Illustration by Tino Rodriguez
Rigoberto Gonzalez has not forgotten his grandfather's threats to throw him out on the street or -- why not? -- put him out of his misery by dashing a rock against his head. "He just thought I was useless, that I was crazy," recalls the poet-memoirist, who was briefly institutionalized as a 12-year-old. "How could a crazy person work? How could a crazy person make money?"
The specter of Gonzalez's grandfather haunts Autobiography of My Hungers, a slim volume of candid vignettes that illuminate an artist's blossoming against a backdrop of brutal poverty and emotional tumult. There are other ghosts, too, including Gonzalez's alcoholic father and his harassed mother, whose death at 31 from an aneurism was the catalyst for the shattered family's return to his hated grandfather's home (at one point, Gonzalez lived there with 18 members of his extended family -- with three bedrooms between them). It was there that Gonzalez, the only one who could read and write, found refuge in books. He recalls reading Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint by the light of the kitchen and being made aware of other avenues in life, alternate realities to the dismal prospect his grandfather represented.
"The English language was my power and my doorway to a lot of opportunities: into individuality, into uniqueness, into intelligence," says Gonzalez, whose 2006 memoir, Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa, received an American Book Award. Literature was also the key to unlocking the mysteries of his sexuality, in particular an encounter with Truman Capote on a late-night TV screening of the comedy-thriller Murder by Death, starring the author as the effete host of a dinner party at which the world's greatest detectives gather to resolve a murder.
"I remember thinking, That's a homosexual; that's a gay man!" says Gonzalez. "I just fell in love with this funny little man." But it was only after he started reading Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's -- and co-opting its arch dialogue as his own -- that he understood the power of reinvention. In a lovely essay, "The Truman Capote Aria," collected in Red-Inked Retablos, Gonzalez writes of discovering the beauty of metamorphosis from Lula Mae from Tulip, Texas, who reinvents herself in New York as Holly Golightly and "left her past behind like a house too ugly to go back to, or even admit she had once lived in at all."
For Gonzalez, who made his own way to New York in 1998, metamorphosis is a potent symbol -- butterflies in paper, plastic, and ceramic decorate the walls of his small apartment in Queens, a reference to the way he has reclaimed the popular Spanish slur for gay men ("mariposa") as a metaphor for his own transformation. Inevitably, as he grew into his new self, he grew distant from his old. "The more educated I became and the more bookish I became, the less I was able to connect with my family, who didn't understand books and didn't read or write," he says. When his father remarried, Gonzalez and his younger brother were left to the care of their grandparents: "It took me about 30 years to come to terms with forgiving my father, because he abandoned me when I was 13."
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. Gonzalez 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 Gonzalez's childhood were teachers and librarians, the people who helped him harness his own potential. Today, in addition to his poetry and memoirs, Gonzalez 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."
Gonzalez 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, Gonzalez 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, Gonzalez 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 Gonzalez 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 cliche, but I really do owe my life to books."
Autobiography of My Hungers is available now