THE NAME Rigoberto González is often used in the same sentence as the word “prolific.” Well, he is the author of 17 books of poetry and prose, including the memoirs Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa (winner of the American Book Award) and Autobiography of My Hungers. But González’s accomplishments run far beyond a large output.
For example, he is currently a professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey, and the inaugural Stan Rubin Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the Rainier Writing Workshop. In 2015, González received the The Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Publishing Triangle. He serves as a critic-at-large with the Los Angeles Times and as a contributing editor for Poets & Writers magazine. González also sits on the Board of Trustees of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). These are but a few of his accomplishments.
This year brings another González book, What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth: A Memoir of Brotherhood (University of Wisconsin Press). Joy Castro dubs this third memoir a “literary victory.” It is indeed. González comes at us with a ruthless honesty that is counterbalanced with hard-earned self-awareness. This is his attempt to make sense of a family filled with as much dysfunction as it is with real affection. Some of the truths González uncovers are particular to his circumstances, though much of what he offers is universal — undoubtedly, many readers will recognize themselves and their families in these pages. And at the memoir’s center is a difficult but indissoluble bond with his brother.
González agreed to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for LARB about his new book.
DANIEL A. OLIVAS: In your latest memoir, What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth, you explore some rather dark places where you and your brother, Alex, have traveled, especially in the context of dysfunctional family dynamics. Can you talk a little about how you mapped out your narrative and whether you shared drafts of your manuscript with Alex?
RIGOBERTO GONZÁLEZ: I usually don’t show my family my work in progress, though in this case I did tell Alex I was working on a book about brotherhood, about the tough journeys we experienced together, like our shared struggle with depression. He has read my previous books so he’s familiar with my ethics: I can only write about what I remember, about the things I’ve seen and heard from my point of view; I don’t write anyone else’s story.
When I wrote Butterfly Boy, Alex complained that he was written too much on the margins, which made me laugh because all that time I thought I was protecting him. So when the time came for me to explore our relationship as siblings, I included him more, confident that I was portraying him fairly, without usurping his personal narrative. What helped me achieve this was relying on my own memory and not consulting with my brother. I recalled the past, our conversations over the years, and the exchanges we had over the phone, but I resisted any other type of research. This story didn’t have to be perfect because it was a story about people who were flawed.
You explore the meaning of manhood within the context of your relationship with Alex and your father against the backdrop of Mexican culture and expectations. Indeed, you put it out there with this declarative statement: “It felt good to be in the company of these men. For once, I felt I belonged to this private world we called manhood…” In light of your life experiences, how would you define this thing we call manhood?
So much damage is done when we are exposed to the unrealistic and dangerous versions of masculinity in our culture. We confuse strength with aggression and conviction with stubbornness. When we are not reaching the idealized heights of being a man we consider ourselves failures. If we cry, get hurt, become sad, we see ourselves as weak. I’ve learned over the years that manhood is also the ability to accept vulnerability and embrace complexity. Manhood is having the courage to admit error, to face folly, and to refuse to retreat when we are challenged by our loved ones.
For the longest time I thought I would never see myself as a man because I was gay — I didn’t see my sexuality mirrored by any standard of manhood I came across. That is until I actually met gay men, like my mentor in college, Francisco X. Alarcón. That’s when I began to realize what a narrow definition of manhood I had learned at home and how unhealthy that was, not only for myself but also for the men in family. That’s when I became determined that one day I would write a book about the myths of manhood and how they break — not make — a man.
This is your third memoir. What does this genre offer you — and your readers — that your poetry and fiction do not?
The memoir has become my favorite mode of artistic expression. I am currently working on my fourth! I think I’ve become comfortable with personal revelation, with breaking one of the sacred rules of the Latino household: Keep it in the family and don’t tell anyone. Making my private stories public lifts a weight off my shoulders, and I hope that I’m helping others understand that suffering in silence is deadly, that sharing is a responsibility, if only to let people know that their pain is felt, lived, and survived by others.
Once I heard someone say that writing should not be therapy. I believed it until I realized what a cruel statement that was. Far be it from me to tell a writer: How dare you feel better after writing this! How dare you heal! Writing does not substitute therapy, but it sure is therapeutic. It doesn’t mend the wound, but it acknowledges it’s there, and that’s the first step toward emotional recovery.
Daniel A. Olivas’s most recent books are The King of Lighting Fixtures: Stories (University of Arizona Press), and Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (Pact Press). He is a frequent contributor to LARB.