"When You Hurt Me, I Won't Let It Show"
detail, oil on tin mounted on panel, 1999
An Interview with Rigoberto González
conducted by Roberto Cruz
Autobiography of My Hungers introduces us to the life of a speaker looking to satisfy both his physical and mental appetites. It touches upon author Rigoberto González’s childhood and adult years. It is not only a book about struggle, but about growth, a journey to fulfill some of the voids present in life. It is not only a recollection of memories, but a reflection of each of the experiences that are there to tell both the story of a life, and the way in which these experiences shape a life. As the son of immigrant parents myself, some of the themes in this book spoke to me. As with González’s experience in his younger years, I too have learned from my experience of growing up in Houston.
The interview below is a tribute to some of the major components of this book. My questions were aimed at touching upon general themes, as well as specific pieces. They reflect upon some of González’s feelings throughout his life, and even on his thoughts on certain past experiences through the viewpoint of the present. Identity is a theme I address in some of my questions and his responses hint at the struggle, sometimes, of being comfortable assuming an identity that feels true rather than being limited by some of the people around him. Coming up with some of these questions and reading Autobiography of My Hungers caused me to reflect upon my own circumstances. González’s answers made me realize that growth is something that is lifelong and ongoing. Coming across this book certainly brought about this feeling that nothing is assured, life keeps changing and I will keep coming across experiences that will shape me in a different way. There should never be any rush to have your life figured out.
—Roberto Cruz, University of Notre Dame (class of 2017)
Roberto Cruz: I noticed that the “piedrita” excerpts are introduced every few chapters. How do you see these functioning in the book? Was their placement intentional or somewhat random?
Rigoberto González: The piedritas are dispersed to appear random but they’re actually connected to the timelines of the sections. I wanted these poem-like pieces to be a visual contrast to the prose (which is why they are shaped by italicized lines not sentences) and to represent the surprising little finds I reference in the opening piece, which explains what piedritas are and how they too are valuable finds. In the earlier drafts of the book I had no piedritas included, so it read like a much different book. Including them allows the reader to pause and reflect more often--particularly critical since many of the entries are heavy with emotion and imagery.
RC: Different chapters of the book deal with different desires, both internal and external. Is this idea of desire meant as the book’s foundation given its title?
RG: Yes, desire is interchangeable with hunger—especially when that desire is not sated. Physical and emotional desire consume the body equally and can cause the body damage. But that doesn’t mean that the damage is irreparable—I also believe in the wondrous ability of the body to heal. Yet in order to heal, the body has to identify its wounds.
RC: The piece “fire” talks about the envy behind a family’s tragedy and ultimately their exit from that neighborhood because of a fire. Later on the book transitions into a later time in your life. Could you talk about how this might relate to your being able to escape an environment you seemed to dread?
RG: A complex relationship to home, to family, is bittersweet in that way: we love but we want to leave. The decision to escape is connected to the reality that certain hungers will not be appeased at home. Certainly that’s why many have left the homes they love—for economic reasons, yes, and a lengthy history of migration from Mexico to the U.S. has been evidence of that. But I’m also alluding to the exodus of the LGBT community—how many of us leave home in order to survive, to be ourselves outside of silence and invisibility. My family left Mexico in order to live. I left my family in order to live.
RC: Several of these pieces, like “trash” and “witch,” deal with strong reactions to the situation that you saw yourself living in as a child. How did this upbringing shape the decisions you faced as an adult?
RG: Those pieces were the most difficult to write. In fact, it took me 30 years to be able to write concretely about childhood poverty. I suppose there’s no greater incentive than such an experience to grow up wanting to achieve, to build memories shaped by success, not failure or dearth. Being haunted by poverty fueled my work ethic, my determination, my ambition. And in many ways I also considered my journey an extension of my parents’ journeys—I wanted our story, the story of the González family, to move away from want and unhappiness. Strangely, as I grew older I realized I encountered other kinds of wants—but struggle was nothing new to me by then, and I also knew that no desire had to be fatal.
RC: You mention in your book that your family went back to Mexico, while you were able to stay in the United States and get an education, but then go on to write about your nostalgia for home. Could you talk about the process of establishing your identity while belonging to these two completely different worlds?
RG: When my family returned to Mexico in 1992 it was both freeing and frightening. My freedom was that I became completed independent—whatever choice I made would be reported back to family after the fact. Whatever mistakes I made were completely mine. Suddenly my life was in my own hands. But just as quickly the reality of the situation also came to light: I was alone, I had no home. I grew up hearing grow-ups consult each other, give themselves terrible advice, but also come to each other’s rescue. I had none of these options. Ironically, the longer I lived outside of that world the more I thought about it. My longing for that comfort zone became sated by my writing—simply returning was not the answer, but rather, examining that place I used to call home and reminding myself of its flaws as well as its blessings helped me make peace with my solitary journey. And not so solitary at that since memory became my constant companion. I’m not sure if that’s the best of both worlds but it’s certainly the most beneficial to a writer, an artist who mines the past to have a future.
RC: The piece “voracious” seems to deal with a long trauma, with a part of your past that still haunts you. Do you consider this long standing hunger something you are managing to overcome or something you have learned to live with?
RG: When I was a college student I suffered from a number of eating disorders—kboth anorexia and bulimia. Whatever social anxieties I had became heightened in that unfamiliar territory I was now inhabiting. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I stopped, though I don’t think it was a conscious decision. I’m not sure what changed that but suddenly I was gaining weight and overeating. Since then I have learned to control my eating habits, somewhat, but there are some things I can’t shake, like being unable to leave food on my plate without guilt or being unable to keep much food in my apartment. To this day when I have guests they’re surprised I have very little to nothing in the fridge. That inability to store food I have learned to live with. I’m not sure what kind of lesson I’m offering here but I believe it’s something I will be exploring in a future project. I’m still thinking about this.
RC: Throughout the book it is evident that there is a certain company that you long for. Was being a gay immigrant something that made it harder to find the company you were looking for?
RG: Yes, absolutely. It’s not coincidence that most of my boyfriends have also been gay immigrants from Guyana, the Philippines, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic. There’s a special unspoken affinity I have for men who understand the nature of cultural displacement and dislocation. I also write about my only girlfriend, who was born in Taiwan. I don’t have to explain the longing for home to any of them; they understand. I believe that’s why I have lived in NYC all these years. It’s a place of immigrants. But that commonality doesn’t translate into a functional relationship necessarily. Still, I have hope. I can’t see myself at this moment building a partnership with someone who doesn’t have a connection to a distant place, culture or language on the map.
RC: This is a very powerful book that touches upon a lot of experiences and how they shaped you, amongst these was your mother’s death. Would you say that her death added to the longing for the company that seems to be a major theme throughout the book?
RG: I believe so. Hers was the single loss that never quite healed. I was only 12 when she died. Thirty-two years later I still miss her and that feeling of being loved by someone who wants only the best for me. I have yet to find that in my life, and I say that with the utmost respect for my good friends and few relatives who are still alive. I suppose I have romanticized that intimacy to an extent that nothing will come close to it, but I’m fine with that—it becomes a high standard, not necessarily unreachable. For the moment I am living my life, content to be doing what I love best—writing. I’m nurtured by my work, the few friends who can put up with my moody nature, and by the knowledge that what I’m laboring over is being read and appreciated. It’s not such a bad place for a man like me who used to be a child with very few things to call his own, with very little room to dream.
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