Recently, I had the opportunity to read José Antonio Rodríguez’s memoir house built on ashes. Written in vignettes, the stories create a rich tapestry of Rodríguez’s experiences as the child of immigrant parents, their impoverished life in Texas, his trips back and forth across the border to visit family in Mexico, and how he grapples with his emerging sexuality. Rodríguez’s brief vignettes exemplify his background as a poet with the work’s lyrically constructed snapshots, oftentimes resembling prose poems. Written from Rodríguez’s perspective as a young boy, the characters he portrays—Amá, Tía Eugenia, and his often-absent father, Apá—illuminate the immigrant experience and how it feels to grow up in a country where they are often perceived as outsiders. The memoir is a captivating story of a young boy’s coming-of-age, his struggle to navigate the complex world located between two cultures, and his advancing sense of personal identity.
In preparation for Rodríguez’s April 18th Writer’s Voice reading at CSU Chico, I had the opportunity to interview him about his writing.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?
Initially it wasn’t a “want” so much as a slow realization that perhaps writing could be a possibility, perhaps I had some talent and something that warranted sharing with a reader. That happened when I enrolled in my first creative writing course as part of my master’s degree, which came after earning undergraduate degrees in other fields. I stumbled around for a while before coming to writing.
How did you decide to write house built on ashes?
For years I’d been carrying a deep desire to tell my coming-of-age story because I intuited that it was interesting and significant in some way, though I couldn’t exactly articulate how. Then as a graduate student at Binghamton University, I learned much about creative nonfiction but also about literary theory, which offered me new lenses by which to interpret my past, my experiences as an immigrant, as queer, as a member of the poverty class, as…. Eventually I reached a point where I had a good grasp of both my experiences and their larger or deeper significance, which is necessary to reach the reader.
What were you hoping to achieve with your memoir?
I had two main objectives. One, to show the reader who shares a similar background that our lives of dirt and sweat and want can also be the stuff of literature, can also be artistic, valuable, and beautiful. Two, to show the reader who has a vastly different background than my own how the Other becomes other-ed, and how that Other may not be so different after all, if we recognize the social, cultural, and political forces that form and deform the self. This isn’t to say that I presume to have succeeded at both objectives, only that those were my aims.
Why did you choose to structure house built on ashes in vignettes? What do you like about that particular form?
I love the form’s lyrical potential, how suggestive it can be, how much like poetry. It allowed me the space and rhythm to develop mood, to highlight the intimate details so significant to the narrator’s deep desire for beauty and belonging, for home. Also, I think it worked well to echo the very nature of memory, which is fragmentary and mysterious.
How did you learn how to write in the voice of a child/adolescent?
Before anything else, I had to understand that the individual’s past is always informing the present in ways both beautiful and terrible. And so I had to honor that past that I carry, accept the value and significance of those memories lived by my younger self. This felt more like emotional labor. Then came what felt more like intellectual labor: the mapping out of the institutions of power and influence that shaped the narrator and the ways they did it, from the macro to the micro, and then stripping them away to begin at the beginning. In other words, I learned about what the adult knows that the child doesn’t know and how the child begins to know, how that knowledge comes to him, and how that knowledge and those “lessons” are often contradictory or dissonant. For example, the memoir’s adolescent narrator is conflicted about his sexual orientation and his sense of masculinity. If I want to make that significant in the narrative, make that something the reader ought to be aware of, I will want to show where and how it might have started. For that and other reasons, I had to include the memories of the narrator being ostracized by the boys of the village. But I had to include them in such a way that would communicate the young child’s bewilderment based on what he did and did not yet know.
What can you tell us about your forthcoming The American Autopsy: Poems?
The collection is centered on the various manifestations of violence in the U.S., from personal to communal, private to public. And it investigates the ways this violence challenges the nation and its subjects. That was the aim, anyway; we’ll see what the reader makes of it.
Do you have plans for other books of poetry?
I imagine I do because I feel I have more to say and explore, except that I’m not certain what shape the next project will take until I’ve amassed a group of poems that might fit together. And how they might fit together is mostly a mystery until the project comes together. I’m also superstitious about articulating the project before it has manifested itself, because the project may evolve, and my having already articulated its shape may prove stifling to its evolution. I guess I prefer to work in the amorphous dark.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
New poems. Translating the memoir into Spanish. Translating a Mexican poet’s work into English.
Before house built on ashes, Rodríguez was best known for his poetry. His works include Backlit Hour (SFA Press/Texas A&M Consortium, 2013), The Shallow End of Sleep (Tia Chucha Press/Northwestern UP, 2011), and Borderlines: Drawing Border Lives (Wings Press). His latest book This American Autopsy: Poems is forthcoming in October of 2019 from University of Oklahoma Press. You can read more about José Antonio Rodríguez and his work at www.jarodriguez.org
Here are some other links to a sampling of Rodríguez’s work :
“Sunflowers” (Poetry Foundation), “On Shakespeare: ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day'” (Poetry Society of America), “Double Glass Doors” (Connotation Press).
Please join us for an exciting evening with José Antonio Rodríguez, this Thursday, April 18th at 7:30 pm, Zingg Recital Hall (ARTS 150). Thanks to contributions made by the Department of English and the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, Writer’s Voice readings are free and open to the public. This Writer’s Voice reading is also sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Office of Undergraduate Education, in support of the 2018-2019 Book-in-Common.
Written by Jeanette Keables