04 February 2010

Hunger of Memory, The Education of Richard Rodriguez (An Autobiography)

Richard Rodriguez's book is both a memoir and a book on education. The first chapter "Aria" is often anthologized as a separate essay (including in the Best American Essays of the Century). I taught that essay in my Critical Thinking course last summer and my students responded very positively to Rodriguez's point of view. I believe that "Aria" is the strongest chapter in the book and that it beautifully blends personal writing with academic writing to, all at once, capture his audience emotionally, turn himself into a relatable character, and make a strong, provocative statement on the value of bilingual education.

I think that what my students responded to in this writing was the honesty. Rodriguez has no problem admitting that he has experienced privilege and that he has used his status as a "minority student" at times as a crutch. And yet what he has lost and suffered as a result of his academic success is also clear. In "Aria" he suggests the importance of distinguishing between the intimate space of the home and the public space where he receives his education and where English is spoken. He claims, "Bilingual enthusiasts, moreover, sin against intimacy" (35). I'm still turning this around in my head. It is an assimilationist argument that subverts the traditional assimilationist argument. Instead of forcing young students to erase their culture by speaking English and celebrating all things American in schools, in fact, by speaking only English in the public sphere it maintains the intimacy of the language spoken in the home. I'm not sure that this argument erases the need for bilingual education in my mind, but I certainly can see that there are a variety of arguments. I also appreciate that Rodriguez substantiates his theories with his personal experiences without overgeneralizing and while still addressing the contradictions that he feels. He is saddened that his desire to master English does, in fact, end up diminishing the intimacy of his home. Although he does not seem to regret his assimilation, he does lose something in the process, although he seems able to preserve it in some way through his writing, which is a tribute to those intimate moments, expressed through a public channel and in the language of public life.

I love memoirs that are really about the author's relationship to language and to stories. Of course, most writing is in some way about words and their power and this is no exception. From the strange sounds of English for the young author, to the intimate teasing Spanish of his home, to the incantatory sounds of the Latin mass, words take on a magical quality throughout the book. The final reflection on his family, in which Rodriguez admits that his desire to share his families' stories baffles his parents, also grants power to stories, especially personal ones.

Overall: I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who loves words, or who is an educator. Whether or not you agree with his positions on bilingual education or affirmative action, his account of his own experiences, struggles and successes is a strong argument on its own.




1 comment:

  1. 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.

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