A Butterfly Beats Its Wings

4.22.2013

By Aaron Hicklin

The metamorphosis of Rigoberto Gonzalez.

Although he has come to empathize with his defeated father, who dreamed of being a musician or a boxer but had to settle for farm work and who died in 2006, the two were never able to bridge the gulf. González summons a potent memory of a long bus ride to Mexico they took together when he was 19. “I was trying to reconcile with him,” he says, “but we realized we were two different people. I remember tempting him—‘Do you know why I’m different?’—and him not being able to vocalize it, because he didn’t want to. And I decided, OK, if it’s not going to be spoken and visible, then I’m going to be invisible to you.”

Such tensions animate the pieces in Autobiography of My Hungers, snapshots of his long coming of age, from the mundane to the profound: Here is a young boy bracing himself for his first ride in an elevator; here, the same boy, bracing for his mother’s death. We watch him growing up, establishing his adult identity, navigating a series of lovers, confronting unexpected frailty.

The heroes of González’s childhood were teachers and librarians, the people who helped him harness his own potential. Today, in addition to his poetry and memoirs, González also writes young adult novels (his next is dedicated to Tyler Clementi, who took his life in 2010), conscious of the way books expanded his horizons as a child, making him feel less isolated. “As much as we like to believe we’ve moved forward, there are these terrible reminders that, for many of us, it’s still dangerous to be who we are,” he says. “I think it’s all the more reason why we have to be models, we have to be out. I’m out to my [writing] students because I know how important it is to have someone in the classroom say, ‘Look, I’m gay, and I’m a college professor.’ We need these other narratives to exist.”

González is proof that we can take control of our own narratives, if we have the self-belief. When he scored his place at college, forging his grandparents’ signatures on financial aid applications, González waited until admissions day to announce his departure. His father, visiting from Mexico, was sitting on the couch with his grandfather. “I said, ‘I’m going off to college,’ and they said, ‘Well, when?’ And I said, ‘Today.’ ” When they asked how long he’d be gone, González told them until November: “I wasn’t going to say forever, but you know what? I didn’t turn back—I didn’t turn back, though there were so many times when I just didn’t know where I was going.”

Where he was going, of course, was a tenuous place, but González tried on the role of writer and liked the fit. His metamorphosis was complete. “Once I started writing, it became my haven, and it still is,” he says. “There’s nothing more rewarding or more comfortable for me than to sit down and write.” Even socializing, he says, can be an unwelcome distraction. “I have friends who call, and they’re like, ‘Have you left the apartment in three days?’ I go, ‘No.’ They’re, like, ‘Go. Get out. Now!’ Because I get lost in here, you know? I mean, it seems like such a cliché, but I really do owe my life to books.”

Autobiography of My Hungers is available now

Tags: Art & Books
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