'Rolling The R's' Is A Story About Coming Of Age And Coming Out
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
From music to books now. And for some people, hearing about the book we're about to discuss will be like running into a beloved old friend. It's that important to millions of readers. It's "Rolling The R's," the first novel by poet R. Zamora Linmark. It's a wild coming-of-age story from an immigrant perspective infused with American pop culture and the languages of Hawaii, where he grew up, and the Philippines, where he was born.
Upon its debut, "Rolling The R's" stunned readers and critics alike with its profane and almost too-true portrayal of a group of teens finding themselves in late 1970s Honolulu, grappling with sexuality, teachers who play favorites, adults who don't get it. It's full of drama, fun and pain, all told with a dazzling array of literary styles. For all those reasons, the Asian American Literary Review is honoring the book with a special 20th anniversary edition [POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly said that The Asian American Literary Review is honoring the book with a special 20th anniversary edition. While the Review has a special issue on the book's anniversary, it is the publisher, Kaya Press, that issued the special 20th anniversary edition of Rolling the R's]. I spoke to R. Zamora Linmark recently. And I started by asking him about the title "Rolling The R's."
R. ZAMORA LINMARK: Filipinos, when they speak English, they roll their ours, particularly the Ilocanos that make up the majority of Filipinos in Hawaii. So it's a stereotype for Filipinos as well as Latinos. You know, so that when they speak, they roll their R's.
I also found out that John Milton, who wrote "Paradise Lost," rolled his R's to separate himself from the other British ex-pats in Italy. So rolling the R's means just being yourself and doesn't have to have that urgent sense of belonging.
MARTIN: Could you read a little bit for us, if you would? And I'm trying to figure out a passage you could read without losing us our FCC license.
LINMARK: OK, this one is rated PG.
LINMARK: Not even PG-13, rated PG.
LINMARK: OK. (Reading) The Two Filipinos - Mai-Lan Pham (ph) is Vietnamese. Jared Shimabukuro (ph) is Okinawan. Julian Katsura (ph) is Japanese. Stephen Bean is Caucasian. Loata Fa'alelea (ph) is Samoan. Kal Macadangdang (ph) is one-fourth Filipino, one-fourth Spanish, one-fourth Chinese, one-eighth Hawaiian, one-sixteenth Cherokee Indian and one-sixteenth Portuguese Brazilian. And the rest tell Mrs. Takemoto, who has gone row by row asking them their ethnicity that they are Filipinos, except for Nelson Ariola. "No, Nelson," Mrs. Takemoto says. "Your nationality is American, but your ethnicity is Filipino." "Yeah, Nelson," Katrina Cruz (ph) interrupts. "You was born a Filipino and you can die a Filipino." "Shut up, Katrina," Nelson says. "You shut up, Nelson," she says. "What makes you think you're not a Filipino?" "Because I was born here." "So, me too," Katrina argues. "And because - because I'm not an immigrant. And because my grandfather never came here for cheap labor.
I'm not like them, Mrs. Takemoto." "What makes you say that, Nelson," she asked. "Because I don't speak Tagalog or Ilocano." "Well, for your information, Mr. USA" - Edgar stands up, hands fisted at his waist - "your mother speaks Tagalog and your father from (unintelligible). Just 'cause you don't speak the dialect no make you an overnight American sensation." "Shut up, Edgar. You don't understand," Nelson says. "I can't be a Filipino. I don't want to be a Filipino because the only Filipino that everyone knows is the Filipino that eats dogs or the Filipino that walks around with a broom in his hands." "So what? Big deal if Filipinos eat dogs. Big deal if they're custodians or gardeners. Oh, you're so full of yourself, Nelson. Wake up and smell the hot pandesal. Windex your mirror because your reflection can tell you you're the best kind of date for Mr. Pinoy - brown skin, yellow teeth and no nose."
MARTIN: Oh boy (laughter). How did that scene come to you?
LINMARK: Well, I migrated to Hawaii in 1978, so the height of disco. So that is as close to autobiographical as I got to writing the novel. And being an immigrant student, one of the culture shocks for me was being placed in a bilingual educational program, which required being put in another classroom in another building to learn English, basically, which I found ironic because I grew up in the Philippines, which was colonized by the U.S. And so this classroom scene that I just read, it's a familiar atmosphere at that time growing up in Hawaii.
MARTIN: There is a lot of sex in this book...
MARTIN: So thing one - these are supposed to be pretty young kids. They're, like, young teenagers, number one.
MARTIN: But one of your central characters is in a sexual relationship with the school custodian. And I just have to be honest with you, as a parent, I'm thinking this guy belonged in jail.
LINMARK: Yes, well...
MARTIN: So can I just ask you about that...
MARTIN: ...And why you felt that was important?
LINMARK: I wanted to write a novel that went against conventions, against the traditional coming-of-age coming-out narrative. This required me to invent this character Edgar, who is being bullied for being gay. But I also didn't want to create a victim character. He didn't have a closet, you know? So what I did in the end was I created my own version of Lolita. So Nabakov has his Lolita; I have my Edgar.
MARTIN: Well, you know, that disco anthem "I Will Survive" does kind of come to mind...
MARTIN: ...Because Edgar, you know, for all of his travails, is a really joyous figure. I mean, he's a good friend, he's brave in his own way.
LINMARK: Yes. And you also get a sense that the pain does come out, that there is this yearning, there is this desire. And I - I plant enough hints in there as to why somebody tough and vulnerable at the same time would end up having a liaison with the custodian.
MARTIN: What do you think about the fact that your book is still in print all these years later and that it's become such a staple of - it is like Catcher" In The "Rye for a lot of people. It is a book where they feel that they saw themselves, you know, for the first time. And I'm just wondering what you think about that, if you ever imagined when you wrote it that it would have that kind of impact.
LINMARK: No, I wrote it to get out of grad school. It was my creative master's thesis. Now, when I was writing it, of course, the idea of an audience, the idea of even being published was not part of the pressure. And I wrote it with no rules because I wanted to experience and also to explore the world of the novel as a collage. I was, after all, writing about a community. So the success of "Rolling," it still surprise to me until now.
MARTIN: Wow, yeah. R. Zamora Linmark is the author of "Rolling The R's." It's celebrating its 20th anniversary with a special edition. He was kind enough to join us from NPR New York. R. Zamora Linmark, congratulations once again. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
LINMARK: Oh, thank you. Salamat. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.