In 1992, I was a 22 years old. I was specializing in poetry-writing at the time and my autobiographical material was in service to my verse. That year my family decided to return to Mexico, a decision that was announced as temporary but which eventually became permanent. That I chose not to return with them because I was enrolled in graduate school was a difficult choice. And though it was they who were leaving me, and the U.S., it felt as if it was I who was abandoning them, and Mexico. The guilt began to settle, but also the reality of my other losses: the unexpected phone calls, the occasional care package in the mail, the visits home for the holidays, the home-cooked meals, the music, the voices, the crowded little rooms with the big TVs. All of it was irretrievably gone. If I had turned to poetry to write a love letter to my Mexican heritage and homeland, I wanted to turn to prose to write a love letter to my family--one that would capture the multiple dimensions of the stories, the conflicts, and the scars, because that’s how I understood them.
In our cohort at the writing program there was a young woman, just a few years older than me who was writing memoir. Her name was Margaret. She was bubbly and kind, and was writing about her misadventures with a traveling theater group as an undergraduate. I remember how unkind many of the other students were, offering unsolicited criticisms that I would hear echoed for many years to come about anyone who dared write memoir at such a young age: how presumptuous, how self-aggrandizing, how vain. Memoir, or autobiography, was considered the territory of the seasoned, the experienced, the industrious, the accomplished: certainly, a graduate student didn’t fall into any of these categories.
There were no classes being offered in creative nonfiction and I would never take one even though, many years later, I would end up teaching that genre (and giving lectures about it!). So I became a closeted creative nonfiction writer. When I sought out models for learning how to write the personal narrative, the fact that I came across so many veteran writers only confirmed that this was a genre in which the very green writer was not welcomed. I didn’t reveal to anyone that I was writing memoir, that I was reconstructing my various journeys: coming to America, coming out, and coming to education. I believed at one time I justified this clandestine writing activity by saying to myself that it was quite possible I might get killed walking across the street one day, so I had to leave a record behind that told people who I was.
By 1997, I had attended another creative writing program in Arizona, this time specializing in fiction. I had written a thesis in prose--a novel about the grape pickers of Southern California titled Crossing Vines. Though I had used my first-hand knowledge of the labor, all of the characters were mostly made up. The book might have turned out differently had I not been secretly writing about my family already. Somehow I didn’t want these narratives to overlap, not because I ever intended to publish my memoirs, but because the nonfiction was too strange and at times too heavy-handed to pass for fiction. Therefore, I was very public about this novel I had completed, and very private about the 10 or so personal essays I had written. But also by 1997, I began to notice that the creative writing bulletin boards that announced fiction and poetry contests and calls for submissions had become aggressive in seeking out nonfiction memoir. This gave me the courage to come out to one of my most trusted older friends. I told her I was writing memoir, a revelation I soon regretted.
Her response: “Memoir? What does a 27-year-old have to say about the world? You’ve hardly even lived!”
I might have become paralyzed had I not understood what I had written, and why I knew I was on the right track. I acknowledged that mine was not an unusual experience, but to have someone like me have the capacity and skill to write it down was unusual. I understood that my life journey was important enough to commit to print and that even if my reader wasn’t a gay Mexican kid from a farmworking community he would at the very least learn that such a person existed. And I also knew that writing about my experience as a young man was not prematurely announcing that it was the most important stage in my life, but certainly the most formative--wasn’t that why the young protagonist was such an important one in literature at large? Weren’t we always turning to the adolescent years, not our birth years, to locate our beginnings? I trusted my impulse to keep writing, a choice that was validated by another, better friend who said to me after I had confessed to him how hurt I was by the negative response to my coming out as a memoirist: “Well thank God no one told Anne Frank that. She was only 14.”
In the new millennium, creative nonfiction as a third genre was solidly taking its place between poetry and fiction. Personal essay anthologies and book-length memoirs were becoming increasingly popular, and the field had expanded to include the lyrical essay and micro-prose or flash nonfiction. University presses were taking notice, establishing series that specialized in creative nonfiction, like Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiography at the University of Wisconsin Press, which is where I thought my book would eventually find a home. It turns out that the press was on the verge of starting a whole new series, Writing in Latinidad: Autobiographical Voices of U.S. Latinas/os, and the editors wanted mine to be part of that new venture, but they wanted a book-length narrative, not a collection of personal essays.
I wasn’t surprised by this criteria because that’s what I had been pulling from the bookshelves all this time so I set out to weave those 10 essays into a single book. When I accessed memoirs at this time, I realized that linearity was not a mandate in terms of structuring a book. Linearity seemed to be reserved for biography--a from-the-womb-to-the-tomb timeline. Memoir was a journey, a stage in the life of the writer. To give myself parameters, I decided that the book would end just after I became a sophomore in college. I chose that moment because it was a year of reckoning for me--it was the year I was involved in an abusive same-sex relationship, the year I tried to patch things up with my father as a way to seek guidance and solace, the year I realized I would have to continue on my path by myself, making stupid mistakes but, somehow, transcending them. It was also important that there was a decade sitting between the writer I was at the age of 30 and the child I was at the age of 19. But most importantly, I wanted the book to be about my relationship to my father.
This last consideration surprised me. Since I had lost my mother when I was 12, I thought that my memoir was going to be about her--my way of keeping her memory alive. And although she is a key figure in Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa, the person whom I was still trying to come to terms with was my father. Though my mother was dead, my father was the ghost--it was his absence that still haunted me. This conflict helped me rescue the essays from the sentimentality of nostalgia, from the low-emotion in anecdote, and from the frivolousness of crowd-pleasing storytelling. I completed the book in 2005, at the age of 35, and as I traveled across the country in 2006 to promote the book, one of the questions that members of the audience kept asking was: Are you going to write a sequel?
I was of two minds about writing another memoir: firstly, in my 20s I spent most of the time in college, sitting down at the desk and reading on the couch. Not exactly the stuff of drama. But the more I read from my own book, the more I realized how much I had left out because it didn’t fit the main threads, because I hadn’t remembered those episodes when I was writing the first book, or because I simply hadn’t digested the memory enough to identify its significance. But what really got me thinking I had to write Red-Inked Retablos, an antidote to Butterfly Boy, was the death of my father, five days before Butterfly Boy was released.
A shocking realization: as a writer, thinking about someone who is still alive is a strikingly different experience than thinking about that same person who is now deceased. I was not a writer when my mother was living, so I didn’t know that shift in perspective. But now that my father was gone, my artist temperament was coloring memory with another palette altogether. Was it a tinge of guilt, sympathy, grief, regret, emptiness? All of those.
A man once said to me that he knew I had lost one of my parents because there was a light that had gone out in my eyes. I wondered what my eyes betrayed about my double loss, my double sorrow now? Was my stare complete darkness?
Not only did I see my father differently, I saw myself differently, and therefore I wrote about myself differently also, even if I visited that same era I wrote about in Butterfly Boy.
The thing about loss is that you carry it with you for the rest of your life. It’s a strange contradictory image--an emptiness that bears weight. So loss was the theme in Red-Inked Retablos, my second book of nonfiction. I not only wrote about my birth parents, I wrote about my literary parents--Truman Capote, the poet Ai, Gloria Anzaldúa and Michael Nava--writers I had invited to step in as guides when I left home. And surprisingly, I positioned myself as a kind of parent, or rather a mentor, when I encouraged younger writers to take up the cause of autobiographical writing, and when I wrote about two young writers who had passed away before their prime, celebrating their work, keeping its memory sacred.
At about this time, nearing my 40s, two interesting developments were taking place. The first was my awareness of long-term memory. I couldn’t remember what the devil I was doing the week before, but suddenly I recalled with astonishing clarity the smallest of details about meals, conversations, encounters that took place when I was a child. One of the challenges about being a writer of nonfiction is the reader’s suspicion of embellishment, the distrust in the writer being able to accurately recollect dialogue and to recount events located in the specific hours of the day or night--how do we remember the choreography of bodies and gestures, reconfigure the architecture of a neighborhood so long ago, in a different country even?
The nonfiction writer will answer these doubts with the nonfiction motto: What I write is not how it happened, it’s how I remember it. And misremembering is another way of remembering. In any case, the floodgates opened and it all came back to me, including the traumatic part of my childhood that I had deliberately left unexamined because I was not ready to confront it: experiencing hunger, eating disorders, unfulfilled desire.
The beauty of aging is that I was now able to come face to face with that single demon I could not confront before. Was I stronger? Yes. Was I more confident? Yes. But these traits could not have been fortified without the psychic distance of time. Two decades separated and connected the hungry me and the well-fed me. This allowed me not to forget, even if I had been suppressing the memory, and it allowed the trauma not to consume me because, look, its famished stomachs were so far away from me now.
This didn’t make the process of writing about hunger any less painful. I was surprised at how many times the tears and heartache caught me off-guard and forced me to stop. I tried to read some excerpts on the phone to friends and I would break down. But I kept at it, knowing that soon I’d be able to unearth the entirety of the experience without feeling as if I had been purging emotionally. After all, I had gone through this before when I had written about grief and loss.
One of my pet peeves is when memoirists are accused of confusing writing with therapy. I believe that poets are much more sympathetic to this indictment, particularly those whose speaker in the poem is the first-person “I”. But so too I’d like to plead with memoirists not to deny that there is a level of healing taking place in the shaping of narrative--it is not the only purpose of writing but it is most definitely one of the outcomes. Writing about trauma does’t solve, doesn’t answer and sometimes doesn’t close--it sifts through the rubble and tries to communicate what happened there. Whatever is put back together is, ideally, outside of the body and the soul, but inside the imagination. It is a map of a place we no longer inhabit, but which still inhabits us.
As a way of confronting my experience with hunger, I expanded the narrative to include other types of hunger--some literal, some metaphorical. I made that narrative reach back to my childhood but I also asked it to reach forward to my adult years. And most strategically, I contained the episodes in small, bite-sized pieces that were no longer than 300 words. This limitation was actually freeing because no matter how deeply painful and emotionally-draining the writing, I knew there was a finish line to the stumble down memory lane. I called this book Autobiography of My Hungers.
This summer I turned 44 years old and I’m already thinking about the next book of nonfiction, another memoir in which my father is again a central figure. I wrote my first book to argue with him, I wrote the second to honor him, I wrote the third to reveal my most private moments to him, and I believe the next is to forgive--myself. No, I don’t think I can say that I forgive him because there’s nothing to forgive. My father made mistakes and bad choices, and it took me a lifetime of doing the same to understand that this wasn’t deliberate or malicious but human. Yes, this disposition is called maturity. Forgiving myself means revisiting those exchanges and seeing my father, a grown man, through the eyes of a grown man. This ability, however, would not have been possible had I not written about my father through the eyes of a younger, less seasoned, more uncertain, man.
I am also, in my 40s, seized by an insatiable nostalgia. It’s been 30 years since I left Mexico, my family’s homeland, though all this time I have been going back through the writing. Doing so at this time of my life is also a way of making peace with the reality that when I decide to return I will find a very different country there. My memories are my Mexico. And though I have returned to visit over the years, I have explored parts of the country I did not know growing up. What I long for are those places that hold memory for me--the broken sidewalks, the stone fences, the chicken coop in the back where my job was to collect the eggs each morning. I want to go back because these are the places I am most distant from, and yet, thanks to long-term memory, I recall with most clarity. Perhaps this is the homecoming I’ve always heard the old people in my family talk about when they sat in the garden and didn’t know I was sitting within earshot. How they collected things when they spoke, how they invoked people and places--a catalogue of dates, names, events--all the incredible evidence of a life lived and remembered. How small my world seemed then, and yet how promising that the best was yet to come. Well, now I’m not sitting outside the circle anymore but have earned my place inside of it--not because of my age, but because, sadly, everyone older than me has died. At the ripe age of 44, I find myself in the uneasy role of an elder, a storyteller--not of the I, but of the us. The task of keeping family, life, and love is now mine. And it’s exactly the paradise I imagined:
The name of the town at the northeast shore of Lake Pátzcuaro is pure onomatopoeia. Say it--Tzin-tzun-tzán--and hear the hummingbird zip by with each syllable. These elusive little birds are so fast they’re invisible and can never be caged. In fact, the only way the people of Tzintzuntzán can attempt to capture a hummingbird is to carve one out of wood, or to sculpt one in iron. The only way for visitors to own one is to buy it. I brought two of them with me that hang from the kitchen doorway of my NYC apartment. As soon as I put them up I realized how ridiculous this illusion was since the wings are frozen mid-flight and the bodies dangle from fishing lines because what I “caught” was nothing less than decorated dead weight. These are memorials to the fleeting hummingbird, a wondrous feathered creature whose population has been dwindling over the years. I saw hundreds of memorials in Tzintzuntzán, but not a single living example of what all that artistry honors. Still, it is difficult to challenge the town’s name--it is the place of the hummingbirds. They are everywhere: on furniture, on pottery, and stitched near the hems of pretty little dresses. And each time I say the town’s name--Tzintzuntzán--the hummingbird becomes audible--a ghost sound emanating from the colorful depictions.
Purépecha territory is the land that inspires stubborn memory. “Ya no es como antes,” is the phrase that pops out of old and young alike. It’s not like before. And so people try to reconstruct that before in order to pin their good memories there. I often heard my grandparents mourn for the before when they sat in the living room of our California home and reminisced about that state of Michoacán in general, about the towns of Zacapu or Nahuatzen in particular. What they didn’t want to admit was that the land had an after without them, that they held on to the before because they now saw those beloved places from afar, like exiles. And when they visited the after, they did so as strangers to the streets they no longer recognized and to the people who no longer remembered them.
Do you remember...? my father liked to ask, quite unexpectedly, usually breaking the silence in the room or in the car. Do you remember your mother? Do you remember Zacapu? Do you remember that time we went to Disneyland? These were not meant to start a conversation; they were more like musings. Lost in the geographies of his daydream, he would suddenly realize I was nearby, and so I became his temporary anchor to the waking world. I would answer with a simple Yes and then he’d drift into thought again. Except that on this second journey he would take me with him because indeed I did remember and so I followed him through the now-lighted corridors of memory.
Rigoberto González is the author of fifteen books of poetry and prose, and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing. He is the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, winner of the American Book Award, The Poetry Center Book Award, The Shelley Memorial Award of The Poetry Society of America, and a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He is contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, on the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and is professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.