I have just returned from the fourth of five residencies for my Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing through Seattle Pacific University. In the genre of creative non-fiction, (as opposed to fiction or poetry) I am working on memoir and personal essay.  Following a low-residency model, we meet for ten days twice a year and then go home to do all our writing. God willing, after two more quarters, I will graduate at the next residency in March of 2017. Part of the curriculum for these residencies is to do a close reading of two books. Every morning we meet for a seminar called ‘Art and Faith.’

One of the books we read and discussed this time is Brown: The Last Discovery of America by Richard Rodriguez. Brown is first a meditation on the color brown and the ramifications of having brown skin in a country that is largely polarized along white-black lines. Because Rodriguez himself has brown skin, the book is also necessarily a memoir. He writes about growing up, not seeing himself reflected in the culture around him except in his own family and neighborhood, and therefore feeling invisible, unseen. “In the Sacramento of the 1950's, it was as though White simply hadn’t had time enough to figure Brown out. It was a busy white time. Brown was like the skinny or fat kids left over after the team captains chose sides. ‘You take the rest’ – my cue to wander away to the sidelines, to wander away.” His invisibility as a brown person in the larger culture allowed him both a sense of freedom and pain at the displacement and confusion of not being acknowledged. His primary thesis is that as we move forward into the 21st century, the color brown will not only be much more visible, but the only color. Just as when all paint colors are mixed together they become brown, when more and more people marry and produce children of mixed racial and ethnic heritage, more and more of us will be brown and that will be the last discovery of America.

He also uses brown as the metaphor for the mixing of ideas, the breaking down of barriers, the paradox of being many identities at the same time. As a gay, Catholic, Latino, he abhors the limits of labels and yet has been bound by them his whole life. He feels he belongs everywhere and nowhere. Even God is brown to Rodriguez: “God so loved the world that the Word became incarnate, condescended to mortal clay. God became brown. True God and true man.” Rodriguez writes like he’s a jazz musician, improvising freely, making it up as he goes along, it seems. One word or thought leads to the next, often taking him in directions he did not expect. This comes off as a series of jazz riffs devoted to particular themes, whether it is on the implications of color or the Nixon Library or the nature of Christ. This book was published in 2002, just after 9/11. As we look towards the fifteenth anniversary of that tragedy, having come through a year where we have been made ever more aware of the color of people’s skin by the events of Ferguson, Charleston, and the Black Lives matter movement, I am excited by Rodriguez’ gorgeous, elegiac, complicated, disturbing writing. He dares me to be bold in my own writing, to use a kind of free-association and creativity especially when trying to get at difficult, illusive truths. He demands that I see the world differently.

Have you read anything that has stirred you? Excited you? Changed the way you think?