Monday, November 19, 2007

INTERVIEW WITH RIGOBERTO GONZÁLEZ

Rigoberto González is the author of two poetry books, So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks, a National Poetry Series selection, and Other Fugitives and Other Strangers; two bilingual children’s books: Soledad Sigh-Sighs/ Soledad Suspiros and Antonio’s Card/ La tarjeta de Antonio, which was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award; the novel Crossing Vines, winner of ForeWord Magazine’s Fiction Book of the Year Award; and a memoir, Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa, winner of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.

The recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, and of various international artist residencies, including stays in Spain, Brazil, Costa Rica, Scotland and Switzerland, he writes twice a month a Latino book column, now entering its sixth year, for the El Paso Times. González is contributing editor for Poets and Writers Magazine, on the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle, on the Board of Directors of Fishouse Poems: A Poetry Archive, and on the Advisory Circle of Con Tinta, a collective of Chicano/Latino activist writers. He lives in New York City and teaches at the MFA writing programs of both Queens College and Rutgers University—Newark.

González kindly agreed to sit with La Bloga for an interview:

DANIEL OLIVAS: In your memoir, Butterfly Boy, you don’t shy away from some very thorny parts of your life: an oppressive family dynamic, difficult economic circumstances, your mother’s death when you were only twelve, coming out, entering into a violent relationship with an older man, among other things. Was this a painful process? Do you regret opening yourself – and your family – to public scrutiny?

RIGOBERTO GONZÁLEZ: Keeping the personal private is definitely cultural, but I am part of another culture now—the artistic one, in which the private is expressed, celebrated and critiqued through painting, music, drama and literature. I have had many Chicano/Latino role models, though very few in the writing of the memoir, and fewer still when I started looking for books that explored the intersection between male sexuality and race as openly and honestly as I believed a memoir should be. I made a conscious choice early in the project that if I was going to write about my life I was going to offer it to the reader completely, not selectively, and that meant including the ugly parts too. I come from a home where humor and storytelling were the everyday expressions of love, but so too where violence and abuse were expressions of frustration and hardship. There was no picking and choosing—and this all or nothing reality is what guided me through every single passage of Butterfly Boy.

It’s interesting to me how this project is seen an act of daring since I always thought that’s what good writing did—dare to speak, dare to reveal, dare to take the reader through the difficult paths. I don’t think I would have been happy with the book otherwise.

OLIVAS: What does Butterfly Boy say about the road one takes to become a writer?

GONZÁLEZ: It says it’s a tough one, but a necessary one, sacrifices and all. And it takes courage. I had to leave my broken home in order to understand it. The writer always leaves home, otherwise there’s no space for reflection and hindsight. But that’s life isn’t it? So maybe it’s not an unreasonable expectation after all. I also think it says the writer has a responsibility. My journey is a personal one, but I always suspected it wasn’t unique. Since the publication of the memoir, I have received countless emails from gay men (Chicano, Mexicano, white, black, Middle Eastern) expressing gratitude for making this story visible. It’s on paper. It happened. It’s real. They’re real.

OLIVAS: Similarly, your recent collection of poems, Other Fugitive and Other Strangers, is deeply personal. In my review of it for the MultiCultural Review, I said that you offered readers “an unapologetically erotic and, at times, brutal homage to gay relationships in all their permutations.” Is this a fair description? Was this your intent?

GONZÁLEZ: It’s a fair assessment, yes. Just as in the writing about my family, the writing about gay relationships was going to be an exploration of complexity, no apologies. And I do have my critics, in both the Chicano community and in the queer one—people who have been appalled by my representations of Mexicanos and gay relationships. I knew I wasn’t going to make everyone happy, but I’m not here to contribute to the romanticization of immigrants or to the idealization of gay partnerships. I’m here to tell my story.

OLIVAS: You’ve written poetry, fiction, criticism and memoir. What do you like about each of these genres of writing? What are the particular challenges posed by each genre?

GONZÁLEZ: Poetry is my first love and it continues to be the avenue I choose when I want to explore sound, rhythm and imagery in language. I go into a poem knowing it’s going to remain a poem—a compressed form, even when it’s telling a story, which I also tend to do in poetry. But when I’m thinking about multiple characters and timelines and dialogue—then prose might serve the language better, at least for me. But again, when I set out to write prose I stick to prose, even if I employ poetic devices like metaphors and similes. When I write criticism, that’s another part of my brain—the professorial one: analytical and intellectual. When I write memoir, it’s usually because I’m examining a personal trauma or dilemma. I don’t have any problems juggling more than one project at one. I think this helps rather than distracts me.

OLIVAS: You’ve found a good home with smaller presses. What are your views regarding the publishing world and Latino/a writers?

GONZÁLEZ: This is a tough one, because it’s really too complicated to address briefly. I’m glad we are represented in both arenas—small and large presses—and it’s important to understand what the compromises and benefits are for each (this actually changes according to the press, small or large). I’ll say this, it’s important to be true to one’s desires and wants. I’ve seen people come out feeling cheated or dissatisfied with the treatment or reception of their work, only because they don’t realize that the responsibility really falls on them to promote the book, be available for readings and keep the book afloat (that is, visible) as long as they can. It’s a lot of work, no matter where one publishes. So before writers set out to find a publisher, they should educate themselves about what they have to do for themselves, and then educate their publisher because, big or small, presses sometimes don’t always do what’s best for a Chicano/Latino writer. In brief, take control and don’t depend on others, not agents, not editors, to do it for you.

OLIVAS: You’ve mentored many Latino/a writers over the years and you’ve made it a point to review Chicano/Latino books for the El Paso Times and elsewhere. Do you think you have a special obligation, as a Chicano writer, to do so?

GONZÁLEZ: I would not call myself a Chicano otherwise. Despite what some people may think, this word is not simply a label, it’s a commitment. I come across too many writers who wear this label as a convenient marketing identity, but do nothing to honor the political history of the word Chicano. The term Latino seems to be serving that purpose—a nice safe word that won’t scare white people. That strategy is offensive to both Latinos and whites. I am Chicano, I know my history, my homeland, my literature, and I accept the responsibility of taking young Chicanos under my wing, because that’s how I became who I am. Mentorship is a Chicano value. I will always seek out other Chicano writers, and stand in solidarity with politicized Latino writers—wherever they come from. Anyone without strong politics and convictions is not worth my time. And I define those terms as commitment to raza, literature, education, etc. At the same time, I expect a lot from those I mentor, and from those writers I read or review. Anything less is shameful.

OLIVAS: You teach creative writing at the college level. Do you think that this helps your own writing?

GONZÁLEZ: Not my writing, but it does help my reading. I tend to assign books I want to reread or read outside the context of a book review. And it’s always fun to discuss these books in an open forum with a community of thinkers and readers. It’s like participating in a book club. Teaching young writers also keeps my hopes up. I have disappointed by the writings and behavior of too many writers recently, that I turn to the next generation of artists for a dose of energy to keep me going. I pray for those who have fallen on bad times, or who are self-destructive or blinded by their selfish ambitions. The younger generation, that’s where I’m exerting my energy.

OLIVAS: What are you working on now?

GONZÁLEZ: I just finished editing Alurista: Selected Poems and New, which will be released with Bilingual Press in 2009. I’m also putting together a best of the 10-year Camino del Sol series to be released with the University of Arizona Press in 2010. And I’ve got three projects I want to finish by next summer: a 3rd book of poems, a book of personal essays, and a young adult novel. Oh, and I hope folks are checking in on my blog with the Poetry Foundation! (I’m a contributing writer on Harriet until the end of February.)

OLIVAS: Any writers you’d recommend?

GONZÁLEZ: I’ll tell you what I’m excited about this minute (Monday, November 12, 2007, 8:30 AM): Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s Calligraphy of the Witch (about the Salem witch hunts), Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder (about a bishop assassination investigation in Guatemala), and Javier O. Huerta’s Some Declarations y Otros Poemas, among many other titles. But these three have been haunting me all week.

OLIVAS: Mil gracias for spending time with La Bloga.

◙ Helena María Viramontes has been selected to receive a 2007 United States Artists Fellowship grant of $50,000 in the field of Literature.

United States Artists (USA) exists to nurture, support, and strengthen the work of America’s finest living artists. Its grant program supports a diverse array of literary, performing, design, media, craft and traditional artists.

The 2007 recipients include artists whose careers have been honored but mostly outside the purview of commercial television and celebrity culture -- among them writer and educator Cherríe Moraga, choreographer Bill T. Jones, pioneering Chicano playwright Luis Valdez ("Zoot Suit"), jazz clarinetist Don Byron, Cajun fiddler Michael Doucet, classical violinist Leila Josefowicz, and veteran theater directors Tina Landau, Elizabeth LeCompte and Robert Woodruff.

Viramontes’ most recent novel, Their Dogs Came with Them, was published in April 2007 by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Her first book, The Moths and Other Stories, was published in 1985, and her first novel, Under the Feet of Jesus, appeared in 1995. She is the co-editor (with Maria Herrera Sobek) of two anthologies, Chicana Creativity and Criticism and Chicana Writes: On Word and Film.

Helena María Viramontes is the recipient of numerous awards, including the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, a Sundance Institute Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the Luis Leal Award. Born and raised in East Los Angeles, she lives in Ithaca, New York, where she is Professor of Creative Writing in the Department of English at Cornell University.

For a complete list of winners, visit here.

◙ Writing for the San Antonio Current, Gregg Barrios offers a remembrance of Norman Mailer who died this month. The piece begins:

Norman Mailer one of the last surviving 20th-century literary lions is dead.

Yet the oft-times controversial and combative Mailer was far from a relic of a bygone era. Up until his death last week at age 84 he was still writing and publishing.

Earlier this year the prolific writer’s novel The Castle in the Forest, about the devil and Adolph Hitler, appeared to mixed reviews. A final nonfiction work, On God, A Conversation, arrived in bookstores last month.


Gregg's piece is an excellent and thoughtful review of one of our more controversial writers.

◙ All done. So, until next Monday, have a healthy and happy Thanksgiving and enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. ¡Lea un libro! --Daniel Olivas

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

From one of our smart young stars to a major recognition for 3 of our mero-meros, what a great post to begin the week. Gracias!!!!!

juanfelipe said...

Olivas:

Your Interview with Rigoberto is one of the best I have read in a long time. Rigoberto tells it like it is, like he says, "No apologies." His current projects are timely and the new books that haunt him are provocative. Rigo is the one to keep an eye on and follow.

Saludos
JFHerrera - 187express.com

Daniel Olivas said...

Gracias to both of you for leaving very kind comments.

Lisa Alvarado said...

Daniel -- I'd be green with envy over this interview with Rigoberto, except it's so damn good! Butterfly Boy was heartbreaking, revelatory, and such a breakthrough.

I especially resonated to what he had to say about mentorship. We stand on the the shoulders of those who've come before and have to hold out our hands to those after us.

Lisa

Daniel Olivas said...

Lisa, yes Rigoberto is a wonderful and tireless mentor. I've been lucky to have enjoyed his good energy, advice and efforts. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Techapostle said...

Nice interview, well written :)

I this context I have come across this interesting article: http://johnpmathew.blogspot.com/2007/11/edge-digital-maoism-hazards-of-new.html Do have a look.