Book Review: Leche

by R. Zamora Linmark

What does identity mean in a globalized world? Specifically, what is one to make of diasporic identity, when one is between two cultures? Can one say that one belongs to a culture, if one has been away for so long?

R. Zamora Linmarck explores these questions in his latest novel, Leche. A semi-sequel to his first novel/story collection, Rolling the R's, Linmark takes one of his characters and extrapolate their story into the future. In this case, it's Vicente de los Reyes (Vince), and the future is 1991.

Out of a bad relationship, Vince finds himself in a pageant for Filipinos, hosted of course by his new ex (a rice queen who gets turned on watching The Last Emperor). Coming in second-place he wins a trip to the Philipines (whereas the winner gets a tour of Manila towns throughout the US), where he is haunted both literally and figuratively by his past life, when he left as a 10 year old. What he finds is not exactly as he remembers.

The present-day Philipines is a hodgepodge of illogic.  Cars almost make it a policy to try to scare pedestrians, there are regularly scheduled black outs (that never happen on schedule!), mass wakes in the streets slowing down traffic. As Vince describes to his brother: "In one word: vulgar. No, tacky. No, tasteless. No, cheap. No, queer," or simply, "Third World Technicolor Manila." Vince's Manila is colorful yet frightening; fanciful yet foreign. Indeed it's a cultural shock for Vince who never really feels at home during his visit despite having so many memories of the place. (And it's memory that makes culture, right?) His newly found friends--Pinoywood eccentrics ranging from the president's own daughter to a melodrama cult director and the occasional cute tour guide, even tell him he is not and cannot be Filipino and thus would never understand their culture:
"Kris: Do you identify more as Asian American or Fil-Am?
Vince: Neither.
Kris: Then what?
Vince: Filipino.
Kris: Cannot be."

What follows is a rollicking identity crisis disguised as a comedy, glued together in the form of postcards, TV sow transcripts, history lessons, mythology, and dreams. The hodgepodge structure is fitting for the story as Vince navigates the strange land to find his identity: is he/can he be Filipino and American? Does it matter how he sees himself if no else sees him as such?

It is nearly a typical story of an immigrant returning to his homeland as a stranger, but Linmarck takes a step further and contextualizes the situation. The novel is saturated in history and myths--so much so that the story, which takes over the span of no more than a week--is elongated. Thus, Vince's story is tied to Filipino stories. And despite being ostracized as not being Filipino, Vince does in fact fits rightly into the story of Pinoyhood, its creation legends and its developing histories. "When Filipinos travel, they bring everything they've ever owned, including their dreams, memories, and disappointments."

With dreams, memories, and disappointment Vince does travel. Along with cultural intrigues Leche is also the deeply personal story of a broken family caught in both the waves historical changes and personal ambitions. It's a story of regrets and unfinished business--under the veneer of post colonial and race theory and the comedy of cultures, this is parlty a sad story of being lost and lonely, of not belonging.

Touching on the bigger pictures as well as the quieter personal stories, Linmark's Leche is a read that is complex as it is funny, skillfully written in a way that looks entirely effortless. It quite unlike anything written this year.

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