A poetic, often contrarian meditation on race in modern America.
Borrowing from writer/philosopher William Gass, who deconstructed the meanings of a less socially charged color in On Being Blue, PBS commentator and essayist Rodriguez (Days of Obligation, 1992, etc.) ponders the meaning of Mexicanness, Hispanitude, mestizaje, and all the other forms of being brown in the US. “I write about race in America,” he begins, “in hopes of undermining the notion of race in America.” With many asides on the origins of the notion that Hispanics are an ethnic minority—a recent idea, he suggests, adopted from the African-American struggle for civil rights—Rodriguez offers a few balloon-bursting observations on the tensions that have marked recent politics; the black-white argument, he writes, “is like listening to a bad marriage through a thin partition, a civil war replete with violence, recrimination, mimicry, slamming doors.” That’s not to say that those tensions are not real, and Rodriguez allows that plenty of doors have been slammed in his face as a brown, gay person. Plenty of others have been thrown open, though, affording him a privileged (and deserved) position as cultural commentator that he gratefully acknowledges. Without descending into sloganeering or us-versus-them rhetoric, Rodriguez argues for an inclusive “white freedom” accorded to all citizens; his democratic spirit and the absence of special pleading are both refreshing. In their erudition and irony, these writings recall the essays of the late Mexican poet Octavio Paz, who could easily have written the closing lines: “Truly, one way to appreciate the beauty of the world is to choose one color and to notice its recurrence in rooms, within landscapes. And upon bookshelves.”
Elegant, controversial, and altogether memorable.
Photo: Timothy Archibald
In San Francisco earlier this spring, I’d hoped to meet the essayist Richard Rodriguez, the author of The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, and, most recently, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, which has just been published in paperback. Though he’s largely associated with his early stances against affirmative action and bilingual education, not to mention his regular appearances on the PBS NewsHour, Rodriguez, who turned seventy in July, has had a wide-ranging career, and I wanted to discuss the shift of his work from cultural identity to religion. But our schedules were tricky to coordinate, and then I lost my wallet. “Pray to St. Anthony!” Rodriguez immediately wrote. (The wallet was recovered by one of the famous bellmen at Sir Francis Drake Hotel. “St. Anthony dressed as a beefeater,” as Rodriguez put it.) Instead, we corresponded for several weeks.
I was excited and surprised by Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography. I had seen you referred to as a Mexican-American writer, a Californian writer, and a gay writer, but never, until recently, as a religious writer. Have you always considered yourself a religious writer?
Of course, I haven’t, until lately, considered myself a “writer”—in the grand sense. For most of my writing life, I have stood truly, if uneasily, on American bookstore shelves as a sociological sample—shelved “Latino” between a gangbanger’s book of poetry and the biography of a Colombian drug lord. Only in recent years, as it has become clear to me that so few people I know read books, have I been struck by the fact that I am a writer.
My sense of being religious is older. From boyhood, particularly my lower-middle-class childhood in Sacramento, I was transported by religion into the realm of mystery. Consider this: The Irish nun excused me from arithmetic class so that I could serve as an altar boy at a funeral mass. Along with the priest and the other altar boy, I would welcome Death at the doors of the church. We escorted Death up the main aisle. I later went with the cortege to the cemetery. There was a fresh pile of soil piled high at the edge of the grave site, discreetly, if unsuccessfully, covered by an AstroTurf rug that was as unconvincing a denial of the hardness of time as a cheap toupee. I wondered at the mourners’ faces—the melting grief, the hard stoicism. Thirty minutes from the grave, I was back within the soft green walls of Sacred Heart Parish School. It was almost lunchtime. I resumed my impersonation of an American kid.
Were there certain writers that you looked to in forming your style? Sometimes I sense a bit of Auden coming through.
As a reader, I knew Auden the poet many years before I knew Auden the essayist. I don’t know quite how to say this, but I find him gloriously un-modern because of his religious faith. There is a strength in his essays, some bedrock, that makes him seem, in the best sense, Victorian. He doesn’t go all wobbly as a modern might.
My earliest influences in the art of the personal essay were more local. There was Joan Didion—the Didion of those glorious California essays of the sixties. Because she was from Sacramento and writing about the Central Valley when I first read her, it was she who taught me to imagine my own Sacramento as a literary landscape. About that same time, there was William Saroyan. There were voices in Saroyan, particularly the wondering boy in Fresno and the hungry writer’s voice in San Francisco, I have never forgotten. For all of the passion and energy in Saroyan, however, there was something sexless about him—the son of a Presbyterian minister. Maybe that sexual diffidence deepened my sense of companionship with him. For reasons of my own, I did not, for many years, imagine sex in my writing.
I should mention two other influences crucial for my appreciation of the personal essay. First, James Baldwin, the great Jimmy Baldwin. I began with Nobody Knows My Name and I never let go of him—through the years of the Negro Civil Rights movement on our small black-and-white TV, then the many decades after. What impressed me about Baldwin was his literary elegance, despite all. He was never more resolutely in control than when he was describing Jim Crow America. The hideousness of anti-black racism could not undermine the clean line of his prose. And Orwell! I learned from George Orwell that narrative was compatible with the essay, that it was possible to write what I call the “biography of an idea”—and trace the way an idea makes its way through a life. Beginning with my first book and in all the books after, I employed the fictional devices of the short-story writer in writing my essays. My best essays, I think, are unafraid to be stories. That’s Orwell’s influence.
In another interview, you talk about experiencing what Auden, in his essay “The Protestant Mystics,” called a Vision of Agape, when you were undergoing surgery for kidney cancer.
I mention in Darling that the night my mother died, the floor lamp at the foot of my bed turned itself on. When I told this to a neighbor, he supposed there must have been some sort of power surge in our part of the city.
Maybe because as a writer and journalist I live in a prosaic society, I long ago learned a certain discretion regarding mystery, one not enforced against poets like Auden. If Jesus ever appeared to me, as He appeared to Reynolds Price, I would not mention it here.
All I will tell you is that one summer dawn, in a dark pre-op room at St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco, in the minutes before my gurney was wheeled into the operating room where I would be separated from a two-inch blue-gray tumor, I experienced something—let me call it a sense of peace. This was all pre-anesthesia. Something happened to me—passive construction. From whence it came, I cannot say. I remember feeling something like a warm rush of water over my body. I did not levitate but I came close to the joyful lightness of being that the astronaut freed of gravity enjoys. This exhilaration lasted for no more than a minute. And it took place under a sentimental statue of the Virgin Mary, holding the Baby Jesus. When a Mexican male nurse who looked strangely like me—of the same age and toothy smile—pushed my gurney into the surgery, he softly told me, his face upside down over my head, that he had survived the same operation, and that I must not worry. I felt giddy. I smiled almost to laughter when I shook the lead surgeon’s hand.
The desert appears often in Darling. I appreciated your take on it as a somehow fertile place. I had come to associate it with boredom and acedia, the noonday demon, about which the desert monastics used to complain.
I long regarded the desert ecology with a curiosity I gave to no other landscape. In a dentist’s waiting room, as a boy, I stopped attending to the shrieking drill behind the pebbled glass window when I beheld photographs of the North African desert in National Geographic. My interest was as strange to me as sexual desire. I had no name for what attracted me.
I love the semantic paradox proposed by the noun we give to the desert—a place we define by what is no longer there. Once there were seas, once great tribes crossed these plains, great flocks of animals, once angels were as common as herons.
Place is always central to the writing of an essay for me, because we live in our bodies and whatever we know comes within the experience of our bodies. When I started thinking about the desert religions, I was struck by how rooted in place they are. I consider acedia to be the thorniest flower of the desert. Acedia is, on the one hand, the midday loneliness the monks find burdensome. But it also opens the soul to a longing for the solitary God who yearns for us. I do not mean to imply a deterministic interpretation of religion, but I cannot write of the Abrahamic religions without writing of the desert.
And yes, I write of “postlapsarian” California, where I live. I write of the decline of my local newspaper. In writing about dying newspapers, I end up noticing the decline of the American cemetery, as more and more Americans are being cremated and their ashes are cast to the wind. And look at those boys and girls of modernity, along with their crazed parents and grandparents, walking up Fillmore Street, consulting their digital toys of “communication,” oblivious to my staring. Much of the satire in Darling is directed against the modern secular resistance to place.
Las Vegas! Look at the way Las Vegas amuses the visitor by toying with the desert’s tragic conclusion. Las Vegas has even become a model for the oil-rich capitals of the Middle East with their ice palaces and golf courses and skyscrapers that stand defiantly vertical against the desert’s horizontal plane. Even Mecca has lately constructed a vast shopping center and a hotel in the shape of Big Ben, dwarfing the Kaaba.
The task of living within our bodies, even more than the fear of leaving the body in death, may be our greatest human predicament.
What does your average day, living in your body, look like?
My own writing life is as predictable as the old priest preparing to say the dawn mass. The pleasant cold, the mild pain of being alive. I have the same breakfast every day—cold cereal, yogurt, coffee. I read the newspapers. I take a fistful of vitamins. I shower. I linger at my bookshelf or at the window. I read a chapter or a poem from a shelf I keep above my desk of former lovers and seducers, impossible rivals—Nabokov or Lawrence, Larkin. Woolf. Sitting down at the computer is as daunting as the altar boy’s first genuflection.
Aquinas described writing as a form of prayer. Writing is for me dishearteningly hermetic. Revision is writing. Revision is humiliation—Tuesday saying something less well than Monday. Revision is open to noticing connections. Revision is joy at precisely that moment when the sentence no longer seems mine but speaks back to me and haughtily resists further revision.
I read in the afternoons. I take long walks. I watch TV in the evening. I write letters at all times.
Do you have any advice for younger writers hoping for a career?
I don’t have any advice. You are asking me to live in an era other than the one that formed me. But I will tell you this: An editor in New York told me the other day that, even as the reading audience for serious prose has diminished, the unsolicited manuscripts she receives are better than ever. Even while I think we are leaving the splendid Victorian age of serious popular literature—novels and poetry—we may be entering the Elizabethan Age, when few in London read, but there was an intensity of thought and beauty to the prose, and the poetry, and, of course, the plays.
Religion still reveres the book—just visit a yeshiva if you want to see devotion to the weight of the holy word. But in our secular lives the digital revolution seems to have eroded the great age of the middle-class reader. And without readers what are we? Half-writers whose sentences are never completed by the stranger’s eyes.
I tell young writers not to give a single sentence away. Charge for every noun! Beyond the matter of strategy, the question really is whether our society needs complicated thought or expressions of beauty that reveal themselves only slowly and with difficulty. The question is whether a civilization can forget the pleasure of difficult, beautiful writing so thoroughly as to ignore its loss.
David Michael is a writer and producer living in Brooklyn.