House Built on Ashes
an interview with José Antonio Rodríguez
conducted by Therese Marie Konopelski
House Built on Ashes is an episodic memoir spanning the childhood and young adulthood of José Antonio Rodríguez. From humble beginnings in a small town in Mexico to a future in suburban America, Antonio Rodríguez overcame many odds to reach graduate school. When José, as a doctoral student, hears his hometown has been overtaken by drug lords, he remembers his past in La Sierrita. Though steeped in realism, the work is reflective and expansive, giving the reader a broadened perspective of American society and immigrant families. The work is somewhat of a bildungsroman; José awakens to his surroundings, discovers his place in the world, and challenges it. In an exquisitely painful and beautiful manner, the youth finds himself, who “José” is, amidst the poorness, queerness, “otherness” that make him “different.” Young José’s conclusions emerge as shaping influences for himself and the reader as he struggles with various burdens.
Many family norms in my own life, and surely many other Hispanic children’s lives, are represented in this memoir. I also grew up hearing maxims to discourage greediness such as “No seas sinvergüenza” or “Se dice no gracias cuando te preguntan.” As a child of a Peruvian immigrant, observing the differences and similarities of our families gave me a greater understanding of my mother. Certain values, it seems, are universal in Hispanic culture especially those that dictate what is considered good manners. Personally, this work prompted me to question aspects of my upbringing that I had taken for granted. This interview attempts to investigate José as a protagonist and explore major themes of the memoir. We also discuss the adaptable nature of a memoir and Rodriguez as an author.
-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)
[Therese Konopelski]: Since you have published two poetry collections prior to this memoir, what do you think prompted you to write many of your formative childhood experiences in prose? Your poem “Between Snores and Polyester,” a tender scene between mother and child, has similar subject matter as the vignette “Dark Loud.” While writing the memoir, how did your creative process differ when you drew from memories that also inspired your poetry?
[José Antonio Rodríguez]: Because the poems felt focused on image and fragmented, I felt there was still more potential to the material, more to explore or to explore differently, with a narrator and a discernible narrative arc. The scope of the genres is also different. Where the poetry was centered on one overriding theme or idea, the prose was more expansive, which allowed for not only the expression of the experience but also something of the narrator’s thinking process, his tangling with experience and the formation of meaning around experience. I also felt that I could reach a larger audience through prose, because poetry in general doesn’t sell very well. So, it was several considerations, literary and material, that compelled me to explore similar subject matter in the form of memoir. About the creative process, I have to say the writing of the memoir, at least the first draft, felt less cerebral. The earliest draft was one long fit of inspiration.
[TK]: Your memories are recounted candidly and vividly, including both the joys and sufferings of each moment. How did you discern which experiences to include in your memoir? Because the first narratives are set at a very early age, were your earliest memories informed by how your family members remember your childhood? How have your relatives received your writing, considering much of it deals with private family matters?
[JAC]: The family members who’ve read it have been very supportive and kind in their assessment of my writing. It’s been lovely. Other than checking with family on a few dates, the text is all rooted in my memory. About what to include: in one sense, it was an organic process, certainly at the drafting stage when I was feeling my way through the story. I was crafting vignettes from most of my vivid memories without judging how they fit into the longer narrative. Later, once I had a draft and began to better articulate for myself the narrator’s journey, the conflict(s), and the antagonist(s), so to speak, the process of adding and removing became more deliberate and organized. For example, several themes are explored in the work, such as home, individual agency and identity, and community and belonging, and my aim was to balance these themes throughout the work.
[TK]: In the non-digital past, memoirs were mostly written by adults of an advanced age. Since then, the genre has expanded to include younger authors. As an LGBT Mexican immigrant and a former first-generation student, you have a very powerful life story that you have chosen to share in this work. Why did you choose to focus on your youth and young adulthood, excluding more recent experiences?
[JAC]: I didn’t choose to focus on my youth at first. The decision came as I was writing it out, and that last scene felt like a natural ending, not necessarily the ending of the entire story of my life but the ending of that story. As you know, memoir lends itself to exploring compartmentalized eras or aspects of a life. Mark Doty’s and Nick Flynn’s multiple memoirs come to mind, for example. The main reason for me was focus; I really wanted to focus on the narrator’s childhood because it was so rich and formative in all those beautiful and ugly and complicated ways. I know it may sound strange, but I also felt that if I kept writing about my later experiences, then the boy’s life, his immense pain and confusion and capacity for appreciating beauty, would not be given its due. I wanted to honor him.
[TK]: Each section is written in diction appropriate to the age and perspective of a young José. As a result, the work is accessible and meaningful to a variety of ages, though it deals with many mature themes. What impact do you hope your memoir will have on your audience, considering those of similar or dissimilar backgrounds as yourself and different age groups?
[JAC]: I’m excited at the idea of different age groups being able to appreciate the text. For those with similar backgrounds as mine, I’d like for them to see themselves in literature, in this art, to see themselves visible or represented in this way because I didn’t in my youth. For those with dissimilar backgrounds, I’d like for them to get a peek into an immigrant’s experience, a queer boy’s experience, a poor child’s experience interacting with the institutions of power that have immense influence over our lives. For every reader, I hope to defamiliarize many of the trappings of western society that we take for granted or assume are universal and, in so doing, highlight the immense complexity (and conflicts) of our formations as subjects and citizens of a nation state.
[TK]: Each story has thought-provoking endings that capture José’s feelings about each episode. Two favorites of mine were those of “Like a Boy” and “Matchstick Boy:” “In my chest, right beneath that bone in the middle, a little feeling of hardness settles like a small stone;” “whatever she says back to you can’t be worse than you keeping your words inside, than you saying nothing at all.” How did you choose which aspects informed the final lines of the narrative? In hindsight, what importance do you attach to formative thoughts such as these during your journey to adulthood?
[JAC]: Well, I’m a big fan of ambiguity because it highlights moments of uncertainty or doubt in the narrator’s mind, moments that I think are valuable and generative for all individuals. I feel that society keeps pushing us past these moments of uncertainty, keeps ushering us into answers and certainty because that’s supposed to communicate strength and resolve; so those endings are a bit of resistance against that push and a way of communicating this particular narrator’s every-present sense of conflict or uncertainty with the world around him. About their importance, I think many times those thoughts were brief and transitory because life was coming at the narrator from every direction, but they left a trace of potential or possibility, and that capacity to imagine other ways that one might confront a situation or react to it, is their greatest gift to the narrator. To me. It is a great irony that often that which estranges us from our environment allows for the possibility of better powers of observation, which is integral to writing. I was pushed to the margins or estranged from the environment in so many ways, that I was left observing the world rather than fully being in it.
[TK]: The memoir’s epigraph from “And the Earth Did Not Devour Him,” by Tomás Rivera, recounts a poor child’s admiration for his teacher; he offers one of his only buttons. “She didn’t know whether he did this to be helpful, to feel like he belonged or out of love for her.” Comparably, many of the vignettes involve a younger José yearning for love, affection, and belonging. Of Mr. Gonzalez, a teacher, he wonders “what it would be like to be his son, to do math with him always, eat hamburgers and fries with him, to come home to him.” (131) Why do you think poverty fostered the themes from the epigraph to occur in a José’s life? Are role models that inspire this type of admiration a positive or negative influence for a child?
[JAC]: Poverty is damaging to the self both directly and indirectly. It deprives the person of a stable material existence, rendering life precarious, but it also does this to the person’s loved ones, the family, and so then crucial, formative relationships become adversely affected. So this is how you get a narrator who’s been neglected and who seeks out attention and affection at school with a fervor that can surprise the adults. Perhaps others will disagree because they’ve experienced poverty differently, but from what I’ve lived and witnessed, it affects all aspects of the individual. Role models that model healthy affection, attention, and love, are always positive. I was fortunate to have some great teachers.
[TK]: When José visits La Sierrita in the last story, “The Other Side,” he anticipates an Odyssean homecoming, during which his trials and accomplishments would be recognized. Instead, he finds a deserted scene. He proceeds to imagine the departed villagers in America and hopes “they find what they’re searching for on the other side” (186). Did you intend to have a character arc for José? He is mostly self-absorbed prior to this moment, preoccupied with his own advancement and difficulties. Do you feel José becomes more mature and is more likely to consider the feelings and interests of others now? What message does this contain for young people with similar upbringings?
[JAC]: It’s interesting that you see the narrator as self-absorbed. Maybe he is. Rather than self-absorbed, I’d call him extremely self-conscious and hyper-vigilant of himself, his behavior and his wants and desires, precisely because as a minority he finds himself in a mostly unwelcoming environment, an environment he’s always monitoring for his own sense of safety. His dreams of recognition are compensatory due to his incredible sense of inadequacy, but his mother’s comment of the other residents leaving to the U.S. situates his story under a wider lens. At that moment he begins to see how his story may be tied to so many others’ stories. I hope the message is that to truly understand the communal, or the other, one must first understand oneself.
[TK]: Hearing that your Mexican hometown was overtaken by drug cartels triggers the flashback within the narrative to your childhood. La Sierrita is personally very significant to you, but it holds many memories of oppressive heat, poverty, and hardship. What do you believe are the ramifications of promoting cultural assimilation, that American identity should come at the expense of Mexican identity? How do you think your writing, which conveys various aspects of growing up in Mexican and American cultures, encourages a healthier perspective of being Mexican-American?
[JAC]: I’m personally suspect of any over-investment in one’s nationality, whatever that may be, because it is ultimately a social construct that is always evolving. But in particular, this American nation is rooted in the concept of exceptionalism, the idea that America is special and unique among nations and therefore superior. This hierarchy is problematic for everyone for many reasons, but for immigrants it can manifest itself in shame in one’s national origin or past experiences because it becomes “inferior” or “backward”. This can also create a distance or conflict between generations, such as between my Americanized self and my Mexican parents, which in my case was painful and disorienting, though in my youth it was difficult to articulate or even recognize. This dissonance is not insignificant and is one of the issues I try to address in the memoir. I hope that my writing points to an embrace of hybridity and a suspicion of misguided notions of purity, whether it be about nationality or culture or sexuality or language.
José Antonio Rodríguez’s books include the memoir House Built on Ashes and the poetry collections The Shallow End of Sleep and Backlit Hour. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, POETRY, The New Republic, Luna Luna, RHINO, The Texas Observer, and elsewhere. He holds a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from Binghamton University and teaches in the M.F.A. program at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. Learn more at www.jarodriguez.org.