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"Nonfiction is the most intimate space": An Interview with Rigoberto Gonzalez

by Sarah Fawn Montgomery

Below is an interview with the judge of our Summer Creative Nonfiction Contest, Rigoberto Gonzalez. We're accepting submissions through August 1st, looking for all types of creative nonfiction essays, up to 5,000 words. Winner receives $250 and publication in our Spring issue. Click here to submit.

1. You write and publish in a variety of genres—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, children’s literature—so what is it about the genre of nonfiction that speaks to you? What does the genre offer you as a writer? As a reader, teacher, human?

Nonfiction is the most intimate space of exploration because autobiographical material is delivered at its most nude and vulnerable. But the appeal to the writer in me is the challenge to turn memory, anecdote and personal history into a compelling narrative (the way fiction writers do) but without inventing or fabricating with the freedom of a fiction writer. And then there’s the challenge of selecting imagery, scoring language and layering emotion (the way poets do) but without letting go of the tools of prose—dialogue, character development, scene-building. Nonfiction also allows me to give shape and dimension to the unruly theater of my past, to make sense of the rubble, to recollect and rebuild my life into something that looks more like art and less like a journey without purpose. Suddenly, there’s meaning in my experience. I don’t think I would have turned to nonfiction if I didn’t have so many questions about what happened in my youth, and why. And just when I think I have something sorted out, I become a few years older and I need to mine that material all over again, which is why I keep going back to the troubled father and son narrative—I am now on book four! I don’t feel the same sense of personal commitment to fiction or poetry—those are political and aesthetic platforms for me. And although the personal is also a political stance, I write nonfiction in service to revelation.  

2. When did you begin working with nonfiction as a genre? What were your early experiences with memoir and essay like? How has your relationship with the genre changed with time and experience?

I was in my mid-20s when I began to write creative nonfiction. At the time it was such new territory and there were no workshops offered so I had to teach myself. Or rather, I learned by reading memoirs. And I knew even then that there was an opportunity for me in the genre to be as honest and open and generous as I wanted to be in writing myself as the gay Mexican protagonist on a very difficult path toward self-actualization. I wrote a few essays but didn’t share them because I felt quite narcissistic about the process: why did I feel I was so important? That validation didn’t come until later when I submitted the essays to contests and publications. Editors were extremely kind and welcoming, so I knew I was doing something worthy of notice. Eventually I wove the dozen or so essays into my first memoir, Butterfly Boy, which was published in 2006 and is still my bestselling book. Nowadays, I don’t worry about the why, just about the when since I’m busier than I’ve ever been. It’s tough to find the time to write with so many other commitments and responsibilities. But I manage. I still love to write personal essays. And as a seasoned writer, it’s easier for me to envision the book, but each sentence is no easier now than when I first started, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. If the challenges and pleasures that brought me to nonfiction vanish, I’ll stop writing. 

3. What kind of submission interests you? What stories and styles, forms and perspectives make you pay closer attention? What voices speak to you from the slush pile?

Two things appeal to me as a reader and as a critic: I am drawn to narrators who are aware and observant about the landscapes and communities they inhabit, about the people who surround them, and who are emotionally intelligent. They also need to be flawed. This is not contradiction, this is complexity and that’s what makes a narrator believable, relatable and interesting. I am not too picky in terms of form or perspective. I know what I choose when I write, but when I read I love being surprised by the structure of the essay or by the moral compass of the narrator. And I’m not as interested in what the narrator learns about the self as much as I am interested in what I as a reader learn about the narrator and about myself after reading the essay. I like to say to someone, “I read this essay a week ago and it has stayed with me.” That indelible impression cannot be deliberate but it will certainly be helped along if the writing is excellent. Good writing means clarity of exposition, multidimensional characterization, credible dialogue, and definitely some poetry in the language.  

4. What writers, projects, or journals are you excited about right now? What voices should make our readers take note? What books or pieces should they read? What journals should they (re)discover?

I am still excited about Daisy Hernández’s A Cup of Water Under My Bed, a gorgeous coming-of-age memoir set in the East Coast mostly, about a young woman whose Cuban-Colombian family’s cultural teachings become more valuable as she enters the professional/ adult world. I’m excited about diving into Abayomi Animashaun’s anthology (full disclosure: my essay is included) Others Will Enter the Gates: Immigrant Poets on Poetry, Influences, and Writing in America. And dying to get my hands on an early copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. (Read anything by Coates and, of course, Bad Feminist Roxane Gay!) All of these projects and writers are engaging the racially-charged contexts and tensions in today’s USA. It’s important for all American writers to learn about these issues because they are unavoidable and undoubtedly shape the way we read and write (in any genre) now and in the future.     

5. Finally, tell us about your current projects. What have you just finished or barely begun? What aspects of the writing process are you currently embracing or struggling with?

As I mentioned earlier I am working on my fourth memoir, another exploration of the relationship between my father and me. As I move through the decades my father already experienced, I am learning so much more about masculinity, about him, so I feel a sense of duty to add to the portrait I have already presented of him in my previous works. The challenge is to keep the story fresh. I am also about to finish a book of poetry criticism—another form of nonfiction. But this is a collection of book reviews, academic studies and speeches I have delivered over the years. I have another idea brewing but it’s still too early to discuss it. I usually let the idea spin around in my head for a few years before I dive in. If I’m still thinking about it in it a few years from now, I go for it. That’s how I measure if a project is going to come to fruition, that it won’t be abandoned because it it didn’t keep my interest.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in various magazines including Confrontation, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, Georgetown Review, The Los Angeles Review, North Dakota Quarterly, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, Zone 3 and others.