As a poet exploring the memoir, I'm extremely grateful for the NEA fellowship because it lends credibility to my strong belief that the poem and the personal essay are as close as kissing cousins - both are lyrical, elliptical, sensory, and with equal appeal to the human intellect and the human emotion. My forthcoming book Butterfly Boy is a poetic exploration of the self through the word - part investigation and part deliberation; part platform and part playground; part reality and part fantasy. Only nonfiction is that inclusive, and that full of possibility. But as an artist, I continue to challenge this exciting and innovative genre, which is why my next book of creative nonfiction will redefine the parameters of the scholarly essay. I will weave literary analysis with personal experience, biography with observation, to produce a series of writings about the process of reading, and about the critical role of the reader's identity in relationship to his text. I will write, for example, about the alchemy that occurs when a young gay Mexican boy reaches out to Truman Capote. How does Truman Capote reach back?
Excerpt from "Now Leaving Baja California, Norte" from a book-length memoir, Butterfly Boy
An hour into the delay, passengers grumble as the cabin succumbs quickly to the humidity. I run my finger across the dusty glass, my buttocks sore from lack of circulation. A stream of sweat slides down my spine and it would have driven me to madness had I not found humor in the bus driver's request for volunteers to help push the bus down the road.
"Just over the hump," he says. "It'll roll down on its own from there."
My father is the first to volunteer. I shake my head.
"Zacatecas!" he calls to one of his poker buddies in the back. Zacatecas joins him, as do a number of the other men on board.
When I don't budge from my seat I become ashamed at the realization that no one has expected me to help. I hear my father take the lead, giving directions, suggestions and an occasional word of encouragement. The crew manages to shove the bus over the hump, and then it coasts to the side of the road where it sits for the rest of the day until a mechanic arrives. The mechanic tinkers with the engine all afternoon and into the evening. The passengers scatter on the ground, seeking shelter from the sweltering heat beneath trees, and in a nearby roadside restaurant whose owner beams at his unexpected fortune. I stand at a distance, observing as my father and the rest of the clientele darken into shadows with the passing of the hours. In time a second bus arrives and we all transfer our luggage over. As we drive off the mechanic seems unfazed by his defeat, watching us pull into the road, a bottle of beer in his hand, which he raises toward us as a sign of farewell.
My father avoids eye contact at this point as if he's expecting me to gripe about the second class bus ride once again, but I don't. I'm too worn out to complain. When he turns his head away from me, I know he's trying to hide the smell of alcohol in his breath. I roll over in my seat and try to sleep as well.
"I know I shouldn't be drinking," he says in a low voice.
I have heard these words many times before.
"Do you know what I want more than anything in the entire world, you?"
"I want you to be happy. You're too depressed. I want to see you smile. You have your mother's smile. Why don't you show it to me?"
"Do you know what I want more than anything in the entire world, you?" he says again. He struggles to keep his eyes open, so I stay quiet and let him fall asleep.
"Are you asleep, you?" I whisper to my father. He doesn't move but he breathes heavily. When he begins to snore I know he's out. I look around. The entire cab seems to be lost in deep sleep.
I push his body to the other side and shift his head to quiet down his snoring. I had seen my mother do this a number of times when she helped him into bed. I imagine his second wife has learned this trick by now.
Once his body seems comfortable and at peace, I relax. This bus is in better shape and drives more smoothly. I crack open the window to let the air in. When I start dozing off I attempt to match my father's breathing rhythm but can't. My body trembles as I lean on him. I'm lulled by the steady rise and fall of his body. I want to remain attached to him this way all night. When I begin to sniffle, a thin tear making its way weakly down my cheek, my father awakes with a start and pushes his body against mine before quickly falling asleep again. I can't tell if this is an accidental shove, or if it's his way of telling me stop, that the other passengers on the bus might hear me crying in the dark. I shift my body toward the warm metal of the bus, my knee pressed painfully against the armrest, away from my father.
When I wake up during the still hours of the early morning my father is gone, probably to the toilet. Still the empty seat saddens me because it holds the memory of my father's body.
Rigoberto González is the author of the poetry book, So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks (University of Illinois Press), a National Poetry Series selection; two bilingual children's books: Soledad Sigh-Sighs and Antonio's Card both from Children's Book Press; the novel Crossing Vines (University of Oklahoma Press), winner of ForeWord Magazine's Fiction Book of the Year Award; and a memoir, Butterfly Boy, forthcoming in 2006. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and of various international artist residencies, he writes a monthly Latino book column, now in its third year, for the El Paso Times of Texas. He is contributing editor for Poets and Writers Magazine, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and an Associate Professor of English and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Visit his website: www.rigobertogonzalez.com
Photo by Gary Suson