Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Identity is fluid

Writer sees labels as artificial limits

Express Staff Writer

Pulitzer Prize nominee Richard Rodriguez admits it is harder for the man writing about the younger self than it was for the boy to experience. Courtesy photo

    Where there is chaos and pain, Mexican American essayist Richard Rodriguez moves in with a belief that we are all implicated in each other’s history, all of the time. And he analyzes the fallout with an optimistic belief that with each monumental debacle, we are drawn globally closer toward a solution.
    “I think the Mayan calendar was right, but it was not the end of the world, but the beginning of the world,” Rodriguez opined in a telephone interview.
    Citing reaction to the recent gang rape of a young female student in India, he said, “The women in India are rising up, and there are boys joining in their rage. There is something going on in our world that no one is talking about it. The world is peaking and grieving and learning and coming into its own, and we in America are only talking about Washington and the fiscal cliff.”
    As he has done for decades from television, podiums at prominent universities, prisons where he taught writing and perennial literary events, Rodriguez will challenge a Ketchum audience to consider the intricacies of cultural identity by using his gift for prose and commentary to blur the lines of race, religion, class and language. Those categories, often used to divide us, he interprets as segues to our similarities.
    Rodriguez will lecture at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17, at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood, a guest of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. Rodriguez’s talk is given in conjunction with The Center’s current multidisciplinary project “Crossing Cultures: Ethnicity in Contemporary America,” a free visual arts exhibition at The Center in Ketchum, through Feb. 23.
    “I consider myself a writer and I try to talk about the world as I see it, and to bring a literary understanding to it,” he said. “I want to make the world complex because that is how I see the world. I travel the world and think about it. In my first book, for example, I talk about the psychological experience of being Hispanic and speaking English, how embarrassing it is, how hard it is.”   
    He is the author of three critically acclaimed books: “Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez,” “Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father” and “Brown: The Last Discovery of America,” each an examination of his humorous, provocative and profound reflections on his experience being the son of Mexican immigrants, raised in Sacramento and educated largely by Irish nuns.
    A contributing editor at New America Media in San Francisco, Rodriguez holds a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and a master’s degree from Columbia University. In 1997, he received a George Foster Peabody Award for his PBS News Hour essays on American life. His other awards include the Frankel Medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the International Journalism Award from the World Affairs Council of California. He credits libraries with their rows of topics squished in together for his connection to and curiosity about lives beyond his backyard.
    He will address that and much of what he is discovering while writing his soon-to-be released book, “The Desert God,” which resulted from the Sept. 11 bombing of the World Trade Center. As is his nature, the incident drew him closer, rather than away from, Islam.
    “ The most shocking thing for me was that those men were praying as they drilled those 767s into the World Trade Center,” he said in an interview in Sojourners magazine. “I was reminded that this was a religious war that we were involved in. That seemed so European—killing each other over Protestants vs. Catholic, heretics, Orthodox vs. Roman Catholic, and so forth. But America having a religious war? That was new to me. So I was interested in Islam.”
    His parallel attraction to the desert and his own Christianity has fueled his amble through the Middle East, where he traveled sometimes with a Palestinian driver who imitated Elvis Presley.
    “I’ve never felt so close to God as I do there,” he has said of the desert.
    He came to realize the error of his thinking about how different language separate us.
    “Islam is in my life. I learned that Spain was Islamic for centuries and that there are words in the Spanish language that come from Arabic. Like when my mother would say ‘Ojala que’ (“Hopefully”)—it evolved from ‘Oh Allah,’ which precedes a request for a blessing. And I realized that being Arab is in my own mother’s mouth.”
    While in Africa, he heard Swahili and Arabic words and realized again, “It’s a complicated circle. It’s this tango.”
    It’s hard to imagine that this man who once was so reluctant to say his name out loud in class that he wanted to run away is so verbal about the world around him. The self-described “queer Catholic Indian Spaniard at home in a temperate Chinese city in a fading blond state in a post-Protestant nation”  said while his words have caused derision in the Hispanic community at times, he truly embraces all the facets that make him “brown.”  
    “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.”
    He said he tries to understand how the Muslim world remains male-dominated by men who hold hands, kiss and call each other darling while women are veiled and in the majority.
   He called the way his mind works “exhausting and always exhilarating,” but said he clings to the gifts he has been given for expression, believing that his mother would have had a more fulfilling life if she’d been able to bend the social mores and burst out into song or dance or act out.
    “The more you can act out, the less you feel so unusual. But we repress so much. I think it is tragic that both my parents died before they learned to tell their story. That’s what education is all about.”
    Rodriguez is forever being fed stories to marinate on. He recalled a man who shared with him during a plane flight the death of his son a few years earlier in a canoeing accident.
    “He told me a sad story about a young boy dying on a blessed day. He told me that he and his wife still hadn’t talked about the event, three years later, and here he was telling me, an utter stranger. What is that dynamic that allows someone to share something so intimate that they obviously need to share, with an utter stranger?”
    Rodriguez said he doesn’t ruminate on his earlier books and is patient with the youthful fire and rage he once held.
    “They were clearly young man’s sentences—they are bold and brave and I can’t do that [now]. It’s like a footballer watching old tapes, my knees can’t do that anymore.”
    He said that what he really wants to express when he speaks in Ketchum is optimism.
    “There is violence everywhere, but there is something that is unprecedented, that happens everywhere in the middle of conflict. It’s not talked about in the history books, but it’s powerful, it’s love. I want to talk about that.”
    Aware that this latest subject is dicey, he still pushes forward to bring about the dialogue because “when you sing in church, you pray twice. In writing, I live twice. I live it, and then I write it. It comes back to me.”

Experience optimism
What: A lecture by essayist and scholar Richard Rodriguez.
Where: Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood.
When: Thursday, Jan. 17, 6:30 p.m.
How: Tickets are available at for $25 members / $35 nonmembers / $10 students. Tickets can also be purchased by phone at 726-9491, ext. 10 or stop by The Center in Ketchum.


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