Last week I wrote about Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. We wrapped up our discussion of it this week and I asked my students for feedback. They were pretty positive about the book, and even the ones who did not enjoy it had some very insightful comments about it.
This week I thought I would look at my experience teaching Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982). This book is a memoir, and I had no idea how my students would respond to it. I feared the worst — complete apathy — but once again I learned that I underestimated my students... even when they did not “like” the book, they still took it seriously and reflected critically on its value and message. So, I was pleasantly surprised and plan to teach the book again in the future.
For some background, Richard Rodriguez is the son of Mexican immigrants, and he was born and raised in the U.S. He grew up in California, studied at Stanford (undergraduate), Columbia (MA), and UC Berkeley where he was a PhD candidate until he stepped away from academia to devote himself to writing. He is most well known as a (somewhat controversial) Chicano intellectual and essayist, the controversy stemming from his opposition to Affirmative Action and bilingual education. He has written several memoirs and essay collections, among them Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father (1992), and Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2002). He was a finalist for the Pulitzer for Days of Obligation and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Brown. I find his prose to be deeply moving, raw, and beautiful, and even when I find myself disagreeing with what he says, I am moved by the way he says it.
Hunger of Memory is an excellent book for exploring questions of identity, community, and personal reflection. Rodriguez breaks the memoir into chapters that examine the different “spheres” of his life: public and private (family and school), language (Spanish vs. English), race, religion, social class, profession… With my class, this served the dual purpose of 1) providing an insight into the life experiences of someone growing up in an immigrant, bilingual household, and 2) helping us to reflect on how our own lives are divided between a multitude of spheres and influence. While my students might not have personal experience with being a linguistic minority, the memoir does lead to conversations about linguistic register in informal (private) and formal (public) settings, and it even led to some fascinating discussion on how we (should) present ourselves on social media platforms (that space where public and private get all mixed up!). Also, since my class is made up of many first-generation college students, they could easily relate to Rodriguez’s story.
Our reading and discussion of the book built up to a five page reflective essay. These have been beautifully personal works, and this is an assignment that I will repeat again in the future. I have posted the prompt for this essay below.
In short, if you are looking for a memoir to teach, then I would definitely recommend Hunger of Memory. I think that it would work best with older high school students (juniors or seniors). I believe that it is an excellent text for college students. It is approachable, beautifully written, and organized in a way that lends itself well to class discussion. As a teaser sample, I offer this quote from the book in closing. It expresses a sentiment I'm sure many of us can relate to...
"Despite my best efforts, however, there seemed to be more and more books that I needed to read. At the library I would literally tremble as I came upon whole shelves of books I hadn't read." (65)