This week I had the distinct pleasure of having poet and essayist José Antonio Rodriguez video-conference into my current creative nonfiction class here at Linfield College. We discussed his memoir House Built on Ashes (Oklahoma University Press), a collection of lyrical essays that delves into his childhood memories, interrogating them for the stories and insights behind them. The essays range in topics from the intersection of the immigrant experience and borderland culture to sexual identity and social class dynamics. What makes the collection richly compelling, however, is how Rodriguez’s writing makes such complex topics human and intimate.
In class discussion before Rodriguez’s virtual visit, I shared the following excerpt from an interview with Rodriguez on the Letras Latinas Blog:
[TK]: Each story has thought-provoking endings that capture José’s feelings about each episode…How did you choose which aspects informed the final lines of the narrative? In hindsight, what importance do you attach to formative thoughts such as these during your journey to adulthood?
[JAC]: Well, I’m a big fan of ambiguity because it highlights moments of uncertainty or doubt in the narrator’s mind, moments that I think are valuable and generative for all individuals. I feel that society keeps pushing us past these moments of uncertainty, keeps ushering us into answers and certainty because that’s supposed to communicate strength and resolve; so those endings are a bit of resistance against that push and a way of communicating this particular narrator’s every-present sense of conflict or uncertainty with the world around him. About their importance, I think many times those thoughts were brief and transitory because life was coming at the narrator from every direction, but they left a trace of potential or possibility, and that capacity to imagine other ways that one might confront a situation or react to it, is their greatest gift to the narrator. To me. It is a great irony that often that which estranges us from our environment allows for the possibility of better powers of observation, which is integral to writing. I was pushed to the margins or estranged from the environment in so many ways, that I was left observing the world rather than fully being in it.
What Rodriguez says here about using ambiguity as a way to remain in uncertainty and, thus, subvert society’s expectation to move away from uncertainty and have things end neatly is a powerful lesson in how to have art and politics meet without one sacrificing the other. This move also invites the reader closer to the experience of the text and provides a space to dwell on complex feelings rather than turn away from them, a turning away that in creative nonfiction can read as false or simplistic.
I also made sure to note the moment in the interview excerpt above where a series of statements by Rodriguez about “the narrator” of his essays is interrupted with the shorter statement “To me.” This brief acknowledgement of self is a lived out example of what is at stake in creative nonfiction and the work one must do in writing it. To speak of a narrator-who-is-you and thus frame a piece this way can establish distance between the raw material and your own self at risk and alive with feelings. In this space, aesthetic moves can be made and revisions considered that lead to illuminations not afforded in real life.
In the piece below, “Open House,” one can see some of these ideas at work. The narrative of an elementary school open house braids the two worlds of the child narrator together, that of his family life and that of his education. The split across language and culture, home and aspirations, is charged by Rodriguez’s use of the present tense. The reader is brought right into the action and thoughts that propel the story. By the end, the meeting of two worlds becomes a blurring of them, to the point that the open house – which itself is an event where others go and see a place – becomes a site where the narrator himself feels the weight of being seen.
By José Antonio Rodriguez
It is a strange sight, the school at night, aglow with light emanating from all its open doors. Amá, Luis, Yara, and I walk toward it, together. Amá begins to lag behind. We slow our pace and she catches up but eventually lags behind again, like she prefers to walk one step behind us.
In every room, we find a corner to stand in, Amá wringing her hands like she owes the room money. I tell her about how crowded the school is, built for half the number of students that now live a third of their lives in it. The teacher walks to us. In every room I translate for the teacher. In every room I translate for Amá. In every room I am a gran estudiante. The Spanish reminds me of church. The Spanish sounds foreign—talk of literature, talk of math, talk of science. In every room the white students marvel at my perfect Spanish, my Spanish without an accent, avert their eyes from my mother’s lack of English.
In every room they harbor the suspicion, hear the language, my first tongue, the telling sign that I could not be from here, that I could not be American. How they look at me, see someone they didn’t imagine.
Watch a clip of this piece being read here.