A Writing Life

Conversations with R. Zamora Linmark

December 1, 2005

Artist Louisa Bertman

Hey Marianne—I’m on a bus bound for Manila, coming from the provinces, where I’ve been going to write and read and get some peace of mind away from the chaos and stupidity in the Arroyo administration; and the more stupid the government gets, the stronger my dollar. How tragic to use the exchange rate as a measurement of a country’s progress or, in this case, rapid decline, which is the only consistently solid thing about this country. So if my answers to your questions don’t make sense know that it’s because of the bumpy roads and not me.

These are troubling times for the Philippines, and R. Zamora Linmark, whom I call Zack, has been there for the last few months on a Fulbright fellowship, fresh from a six-month stint in Japan on a U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission fellowship. In a series of email conversations, we discuss “Gloria,” the tarnished Philippine president, and whether our mutual country of origin, the country I sometimes describe as “a mote in God’s eye,” has a remote chance of making it out of the latest thicket of political scandals. At one time we were leaders of Asia—ahead of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia. Now we’re the country that no foreigners want to visit, and Linmark is writing poems in the Jonathan Swift mode, poems like “The Superstar Talks to Her Award-Winning Role, Flor Contemplacion” and “A letter to Claire Danes from a Fan in Manila,” which appear in his latest book, Prime Time Apparitions.

It’s still the country I love, so I drink up Linmark’s words, fresh on the page. His poem “ESL, or English as a Sign Language” brings it all back to me:

ALLOWANCE 70: Airline regulation for maximum

weight of a balikbayan box


CHICKS O’CLOCK: Girlie bar a block away from
Pasay City Hall

DON’T DARE ME: Motto of action hero-turned-
president Joseph Estrada


At the same time that I’m laughing, there’s pain, too. And the rawness and the everything of being a Filipino is right there on the page in front of me.

Linmark started out as a theatre major, and it shows in his writing. There’s that voice, for one thing. He had it in his very first pieces, in his 1997 novel Rolling the R’s and now in Prime Time Apparitions. Once you hear the Linmark voice and give in to its rhythms, you can’t get it out of your head. Whether it’s the moody, nostalgic voice in his poem “Sensory for Nine” or the pidgin English of his Rolling the R’s characters, you know this is a writer who is in love with language, and can do things with it you never thought possible.

He tells me there’s “a little bit of Hamlet” in him, and that he feels he has something in common with “the control-freak tragic figure who wanted to direct his own downfall.” So his words write his own history. It may not be the most elegant thing on the planet, but there’s an urgency to it, and it’s his own.

In drama courses the teachers tell you that the journey into another character is also a way into yourself. Doing his theatre major at the University of Hawaii, Linmark grew tired of the available monologues and scenes, mainly contemporary American plays. “I wanted to do a monologue or a scene … it dealt directly with my, our, issues in a local setting, i.e. Hawaii,” he says. An acting teacher, Terence Knapp, suggested he enroll in a creative writing course and write his “own damn monologues.”

After he got started writing in earnest, Linmark had no interest in publishing “because my writings—my poems and stories—were too personal.” But his former professor-turned-mentor, Faye Kicknosway, nominated a poem of his for an Association of Writers and Writing Programs Intro Award in poetry. The poem won $50 and publication in the national literary journal Willow Springs. “Ironically,” Linmark adds, “the poem was about a poetry contest with a first prize of $100.”

Asides from Willow Springs, the first journals to publish his pieces were race-specific journals like the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s Asian Pacific American Journal. Linmark says he tried “the biggies—Paris Review, New Yorker—but got nowhere.” So it is doubly confounding that the publication of Rolling the R’s happened so easily. Linmark was approached by Walter Lew, the then-editor of Kaya Press. Both Lew and Linmark’s writing had appeared in Jessica Hagedorn’s 1993 anthology Charlie Chan is Dead. Lew read Linmark’s pieces in the anthology and liked them enough to give him a call.

“He asked me if they were part of a larger work. I lied and said yes. He asked for two more pieces. I shat bricks for a week, wrote three vignettes, and we signed a contract a week later.” Linmark had less than a year to write the first draft. The book was published a year later, in December 1995 and Kaya issued a reprint edition in 1997.

Now Linmark goes back and forth between Manila, Honolulu and San Francisco. He calls these cities places that “at one point in my life or another, have become my home, or the physical
aspect of home. I feel right at home in these three cities, which does not necessarily mean I’m very content or feel comfortable about them.” He calls Manila a “depressed” city, where “chaos and broken-ness look me straight in the eye.” Manila, he explains, has become “a capital city for my imagination. … It’s hard for a borderline outsider like myself to get bored, which I consider the chief enemy of all writers.”

When another city beckons, Linmark checks his resources and starts “planning for the temporary move.” These travels are not for the faint-of-heart. Linmark says “it takes a good year for the planning,” worrying that he comes off sounding rich when he isn’t. He survives by applying for two or three grants a year, often to writing colonies such as the MacDowell Colony. He has received two Fulbrights: one in 1998 as a Junior Scholar, and this year as a Fulbright Lecturer. His first Fulbright stint was to do research for a book set in turn-of-the-century Philippines. It’s a work still in progress, shelved temporarily while he works on his poetry—Linmark is already at work on a second poetry collection—and a book detailing his experiences in Tokyo, where he lived from the end of 2004 to spring of 2005. He also made good and careful use of a 2001 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship in poetry.

What’s next for this peripatetic writer and self-described wanderer? Linmark is in the midst of processing his recent stay in Japan, which he describes as “very intense” and “exhausting … but beyond worthy.” He says that being there reminded him of “how much I was a foreigner.” The last time he’d felt this way was when he first visited the Philippines after being away for 14 years, but he ended up loving Japan. “I love any place that puts personal space at the top of the priority list,” he says.

Perhaps a key to the directions that Linmark’s writing is taking now is the shift in what he is reading. During his undergraduate years, when he was just beginning to entertain the idea of being a writer, he read Latin American authors. Jessica Hagedorn, he says, “was also instrumental because, apart from the obvious that we both have parallel histories—we are both from the Philippines, migrated to the U.S. when we were young, and are now writing about a Philippines peppered with pop culture, both American and Pinoy—her writings hit home and the heart.”

Now, however, Linmark is reading what he calls “the classics,” which he admits shunning during his undergraduate years. He says that they inspire him. He’s reading Flaubert, and revisiting Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, in addition to the latest poetry collections of Mark Doty, Charles Simic and Kimiko Hahn.

Linmark wants to make this very clear: His introduction to these other writers, his access to the writing life, would never have happened had he not been taught by Faye Kicknosway. What he learned from her, he says, was that “the world of the writer is, and should be, infinite, grand, complex, and beyond the humanities.” Her class he describes as “boot-camp tough. She didn’t beat around the bush; she was the blade cutting through it.” He lists the writers she has brought to maturation: Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Justin Chin, Lisa Asagi ...

And then he writes:

This is all that’s coming to me at 9:30 am. Now in Manila, in Quezon City, and the battery light just went on. Write me when you get a chance. When do you think you’ll be able to visit Manila? How ‘bout Christmas? 

Marianne Villanueva is the author of the short story collections Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila and Mayor of the Roses.

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