Thursday, July 31, 2008

Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez

As the son of Mexican immigrants, Richard Rodriguez spoke no English when he began the first grade. Twenty years later as a Fulbright scholar in Renaissance literature, he realized that he had become a member of a community that had caused him to forsake his family. But it was too late to go back: he remained an academic, even in his mother’s kitchen.

So far as autobiographies go, Hunger of Memory is a rather underwhelming realization. Growing up in a blue-collar union household and now a graduate student myself, I am all too aware of the distance that grows between one and one’s family as education level increases. Yet what makes this extended essay so interesting is the meditation on language and how we use language to create both private and public selves.

I wish I had read this book last year before I took Composition Theory, because Rodriguez adamantly warns against bilingualism in schools, and against programs like Affirmative
Action from which he himself benefited greatly. So much of our course was based around the assumption that the university needed to cater to students who weren’t primarily English speakers/writers. Yet little was made of the greater issue: how is it that these students are so inadequately prepared for university studies when they get here? Not to mention the ethics of enrolling students who have little chance for success.

That is not to say that I agreed or disagreed with the perspective in class, just that I think that our discussions would have been better served by a presentation of the opposing viewpoint. But in that racially charged atmosphere, it was uncomfortable for the white half of the class to voice such opinions. Had I been familiar with Rodriguez's work, I might have felt better prepared to discuss his and other alternatives.

Rodriguez benefited from a middle class Catholic school and middle class community, so he is not really emblematic of the types of success programs like Affirmative Action claim to have. He claims that we live with both social and private selves, social because we live in a greater community in which we share everything in English. Therefore, the longer a student is kept from learning English the farther behind they are in creating this social self.

It’s not hard to see why Rodriguez is dismissed by so many people as a race traitor, especially as he claims at one point to have little in common with Hispanic academics who came up several years after him. He claims that he did it alone, not along with a group like they were able to. His conclusion is that he is no longer a minority, but now has been assimilated fully and is a part of the majority.

Rodriguez turned down all job offers, even one from Yale, because he couldn’t withstand the irony of such a system. Since he has become a respected author and speaker, most recently releasing Brown: The Last Discovery of America.

Though I have read fairly extensively on the other side of this issue, especially in journals like Race Traitor, it was refreshing to hear an engaging and articulate presentation of the other side. I am not sure how much of Hunger of Memory I agree or disagree with, but it is surely the most honest and well-written account on the subject I have come across.

1 comment:

rolodexter said...

I have this one on the Kindle, and it translates well. Footnotes, TOC work fine. But most of all, it's the text and the mechanics. This is a classic in the San Francisco community college arena, where English 101 instructors push the text, through anthologies that have included it, or the book itself. He was a bit more frequent on NPR 5 or so years ago, but not as much. As soon as affirmative action comes into play again, they'll call him back. Some say he's too flowery, something characteristic of minority English students. There are two other books that come to mind when I think of pulling this one up: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto and Ilustrado: A Novel. I'll be rereading Hunger of Memory shortly.