- Metaphors We Write By: Desire’s (Dis)Orientation and the Border in Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory
A reading of Hunger of Memory (1982) evokes a set of questions that have been left largely unexamined by the prolific critical literature on Richard Rodriguez’s controversial autobiography. To what extent are the scarce and evasive inscriptions of desire in Rodriguez’s narrative readable? What rhetorical logic does the emplotment of desire constitute, and by what discursive trajectories and models of representation is it determined? What is the rapport between the figural logic produced by the narration of desire and the tropologies that construct and advance the text’s polemical arguments?
I position my engagement with these questions in relation to the distinction David William Foster makes between “a gay reading” of Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory and its reading “from a queer critical perspective” (111). A “gay reading” would trace glimpses of Rodriguez’s identity prior to the public address of his sexual orientation, or explore the (con)textualization of same-sex desire in the text. A reading of the autobiography “from a queer critical perspective,” on the other hand, would dwell on inscriptions of social difference and alienation. Such an inscribed difference could be traced, for example, in Rodriguez’s description of his unsettled place as a minority student within the system of elementary education in English. Further, queer difference is figured in the author’s estranged position vis-à-vis conventional social texts, such as the undisrupted conversion of private identity into a public identity stipulated by the pedagogical pledge of bilingual education.1 In place of a “gay reading,” Foster opts for the queer exploration of Rodriguez’s alienated position within “the social text he inhabits” (133).
It is not that a “gay reading” is somehow improper or impossible. To the contrary: Foster asserts that it could be illuminating, much like the valuable exploration of themes, symbols, and images in García Lorca’s poetry and drama that partake in an inter-homos(t)ex(t)ual subculture. A “gay reading,” however, Foster argues, is fraught “with critical difficulties” (115). Rather than juxtaposing, for example, identity formation in the text against a postulated generic coherence of a gay identity, such a reading would have to ponder instead “what is understood by a gay identity, how Rodriguez might understand it,” and in what relation to discourses, which [End Page 155] articulate such an identity, the text/author situates himself (113). Sexual desire, moreover, “is only randomly mentioned in Rodriguez’s text and never in any way that would give the impression that such desire is homoerotic or that there is a homoerotic dimension to the issues of personal identity the author describes himself as addressing” (117).
Why, therefore, should one return at all, as I commit to do here, to inscriptions of desire in Rodriguez’s autobiographical text, and even more so from a position of concurrence with Foster’s attentive sketching (113–15) of some of the difficulties embedded in such an approach? Why should one focus on such inscriptions from a position of concordance with Foster’s suggestion that a “gay reading” of the autobiography is, in and of itself, neither particularly interesting nor exceptionally rewarding? In the context of these particular questions, Foster’s perplexing assertion that there is no homoerotic dimension to desire inasmuch as it is narrated in Rodriguez’s text and no homoerotic dimension to “issues of personal identity” that the text self-addresses is diagnostically instructive (117). This argument is exemplary of the way in which Rodriguez’s particular emplotment of desire is hardly ever addressed by his critics as an issue relevant to his controversial stance within the ideological debate over bilingual education; the validity of ethnic and racial identities; the viability of multiculturalism versus hegemonic paradigms of homogenous assimilation; or the exigency of affirmative action—regardless of whether Rodriguez’s positions on these subjects are badly judged or well understood.2 Perhaps even more surprising is the marginal consideration of desire’s figuration in Hunger of Memory by readers who attempt to salvage the text from the brunt of criticism leveled against it by political and social...