15 Hawai‘i Books to Read This Summer
Our annual quest to track down this year’s can’t-miss books from local authors and publishers.
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Back to Kalihi
Photo: Jilson Seckler Tiu
Nearly 20 years since R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the R’s followed a group of Kalihi kids coming of age in the 1970s, we catch up with him to talk story about his landmark novel and his upcoming work.
It’s hard to believe it’s been almost two decades since R. Zamora Linmark introduced us to a group of rambunctious Kalihi teenagers in his debut novel that single-handedly reinvented the local coming-of-age story.
Like most stories in our local canon, Rolling the R’s, published in 1996, dealt with cultural identity and prejudices in the rich context of Kalihi. But it was more than that. With its main character a defiant and flamboyant Edgar Ramirez, it was one of the first local gay “coming out” stories in local literature. Set in the disco era, we met drag queens, transvestites, sexually curious teens and a predatory custodian named Mr. Campos.
It was a slow rise to success for Rolling the R’s locally, but eventually it spawned a cult following and even a stage adaptation that premiered at Kumu Kahua Theatre. The book is now taught in many Asian-American and queer studies programs in universities across the country.
We caught up with Linmark, currently serving as distinguished visiting associate professor in creative writing at the University of Miami, to take a look back at Rolling the R’s and to get a preview of what’s to come.
HONOLULU Magazine: Where did Rolling the R’s come from? Did you set out to write a novel, or did it come about more organically?
R. Zamora Linmark: It was 1992, and I had just returned from my first visit to the Philippines, after an absence of many years. I was born and raised there, but I grew up in Honolulu, for the most part. The reverse culture shock I experienced when I went back to the Philippines was so profound. I felt so fragmented after that visit that I wanted to write about that experience.
I sat down and wrote, but what came out instead was a vignette about this very strong and defiant character named Edgar. I was in extreme awe, because that wasn’t what I intended to write. After that day, I had crossed a junction where I could either further explore the story of this kid or go back to my original intent and write about feeling like a stranger back in the motherland. I decided to pursue this guy, because it was the 1970s, it was the disco era, I felt like I was reliving my childhood. I started living vicariously through these characters.
HM: Rolling the R’s has a nontraditional structure, told through vignettes and poems and stories. It’s also one of the first times we see real gay characters represented in local literature. Did you have a sense, at the time, that you were doing something different?
Rolling the R’s
By R. Zamora Linmark
KAYA PRESS, NOVEMBER 1996, 149 PAGES
RZL: I was writing stories that I wanted to read. Was I doing something different? Yes, that’s obvious. It was really a departure from the local aesthetic. Here comes this book that is written by one of the locals, but it’s structurally different, the content is very raw and potent. And I was writing about taboo stuff. You have the word “faggot” in there how many times? It’s very in-your-face and unashamed.
Interestingly enough, the book came out during the same-sex marriage issue, when it was being contested in court in 1996. I remember I was in Kapi‘olani Park, where I used to run, and I heard all these homophobic people giving their anti-gay sentiment. This was all at the same time: On one hand, you have this very conservative community of Islanders, and, on the other, you have this book that is basically saying, “I am gay, and I love it, and I’m proud of it.”
HM: You split your time between Honolulu and Manila. How does moving back and forth affect your writing?
RZL: Remember I was telling you about the reverse culture shock? That story is Leche, my most recent novel. The character Vicente from Rolling the R’s returns to the Philippines in Leche after so many years of absence. It’s his story of reverse culture shock and his experiences back in the motherland. That novel took me 12 years. I wanted to explore the concept of home, and the experience of displacement and dispossession.
In order for me to write about Manila, I actually had to go live there. When you’re talking about representation, I didn’t want Manila to come across as just another capital in a third-world or developing country. I had to go in there and put on my sociologist’s hat. When I’m writing about a place, I don’t treat setting as just setting, I treat it as a main character. It’s your responsibility as a writer to portray a place with authenticity and give it the kind of soul and music that comes out of that place.
HM: So far, you’re the author of three volumes of poetry and two novels. Rumor has it we can expect at least two new books from you next year. Can you give us a sneak peek?
RZL: I’m going on a book tour in the first half of the year to promote the 20th anniversary edition of Rolling the R’s as well as my fourth poetry collection, Pop Verite. If all goes according to plan, next year Random House will publish my third novel, a young-adult book, These Books Belong to Kenzie.
Pop Verite is sort of an homage to my literary and pop icons, but it’s also about what a poet goes through during the day. I have Amy Winehouse, Frank O’Hara, the day I found out Donna Summer died. It’s a mixed bag of popular culture.
With the young-adult novel, I had no idea it was going to be sold within two weeks. This is my first foray into young adult, so it’s something very new. I worked on it for three years. It’s set on an uninhabited island near Saipan. I put people there and decided this would be where my next novel takes place. There’s an element of dystopia. There’s a northern part and southern part split by a border. The northern part is privileged and the southern is independent, but very poor. There’s a lot of military involved. Within that story is a love story that falls apart. It’s about dealing with heartbreak.
I’m also working on the sequel to Rolling the R’s right now. It’s going to be bigger than the original; it’s my ’80s novel. The kids are now juniors in high school. I revisit them seven years later, when they’re at Farrington High School.
Books by R. Zamora Linmark
Rolling the R’s
Kaya Press, November 1996, 149 Pages
Coffee House Press, 2011, 280 pages
Prime Time Apparitions
Hanging Loose Press, 2005, 88 pages
What Will R. Zamora Linmark Read This Summer?
By Jim Elledge
Darger was an eccentric American artist and writer.
My Documents, collection of short stories
By the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra
Map: Collected and Last Poems
By Nobel Prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska
King Larry: the Life and Ruins of a Billionaire Genius
By James D. Scurlock