An Interview with Rigoberto González
Rigoberto González is the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, winner of the American Book Award, The Poetry Center Book Award, The Shelley Memorial Award of The Poetry Society of America, a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award. He is on the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and is professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey. Among his many books published are Crossing Vines, Men without Bliss, The Mariposa Club, Black Blossoms.
On March 25, 2015, Rigoberto González was the guest speaker at American University as part of the Visiting Writers Series. He was kind enough to answer the following questions.
Dear Rigoberto, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I will first focus on your poetry collection Unpeopled Eden. I will then ask you a few additional questions about autobiography of my hungers.
CA: You begin your poem “Unpeopled Eden” with an epigraph from a Woody Guthrie poem, “Deportee.” Guthrie wrote, “Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted.” Guthrie was outraged that the twenty-eight Mexican migrants were simply referred to as deportees, and this was in 1948. It seems that even today, Mexicans, Chicanos, and those of Latino origin, don’t always seem to be wanted. On May 10, 2010, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill banning Mexican American Studies programs that affect the Tucson school system. Some books, such as your autobiography, Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa, which I’m currently reading, are banned. What are your thoughts on these matters?
RG: Lately I’ve adopted a new motto: Be visible, not vincible. Our communities have survived a very long history of hostility and hatred from the media and our elected officials—nothing new there. What has changed is our numbers, our use of technology as a resource—our voices, our protests become amplified and we come across stronger, louder, less likely to be silenced or dismissed. As the demographics shift to reflect a more Latino country, we will see these desperate and laughable gestures (like banning our books), which are hurtful but which we can overcome—we always have. I recognize these moments of negativity but I do not dwell on them. I would rather focus on the amazing strides we have accomplished—how our communities have produced artists, writers, thinkers and, yes, even politicians who will keep our perspectives positive and productive. When we cling to the hate we self-defeat, when we reach for our role models, the beauty of our cultures, we become inspired and celebrate what we have, how far we’ve come, how much we honor the sacrifices made by those who came before us. That’s why it’s important to be vocal and present at every corner of society, so that no matter where we turn we see ourselves as part of the land we inhabit. No more hiding, cowering, shying away from conflict or censure, instead, let us be proud and highlight our accomplishments. Let’s focus on what we do for ourselves, not on what others do to us. Our stories are what matter.
CA: The deportations of the migrant workers from Eden, i.e., The United States, seem not only to affect the migrant workers, their families and their welfare, but they also affect the employers, since the fruit goes to waste, “the fruit / lies flung like the beads from / a rosary.” It also affects the wildlife. “A bird will feast / until it chokes and ants will march / into the belly through the beak.” The overabundance of fruit leads to gluttony. It even affects the land itself, “The trees will sway without the wind / because the ground will boil / with larvae.” There seems to be a warning in this poem to the chaos of what could occur if all of a sudden there were no migrant workers in the United States to do many of the menial labors that are required to run this country. Am I correct in my assumption?
RG: Absolutely. As much as the U.S. wants to convince itself it doesn’t need our people’s labor, this economy would collapse without it. And not only because we are farmworkers, but because we have become such an integral part of every work force. Unpeopled Eden is a tribute to these laborers because I come from that community—three generations of grape pickers. I wrote about that in my novel Crossing Vines. But in this book of poetry I wanted to examine the absence and loss of those hands and skins that endure the heat, the aches, the fatigue, to make such an important contribution to the American table. What would an orange or an apple cost if it were not harvested by cheap labor? And yet these same hands and skins are vilified and unwanted. Such lack of gratitude is unforgivable. This book was also my response to that well-meaning film from 2004 A Day Without A Mexican. Without Mexicans, the film posited, who would scrub the toilets, who would trim the hedges? The film took a comic look at the white Americans who suffered without the servants. But I wanted to focus on the land itself, on the haunting of the spaces emptied of, not only laborers, but voices, stories and histories.
CA: In the craft class you led with Dexter L. Booth, at the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference, 2015, “African American and Latino Poets: Roles and Responsibilities in the New Millennium,” you mentioned that you do not claim to speak for the oppressed but you stand beside them. I’m paraphrasing of course. As it pertains to the 32 (28 migrant workers, 4 crew members) casualties of the Coalinga, California airplane crash on January 29, 1948, you seem to be standing with the victims when you write, “No shame to be / a cherub with no nose … / Cement displays / its injuries with no regrets,” but you end the poem with “Don’t forget us / like we’ve forgotten all of you.” There seems to be a paradox with both standing with the victims and speaking for them. I’m curious as to your thoughts.
RG: I would argue that it’s possible to occupy both simultaneously. That’s the complexity of experience. When I wrote Black Blossoms, a book about women, I made the same comment. I am not speaking on behalf of women, I am speaking next to them. My language, my words, were informed by their stories and by mine, by their journeys and mine—there is no separation or demarcation, even if we recognize differences we can still stand together. This concept is what allows us to be Mexican and American, to inhabit English and Spanish, etc. I’m all about erasing binaries, or rather, recognizing that subjectivity isn’t one identity over another, that we should not look at positions as contradictory but complementary. When the speaker of that poem stands in the cemetery, he does so with a more complete knowledge of who the dead are as people. When he speaks he does so knowing that his is just one more voice in that chorus of voices, that his version is not authority but a single thread. If his is the only voice you hear, you have not been listening to the others, and that’s the point of my poetry.
CA: You dedicate your poem “Central American Anxiety Gallery” to Carolyn Forché. I’m assuming that your poem like Forché’s “The Colonel” also focuses on the Civil War in El Salvador. Your poem is told in three portraits. Portrait one deals with how war affects those directly involved in the conflict, hence your subtitle, “Portrait One: Rebel Shot through the Eye.” The second portrait deals with how poverty ravages a war torn country to the point that even the chickens resort to cannibalism due to food shortages. The final portrait deals with how those in power enjoy luxury while simultaneously bringing such suffering to so many. We start with the Colonel smoking peacefully in the balcony, yet we end with “when the church explodes, children / scream; when the car explodes, children run; / when the children explode-” This last image in your poem like the image of the many human ears spilled on the table in “The Colonel,” will remain with me for as long as I live. Was this an actual event that you heard about or witnessed? What compelled you to write this poem? I’m assuming that part of it was in remembrance to the victims of the civil war.
RG: I wanted to pay homage to Carolyn Forché’s poem because it left such a lasting impression on me after I first heard it. It stayed with me and taught me about the power of poetry. When I wrote a book about war in the Americas, I had to gesture toward “The Colonel” and I did so with this poem about the conflicts in Central America. My poem is shaped by what I’ve read about the atrocities of wars and what that reading did to my imagination. I don’t believe I pulled from any particular incidents, I simply let the lasting impressions guide me. And even then the poem was difficult to write. I don’t think I read it out loud very often because it should come with a trigger warning. Even thinking about the imagery of that poem unsettles me. But that’s what that poem aims to do, why it’s called a gallery—it invites the reader to really see, not just look.
CA: Autobiography of my hungers is such a delight for so many reasons. One reason is that it tugs at the heart strings, such as in “Station” where your Abuela tells you to wait in line with her bag while she goes to use the restroom. After thirty minutes, you go looking for her and find her. “I saw a frail old woman looking confused, standing on a different line … I heard her wail ‘Somebody stole my bag!’” “Clown” and “Wicked” are also very emotionally moving pieces. I actually felt like crying while I was reading this book. Yet many of these pieces, “Wicked,” “Station,” “Tongue,” seem so private and personal. How do you come to terms with what you decide to share with the reader and what stays buried deep in your heart?
RG: This book took 20 years to write. I say that because for 20 years I refused to reveal so many of the moments in that book, which I deliberately left out of my memoir Butterfly Boy. I wasn’t ready to encounter such pain, let alone share it with the general public. But the older I became the more necessary it felt to become vulnerable, partly because so many of the people in that book had died and I didn’t want the stories to die with them. Even the difficult moments are part of the journey. Secondly, there was so much weight in those stories that I carried all by myself, I had to unburden my soul. It takes too much energy to keep such things as secrets and shame. Not too long ago I wrote about the time my grandfather fed us dog food. I must have cried through every word I wrote. And when I shared the story with a few friends I was grateful that others were there to help me carry that story from that day forward. Part of me wishes I didn’t have these stories, but I do. Now I have to do something with them—I make them into art, into something with emotional power that can live, if even for a minute, outside of me. Sadly, I have more to tell. As I grow older, my long-term memory is kicking in and I’m remembering more. All those things I buried are rising to the surface. It’s a bittersweet feeling.
CA: I couldn’t put this collection down once I started reading it, in part because when I finished a piece, I was amazed at how it ended. And I don’t mean a cheap clever ending trick, I mean a powerful and profound yet unexpected ending like in Tolstoy’s “The Three Hermits.” I am thinking of one of your “Piedrita” pieces, where “… pretending I like girls. The neighbor’s daughter has an eye on me. Bored I accept her invitation … She feeds me salted fish and I’ll remember that taste when, a few days later, I take her brother’s penis in my mouth.” You do this throughout your collection, again in “Ghosts” and “Reprimand” where your brother admonishes you for forgetting where your mother’s grave is, and you end with “I didn’t respond. I didn’t want to get in the way of my brother admonishing himself.” It’s such a moving and profound ending because we know your brother had not visited his mother’s grave in quite some time. What’s your thought process on ending a piece? What’s your advice to aspiring writers on proper endings?
RG: Because I was tackling very sensitive subject matter, I gave myself some parameters: each bite-sized essay had to be no more than 300 words, it had to resonate with sensory image and experience, and it had to end on a compelling moment though not always an epiphany, just something that allowed the flavor to linger. There were about 25 pieces that didn’t make it into the book, so I know that eventually I learned to recognize what worked, but only after I had written at least 100 of these. In many ways, these are like poems because they work with compression and impression. To be honest, after a while I simply worked with instinct—I let the memory take me to its pitch. But I took control of the language, of the word choices and even the rhythms of the sentences. The more control I had over the piece, the less it felt that the ache of remembering had control over me. What I can say about the endings is that sometimes they wrote themselves, sometimes I stumbled upon them accidentally, other times I was very deliberate in cultivating the final moment. But I listened carefully to the piece itself—most of the times it guided me there. A good ending is unavoidable when there’s a good story.
CA: In “Kill” you mention that your brother is an animal lover, and he even adopted your cat Xóchitl, which I took a great liking to after reading “Xóchitl.” You have a clairvoyant moment in which you foresee a white rabbit’s death. You even see humor in it, your brother with tears in his eyes, pulls the rabbit out his Great Dane’s grasp, and returns to his task saying “I don’t want the cement to dry.” It seems to me that there might be a hidden meaning within those words, as if your brother is truly saying, I don’t want my heart to dry, i.e., a heart of stone. Am I seeing something that’s not there, because I feel that some of your pieces in this collection have multiple meanings?
RG: Since this book is so personal, there are still private moments contained within. That piece is one example of that. Although it’s about the rabbit, it’s also about death, the different ways my brother and I responded to our mother’s death, and then our father’s. I think I became more hardened and more afraid of becoming attached to people because of those losses I suffered. My brother had so much more courage and was more willing to keep his heart opened to the possibility of love—he married, he had children. I remained single. The one person I truly love is my brother. I admire his good nature, his sense of humor, his empathy. Readers don’t need to know that, but I do, which is why it’s built into the essay with an ink that only I can see. What’s important for the reader is to understand that I am flawed and imperfect, maybe even a bit callous, and that its lessons like the incident with the rabbit that make me examine myself, which is also an invitation for readers to examine themselves.
CA: I want to thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. It truly was my great pleasure to read Unpeopled Eden and autobiography of my hungers. I will leave this space for you to make any additional comments.
RG: Thank you so much, Steve, for these refreshing questions, this was a wonderful interview. The only thing I want to add is that I encourage young people to consider writing nonfiction. People gravitate toward fiction or poetry, but there’s such value in exploring autobiographical writing. There are no such things as small lives, not when the journeys they take are large, and they become large when a writer paused to consider the moment and amplifies it into story.
Steve Castro is an MFA candidate in creative writing at American University. His most recent work is forthcoming in Latino/a Rising: An Anthology of U.S. Latino/a Speculative Fiction.