Richard Rodriguez was born the son of Mexican immigrants and grew up in Sacramento, California. He attended Stanford University as an undergraduate, Columbia as a religious studies graduate student. Rodriguez also studied English Renaissance literature at the Warburg Institute in London, and was a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley.
Rodriguez’s book length nonfiction work includes Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez; Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (nominated for the 1992 Pulitzer Prize); Brown: The Last Discovery of America (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award); and, most recently, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography. As a journalist, Rodriguez wrote for the Pacific News Service in San Francisco, was a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine and for the Sunday “Opinion” section of The Los Angeles Times. Rodriguez has received many awards and accolades over the years, including Fulbright and NEH fellowships, the Ainisfield-Wolf Book Award, an NEH Charles Frankel Prize, and a Peabody Award.
He will visit American University on Wednesday, October 29, for the Visiting Writer Series.
I had the privilege of asking Rodriguez a few questions about his latest book, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, and am thrilled to share what he called his “thoughts on a bright Tuesday morning.”
CA: Your latest book, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography has received a lot of attention for the spiritual focus of the collection of essays. In fact, in an interview with The Paris Review last month, you were asked whether you consider yourself a religious writer. However, in your answer, you mentioned that you haven’t considered yourself a writer as much as recently you’ve been “struck by the fact” that you’re a writer. Would you mind elaborating on that notion?
RR: My loyalty as a “writer” has always been to the drama of an idea—how I come to know or think about something. I am an essayist. All of my essays are literary representations of my thinking life. So they are nearly all narratives since ideas exist in time. Indeed, I intend the drama of thinking to be as, or even more engaging, than any conclusion I might reach.
After the publication of my first book, Hunger of Memory, reviewers mainly discussed my conclusions, divorced from my literary intent or strategies. Thus, Hunger became notorious among educationists because of my argument against “race-based” affirmative action or my skepticism regarding a pedagogy of bilingual education for working-class children that minimized the differences between the language of the child’s home and the public language of the middle-class schoolroom.
Over the years, I would be invited to various universities by departments in the social sciences; I was rarely invited to visit English departments or writing programs. (American University has been an exception in this regard, thanks to Richard McCann.) Clearly, I was nothing like the novelist who had written about a Vermont summer’s love affair. I was an essayist whose opinions regarding minority students or the U.S.-Mexico border or AIDS or, lately, the Abrahamic religions of the desert were of interest to sociologists and anthropologists. Surprisingly, with this last book, some reviewers have emphasized the quality or the density of my literary strategies. At the age of 70, quite suddenly, I hear myself described as a “writer.” The noun appears quite new, applied to me.
CA: Darling is dedicated to the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, and named after an essay about the ways in which women have impacted your life. You’ve mentioned in an interview before that you sat down to write Darling with the expectation that your homosexuality would be the reference point for your exploration of the “orthodoxies of the desert religions.” What in the process of writing prompted you to change your focus?
RR: I think a writer should be prepared to be re-written by her own words. We all know the adage: How do I know what I think until I see what I say? I started writing a different sort of book about the desert God and the ecology of belief shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. By the time I got to the chapter called “Darling,” the material was moving me toward a consideration of women and religion. The chapter describes a lunch I had one afternoon in Malibu with a close friend—my “Darling”—on the day her divorce was finalized. The essay started out as an examination of that word, “darling,” and how gay men often use it. But my companion at lunch in Malibu explodes with impatience when she hears me “darling” this and “darling” that. She forces me toward a different consideration of our bond entirely.
I know that the conventional wisdom of parochial New York is that the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village in 1969 gave birth to the modern gay movement. By the time I finished writing my essay (or: by the time my essay finished me), I came to believe that my liberation as a gay man resulted from the struggle of 19th century women to define themselves outside the house. My gay emancipation, in other words, was the result of the suffrage movement of the 19th century!
The Irish order of nuns that educated me—the Sisters of Mercy–had come to California from Ireland during the Gold Rush. They were a scandal to many in male San Francisco because, of course, they were unmarried and yet they moved, in their black robes, freely in the city, even nursing young men during the Small Pox epidemic. That those women would be parodied but also imitated, a century later, in the Castro District by a group of gay men in veils—the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence—is only one of many ironies that play through the chapter.
My friend to whom the chapter is addressed—my Darlin—is dead; the chapter represents my lasting gratitude to her.
CA: In an interview with Harper’s, you are quoted saying, “Sometimes I use my inexperience or lack of knowledge as the drama of the essay.” Would you say that you use the process of writing an essay as a learning experience, then? How do you suggest a student interested in the form approach the task of writing an essay?
RR: Yes, in light of my answer to your last question, I would say emphatically YES. I think therefore I write. I write therefore I think.
In school, beginning probably with high school, English teachers ask students to write essays. But the emphasis falls on the conclusion a student reaches rather than the process or the path that led to the conclusion. The conclusion is rewarded or not.
My inclination is to emphasize the curious mind, teasing or being teased by ideas—the process and time of thinking. Ideas come to us at particular moments, not removed from particular moments. There are Tuesday afternoon ideas that are unlike any idea on a different day of the week. There are morning ideas; there are sleepless ideas.
There are a good number of writers I love who write both essays and novels. Didion, Ozick, Baldwin. Their essays benefit from the novelist’s sense of our lives in time. For me, their essays are often their truest novels.
Emily Moses is a staff writer for Café Americain and a first-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.