In the book, Vince is returning to the Philippines, the country of his birth, after 13 years in Hawaii. His homecoming is fraught with turmoil: In Hawaii, Vince is identified as Filipino; in Manila, he is treated as an outsider to the culture, a balikbayan, a former-Filipino who lives someplace else. He goes through reverse culture shock.
In real life, author R. Zamora Linmark was born in Manila, raised and educated in Hawaii (Kaimuki High School class of ’86 and University of Hawaii-Manoa), and now travels widely, seemingly at home wherever he is. Linmark’s highly anticipated new novel, "Leche," was released this month and he is on tour doing readings and book signings at West Coast universities and East Coast writing workshops. He will travel to Paris this summer to read at the request of the Philippine embassy, and will come home to Hawaii in the fall to promote his book.
Once a semblance of order is restored and the lead flight attendant has regained her composure, she turns the PA system back on and finishes her monologue. "If this is your final destination, we welcome you home," she says. "For those continuing on, we wish you a pleasant and safe journey. Once again, thank you for choosing Philippines Airlines. Mabuhay."
The last word, equivalent to the Spanish "viva," prompts passengers to shout it back. Explosively. Energetically. Passionately. As if the word contained 70 million heartbeats.
"Leche" is a sequel to Linmark’s iconic novel "Rolling the Rs," about the search for identity in a Kalihi childhood. "Leche" was 12 years in the making. It was supposed to be published in 2008, but then the publishing house Linmark had been working with folded.
"It gave me a second chance to revise the novel," he says. "The only thing I kept was the idea of returning to a place that was once familiar."
During those 12 years, Linmark, 42, received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission and twice from the Fulbright Foundation. He taught as a distinguished visiting professor at UH-Manoa and the University of Miami. He is also a poet and playwright.
At a recent visit to UCLA, where he presented his novel, Linmark said students from Korea, Samoa and other Pacific Rim countries told him they found special significance in his tale of being new to the city from which they came.
"‘Rolling the Rs’ was about the forming of identity," he said. "I wanted ‘Leche’ to be about what happens to identity when an immigrant goes back to their original home. Home is defined differently by who leaves and by those who are left behind."
The novel is at times uproariously funny, but it is definitely not a light read for the beach. Linmark weaves cultural and historical research into his story and employs a nonlinear structure to the narrative, including jumps in time, lists of Philippines "travel tips," and postcards to and from Hawaii.
"I see a novel as a puzzle, and as I’m writing it, I have to figure out how to put all the pieces together. When I’m done, only then can I see the overall picture. Then I pass the puzzle on to the reader."
Linmark is at times critical of his own culture, or cultures, as the case may be.
"People will see things they recognize in the book and either love it or hate it because of it," he said.
Above all, Linmark’s writing is literary: heightened, emotional and beautifully crafted. Linmark began as a poet, and pays close attention to rhythm, economy and word choice, even in such a rollicking, gutsy story. It is a story that many people can relate to, but one that can only be told by a writer of his caliber.
"Leche" was published by Coffee House Press (www.coffeehousepress.org) and can be found at bookstores, at Amazon.com and on Kindle.
Lee Cataluna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.