But Vincent “Vince” de los Reyes, the first runner-up and an honors graduate of University of Hawaii in Manoa, gets to visit the Philippines for a week, including a live interview with Kris Aquino.
De los Reyes’ return to his homeland after 13 years takes place in 1991, when the country is beset with power blackouts, the specter of the return of Marcos, and the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo after 600 years.
“Leche” is Vince’s account of his stay in the Philippines at that time, complete with tourist tips, snippets from a book (“Decolonization for Beginners: A Filipino Glossary,” written by his UH teacher Bonifacio Dumpit), his bangungot journal and vintage postcards bought from National Bookworm.
The novel “Leche” (355 pages, published by Coffee House Press) is by Filipino-American R. Zamora Linmark, who holds a dual citizenship. It is a fitting follow-up to “Rolling the R’s,” his 1997 novel about the young Vince, his siblings and classmates as they adapt to Hawaii after living in a town in the North. Now Vince has gone out of the closet and supposedly wizened up to the world. But not Manila, as Vince’s misadventures will show us in the novel.
“Leche” has been described as “quirky and funny” (Publisher’s Weekly), written “with the incandescent irreverence of a papal heretic” (Chris Abani, author of “Graceland”), “hilarious and relentlessly seductive” (Sabina Murray, author of “The Caprices”) and “a lively satiric return to early ’90s Manila” (Kirkus).
It was a finalist of the Lambda Literary Awards and is required reading in many Asian American writing classes.
But “Leche” is largely unknown in the Philippines as it was published by a small American publishing house and local publishers are afraid to touch it (“Maybe because of Kris Aquino,” Linmark told me). But that may change as Anvil Publishing has finally decided to carry and distribute it.
Which is a good thing, because Linmark is an astute social observer and sponge and a very entertaining and enlightening tour guide. He tells us about balikbayan boxes, bangungot, Dovie Beams (excerpted from “Mondo Marcos”) and other B-movie starlets, signs of the times, Santacruzin’ and Leche, an old church turned martial-law museum and gay bar.
There are inside jokes that foreigners would have to Google.
“His grandfather used to say it all the time. ‘Leche,’ he’d say, the word leaving his body like a switchblade—small, beautiful, deadly. His voice deceptively dulce so that one never knew what he is thinking or feeling, if he were angry or sad or remembering, just like the word that has come to mean different things to different people. Leche. ‘Milk’ in Spanish. But to Filipinos, ‘Damn You.’”
“Leche” is also about Kris Aquino—then the Massacre Queen of the Movies turned Oprah Winfrey of Philippine TV—whose omniscience and omnipotence in the novel gives Vince the shivers. She is the only one bravely identified in the novel, something that will create a buzz once Anvil brings the book out.
Otherwise, the book also talks about the bold star turned crusading nun; an award-winning director; a taxi driver turned “fubu”; the drag queen owner of Leche; and other characters out to drive Vince to the edge.
Vince is taken out from his comfort zone in Honolulu and into a whirlwind trip to the heart of darkness. From the constricting and secret fraternities of gays in Honolulu to the chaotic fiesta of Malate. From the airport to Manila and finally back to his hometown in San Vicente, aboard Philippine Airlines, crazy taxis and Killer Pogi, a minibus he took on his way home. Like Linmark, Vince confronts his being a Filipino, Fil-Am and American.
“That’s right, I’m a zebronkey,” Vince says to Kris about his mixed heritage.
“Oh, zebronkeys. I miss them,” answers Kris.
It is also a long history trip as Vince passes by the airport, CCP and Clark Air Base, remembering the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and Martial Law from the stories of his father and grandfather, even as he fights his own internal wars throughout that one-week trip.
In the end, he comes home to an empty ancestral house, a fitting metaphor for the exilic life.
“Fighting off tears, and with a heart that doesn’t know when to give up hope, he searches room after room, wall after wall, for holes punctured by nails upon which used to hang gilt-edged picture frames,” Linmark writes toward the end.
And as it was, it’s the postcards we send each other, the photos and home movies we share, and the words we write that become our home. And for Vince, “Leche” is a home worth returning to.
“Leche” is available in National Book Store and PowerBooks.