JUSTINE VILLANUEVA Reviews
Two books by R. Zamora Linmark:
Rolling the Rs
(Kaya Press, New York, 1997)--BOOK LINK
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2011)--BOOK LINK
A while ago, I made a pact with myself that I will write stories that more accurately reflect the multilingual world my characters live in. Consequently, I did not limit my characters to only blurting out a Bisaya curse word every once in a while or naming a cultural dish for reference. Instead, I had them meditate, rant, wax poetic in full Bisaya sentences. Reactions to my pieces varied: "Using non-English is difficult to pull off. I strongly advise caution," one reviewer said; "Give them a reason to and your readers will put in the work," said another. Confused, I made another pact with myself to read more English literature that incorporates different languages. This was how I found Zamora Linmark's Leche and Rolling the R's.
I will admit that reading Rolling the R's was difficult in the beginning. The pidgin English confused me and I fought back by trying to paraphrase the sentences into "proper" English. I would read a few pages but then put the book down because I couldn't right away figure out either who was narrating or what they were narrating about. However, I really wanted to read the book so I gave it a big chunk of uninterrupted time. I refrained from paraphrasing and, slowly, as I let the words flow through me, I began to see Kalihi with its panoply of characters living their mundane dramas.
Even though most of what I saw were mere glimpses into the characters' lives, the glimpses were vivid enough to draw me in. I sang as Donna Summers with Vince who struggles with self-expression. I was burdened by Edgar's and Mr. Ocampo's "secret", as well as Nelson's unanswered question on what makes someone truly Filipino. I was angry that the principal will suspend Orlando, the Filipino Farrah, despite Orlando's obvious academic smarts, all because the other adults worry that Orlando might infect the other boys with his love for nail lacquer, platform shoes, lipstick, and twelve shimmering eye colors for every occasion. I cheered for Exotica who chooses to be a beautiful woman instead of a miserable man. I wanted to plead with Pearly to give up her holy vow and leave her drug addict and abusive husband. I was fascinated with many other characters: Jesus of Kam Shopping Center, the Purple Man, Irma the TNT Lady, the Exorcist Lady, Tutu Man, Happy Face Man, Our Lady of Kalihi, Da Filipino FM Man, the members of Da Manong Gang... Despite the numerous and disparate characters each dealing with their own drama, the whole book is cohesive and succeeds in capturing the angst of growing up in Kalihi, unaccepted, for a variety of reasons, by friends, family, and community.
I enjoyed many other features of this book. It is remarkable that in only 150 pages, Linmark succeeds in using lists, litanies, poems, notes/comments to parents, portraits, instructions, proofs, requiem, gossip, dialogue, scripts, vignettes, letter, dictionary, test, chain letter, a rant, song, a book report... If I had to pick one as a favorite, it would be the examination in the “Sentencing of Lives” chapter which asks Vince to use complicated English words in a sentence. The sentences he comes up with are inventive and funny. I appreciate this chapter so much because I, too, grew up mangling English, a language that is not my own, to fit my needs for self-expression, in the end creating a way of communicating that is beautiful in its own way.
I also had a hard time reading Leche. However, unlike in Rolling the R's, I never found the Leche groove, even when I really wanted to and even when I gave it my undivided attention as I did with Rolling the R's. Maybe I expected it to be like Rolling the R's with its cast of memorable characters. Maybe I could not get past the different narrative techniques. The use of postcards, which I enjoyed at first, proves tiring after a while, as do the tourist tips and word definitions/play. Maybe I sensed the protagonist's feeling of pointlessness of being in Manila. It made me not care about him and his stay in Manila as much I did about Vince's and Edgar's lives in Kalihi.
Only one chapter fully engaged my attention. In that chapter, Kris Aquino and Sister Marie interview the protagonist, Vince. It isn't so much the topic, Filipino identity, that drew me but the way the dialogue so accurately captures the ease with which we Filipinos switch from one language to another. Maybe it is because I am familiar with the real Kris Aquino and can hear in my mind the way Manila socialites talk, the way they sprinkle their sentences with English to mark their sophistication, the way they lilt di ba? at the end of every sentence, the way they use their hands to bridge the physical gap between them and the listener, the way they imbue drama in everything mundane by exaggerating their facial expressions.
As a reader, I am happy to read books considered to be works in the English language incorporate within their pages a different language, especially when it's a language I have cultural connections with. I am happy to see Tagalog or pidgin English phrases, sentences, pages, chapters, without translations or footnotes, take up their space, exist on their own merits alongside the English language.
As a writer who grapples (and probably always will grapple) with the question of whether and how best to use non-English language in what is ostensibly considered English language literature, I am very grateful that Zamora Linmark wrote these two books.
Justine Villanueva grew up in Malaybalay, Bukidnon and immigrated to the United States when she was seventeen years old. She writes about cultural assimilation, ageing, and identity from the perspective of Filipino immigrants. Her short stories have appeared in UC Berkeley's Maganda, San Francisco State University's Yellow Journal, and University of San Francisco's Ignatian Literary Magazine. She is currently completing a children's book that will be published by the nonprofit, Libro Para Sa Tanan, A Literacy Project (MamaMama.net). She also runs a blog of letters to her sons at ginikanan.com. When not writing, she spends time with her sons, and works as a dance instructor and as an immigration and bankruptcy attorney. She lives in Davis, California.