José Antonio Rodriguez’s House Built on Ashes

house built on ashesThis 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.

*

Open House
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.

*

from House Built on Ashes (University of Oklahoma Press)

Watch a clip of this piece being read here.

*resonating with josé antonio rodriguez

adelphinotes

 

Last week had me both at the Alice Hoffman Young Writers Retreat at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, as well as in Austin, Texas for the CantoMundo conference. It’s a little more rocknroll that I’m used to, but I had a blast!

Here’s a pic of one of the nice surprises from last week: a collection of personal notes from the young writers I worked with at Adelphi. I can’t begin to express the gratitude I feel at being given the opportunity to share my work and talk poetry with others. Thank you to all who attended my talk on lyrical prose and who have since reached out since then! Keep the words coming, for yourself and for others!

Each year, CantoMundo hosts a poetry workshop for Latina/o poets that provides a space for the creation, documentation, and critical analysis of Latina/o poetry. This year was the conference’s last time in Austin, and it was nothing short of spectacular! I was able to be in workshops led by Texas State Poet Laureate Carmen Tafolla one day, and one led by the current Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Herrera. Both poets presented themselves as forces of nature as well as generous guides. Highlights included the readings on Friday and Saturday at the Spider House Ballroom. I read on Saturday, specifically “Drinking at Home” and “Directions” from Everything We Think We Hear.

Sunflowers,_Merritt,_California,_27_June_2013One of my favorite things to do at CantoMundo is to geek out about my favorite poems by the poets who wrote them and who happen to attend the conference. The poem below by José Antonio Rodriguez originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Poetry magazine. I remember copying it out by hand at a bookstore and marveling at the raw imagery, from like a thousand ticks turning their backs to the “halos” at the end. What continues to move me even now in reading is how the imagery is packed with so much emotional resonance, pointing to things hidden as well as things almost there.

***

Sunflowers – José Antonio Rodriguez

No pitying/”Ah” for this one – Alan Shapiro

No, nor a fierce hurrah
for what it does without choice,
for following the light
for the same reason the light follows it.

Just a thing rough to the touch, a face
like a thousand ticks turning their backs,
suckling at something you can’t see,
and a body like a tag off the earth

so that my child hands couldn’t tear it out
from the overgrown lot next door.
………………………….My palms raw with the shock
of quills and spines. Its hold like spite, and ugly

except when seen from a distance—
a whole field of them by the highway,
an 80-mile-per-hour view
…………………………..like a camera’s flash.
All of them like halos
without saints to weigh them down.

*

Happy halo-ing!

José

p.s. One week left to enter the Goodreads giveaway for Reasons (not) to Dance! Details below!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Reasons (not) to Dance by Jose Angel Araguz

Reasons (not) to Dance

by Jose Angel Araguz

Giveaway ends August 07, 2016.

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at Goodreads.

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