Spending Time with Mr. Secrets Print
News/Features - Literature
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Tuesday, 05 March 2002 18:00
It seems a little unseemly to call Richard Rodriguez the Quad City Arts Super Author – the title he’ll carry during his three-day visit to the area in early April. It suggests something heroic or proud, almost as if Rodriguez should have an outfit with a cape. It exudes a false enthusiasm, as does the campaign that precedes his visit: “Let’s All Read Hunger of Memory!”

Rodriguez is certainly worthy of the title Super Author; it just doesn’t fit him. He takes a tragic view of the world; everything, no matter how positively it’s perceived, even something such as education, exacts a cost. His main work is not short stories, novels, or breezy columns; he’s a clear-eyed, unsentimental, probing essayist, and the writing, while full of poetry and rhythm, is frequently dense and difficult.

People should read Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez’s slender but provocative first book, and attend the six lectures he’ll be presenting here in April. But they should expect to be prodded and poked rather than coddled. While Rodriguez is an affable person, he’s full of ideas, arguments, and challenges.

“We don’t like to talk about the scab,” Rodriguez said in an interview with the River Cities’ Reader. “We don’t pick at it much.”

Rodriguez, as you might guess, picks.

The San Francisco-based author has written three books: Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation, and his new book, Brown, which will be published later this month. He’s a regular commentator on PBS’ NewsHour and a contributor to publications such as Harper’s, U.S. News & World Report, and the Los Angeles Times.

But his audience here will be more familiar with his most personal work, Hunger of Memory. (Quad City Arts is encouraging people to read and discuss the book in the month before Rodriguez’s arrival.) The collection of autobiographical essays is engaging and fascinating, but it also requires effort and attention. And it’s possible that the experience of reading the book provides a hint of what it was like to write it. “So painful was it to write, I have not read Hunger of Memory since the day (in 1981) I sent it to a publisher,” Rodriguez writes in a January 2002 letter to readers.

In the book’s final piece, entitled “Mr. Secrets,” he describes how his mother reacted to the publication of one of his autobiographical essays. “I am writing about those very things my mother has asked me not to reveal,” he writes. His mother sent him a letter: “Write about something else in the future. Our family life is private.” In reporting this reaction, Rodriguez told me, “I doubled the violation.” He said he never talked about the book with his father – who died last year – or with his siblings.

Although it has been more than 20 years since he wrote his first book, it is still close to him. And in describing his bond with the autobiography, he showed his gift for the dead-on comparison. “I lived with that book very intensely,” Rodriguez said, “and having put it away, it stays with me, like a bad marriage or a childhood friend.”

The book is subtitled “The Education of Richard Rodriguez,” and he describes it as the story of a “scholarship boy.”

In the first essay, Rodriguez discusses how he largely lost the private, “intimate” language of his family and home to the English he learned in school. That might sound like a personal argument for bilingual education, but it isn’t nearly so simple. The language didn’t change his home life; the socialization process did. “The great change in my life was not linguistic but social,” he writes. “If, after becoming a successful student, I no longer heard intimate voices as often as I had earlier, it was not because I spoke English rather than Spanish. It was because I used public language for most of the day.”

Then Rodriguez uses this memoir, this personal history, as a springboard to discuss the issue of bilingual education. He argues passionately against those who say that bilingual education helps students maintain a sense of their culture, an intimacy with their heritage: “Intimacy is not created by a particular language; it is created by intimates.”

His writing is rich and full of adroit shifts between the personal and the political. This, Rodriguez argues, is what he does. “I write essays,” he said in our interview. “I find my energy in the intersection of the micro and the macro, the private and the public.”

But the work isn’t nearly so intellectual. There’s a devastating section in the first essay when the nuns who teach the Rodriguez children in school plead with their parents to speak English at home. That begins the process by which Richard’s father is quieted. Although his English improves, he seems embarrassed by his inability to master the language, and “he retired into silence. … His children grew so accustomed to his silence that, years later, they would routinely speak of his shyness.” The change in the intimate climate of the home not only changed the man, it also changed his children’s perceptions of him, retroactively. Rodriguez is not just a good thinker; he’s attuned, and his poignant observations give weight to his political arguments.

But Rodriguez is not likely to interpret the book or his history for Quad Cities audiences in his wide-ranging lectures, covering topics from writing to race. He’ll tell you what he thinks, but he’ll leave you to decide what’s important, and what it means. The book left his hands more than two decades ago.

“It’s the reader’s book,” Rodriguez said. “I can’t lord over it and say, ‘This is what I meant.’”

Rodriguez will visit the Quad Cities April 4 through 6, giving six presentations across the area on a variety of topics. For a complete schedule of his appearances, check out the “Readings & Lectures” section of the Reader calendar or visit (http://www.quadcityarts.com/superauthor.html).
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