Rigoberto González is the author of ten books of poetry and prose, and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing. He 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, and a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He is contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, on the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and is associate professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.
NewBorder poetry editor John O. Espinoza recently interviewed poet Rigoberto González. Rigoberto and John discuss Roxana Rivera, mentorship, Black Blossoms, Tomás Rivera, Arizona, banned books, the state of Chicano literature, and “Mexiphobia.” Insightful, entertaining, and a great conversation between two incredible poets.
NB: Your third book of poetry, Black Blossoms, is dedicated to three women: your mother Avelina Alcalá, the poet Ai, and Roxana Rivera. Your mother’s life is written about in your wonderful memoir, Butterfly Boy, and Ai was an award-wining poet who left behind a notable body of work. I mention this only because the lives of those women are readily available to the public, but Roxana Rivera’s life is not so much. She was a young woman whom you and I knew, but I would like to ask you what your relationship was to her and how her untimely death may have changed you?
RG: Although Roxana was part of out writing community for such a brief time, she touched many lives, mine in particular. She was one of the first poets I agreed to mentor, and quite reluctantly, I might add. It wasn’t because I didn’t value her energy and talent, it was because I was new to this role, taking younger people under my wing. It seemed like such a huge responsibility and I had just published my first book when I first met her. But she made it easy because she already had skills that I was still working on: she was an incredible public speaker, she was not shy, and she was fiercely politically-motivated. She was a Chicana from L.A—I had always admired those mujeres who were fearless and strong.
Her death struck such a blow. I had only felt that level of loss once before, when I lost my mother. It made me realize how much I had grown to love Roxana as a friend. When I wrote Black Blossoms, I wrote through those losses and the exploration of women’s difficult journeys and lives. Now all I have is memory, so I do what I can to keep it sacred, which is why I include a critical study of Roxana’s poetry in my forthcoming book of criticism and essays, Red-Inked Retablos. I embed within that piece the story of how Roxana and I met, kept it touch, and parted ways the last time I saw her alive. She left me so many gifts, but the gift of being unafraid to mentor, is the one I cherish the most.
NB: My favorite section of Black Blossoms is the fourth and last section, “The Mortician Poems.” This harks back to the poem “Mortician’s Secrets” from your first book, So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks. What brought you to return to this figure from your first book, if it is indeed the same figure that we’re talking about? Are you done with the mortician, or do you hold future plans for him?
RG: That mortician is one of my pesky muses. I thought I was done with him in my first book, and then he came back in full force for the third, where he took shape in the stories of the women in his life—his mother, wife, mother-in-law, daughter. I actually have a few more mortician poems that I took out of Black Blossoms. My editor at Four Way Books wisely noted that there was one or two too many. She was right. There’s a fine line between obsession and overindulgence and I started to get too clever and “show-offy.” I think I removed three poems from the series before the book went into print.
The mortician is now gone and buried under language but that only means his ghost is afoot. He’s around here somewhere, biding his time. He’s not in the next book, Unpeopled Eden, but he may be coming back for the fifth, in which I return to the exploration of masculinity and male sexuality. It appears that this mortician has one more story to tell—about his gay lover! How could I deny him entry into my imagination, when his stories are so juicy, when his bordercrossing is so deliciously rendered?
NB: You are a poet, novelist, short fiction writer, a book critic, and, not many people outside of your circle know this, a biographer. About six years ago, you wrote a literary biography on Tomás Rivera. Tomás Rivera, for those who don’t know, was an important pioneer in Chicano literature though he authored only a single slim, but powerful novel …y no se lo trago la tierra, plus numerous short stories and poetry. Yet, at the end, you decided to not publish the manuscript. I’m wondering what led to your decision to withhold publication? Do you have any future plans to write another biography?
RG: The Tomás Rivera project was a huge disappointment and even now I hesitate to say much because I want to remain respectful to his memory and to the people who knew him. I never finished the book, though a draft of what I did write (along with notes, outlines, interviews, etc.) is archived in The Rigoberto González Papers at UCLA. The impetus for the project was to get to understand the complexities of a writer who made so many compromises during his lifetime, including to his own health. Essentially, he worked himself to death beneath such incredible social and professional pressures. I discovered that, although there was an inspiring narrative in Rivera’s life journey, his was also a cautionary tale—and I’m not sure that I wanted to be the one to illustrate that. He was one of my first literary heroes, and though even heroes are not above critique, I was beginning to feel as if I was mining ground that was not mine to unearth.
People who know about my unfinished project tell me that it’s a necessary to write it, to present a more complete image of a man who exists mostly in fiction—his life has inspired more than a few sentimentalized children’s books and details in bibliographies and short biographies are factually inaccurate. But I am too uncomfortable with that. I have no problems divulging the personal scenes in my own life, but I don’t want to take responsibility for exposing the private ones in another person’s, especially someone I didn’t know and never met.
I am staying away from biography and focusing on more autobiographical work. I mentioned Red-Inked Retablos, which contains personal essays, and next year I’m also publishing a book of micro-prose called Autobiography of My Hungers. It’s a book containing 75 vignettes, none longer than 300 words, that travel to the different periods of my life in which I experienced some form of hunger induced by poverty, longing, or desire.
NB: There’s another culture war happening down at the Arizona border sparked by the Tucson Unified School District’s dismantling of Mexican-American studies that comes with the banning of books by Latino authors. Chicanos, Latinos, and other rational people of Arizona have protested this, naturally, and even those from outside of state lines. This is a type of battle that reminds of the Chicano movement and counterculture that pushed back against an antagonistic mainstream. I’m reminded of Corky Gonzalez who traveled around the Southwest reading his epic poem, “Yo soy Joaquin.” I’m reminded of the Brown Buffalo firebombing Safeways. Has the bigotry changed since then? Has the response from the Chicano literary community changed? What’s different? What remains the same?
RG: Bigotry has not changed, it just has a more efficient way to travel—social media. It’s frightening how quick a racist or classist gesture gains momentum, followers, and support. But so does political activism. Either side of the battle can blog, FB and tweet its way into action and reaction. Arizona’s missteps have managed to galvanized our Chicano youth in very exciting ways—I think that it was this book banning at the high school level that finally did it. It gave a very familiar face to a stage in life that was within their reach—there was nothing abstract about being a student during the formative years and getting stripped of agency. Young people feel it constantly in the failed American school system. Enough is enough, they said, and spoke up, and rose up. Stay up, raza!
The Chicano/ Latino literary community has responded with plenty of support. Tony Díaz conceived of Librotraficante, which gained international attention. Francisco X. Alarcón and La Bloga cultivated an online floricanto in response to SB 1070. And timely books like Melinda Palacio’s Ocotillo Dreams, Adriana Pámamo’s Looking for Esperanza, Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning, Javier O. Huerta’s American Copia, and Reyna Grande’s The Distance Between Us, to name a few, are placing the undocumented person’s narrative at the center of the literary imagination, not at the margins. So in those respects I am confident that we are rekindling that fighting spirit.
I felt that spirit quite strongly at the last National Latino Writers Conference in Albuquerque, where Arte Público Press publisher Nicolás Kanellos gave the keynote address. When he detailed the decades-long history of censorship at the press, he concluded by saying these efforts to suppress Chicano/ Latino books were only going to intensify because we were the primary threat to white supremacy in this country—we will outnumber every other ethnic group by 2050. It was a startling moment, but at the same time I felt the presence of resolve in that room, not defeat.
NB: One would think that Tucson book banning would have shined a major national spotlight on Chicano literature, particularly border authors, but it seems, to me at least, that it has not. Do you see some strategy in which Chicano and Latino writers can resist censorship, while bringing their work to the forefront of the national conversation?
RG: I will tell you what matters: demonstrating our importance and visibility to our young people who don’t like to read or who don’t know that members of their own community write books. I will use as an example my own brother, who for the longest time bragged that he had only read one book in high school, J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. But when he read in the local newspaper that the school district had banned Arturo Islas’ The Rain God, he asked me to get him a copy. He read that book and has since grown to love to read books by Chicanos and other groups. The last time I spoke with him, he was reading Manning Marable’s biography on Malcolm X. I imagine that this narrative will be repeated countless times, that in the process of awaking minds we have also piqued curiosities about our literature. From this new group of readers will come the next generation of writers. If that’s not shining an important light, I don’t know what is.
NB: You’ve been living off and on in New York for at least 10 years, if not longer. So I ask you this question because you seem to have a finger on the pulse of the literary goings-on in Manhattan. Why do you think the New York literary establishment, in lieu of the Tucson book banning and other “Mexiphobia” (as Sandra Cisneros calls it), hasn’t stepped up and recognized Chicano literature with a major award, lending merit to a literature that has a long tradition and commitment to social justice? Certainly the National Book Critics Circle has stepped up by recognizing Juan Felipe Herrera, but most others have not. Why isn’t Chicano writing getting New York’s attention?
RG: I’m now 14 years into my New York City residency. The irony is that I simply wanted to get lost in the expansive Manhattan landscape, to do my own thing among a vast number of working artists who inspire me on a daily basis. I never imagined that I would find myself connected to prestigious literary organizations, but there I am. I stopped questioning how or why I got there and I simply do what I believe is a service to the literary community at large—calling attention to worthy books and authors through reviews, interviews, articles and, yes, even literary awards.
It’s important to recognize that just because Chicanos are not receiving the top literary nods doesn’t mean we’re not doing important work or that we are being disrespected or undervalued. That love should come from our community and it does. Have you ever seen what happens to a room when Luis Alberto Urrea or Luis J. Rodríguez or Sandra Cisneros walks in?
If Chicano writers rely on the New York publishing world for validation, we are relying on the wrong thing, even if and when we get it. Yes, these snubs are frustrating and sometimes maddening, but I take great comfort in knowing that we have not stopped writing just because the Pulitzer prize committee hasn’t given us a bone. Because that’s not why we write. We are not here to please a mostly-white institution. If New York never notices, it’s New York’s loss, but it’s only a matter of time before it catches up to the cultural and demographic shifts of this country’s readership. All the rest of us have to do is to keep writing, build up the readership, and not allow New York—or anyone else—to tell us they discovered us or that our journeys began when they first took notice.
NB: Thank you, Rigoberto.