Richard Rodriguez grew up in California, the son of immigrant Mexican parents. He excelled academically, completed degrees at Stanford University and Columbia University, and was poised to continue in academia when he turned down offers from several prestigious schools, uncomfortable with the possibility that affirmative action gave him an unfair advantage. Rodriguez wrote about his early experiences in Catholic school and his assimilation to America in his first book, Hunger of Memory. Subsequent books, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, and Brown: The Last Discovery of America, further explore issues of culture, race, and identity. Rodriguez has received the George Foster Peabody Award, the Frankel Medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the International Journalism Award from the World Affairs Council of California. His work has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Rodriguez visited Butler University in the fall of 2011 as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers series and agreed to interview with Booth’s Susan Lerner.
Susan Lerner: Can you describe the path that led you into writing?
Richard Rodriguez: I was an accidental writer at the start. I was in graduate school, preparing to become a teacher of English—probably at the college level—when I found myself the uneasy beneficiary of affirmative action. Ultimately, I left the university (and abandoned my teaching plans) in protest against affirmative action. And it was only then—within the loneliness of my life outside the academy—that I felt impelled to write about what education had done to and for me (how it had changed my life) and living within the illogic of “the minority student” that I turned to write an intellectual memoir. My first book, Hunger of Memory, gave birth to the idea that I was a writer.
If one suggests that the international literary market is also a power game where different nations set their cultural and political might against each other in bestseller lists and international prizes, one inevitably arouses a certain amount of hostility from those who like to think of literature as operating in a more idealized world of noble aspiration and expression. The hostility intensifies if one seeks to exemplify one’s ideas with reference to individual writers, to the point that I fear that my recent piece on Jonathan Franzen and the Swiss writer Peter Stamm may have generated more heat than light. At the risk, then, of turning down the heat without exactly achieving a blaze of illumination, let me offer a more general word about present developments in the international spaces where contemporary novels from different countries vie for attention.
As literary coincidences go, it might not carry quite the same cosmic portent as Halley’s Comet appearing in the month of Mark Twain’s birth. But Monday happens to be both World Poetry Day and the fifth anniversary of the moment when a young American software designer named Jack Dorsey sent out to the world the first message using the service that soon became known as Twitter.