide very stark (and often quite humorous) interpretations of Filipino cultural norms. I found myself laughing aloud and agreeing with most of Vince’s observations. What kind of process allowed you to compose these parts of the narrative?
A: I work in terms of scenes. It helps me with the pacing; that way, I do not feel overwhelmed at the thought that I might be working on a novel that may never end. They’re called “scenes” in plays and movies; its literary counterpart would be vignettes or short-short stories. That’s how I wrote my first novel. I sat down and wrote monologues, dialogues, scenes. I didn’t have an outline for Rolling, but I had one for Leche. From the very beginning, I knew that Vince’s adventure was only going to take place in six or seven days, that it was going to start in Honolulu, move to Manila, then to a small town north of the capital. So I paced myself in terms of days, which I divided up into scenes. The challenge was to cram each day with scenes of Vince’s childhood memories, his encounters in Manila, etcetera. Virginia Woolf did it in a day with Mrs. Dalloway; I needed six.
Q: How might you see Leche as fitting in (or not) with the canon of Filipino American and Asian American writing (such as Dogeaters, or State of War, or Scent of Apples)?
A: Because there are only a few Filipino writers getting published in the United States, comparisons to State of War and especially Dogeaters, because of its nonlinear structure, are expected. But in terms of style and treatment of theme, I’d like to think that Leche is distinct, as Rolling the R’s is distinct from most coming-of-age novels.
Q: Do you ever have a favorite character in your writing? If you do, who is your favorite character(s) in Leche and why?
A: I have to be interested in all of them, even the ones I can’t stand; otherwise, they’re not worth the hours of frustration. They were with me for most of the twelve years that I worked on this book. I saw them evolve as I have evolved as a writer. I especially liked the renegade nun, the Virgin Mary fanatic who was a former soft-porn star, and my Kris Aquino. I don’t know if the real Kris Aquino reads Dostoevsky while stuck in traffic, but mine does. There were a lot of heart-wrenching scenes I almost gave up on, like those involving the reunion between Esther and her sons, Vince’s flashback of his childhood in San Vicente, scenes of Vince and his siblings. Some of them had last-minute things to say during editing, like filmmaker Bino Boca’s comments about high society that I just had to include.
Q: In what courses do you envision Leche being taught? Do you have a specific audience in mind when writing? How would you like it to be read and for what purpose?
A: An audience is the last thing on my mind when I’m writing. As past experience with Rolling the R’s has taught me, having a specific audience in mind does not necessarily mean they’ll go out and buy the book. Not having a specific audience in mind only lessens what’s already an overwhelming job. I write because I want to, because I have to, because I tend to get bored with the news. I write because it is the only craving I know that does not pay, but beats ennui.
Q: Are there any authors (Filipino or otherwise) that inspired you as you wrote Leche?
A: I re-read the works of three masters: the satirical writings of Dante, Jonathan Swift, and Machado de Assis.
Q: Do you consider this a satirical novel then?
A: It’s a satire, it’s historical fiction, it’s pop, it’s hyperrealism, it’s anything and everything you want it to be. Exactly like that word: leche.
Robert Diaz teaches Asian American Literature and Queer Studies at Wayne State University.