FICTION “sucks” when a writer bases it on his own life.

Such is the belief of Filipino-American writer and Fulbright scholar Ringhardt Zamora Linmark, who became a new leading writer of Asian-American literature when his first novel, Rolling the R’s, was released by Kaya Press of New York in 1995. Linmark said letters taught him to separate himself from his work.

“Don’t impose your life on a page unless you’re writing a memoir,” Linmark said. “If you do that, it’s going to come out contrived,” he said.

Migrating to Hawaii with his family at the age of nine, Linmark set his novel in Kalihi, a real Asian-American community in Hawaii, where the lives of immigrant fifth graders are caught in a whirlwind of ethnic intrigue, homosexuality, sex escapades, and pop-culture fandom.

Linmark had previously tackled the immigrant issues in a lecture at UST two years ago. In his talk about his experiences as a Literature student in America, he disclosed how he, as an aspiring Filipino writer reared in Western culture, struggled to express these issues.

But because of the so-called Filipino resilience, Linmark did not stop with mere attempts. Although he originally had no intention of getting published, his efforts eventually led to the birth of his works in the melting pot of Asian-American literature.

Navigating continents in fiction

In his second visit to the Faculty of Arts and Letters last Aug. 25, 10 years after Rolling the R’s was published, Linmark said he could not have written the novel if the memories of his first visit to the Philippines in 1991 had stopped haunting him.

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“You want to forget the chaos and cliché snapshots of a city ravished by poverty… but the dreams of it didn’t want to let go,” he said.

He said his graduate thesis adviser in Hawaii had advised him to go back, saying, “dump what you don’t need there, and then write everything else.”

Determined to come up with a story different from his own, he came back to Manila in 1993, and became convinced that it was still his home.

“You’re a Filipino, steadfast, stoic, often willing to bend, yet remain unbreakable,” he said.

After his three-month visit, he went back to Hawaii to write about a list of characters disguised as him, “imagined or otherwise,” in the person of Lily Beth, a drag queen; Imelda Marcos, who would come back to Manila to compete with Cory Aquino for the “Weeping Widow of All Weeping Widows” title; and even a fictionalized version of the late director Lino Brocka.

But what came out when he sat down to write was the story of Edgar Ramirez, a fifth grader who “played lollipops and roses” with the school custodian in the mop room, while his best friend, Vicente de los Reyes, watched the “after-school special” from the keyhole.

As he wrote it, he realized that he was writing about a life he wished he had lived when he migrated to Hawaii, rather than the childhood he left behind in the Philippines.

Coming out

However, his “Filipino-ness” did not disappear as easily as his personality did in his writings. This was evident when he turned to the works of Latin-American writers Julio Cortázar and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whom he considers his influences.

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But before he studied literature, Linmark tried other majors—communications, French, journalism, and theater. Of all these other fields, it was theater which stayed with him until now, showing itself clearly when he animatedly read samples of his work.

“I can never rub off the theater major in me,” he said. “But since I could not relate to the American monologues and dialogues given to me, my drama professor suggested I sign up for creative literature.

“Write your own monologue (he said),” Linmark quipped—which he did, at the age of 20.

Eliminating the “I”

Even if he had to “kill” himself in his fiction, however, Linmark agreed that memory must also accompany imagination in writing. This rang true in Linmark’s depiction of life and pop culture during the 1970s, which he had experienced.

“If there was anything autobiographical about the book, it was the pop culture element, because I grew up with those,” Linmark said.

The fifth-grade barkada of Edgar, Vicente, Katrina Cruz, and Florante Sanchez idolized and imitated the singer Donna Summer, “Charlie’s Angels”, and actors Scott Baio, Farrah Fawcett, and John Travolta.

When it came to language, Linmark mixed English, Spanish, and pidgin English, the language spoken by Filipinos and non-native English speakers in Hawaii. Pidgin English, a language Linmark himself speaks, showed the defiance of the characters to teachers who insisted that they speak straight Anglo-American English. But everything else about him had disappeared from the story.

“The story does not want you, for you are not as important as you think you are,” Linmark said. “(You) are only a secretary to a force greater than your lunacy…an interpreter of lies, your own passion and hunger, solitude and dreams, designs and disillusionment, an examiner of your own contradictions. Such is your so-called unremarkable existence.”

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