An Interview with Rigoberto González

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“I became such a believer in books as salvation that I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else as an adult. I don’t know if I’m saving lives, but I do know that I’m enriching my own,” says poet and activist writer Rigoberto González on his love of writing.

Though his talent spans many genres, González is a poet at heart. He is the author of four full-length books of poetry, So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks (1999), Other Fugitives and Other Strangers (2006), Black Blossoms (2011), and Unpeopled Eden (2013). He has also written two books of bilingual prose for children, Soledad-Sigh-Sighs/Soledad Suspiros (2003), and Antonio’s Card/La Tarjeta de Antonio (2005), as well as young adult novels in The Mariposa Club series and a novel titled Crossing Vines (2003). His nonfiction writing includes Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa (2006), Red-Inked Retablos: Essays (2013), and Autobiography of My Hungers (2013).

González will read at Frequency North on Thursday, October 17 at 7:30pm in the Standish Dining Rooms in the Events and Athletics Center as part of the National Day on Writing celebration. There will be a Late-Afternoon Talk that day with González in the Science Center room 151 at 5pm. Both events are free and open to the public. Over email, I asked González about his work, his writing habits, about being a “young gay kid in a poor Mexican family,” and how books saved his life.

So much of your work is derived from personal experiences. Do you find it difficult to write about your own life or does it just come naturally?

It’s not difficult for me to mine personal experience anymore, but it was in my 20s, when I was just beginning to commit memory to print. I wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested in reading about me; I wasn’t sure if my family would be devastated that I was revealing so much about them as well. I still didn’t have a compelling reason to reach toward memoir, other than to have something to write about.

Now, in my 40s, I understand that my difficult journeys have given many who have traveled the same roads a place to reflect and to feel less isolated. And since so many of my family members are now dead, I am telling stories to remember them. As I get older I become more comfortable because I care less about what people will think or say when they read about me. Thankfully, I only hear from readers who are grateful and who understand that it takes courage to transcend shame and embarrassment.

You are visiting Saint Rose as part of our National Day on Writing celebration, which seeks to “help writers from all walks of life recognize how important writing is to their lives.” How important is writing in your life?

I always say that books saved my life. I was a young gay kid in a poor Mexican family who saw nothing bright in his future. This filled me with such anxiety that I considered suicide. But turning to books helped me turn away from those thoughts and from the conditions that were filling me with dread and depression. Being a writer helps me feel I’m doing something useful and necessary. There are so many lessons to be learned in what I just wrote: that writing helped me imagine a world outside of the tiny one I felt trapped inside of; that writing has allowed me to become part of a community that helps others toward thought, creativity and, yes, even pleasure; that writing gives me a reason to wake up in the morning and look forward to the desk and chair.

You have written books of poetry, fiction, memoir, and even bilingual children’s books. Would you say you prefer writing one genre over the others?

Poetry is my first love, though recently I have been writing more literary criticism. I suppose it would be ungrateful to say I prefer one over the other, but the truth is that my favorite genre is the one I’m currently immersed in. I just completed my third young adult novel. I’ve been slowly revising a few poems and collecting my thoughts and ideas for a book of essays on poetry. I’m so blessed to be able to move from one to another, sometimes in one sitting–I’ll never suffer this thing some writers talk about called “writer’s block.”

You currently teach creative writing at Rutgers University in Newark. Is teaching something you always planned on doing with your degree?

No. I’m very honest about this with my students. After earning my MFA, I resisted the urge to step into the classroom as a teacher, mostly because all I saw on my campus were beleaguered adjuncts and professors who kept saying they didn’t have enough time to write. Why in the world would I choose that path? For about seven years I did anything but teach. Yes, there were some lean times, some second-guessing, but when I finally went on the job market (and only because I needed the health insurance), I was more a competitive candidate with three books to my name and a few national awards. That helped me land a job that didn’t work me to death and that nurtured me as an artist as well as a teacher. I’ve grown to love teaching and I adore my students, but they know that I’m a writer first, so I encourage them not to look at teaching as the only possible profession.

When you’re not writing or teaching, how do you spend your time?

Reading. I’m a book critic so I read constantly. I have a stack of books that I want to read for pleasure and I can’t wait to go off to a beach somewhere and just read without having to review or analyze or critique. But in order to avoid sounding like a total nerd, I’ll say that I like to travel in the summers and winters. I just spent a few months in Italy and in January I usually go to Puerto Rico. But this winter I’m off to Baja. Next year, Hawaii.

Sounds like fun! Do you know what you will be reading at Frequency North?

No, not yet. I only know I want to highlight my two recent books, Red-Inked Retablos and Autobiography of My Hungers. I’m very intuitive with my reading choices. I like to get a sense of the community, the space, before I decide what I will share. If I don’t feel comfortable, I usually don’t read the more sensitive material. If the room is generous, I respond in kind.

Do you have any specific writing rituals or traditions?

I don’t think so. I only know that I can only think after drinking a pot of coffee in the mornings. I also know I don’t write between noon and six–never been able to–and that I like to write at night. I usually call it quits at three in the morning. These are more like habits. I adopted them in graduate school and still practice them. I suppose because they’ve never failed me, so why change?

What would be the best advice you could give to aspiring writers?

To read widely and voraciously. There will always be time to dream about publications or the profession, but time to read is precious. Make room for it. One of the early choices I made was not to own a television. I’ve never owned one since I left for college and I don’t miss it. Yes, there are some great things on television, but I also know I wasted too many hours staring and not thinking. It’s the one distraction I don’t allow in my home. If I’m bored, I pick up a book. I suggest aspiring readers do the same.

And who are your favorite authors?

Too many to name and my list gets longer each year. But I do have some go-to authors–these are the people I reach for when I want to be reminded of the power and beauty of writing. If I want poetry I reread Federico García Lorca or Elizabeth Bishop or Mahmoud Darwish. If I want prose I reread Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, Italo Calvino or Gabriel García Márquez. Note that I don’t only read American writers or writers writing in English. That’s important to any writer’s education. But I also read very contemporary works. Some of my favorites this year: Ruth L. Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being; Carmen Giménez Smith’s Milk & Filth; Tim Z. Hernández’s Mañana Means Heaven; and Aleksander Hemon’s The Book of My Lives; and Thomas Glave’s Among the Blood People.

What projects are you currently working on?

Once I’m done responding to this interview I’m going to turn back to a lecture I’m working on, which I am delivering at the Library of Congress next week. It’s about Latino poetry and it’s the opening essay in a book about contemporary Latino poetry.

And I’m slowly working on my next memoir–another book about my father. I can’t say anything more about that one because I’m only a few pages in. I don’t know where it’s going to take me. I just know who’s keeping me company.

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