INTERVIEWS February 3, 2012

An Interview with Richard Rodriguez

RR: I have mixed feelings about everything. When I am invited to a school, I want to know (as much as I can) about whom else has been invited to speak in the series or in the program. If it seems too blatantly a case of affirmative action, I tend to stay away. But in the case of Butler, where several faculty members assured me that I was regarded as a serious writer, I believed them, and I came.

SL: At your reading you mentioned you're working on a book about Abrahamic religions and their relationship to the desert. Can you talk about the ideas driving this book, and why they compel you?

RR: September 11th shocked my sense of religion—how dangerous is the power we humans assume when we say “We belong to God”. For a long time, as a Christian, I was interested in Judaism, and had lectured in yeshivas and before Jewish audiences on the debt that I feel as a Christian to Judaism and to the example of Jewish belief. But until September 11th, I barely thought about Islam or even about my possible blood tie to Muslims through the several centuries of Spanish Islam.

My interest in Islam took me into the desert. And it was there, thinking about Abraham (the father of all three monotheistic religious traditions) that I started wondering about the impact of the desert ecology on the experience of God for the Jew, the Christian, and the Muslim. After all, the first Abraham story is a desert story about an old man (who is dry) and suddenly promised a child by Sarah.

SL: Can you talk about what it's like to look back on yourself as a writer – how you feel your writing has changed over the years, how you've changed, and how the two are connected?

RR: I think my writing style in my “high” literary essays has gotten more complex. But I think my journalism has grown richer as I have come to trust the “common reader” more. I think, in this age of connection by I-machines, we are very hungry for ideas. In fact, there is very little thinking going on, just a lot of people texting messages to one another and blogging. The trick for writers will be in finding ways of seducing an audience, getting readers to slow down and read closely and slowly.

Susan Lerner, a pharmacist, is completing her MFA at Butler University while tending to her three teenagers. She is published or forthcoming in Staccato Fiction, JMWW, Monkeybicycle, Foundling Review and elsewhere. She posts book reviews at
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.