Richard Rodriguez (born 31 July 1944) Mexican-American writer, associate editor with the Pacific News Service in San Francisco, an essayist for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and a contributing editor for Harper's magazine and the Los Angeles Times.
- You know what futurists and online-ists and cut-out-the-middle-man-ists and Davos-ists and deconstructionists of every stripe want for themselves? They want exactly what they tell you you no longer need, you pathetic, overweight, disembodied Kindle reader. They want white linen tablecloths on trestle tables in the middle of vineyards on soft blowy afternoons. (You can click your bottle of wine online. Cheaper.) They want to go shopping on Saturday afternoons on the Avenue Victor Hugo; they want the pages of their New York Times all kind of greasy from croissant crumbs and butter at a café table in Aspen; they want to see their names in hard copy in the “New Establishment” issue of Vanity Fair; they want a nineteenth-century bookshop; they want to see the plays in London, they want to float down the Nile in a felucca; they want five-star bricks and mortar and do not disturb signs and views of the park. And in order to reserve these things for themselves they will plug up your eyes and your ears and your mouth, and if they can figure out a way to pump episodes of The Simpsons through the darkening corridors of your brain as you expire (ADD TO SHOPPING CART), they will do it.
- "Twilight of the American Newspaper" in Harper's Magazine (2009)
- The genius of American culture and its integrity comes from fidelity to the light. Plain as day, we say. Happy as the day is long. Early to bed, early to rise. American virtues are daylight virtues: honesty, integrity, plain speech. We say yes when we mean yes and no when we mean no, and all else comes from the evil one. America presumes innocence and even the right to happiness.
- "Night and Day" in Frontiers (1990)
- Mexico is a nineteenth-century country arranged for gaslight. Once brought into the harsh light of the twentieth-century media, Mexico can only seem false. In its male, in its public, its city aspect, Mexico is an arch-tranvestite, a tragic buffoon. Dogs bark and babies cry when Mother Mexico walks abroad in the light of day. The policeman, the Marxist mayor — Mother Mexico doesn't even bother to shave her mustachios. Swords and rifles and spurs and bags of money chink and clatter beneath her skirts. A chain of martyred priests dangles from her waist, for she is an austere, pious lady. Ay, how much — clutching her jangling bosoms; spilling cigars — how much she has suffered.
- "Night and Day" in Frontiers (1990)
- As you see yourself, I once saw myself; as you see me now, you will be seen.
- Quoting a Mexican proverb in "Night and Day" in Frontiers (1990)
- His name was William Saroyan. He was the first writer I fell in love with, boyishly in love. I was held by his unaffected voice, his sentimentality, his defiant individualism. I found myself in the stories he told... I learned from Saroyan that you do not have to live in some great city — in New York or Paris — in order to write... When I was a student at Stanford, a generation ago, the name of William Saroyan was never mentioned by any professor in the English Department. William Saroyan apparently was not considered a major American talent. Instead, we undergraduates set about the business of psychoanalyzing Hamlet and deconstructing Lolita. In my mind Saroyan belongs with John Steinbeck, a fellow small town Californian and of the same generation. He belongs with Thornton Wilder, with those writers whose aching love of America was formed by the Depression and the shadow of war. … Saroyan's prose is as plain as it is strong. He talks about the pleasure of drinking water from a hose on a summer afternoon in California's Central Valley, and he holds you with the pure line. My favorite is his novel The Human Comedy... In 1943, The Human Comedy became an MGM movie starring Mickey Rooney, but I always imagined Homer Macaulay as a darker, more soulful boy, someone who looked very much like a young William Saroyan...
Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982) edit
- Of all the institutions in their lives, only the Catholic Church has seemed aware of the fact that my mother and father are thinkers—persons aware of the experience of their lives. Other institutions—the nation’s political parties, the industries of mass entertainment and communications, the companies that employed them—have all treated my parents with condescension.
- My parents seem to me possessed of great dignity. An aristocratic reserve. Like the very rich who live behind tall walls, my mother and father are always mindful of the line separating public from private life. Watching a celebrity talk show on television, they listen for several minutes as a movie star with bright teeth recounts details of his recent divorce. And I see my parents grow impatient. Finally, my mother gets up from her chair. Changing the channel, she says with simple disdain, ‘Cheap people.’ My mother and my father are not cheap people. They never are tempted to believe that public life can also be intimate. And I realize that my parents will be as puzzled by my act of self-revelation as they are by the movie star’s revelations on the talk show. They never will call me cheap for publishing an autobiography. But I can well imagine their faces tightened by incomprehension as they read my words. (Why does he do this?)
- ‘Why?’ My mother’s question hangs in the still air of memory. The loneliness I have felt many mornings, however, has not made me forget that I am engaged in a highly public activity. I sit here in silence writing this small volume of words, and it seems to me the most public thing I ever have done. My mother’s letter has served to remind me: I am making my personal life public. Probably I will never try to explain my motives to my mother and father. My mother’s question will go unanswered to her face.
- Once upon a time, I was a ‘socially disadvantaged’ child. An enchantedly happy child. Mine was a childhood of intense family closeness. And extreme public alienation.
- I grew up victim to a disabling confusion. As I grew fluent in English, I no longer could speak Spanish with confidence.
- A primary reason for my success in the classroom was that I couldn’t forget that schooling was changing me and separating me from the life I enjoyed before becoming a student.
- I never forgot that schooling had irretrievably changed my family’s life. That knowledge, however, did not weaken ambition. Instead, it strengthened resolve. Those times I remembered the loss of my past with regret, I quickly reminded myself of all the things my teachers could give me. (They could make me an educated man.) I tightened my grip on pencil and books. I evaded nostalgia. Tried hard to forget. But one does not forget by trying to forget. One only remembers. I remembered too well that education had changed my family’s life. I would not have become a scholarship boy had I not so often remembered.
- If, because of my schooling, I had grown culturally separated from my parents, my education finally had given me ways of speaking and caring about that fact.
- If I ask questions about religion that my grandparents didn’t ask, it is not because I am intellectually advanced. I wonder about the existence of God because, unlike my grandparents, I live much of my day in a secular city where I do not measure the hours with the tolling bells of a church.
- I was the student at Stanford who remembered to notice the Mexican-American janitors and gardeners working on campus.
- This is what matters to me: the story of the scholarship boy who returns home one summer from college to discover bewildering silence, facing his parents. This is my story.
- I became a man by becoming a public man.
- Somehow the inclination to write about my private life in public is related to the ability to do so. It is not enough to say that my mother and father do not want to write their autobiographies. It needs also to be said that they are unable to write to a public reader. They lack the skill. Though both of them can write in Spanish and English, they write in a hesitant manner. Their syntax is uncertain. Their vocabulary limited. The man who sits in his chair so many hours, and the woman at the ironing board—‘keeping busy because I don’t want to get old’—will never be able to believe that any description of their personal lives could be understood by a stranger far from home.
- I was glad to get away from those students when I was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study in London. I found myself in the British Museum, at first content, reading English Renaissance literature. But then came the crisis: the domed silence; the dusty pages of books all around me; the days accumulating in lists of obsequious footnotes; the wandering doubts about the value of scholarship. My year in Britain came to an end and I rushed to ‘come home.’ Then quickly discovered that I could not. Could not cast off the culture I had assumed. Living with my parents for the summer, I remained an academic—a kind of anthropologist in the family kitchen, searching for evidence of our ‘cultural ties’ as we ate dinner together.
- It is education that has altered my life. Carried me far.
- The boy who first entered a classroom barely able to speak English, twenty years later concluded his studies in the stately quiet of the reading room in the British Museum. Thus with one sentence I can summarize my academic career. It will be harder to summarize what sort of life connects the boy to the man.
- To many persons around him, he appears too much the academic. There may be some things about him that recall his beginnings—his shabby clothes; his persistent poverty; or his dark skin (in those cases when it symbolizes his parents’ disadvantaged condition)—but they only make clear how far he has moved from his past. He has used education to remake himself. They expect—they want—a student less changed by his schooling. If the scholarship boy, from a past so distant from the classroom, could remain in some basic way unchanged, he would be able to prove that it is possible for anyone to become educated without basically changing from the person one was. The scholarship boy does not straddle, cannot reconcile, the two great opposing cultures of his life. His success is unromantic and plain. He sits in the classroom and offers those sitting beside him no calming reassurance about their own lives. He sits in the seminar room—a man with brown skin, the son of working-class Mexican immigrant parents.
- So little is said about the scholarship boy in pages and pages of educational literature. Nothing is said of the silence that comes to separate the boy from his parents.
- An Hispanic-American writer tells me, ‘I will never give up my family language; I would as soon give up my soul.’ Thus he holds to his chest a skein of words, as though it were the source of his family ties. He credits to language what he should credit to family members. A convenient mistake. For as long as he holds on to words, he can ignore how much else has changed in his life.
- When I sought admission to graduate schools, when I applied for fellowships and summer study grants, when I needed a teaching assistantship, my Spanish surname or the dark mark in the space indicating my race—‘check one’—nearly always got me whatever I asked for.
- I wanted, however, something more from the new middle-class institution than either the decadent romanticism of the sixties or the careerism of the seventies. I wanted students more aware of their differences from persons less advantaged.
- There is something called bilingual education—a scheme proposed in the late 1960s by Hispanic-American social activists, later endorsed by a congressional vote. It is a program that seeks to permit non-English-speaking children, many from lower-class homes, to use their family language as the language of school. (Such is the goal its supporters announce.) I hear them and am forced to say no: It is not possible for a child—any child—ever to use his family’s language in school. Not to understand this is to misunderstand the public uses of schooling and to trivialize the nature of intimate life—a family’s ‘language.’
- Supporters of bilingual education today imply that students like me miss a great deal by not being taught in their family’s language. What they seem not to recognize is that, as a socially disadvantaged child, I considered Spanish to be a private language. What I needed to learn in school was that I had the right—and the obligation—to speak the public language of los gringos.
- But the bilingualists simplistically scorn the value and necessity of assimilation. They do not seem to realize that there are two ways a person is individualized. So they do not realize that while one suffers a diminished sense of private individuality by becoming assimilated into public society, such assimilation makes possible the achievement of public individuality. Supporters of bilingual education thus want it both ways. They propose bilingual schooling as a way of helping students acquire the skills of the classroom crucial for public success. But they likewise insist that bilingual instruction will give students a sense of their identity apart from the public. Behind this screen there gleams an astonishing promise: One can become a public person while still remaining a private person. At the very same time one can be both! There need be no tension between the self in the crowd and the self apart from the crowd! Who would not want to believe such an idea?
- The policy of affirmative action, however, was never able to distinguish someone like me (a graduate student of English, ambitious for a college teaching career) from a slightly educated Mexican-American who lived in a barrio and worked as a menial laborer, never expecting a future improved. Worse, affirmative action made me the beneficiary of his conditions.
- my name came up in a conversation. Someone at the sherry party had wondered if the professor had seen my latest article on affirmative action. The professor replied with arch politeness, ‘And what does Mr. Rodriguez have to complain about?’ You who read this act of contrition should know that by writing it I seek a kind of forgiveness—not yours. The forgiveness, rather, of those many persons whose absence from higher education permitted me to be classed a minority student. I wish that they would read this. I doubt they ever will.
- Courses were offered in such fields as nineteenth-century black history and Hispanic-American folk art. The activists made a peculiar claim for these classes. They insisted that the courses would alleviate the cultural anxiety of nonwhite students by permitting them to stay in touch with their home culture. The perspective gained in the classroom or the library does indeed permit an academic to draw nearer to and understand better the culture of the alien poor. But the academic is brought closer to lower-class culture because of his very distance from it. Leisured, and skilled at abstracting from immediate experience, the scholar is able to see how aspects of individual experience constitute a culture. By contrast, the poor have neither the inclination nor the skill to imagine their lives so abstractly.
- Intimacy is not trapped within words. It passes through words. It passes. The truth is that intimates leave the room. Doors close. Faces move away from the window. Time passes. Voices recede into the dark. Death finally quiets the voice. And there is no way to deny it. No way to stand in the crowd, uttering one’s family language.
Violating the Boundaries: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez (1999) edit
- I did a piece about four years ago about coming out. Telling my parents that I'm gay. It occurred to me that my parents have known for years that I'm gay. I'm sure of it. They have never told me; they have never needed to tell me. In some ways I will never be gay to them. And they would prefer that I never use that word with them. They know the man that I have been closest to. They also know that he's godfather to two of my nephews. They invite him to Christmas dinner. They know he's part of my life. When he had the flu this Christmas they knew I had to leave early, and no one protested. Will he ever be introduced as my lover? No
- The Chicano student movement at UC Santa Barbara didn't want me there. These are the same people that sit on a multicultural committee. But they don't want me there because for them I represent a cultural perspective that they do not accept. Their version of multiculturalism is that it all be left wing, that it all be formed by a quasi-Marxist voodooism. And if anybody comes into their world that is any different from that, they can't deal with it. Because they are not multiculturalist at all. They're the most sectarian people I know.
- In some way the Chicano movement strikes me as being revolutionary, but only in a pathetic way, because the genius of Mexico has always been assimilation. I tell Mexican American kids all the time—if I get a chance to talk to them without their teachers—that they come from a culture that violates borders. Kids are coming up every night across the border in violation of Protestant lines. These kids represent a force of anarchy in the world. We are not people of pure race. We are people of mixed race. We have violated those borders already. We are people whose identity assumes the continuousness of experience rather than the segregation of experience. I tell them to be proud of that experience. Don't say to the United States, "I want a separate math class in Spanish." That's not going to scare them. Instead, terrify America by saying, "I'm going to marry your daughter." Or see what happens to the Chicano movement when you announce to the blonde people next door, "I'm going to start dating your son," or "You're going to be my best friend," that "We're neighbors."
- A friend of mine in Brooklyn was talking about ethnic writers, and he was using Amy Tan as an example. And he said, "You know, the really interesting thing about ethnic writers in America right now is that the women sit down and tell these sets of interesting stories. Asian girl meets blonde boy and they go to Harvard together—they're dopey stories, but everybody loves them, and they're best sellers. That's what the women write, whereas the guys struggle and try to find these new literary forms—writing these intricate parables that nobody quite follows and so forth." **And he said, "Isn't it interesting that women have always had this kind of genius for telling stories in the kitchen."**
- I take great pride in my literary works. Journalism is much faster. I'm not embarrassed by my journalism. I consider it to be like sketches, like an artist's sketch. I use it later in other writing. But I don't pretend that it has high literary merit either. I can do an essay pretty fast. I do them on airplanes, I do them at hotels, I do them at bus stops sometimes. I've written very good things on the go.
- It's the technology. There is this thing between you and the viewer. The viewer is watching this magnifying glass, and technology exaggerates you. You are left with the sense of how small you are, not with the sense of how big you are—if you're smart. If you're dumb you begin to believe that you are the image—that you cannot be replaced. But you can be replaced in a minute. For every Madonna there's another. For every Dan Rather there's another.
- I would meet screenwriters in L.A. who would write these very complicated sitcoms like Cheers and who'd have the most extraordinary sense of plot of anybody I've ever met. I saw the insides of lots of great houses. And I met people who you and I would regard as famous, and then realized some very interesting things about them, like how lonely they are. It was those years I was least a minority. In a sense, I owned the world. I owned it because I had certain charms that allowed me to insinuate myself into the world. Intellectually, it was very satisfying to be at the edge of this world. But when it became clear to me that I wanted to write this book, I had to divorce myself from that world and move to San Francisco.
- But it's a very interesting part of my life. It really is a much more sexual book than I have ever tried before. It's also about Hollywood. What I did in those years was I saw the world. And I literally traveled all over the world because I was kept, and I knew five star hotels. I know where to stay in Geneva, and I know where to stay in Bangkok, and I know that because I sat at swimming pools and read the fashion magazines for hours in Geneva. I know what to do in Buenos Aires, what restaurants to go to, where the pretty people go for lunch.
- Rodriguez: When my mother read Hunger of Memory, she was horrified by it and she asked me, as an accusation, "Why did you hold these things in all of your years against me, why didn't you tell me? If I offended you by talking about how dark you were in the summer why didn't you tell me that? And tell me to stop? Why do you hold that for another 25 years and then spill it all out?" Good question, Mama. Good question.
- TSS: How did you answer it?
- Rodriguez: I told her not to read Days of Obligation; it's a much more difficult book. And I told her that the person who wrote Hunger of Memory is not her son. It is a person she will never have to meet, a person she has never met. It's some other part of my being. This book is not anything about us. It doesn't change our relationship; it's about our relationship. She should trust the person that she knows, the person that's her son.
- Maybe knowledge doesn't accrue, maybe it doesn't happen sequentially. Maybe I need to go back and read Hunger of Memory again. Maybe there's a wisdom that I had in those years that I need to learn from now. And maybe there will be a year when I will have the courage to read that book. When I think about it or when I hear other people talk about it, it strikes me as very naked prose, and I'm embarrassed by it. I'm embarrassed by how much I told you. And people say, "Well you didn't tell us you were gay." Or "You didn't tell us you had all these friends or that you were student body president. You never said that." I think to myself, "My God, but what I told you I've never told anybody. And I'll never tell anybody again."
- Rodriguez:I get letters especially from older readers who are working class, and who know what that is like. That's why I take it that the energies of the book are mainly class and not ethnic.
- TSS: Who is your audience then?
- Rodriguez: The majority of the letters I get from high school readers are from Chinese girls. I was asked once if I thought of myself as an American or Hispanic. And I said that I think of myself as neither; I think of myself as Chinese because I live in a Chinese neighborhood. And maybe I am Chinese. Maybe I'm not Hispanic at all. There are so many things about Latin American men that I don't like. I don't claim to belong to the culture, and machoism doesn't interest me at all. The things about Latin Americans that interest me have more to do with the feminine than the masculine. My best readers are not Latinos. And the reason is as simple as temperament: I may be too effeminate for them.
- On the other hand I tell my true intimates that what I write is not intended for them. In fact I'd prefer they never read it. When I write, I'm talking to somebody I intend to never meet.
Brown : The Last Discovery of America (2003) edit
- I write about race in America in hopes of undermining the notion of race in America.
- I think brown marks a reunion of peoples, an end to ancient wanderings. Rival cultures and creeds conspire with Spring to create children of a beauty, perhaps of a harmony, previously unknown. Or long forgotten.
Chapter One : The Triad of Alexis de Tocqueville (online excerpt)
- Two women and a child in a glade beside a spring. Beyond them, the varnished wilderness wherein bright birds cry. The child is chalk, Europe's daughter. Her dusky attendants, a green Indian and a maroon slave.
The scene, from Democracy in America, is discovered by that most famous European traveler to the New World, Alexis de Tocqueville, aristocratic son of the Enlightenment, liberal, sickly, gray, violet, lacking the vigor of the experiment he has set himself to observe... His description intends to show the African and the Indian doomed by history in corresponding but opposing ways. (History is a coat cut only to the European.)
- The Indian refuses civilization; the African slave is rendered unfit for it.
But cher Monsieur: You saw the Indian sitting beside the African on a drape of baize. They were easy together. The sight of them together does not lead you to wonder about a history in which you are not the narrator?
These women are but parables of your interest in yourself. Rather than consider the nature of their intimacy, you are preoccupied alone with the meaning of your intrusion.
- A boy named Buddy came up beside me in the schoolyard. I don't remember what passed as prologue, but I do not forget what Buddy divulged to me: If you're white, you're all right; If you're brown, stick around; If you're black, stand back.
It was as though Buddy had taken me to a mountaintop and shown me the way things lay in the city below.
- In Sacramento, my brown was not halfway between black and white. On the leafy streets, on the east side of town, where my family lived, where Asians did not live, where Negroes did not live, my family's Mexican shades passed as various.
- In the Sacramento of the 1950s, it was as though White simply hadn't had time enough to figure Brown out. It was a busy white time. Brown was like the skinny or fat kids left over after the team captains chose sides. "You take the rest" — my cue to wander away to the sidelines, to wander away.
- My parents had come from Mexico, a short road in my imagination. I felt myself as coming from a caramelized planet, an upside-down planet, pineapple-cratered. Though I was born here, I came from the other side of the looking glass, as did Alice, though not alone like Alice. Downtown I saw lots of brown people. Old men on benches. Winks from Filipinos. Sikhs who worked in the fields were the most mysterious brown men, their heads wrapped in turbans. They were the rose men. They looked like roses.
- The first book by an African American I read was Carl T. Rowan's memoir, Go South to Sorrow. I found it on the bookshelf at the back of my fifth-grade classroom, an adult book. I can remember the quality of the morning on which I read. It was a sunlit morning in January, a Saturday morning, cold, high, empty. I sat in a rectangle of sunlight, near the grate of the floor heater in the yellow bedroom. And as I read, I became aware of warmth and comfort and optimism. I was made aware of my comfort by the knowledge that others were not, are not, comforted. Carl Rowan at my age was not comforted.
- Only a few weeks ago, in the year in which I write, Carl T. Rowan died. Hearing the news, I felt the sadness one feels when a writer dies, a writer one claims as one's own — as potent a sense of implication as for the loss of a body one has known. Over the years, I had seen Rowan on TV. He was not, of course he was not, the young man who had been with me by the heater — the photograph on the book jacket, the voice that spoke through my eyes. The muscles of my body must form the words and the chemicals of my comprehension must form the words, the windows, the doors, the Saturdays, the turning pages of another life, a life simultaneous with mine.
It is a kind of possession, reading. Willing the Other to abide in your present. His voice, mixed with sunlight, mixed with Saturday, mixed with my going to bed and then getting up, with the pattern and texture of the blanket, with the envelope from a telephone bill I used as a bookmark. With going to Mass. With going to the toilet. With my mother in the kitchen, with whatever happened that day and the next; with clouds forming over the Central Valley, with the flannel shirt I wore, with what I liked for dinner, with what was playing at the Alhambra Theater. I remember Carl T. Rowan, in other words, as myself, as I was. Perhaps that is what one mourns.
- In the Clunie Public Library in Sacramento, in those last years of a legally segregated America, there was no segregated shelf for Negro writers. Frederick Douglass on the same casement with Alexis de Tocqueville, Benjamin Franklin. Today, when our habit is willfully to confuse literature with sociology, with sorting, with trading in skins, we imagine the point of a "life" is to address some sort of numerical average, common obstacle or persecution. Here is a book "about" teenaged Chinese-American girls. So it is shelved.
- It is one thing to know your author-man or woman or gay or black or paraplegic or president. It is another thing to choose only man or woman or et cetera, as the only quality of voice empowered to address you, as the only class of sensibility or experience able to understand you, or that you are able to understand.
How a society orders its bookshelves is as telling as the books a society writes and reads. American bookshelves of the twenty-first century describe fractiousness, reduction, hurt. Books are isolated from one another, like gardenias or peaches, lest they bruise or become bruised, or, worse, consort, confuse. If a man in a wheelchair writes his life, his book will be parked in a blue-crossed zone: "Self-Help" or "Health." There is no shelf for bitterness. No shelf for redemption. The professor of Romance languages at Dresden, a convert to Protestantism, was tortured by the Nazis as a Jew — only that — a Jew. His book, published sixty years after the events it recounts, is shelved in my neighborhood bookstore as "Judaica." There is no shelf for irony.
- Books should confuse. Literature abhors the typical. Literature flows to the particular, the mundane, the greasiness of paper, the taste of warm beer, the smell of onion or quince. Auden has a line: "Ports have names they call the sea." Just so will literature describe life familiarly, regionally, in terms life is accustomed to use — high or low matters not. Literature cannot by this impulse betray the grandeur of its subject — there is only one subject: What it feels like to be alive. Nothing is irrelevant. Nothing is typical.
- The liberal-hearted who run the newspapers and the university English departments and organize the bookstores have turned literature into well-meaning sociology. Thus do I get invited by the editor at some magazine to review your gay translation of a Colombian who has written a magical-realist novel. Trust me, there has been little magical realism in my life since my first trip to Disneyland.
- My reading was scheduled for the six-thirty slot by the University of Arizona. A few hundred people showed up – old more than young; mostly brown. I liked my "them," in any case, for coming to listen, postponing their dinners. In the middle of one of my paragraphs, a young man stood to gather his papers, then retreated up the aisle, pushed open the door at the back of the auditorium. In the trapezoid of lobby-light thus revealed, I could see a crowd was forming for the eight o'clock reading — a lesbian poet. Then the door closed, resealed the present; I continued to read, but wondered to myself: Why couldn't I get the lesbians for an hour? And the lesbian poet serenade my Mexican audience?
- Americans are so individualistic, they do not realize their individualism is a communally derived value. The American I is deconstructed for me by Paolo, an architect who was raised in Bologna: "You Americans are not truly individualistic, you merely are lonely. In order to be individualistic, one must have a strong sense of oneself within a group." (The "we" is a precondition for saying "I.") Americans spend all their lives looking for a community: a chatroom, a church, a support group, a fetish magazine, a book club, a class action suit... illusions become real when we think they are real and act accordingly. Because Americans thought themselves free of plural pronouns, they began to act as free agents, thus to recreate history. Individuals drifted away from tribe or color or 'hood or hometown or card of explanation, where everyone knew who they were... Americans thus extended the American community by acting so individualistically, so anonymously.
- It’s a Catholic idea, actually—that the material world is redeemed; that time is continuous; that one can somehow be redeemed by the faith of an earlier age or a poorer class, if one lives within its shadow or its arrondissement or breathes its sigh.
- And lately fashion photographers, bored with Rome or the Acropolis, have ventured farther afield for the frisson of syncretism. Why not Calcutta? Why not the slums of Rio? Cairo? Mexico City? The attempt is for an unearned, casual brush with awe by enlisting untouchable extras. And if the model can be seen to move with idiot stridency through tragedy, then the model is invincible. Luxury is portrayed as protective. Or protected. Austere, somehow—“spiritual.” Irony posing as asceticism or as worldly-wise.
- Dissembling was the specialty of Broadway musicals. The storylines were scrupulously heterosexual. What could I have heard in them that made me think they explained me? It was this: The innocent characters were so wonderfully compromised by the actors who played them; by the writers and musicians who created them. The scar tissue on voices. The makeup on faces. Youth! The wicked stage! The jaded legend refreshed the innocence of my youth. Musical comedy songs were more real than my life because they were articulate and because they had ligaments of narrative attached to them. For today’s young queers and lonelys, these songs must seem quaint and campy and not useful. But they were never campy for me—for us?—they only became camp in the attempt to share them without embarrassment.
- In grammar school—and as new to American history as to the American tongue—I nevertheless puzzled through several junior biographies of Franklin because young Ben’s ambition magnified my own. I kept lists in those years of the books I read. I recognized the yearning to escape the limits of family—“a strong inclination for the sea”—as well as some more vertical yearning: a boy becomes a man by gaining wisdom; each book a rung therefore; each rung a classical tag. I weighed the shame of the sordid candle shop where Franklin was forced to work for his father against the optimism of old New England.
- Fawning ambition so plainly expressed in the classroom was quite another matter. It wasn’t that I got A’s; other boys got A’s. It was that I wanted my A’s so badly and sought them so blatantly—that’s what everyone saw. Nixon: “I won my share of scholarships, and of speaking and debating prizes in school, not because I was smarter but because I worked longer and harder than some of my more gifted colleagues.”
- In the first televised presidential debate, Nixon thought he was upholding some puritan gravitas by refusing makeup; by choosing the citizen’s black suit; choosing the poor man’s version of natural aristocracy. Nixon was easily the more able in his grasp of history and the workings of government. John F. Kennedy, gold-dusted and ghostwritten, appeared completely natural. Nixon perspired. In an instant, I saw what many other Americans saw that night: Harvard College will always beat Whittier College in America. The game is fixed and there is nothing to be done about it.
- I am speaking of those years before the middle class took professional wrestling away from the working class and made of our morality play a mockery of ambition.
- We grow up thinking that the beautiful and the talented have been born that way, because they are born rich. The boys in the college gym with fine, muscular bodies—I thought they were athletes because of their bodies, not that their bodies were muscular because they were athletes. I thought I was the only one in the world who had to try so hard to become.
- After all that Richard Nixon had written about how hard work wins the day in America, finally it was Nixon who arranged for me to bypass the old rules. Through the agency of affirmative action, akin to those pivotal narrative devices in Victorian fictions, I had, suddenly, a powerful father in America, like Old Man Kennedy. I had, in short, found a way to cheat. The saddest part of the story is that Nixon was willing to disown his own myth for political expediency. It would be the working-class white kid—the sort he had been—who would end up paying the price of affirmative action, not Kennedys. Affirmative action defined a “minority” in a numerical rather than a cultural sense. And since white males were already numerically “represented” in the boardroom, as at Harvard, the Appalachian white kid could not qualify as a minority. And since brown and black faces were “underrepresented,” those least disadvantaged brown and black Americans, like me, were able to claim the prize of admission and no one questioned our progress.
- Still, from his books, I am convinced Nixon was not a coarse-grained man. Perhaps he was even delicate. Hannah Nixon used to joke that she had wanted a daughter. And she said about Nixon, her famous son, long after he had boarded the train and made something of himself in the world, “He was no child prodigy.” But Hannah also remembered the way young Nixon needed her, as none of her other children did: “As a schoolboy, he used to like to have me sit with him when he studied."
- The most important thing I learned in college about the rich is that they pursue hobbies
- The boy who dreamed his escape on a train whistle floating east, ended up in a gated New Jersey suburb redrawing the map of the world. The world was his last invention. Odd that this self-made man who spent so much time with his long nose to the grindstone would evolve into the global seer, scholar of the world, statesman, not least a politician who wrote his own books. In a late interview, Frank Gannon asked Nixon if he believed he had lived a “good life.” Nixon replied, “I don’t get into that kind of crap.” But what did he truly think in the end? His fall was as precipitous as any in American history.
- But not in my family. My mother and father (with immigrant pragmatism) assumed the American tongue would reinvent their children. Just so did several immigrant Hispanic mothers in Southern California recently remark their children’s reluctance to join America. These mothers feared their children were not swimming in the American current—not in the swifts and not in the depths; not even in the pop. They blamed “bilingual education,” a leaky boat theorem ostensibly designed to sink into the American current. (In fact, the theorem became a bureacracy preoccupied with prolonging itself.) These few mothers organized an opposition to bilingual education and eventually they sank the Armada in California. Theirs was an American impulse: to engage the American flow directly and to let their children be taken by it.
- But middle-class Americans, friends of mine, composites of friends of mine, of a liberal bent, nice people, OK people, see nothing wrong with bilingual education. In fact, they wish their own children to be bilingual. In fact, they send their kids to French schools. In fact, they ask if I know of a housekeeper who might inadvertently teach their children Spanish while she dusts under the piano. Nope.
- When I was a boy and refused to speak Spanish (because I spoke English), then could not speak Spanish from awkwardness, then guilt, Mexican relatives criticized my parents for letting me “lose it”—my culture, they said.
- Certainly in Mexico, the Latin American country I know best, white ascends. Certainly, the whitest dinner party I ever attended was a Mexico City dinner party where a Mexican squire of exquisite manner, mustache, and flán-like jowl, expressed himself surprised, so surprised, to learn that I am a writer. One thought he would never get over it. Un escritor . . . ¿Un escritor . . . ? Turning the word on a lathe of tooth and tongue, until: “You know, in Mexico, I think we do not have writers who look like you,” he said. He meant dark skin, thick lips, Indian nose.
- No one in the United States has ever matched the confidence of that gentleman’s insult. I believe it would not occur to the deepest-dyed racist in the United States to question whether I am a writer. The racist might say I look like a monkey, but he would not say I don’t look like a writer.
- The other night at a neighborhood restaurant the waiter, after mentioning he had read my books, said about himself, “I’m white, I’m nothing.” But that was what I wanted, you see, growing up in America—the freedom of being nothing, the confidence of it, the arrogance. And I achieved it.
- I was made an example of—by that woman from the Threepenny Review as the sort of writer, the callow, who parades his education. I use literary allusion as a way of showing off, proof that I have mastered a white idiom, but do not have the confidence of it.
- It interests Americans that Canada is clean and empty and unimplicating; the largest country in the world that doesn’t exist. Without distinct music or food or capacity for rudeness— less rich, less angry, less complicated, less neurotic, less dark, less brilliant.
- Try as we will to be culturally aggrieved by day, we find the gringos kind of attractive in the moonlight.
- My father died of neither hot nor cold. My father was as leathern as a saint. He required no trees. As unrefreshed as a Muslim courtyard. He required no fountain. No music. Whenever he saw a baby he said “poor baby.” His questions were the basic questions, as prosaic as footsteps. What is heaven like? Will I be young? Will I be with Mama? Will I go to sleep? (I don’t know, Papa; how can I know?) Absurdly, I gave answers.
- Every generation of Americans since has had to reenact the loss of our innocence. Smog over L.A. was the loss of our innocence. Vietnam was the loss of our innocence. Gettysburg was the loss of our innocence. Ingrid Bergman’s baby was the loss of our innocence. Oklahoma City was the loss of our innocence. The World Trade Center was the loss of our innocence. Other nations are cynical. America has preferred the child’s game of “discovering” evil—Europe’s or Asia’s, her grandfather’s, even her own.
- The sole religious orthodoxy permitted in our public schools is the separation of paper from plastic. Not so many miles from this beach, great-grandchildren of westering pioneers chain themselves to redwoods, martyrs of the new animism.
- I DON’T KNOW IF YOU HAVE EVER LUNCHED WITH A VEGETARIAN. Probably you have. If you live in San Francisco you have. Then you’ve seen Dominic, his hand raised, fingers slightly crook’d to summon a waitress: Ma’am? (Pointing to the menu.) Is this dish made with meat stock? The waitress (a Chinese restaurant) takes a moment to divine the desired answer. No. (When in doubt.) So imperial, so sliding scale, so uncomprehending is her no, so wise is her no, finally, so Greek, so Arab, so Catholic, so Brown is her no, Dominic cannot be reassured. Dominic’s vegetarianism has to do with upholding the sacredness of life. He needs a puritan answer. Whereas Peter. Peter is the son of my friend Franz. Peter is as easy in the brown world of maybe as he is in his own white skin. He is wandering through India as I write this. Peter is handsome, gentle, Hindu-intoxicated, slightly blue; his skin is slightly blue. Peter’s veganism has to do with the sacredness of his own body; with the purity of his lungs and his bowels and his liver and his breath. Peter’s vigilance is maniacal: Do you place meat and vegetables on the same grill?
- Americans are so individualistic, they do not realize their individualism is a communally derived value. The American I is deconstructed for me by Paolo, an architect who was raised in Bologna: “You Americans are not truly individualistic, you merely are lonely. In order to be individualistic, one must have a strong sense of oneself within a group.”
- The reason I threw a rock at Billy Walker’s stupid face was I had a crush on him. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been thirty years since my last confession. I threw a rock at Billy Walker’s beautiful face. How many times? At what velocity? The priest does not ask if I intended to mar the face. One of the things I love about the church is that motive is assumed: Because I am human. What alone interests the confessor is the form of humanity I wish to confess. Confession is constructed as we are constructed. The confessional box prefigures the American I. I am the sinner, irreducible. My soul is irreducible. Not my red hand.
- A priest visiting my parish preached a sermon wherein he referred to homosexuality as a “lifestyle.” By which he meant a choice. So, too, my beloved Father O’Neill (to whom I confessed as a child) said to my sister, a few months before he died, that he disapproved of “Richard’s lifestyle.” Homosexuality requires cubism to illustrate itself, perhaps. But homosexuality is not a lifestyle. Homosexuality is an emotion—a physiological departure from homeostasis.
- To watch people on their phones in a crowd is to notice how disconnected they seem; how unprepared for solitude they seem. Neurosis, yes. Novelty is the American neurosis.
- A question about the authenticity of the soul, I suppose. Or the wishbone—some little tug-of-war; some tension. The tension I have come to depend upon. That is what I mean by brown. The answer is that I cannot reconcile. I was born a Catholic. Is homosexuality, then, a conversion experience? No. I was born gay. Is Catholicism ever a choice? Yes. No. Not at first. I embraced Catholicism without question. It was the air, it was the light. Years later, I came to Catholicism in deliberation, defeat—satirically, perhaps—nevertheless on my knees. How else to approach a church established for losers, for a kingdom not of this world, a kingdom of fools? Whatever faith I confess is based upon my certainty that I can do nothing.
- Thud. My eyes are open. It is four-thirty in the morning, one morning, and my dry eyes click in their sockets, awake before the birds. There is no light. The eye strains for logic, some play of form. I have been dreaming of wind. The tree outside my window stands silent. I listen to the breathing of the man lying beside me. I know where I am. I am awake. I am alive. Am I tethered to earth only by this fragile breath? A strawful of breath at best. Yet this is the breath that patients beg, their hands gripping the edges of mattresses; this is the breath that wrestles trees, that brings down all the leaves in the Third Act. We know where the car is parked. We know, word-for-word, the texts of plays. We have spoken, in proximity to one another, over years, sentences, hundreds of thousands of sentences—bright, grave, fallible, comic, perishable—perhaps eternal? I don’t know. Where does the wind go? When will the light come? We will have hotcakes for breakfast. How can I protect this . . . ? My church teaches me I cannot. And I believe it. I turn the pillow to its cool side. Then rage fills me, against the cubist necessity of having to arrange myself comically against orthodoxy, against having to wonder if I will offend, against theology that devises that my feeling for him, more than for myself, is a vanity. My brown paradox: The church that taught me to understand love, the church that taught me well to believe love breathes—also tells me it is not love I feel, at four in the morning, in the dark, even before the birds cry. Of every hue and caste am I.
- As a young man, I was more a white liberal than I ever tried to put on black. For all that, I ended up a “minority,” the beneficiary of affirmative action programs to redress black exclusion. And, harder to say, my brown advantage became a kind of embarrassment. For I never had an adversarial relationship to American culture. I was never at war with the tongue. Brown was no longer invisible by the time I got to college. In the white appraisal, brown skin became a coat of disadvantage, which was my advantage. Acknowledgment came at a price, then as now. (Three decades later, the price of being a published brown author is that one cannot be shelved near those one has loved. The price is segregation.) I remain at best ambivalent about those Hispanic anthologies where I end up; about those anthologies where I end up the Hispanic; about shelves at the bookstore where I look for myself and find myself. The fact that my books are published at all is the result of the slaphappy strategy of the northern black Civil Rights movement.
Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography (2013) edit
- At the dawn of a worldwide religious war that Americans prefer to name a war against terror, I feel myself drawn to Islam, drawn to read the Koran, even to kiss the Koran—melodramatically, but sincerely—as I did one evening recently in front of a university audience. I meant to honor Islam. I meant to convey that, as a Christian, I consider myself a loving brother to the Muslim, as I am to the Jew, by the favor of Father Abraham.
- The paradox of monotheism is that the desert God, refuting all other gods, demands acknowledgment within emptiness. The paradox of monotheism is that there is no paradox—only unfathomable singularity
- My skepticism concerning all notions of reconquista is skepticism toward the view that history is restorative. I get older but I do not grow wiser. It is only by shedding skin, by turning pages, by ordering stronger spectacles, by having my hair cut, that I seem to be restoring myself to a circular pattern, that I seem to progress toward youth and capability, though my progress is actually a decline.
- America is a faith, perhaps pancakes its sacrament. Opportunity comes to those who put away the disadvantages of family or circumstance and entrust themselves to the future. The point of the American story is simple enough for a child, particularly an immigrant child, to grasp: The past holds no sway in America.
- There are people in every age who come early or late to a sense of the futility of the world. Some people, such as the monks of the desert, flee the entanglements of the world to rush toward eternity. But even for those who remain in the world, the approach of eternity is implacable. “The glacier knocks in the cupboard, / The desert sighs in the bed,” was W. H. Auden’s mock-prophetic forecast. He meant the desert is incipient in the human condition. Time melts away from us. Even in luxuriant weather, even in luxuriant wealth, even in luxuriant youth, we know our bodies will fail; our buildings will fall to ruin.
- Q: Why do I stay in the Catholic Church?
- A: I stay in the Church because the Church is more than its ignorance; the Church gives me more than it denies me. I stay in the Church because it is mine.
- One night in Boston I went out to dinner with my editor and his wife—this was my first editor, the beloved editor, and I was in awe of him; I still am in awe of him. The editor kissed me on the cheek as we parted and called me his “darling boy,” as if thereby investing me with the Order of Letters Genteel. It was among the happiest nights of my life; I was filled with sadness as I watched the two of them, the editor and his wife, walk away.
- Roles of pathos were available to boys at my high school, but I eschewed them in favor of a role more akin to Prosecutor, Ironist. I advanced by questions. In some more perfect world, like American Bandstand, I suppose I would have been happier in a sexually integrated high school. I knew how to talk to girls. I had two sisters. And I loved to talk. But early nonsexual female companionship would have come at a price. “Sissy” is the chrysalis of “darling.”
- During my high school years, a boy from my neighborhood named Malcolm chose me to be his friend for a season. His elbow nudged my book in the public library one Saturday afternoon as he sprawled forward across the table feigning some condition—boredom, I suppose. His voice was like shadow—as whispery and as indistinct as shadow, due to an adolescent change. “Do you want to wrestle?” he asked. I have never met anyone since who speaks as Malcolm spoke: He daydreamed; he pronounced strategies out loud (as I raked elm leaves from our lawn and piled them in the curb)—about how he would befriend this boy or that boy, never anyone I knew; Malcolm went to a different high school. “First,” he said, “I will tease him about his freckles. Then I will tease him about his laugh—how his laugh sounds a little like a whinny sometimes. I won’t go too far. You should see how his wrist pivots as he dribbles down the court. “He’s got these little curls above his sideburns. I wish I had those.” (He would catch me up on the way to the library.) “What are you reading? We read that last year. Not really a war story, though, is it? Want to go eat French toast?”
- It would be another two decades before I came upon the words that made me think I had a story to tell—the opening words of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.” The immigrant mother’s prohibition to her daughter reminded me of my own mother’s warning about spreading “family secrets.” In the face of California’s fame for blatancy—in the face of pervasive light, ingenuousness, glass-and-aluminum housing, bikinis, billboards—Mrs. Hong recommended concealment.
- L.A. likes to think of Las Vegas as the populuxe mirage of Hollywood, a place where middle-class tourists look like movie stars but aren’t, spend like millionaires but aren’t.
- Americans experience time in two distinct ways—as religious people and as people of no religion. Just so, we experience ourselves as a historical people and as people who are not implicated by history.
- Family trips of my childhood always began with a prayer. I suppose when one goes on vacation, one is courting death in some fashion, tying the morgue tags onto one’s suitcase. But then, too, vacations are respites from death, from thoughts of death. I have sometimes wondered why friends under medical death sentences have undertaken arduous trips or undertaken arduous labors. To put some distance between themselves and death—the obvious answer.
- One can become overwhelmed on vacation—I have become so—by thinking thoughts that are too large. There is a condition identified in psychology textbooks as the Stendhal syndrome, also called, or related to, the Jerusalem syndrome, that describes a tourist’s overwhelmed response to great works of art or to a sudden apprehension of scale, antiquity, multitude, death—the accompanying fear is of one’s insignificance, but also of squandered opportunity.
- In a region of mind without coed irony, where women are draped like Ash Wednesday statues (as too hot to handle) and stoned to death on an accusation of adultery (as too insignificant to cry over), men, among themselves, have achieved an elegant ease of confraternity and sentimentality.
- The prospect of a generation of American children being raised by women in homes without fathers is challenging for religious institutions whose central conception of deity is father, whose central conception of church is family, whose only conception of family is heterosexual.
- When Cesar Chavez died in his sleep in 1993, not yet a very old man at sixty-six, he died—as he had so often portrayed himself in life—as a loser.
- No Chavez speech I have read or heard approaches the rhetorical brilliance of the Protestant ministers of the black civil rights
- On the one side, the Mexican side, Mexican peasants are tantalized by the American possibility of change. On the other side, the American side, the tyranny of American optimism has driven Americans to neurosis and depression, when the dream is elusive or less meaningful than the myth promised. This constitutes the great irony of the Mexican-American border: American sadness has transformed the drug lords of Mexico into billionaires, even as the peasants of Mexico scramble through the darkness to find the American dream.
- Nineteenth-century California rewarded only a few of its brotherhood, but it rewarded them as deliriously as an ancient king in an ancient myth would reward.
- The brilliance of Midwestern California, the California that is founded upon discontent, and the reason why so much technological innovation springs from the West Coast, is that having confronted the finitude of the coastline, technologists in Silicon Valley have shrunk the needed commodity—the future (thousands of miles of Zen pathway)—to the size of a fleck of gold dust, to a microchip.
- I never learned to throw a baseball with confidence, but I knew how to aim a newspaper well enough. I could make my mark from the sidewalk—one hand on the handlebar—with deadeye nonchalance. The paper flew over my shoulder; it twirled over hedges and open sprinklers to land with a fine plop only inches from the door. In the growling gray light (San Francisco still has foghorns), I collect the San Francisco Chronicle from the wet steps. I am so lonely I must subscribe to three papers
- Several days later, I tell a neighbor, a man I know well, that my mother died and that the floor lamp in my bedroom came on during the night. My neighbor is sincerely sorry to hear of my mother’s death; he supposes there must have been some kind of surge in the electrical grid. Our lives are so similar, my friends’ and mine. The difference between us briefly flares—like the lamp in my bedroom—only when I publish a religious opinion.
- My brother is now seventy. His hands are burled with arthritis. Some days he walks with difficulty.
- My brother sits today at his computer and pounds, literally pounds, the elegantly argued e-mails (political argument) he posts to an electronic community in darkened rooms across America. (I imagine darkened rooms because correspondents are anonymous and because so many of these colloquia are nocturnal.) My brother’s politics are left wing, Democrat, in an easy-going way; lots of saints (FDR, Harry S. Truman, Adlai Stevenson). My brother’s faith is that technocrats will lead us through a sea of red tape and partisan obstruction to the Shining City on the Hill. My brother’s mind has long since turned against religion, particularly Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism, and the Evangelical Protestants he calls “Christo-Republicans.” My brother is an atheist, though that drab noun hasn’t nearly enough pixels to portray my brother’s scorn. He calls himself an “anti-theist”; he called himself that one Christmas evening, at the holiday table, as if he were the tipsy, freethinking uncle in a James Joyce short story; as if he were James Joyce himself.
- My brother had been at the seminary for two years when, in his weekly letter, he informed our parents that he was coming home.
- Without losing any noticeable stride, my brother went on to college and law school and beautiful women.
- I noticed my brother sent copies of his e-mail to his nephews and nieces, as well as to our siblings. The wonder is not that he knows so much about Church history, but that such matters continue to preoccupy him. Why not let it go?
- I wrote to my brother a few years ago. I told him I was bored with his e-mails about religion. Bored with his scientific perspective, as he calls it. Bored with political faith. I asked him to stop.
- My brother and I have, after many years, achieved our importance to each other as a difference. Because it is sometimes difficult for my brother to climb the steps to my apartment, he will often come by and we will sit in his car and talk. We quite enjoy one another’s company. My brother is no less a good man for not believing in God; and I am no better a man because I believe. It is simply that religion gives me a sense—no, not a sense, a reason, no, not exactly a reason, an understanding—that everyone matters.
- Nothing else Chavez wrote during his life had such haunting power for me as that public prayer for a life of suffering; no utterance sounded so Mexican. Other cultures in the world assume the reality of suffering as something to be overcome. Mexico assumes the inevitability of suffering. That knowledge informs the folk music of Mexico, the bitter humor of Mexican proverb. To be a man is to suffer for others—you’re going to suffer anyway.
- Something funny I have noticed—perhaps you have noticed it, too. You know what futurists and online-ists and cut-out-the-middle-man-ists and Davos-ists and deconstructionists of every stripe want for themselves? They want exactly what they tell you you no longer need, you pathetic, overweight, disembodied Kindle reader. They want white linen tablecloths on trestle tables in the middle of vineyards on soft blowy afternoons. (You can click your bottle of wine online. Cheaper.) They want to go shopping on Saturday afternoons on the Avenue Victor Hugo; they want the pages of their New York Times all kind of greasy from croissant crumbs and butter at a café table in Aspen; they want to see their names in hard copy in the “New Establishment” issue of Vanity Fair; they want a nineteenth-century bookshop; they want to see the plays in London; they want to float down the Nile in a felucca; they want five-star bricks and mortar and Do Not Disturb signs and views of the park. And in order to reserve these things for themselves they will plug up your eyes and your ears and your mouth, and if they can figure out a way to pump episodes of The Simpsons through the darkening corridors of your brain as you expire (ADD TO SHOPPING CART), they will do it.