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Richard Rodriguez Grumbles about Life

Takes Shots at the Evils of Racism and Hatred in American Society

By David S. Kurnick, Crimson Staff Writer

In addition to the stark world view he presents in his latest literary offering Days of Obligation, Richard Rodriguez had plenty of opinions to share with The Crimson in a recent interview.

Q: In Hunger of Memory you wrote that you left academia because of affirmative action; you felt you were being offered jobs while equally qualified whites weren't. Have you found similar problems in journalism?

A: No, actually. In some ways affirmative action has become the way we deal with the problem of racial separation and ethnic division in America. There are assumptions about hiring Richard Rodriguez to find out the pulse of the Mexican American community, which is just as absurd as hiring Richard Rodriguez as a professor of Renaissance and English literature to get a minority perspective on those things.

I've never regretted not going back to teaching. [But] my disappointment as a writer is not only in audiences being so small, but in people knowing how to read less and less...People don't know how to read in America, especially these political and sexual self-awareness groups. It's all this flat kind of standard. You have to use language exactly as they intend you to use it, use the words they intend. They never understand the use of irony, saying one thing to mean another; it's too complicated for them...They live in a flat horizon. You can't be playful with language, figurative language has no place for them. That's one of the most discouraging parts of my writing right now. I have a sense that people who use language with complexity are reading less and less, or there are fewer and fewer of them.

Q: You have a distinctive writing style. Your essays are very figurative, often ending with stories or images instead of saying, "Here's what I think."

A: That's right. I'm not interested in convincing you. I surely am flattered when you say, "Yes, I agree with you," as much as anybody would be. But in fact, some of my best readers are people who come up and tell me, "I don't agree with you, but I was really engaged by it. You grabbed my heart and I couldn't take it away." That's pretty good, pretty high praise.

Q: Have you ever written fiction?

A: No, I can't write fiction, though I would like to tell you that I think Days of Obligation is a novel. These are 10essays that imply a novel. It's my journey in reverse, there's a narrative chain to this that a lot of reviewers have not gotten, but that's their problem. There's this woman at The Boston Globe--Miss Pamela Hightower or somebody--and she says, "This young man quite clearly has a chip on his shoulder." I have no chip on my shoulder at all; I have the universe on my shoulder, and she doesn't understand this. [She thinks], "Some guy with a Latino name, writing about his father--well, this must be an ethnic memoir." I'm writing about her, I'm writing about the death of her civilization. I'm writing about the fact that the Virgen of Guadalupe has appeared while she's left in Boston writing for The Boston Globe.

Q: Your discussion of your homosexuality in your book is understated, even in "Late Victorians," the essay on AIDS and gay culture in San Francisco. Were you trying to avoid being singled out as a spokesperson?

A: It is true, in the kind of Phil Donahue sense, I "came out" with that essay, although not to the satisfaction of my critics. I was on a talk show yesterday in New York, talking about gays in the military. I said that this notion that Ross Perot has--this "I don't care what they do in the privacy of their own homes"--is not sufficient to me. Everything I write has been gay, it's a part of my life. I can't tell you this is something that I just do when I close the door. Days of Obligation is informed by a gay sensibility, by a Mexican sensibility, by a Californian sensibility, by a Protestant sensibility. The person speaking to you right now is speaking to you as a homosexual. . . don't become gay in five minutes.

I remember Shirley Chisholm, the Black congress woman, said she'd suffered more as a woman than as a Black person. I thought to myself when I heard that: "I wonder how she knows that? How does she knows which part of her is responding now?" Who are you listening to now: the European, the Indian or the Californian, except all of them?

Q: When did you first start to consciously think of yourself as an American?

A: Quite early. Quite early I thought that I had fallen into the pot. It was never gringos against us. I lived in a world of complexity, and I quite clearly was in love with most of it...I was taught by Irish nuns who had Mexican passports. There was a Chinese dentist putting his hands in my mouth, my beautiful uncle from India, and the Irish nuns: [all] changing me, breathing on me. It never came as a choice.

I was told that the problem with my education was that I wasn't given any sense of the contribution of my people: I ended up Eurocentric. Well, I ended up with a sense of the European calamity...most of the things I learned in my education were about the tragedies of history, the accidents that created us. Most people who assume you can pick and choose a culture, that you can become more or less Mexican like eating more or less pizza, are the most American of all. Your children are going to betray you. They're going to become Canadians, they're going to become North Americans and now they're going to become Mexicans.

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