Rollin' his R's with readings and roamings
By Marie Carvalho
Special to The Advertiser
By Marie Carvalho
"It's not so much an itinerant lifestyle as an uncertain one," muses Philippines-born, Honolulu-raised author R. Zamora Linmark.
He's answering e-mail while he waits in the lounge of Northwest Airlines in Tokyo for a connecting flight to the Bay Area.
Linmark splits his home time between Manila, Hono-lulu and San Francisco an existence of research grants and dues paid in cramped transport tubes.
But this errant lifestyle serves his poetry and fiction, a complex swell of pop-imagery and linguistic jest.
Linmark (who goes by Zack) first found success in the mid-1990s with his debut novel, "Rolling the R's," a darkly comic Kalihi-school-days tale.
Now living on his second Fulbright fellowship in the Philippines, where he's been penning a sequel to that novel, Linmark's on his way back to Honolulu via San Francisco for a public reading at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.
Just don't try to pin him down. Of recent legislation that entitles Linmark to dual citizenship, he asks, "What is a passport? A book that merely tells you which line at the airport to stand in. What interests me ... are the contradictions personal and political that arise from being both."
While some writers avoid such discomfort, others, like Linmark, work it. He prefers the "vantage point where I can choose to be a direct participant or an observer."
That flexibility was de rigueur during a recent collaboration with Anne Misawa.
Introduced in the 1980s by UH teacher and poet Morgan Blair (formerly Faye Kicknosway), the two were part of a circle of Blair's then-students that included Lois-Ann Yamanaka and Justin Chin, now a writer in San Francisco.
Misawa, who's a filmmaker and instructor at UH's Academy for Creative Media, joined Linmark overseas to document his creative process. He was in Japan as a U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission fellow, researching a future book about Filipino entertainers living there.
According to Misawa, a Japanese sansei (third-generation) from Hawai'i who went, in part, to explore her own roots, work wasn't the name of the game.
"Just being around Zack," she claims, "can be too fun to be work."
The low-budget documentary was short on crew and long on spontaneity, says Linmark: "We shot without a script, only a date book. ... The whole thing was done very (Hong Kong director) Wong Kar-wai-esque."
Linmark's chameleon nature also came in handy during cultural research in Manila for his second novel, "Leche," a Filipino curse word and a moniker, he jokes, that may have hexed the novel's hellish writing.
Or maybe his early critical and commercial acceptance set the bar: "I wanted this 'Leche' to be just as challenging, if not more so, than its predecessor."
His worst possible review? "If someone told me that my second novel sounded, read, like my first."
Such self-challenge manifests in his work's shifts in perspective and style. His conceptual content remains more constant: racial and gender relations, dislocations, loss, desire, homosexual identity and, always, language.
Linmark's latest book, "Prime Time Apparitions," takes on these themes through poetry, a form that he says offers "instant gratification," versus the "instant migraine" of writing a never-ending novel.
"Prime Time's" funky persona and sometimes persona-non-grata poems play with cultural misconceptions and the author's own tongue(s): the wickedly frank voice of a self-proclaimed "exile in his own country" three times over.
Linmark's verse roils with energy. The raw colloquialisms ("let's hook up dinner first") and present-tense pop-cultural references ("Nokia" and "George Michael goatee") of Linmark's verse may limit its shelf life. Yet both are also strengths as is its largely everyday diction in lines like "munching microwave popcorn and holding hands," which could, at times, use an extra shot of lyricism or range in register.
Palpable, existential frustration is mixed with the author's obvious tenderness for his homes: their people, paradoxes, even their insufferable traffic.
So how does a boy who moved to Kalihi from the Philippines in 1977 (when, he quips, " 'Express yourself' was the motto and disco was a religion") end up a poet and world citizen?
By dropping out of a student-exchange program, of course.
In 1989, Linmark found himself in London, dissatisfied with a study-abroad experience more American than British.
He lit out, like the rebellious Huck Finn, for whatever he'd find, traveling as far east as Budapest and lingering in Spain.
It was while living outside Madrid, in the small town of Alcalα de Henares, that he began to feel nostalgia for his Spanish-colonized Philippine birthplace: "It was like a ghost haunting me."
In 1991, as a UH graduate student, Linmark got his first break: a grant to study for a semester in the Philippines, launching his "back-and-forth affair" with that country.
The rest is history or at least a few novels in the making.
Linmark reflects, "I didn't wake up one morning and tell myself, 'I'm going to be a nomad.' "
Or know, one suspects, that his camel would be a multi-tongued wave.
It's some ride.