The Nightstand

Book news and gossip.

Things that are brown: mud, root beer, monkey fur, U.P.S. men, apples left for waste, human waste, Richard Rodriguez.

Things that are black: the jacket and pants that Richard Rodriguez, author of Brown: The Last Discovery of America, wears to a writers' conference not long ago in Portland.

"I am not brown, I am orange," Rodriguez says, as a way of showing that brown is not a color but a concept. "If I were at a paint shop, and there was a color that corresponded to my skin, it would not be brown but 'Aztec orange.'" He thinks about that for a moment. "Suitable for patios."

But he is brown—at least, his heritage is. His muddy, racially mixed ancestry includes, among other things, Spanish and Native American brownness. "What makes me brown is I was born in the 16th century. Not bad—400 years old," he says. "Botox."

Rodriguez crowns Madonna the Queen of Brown. "Today she is Marilyn Monroe, and tomorrow she is a geisha, because you can do these things if you're brown."

Rodriguez's book Brown is, in his words, "a deconstruction of that word" and "a romance," and, in my words, an angry dismissal of black-and-white absolutism. In her review of the book for this paper ("Not Black or White," May 23), Audrey Van Buskirk pointed out that Rodriguez "is also brown because he's gay and Catholic."

"Brown bleeds through the straight line," Rodriguez writes. "Brown confuses. Brown forms at the border of contradiction. . . . It is that brown faculty I uphold by attempting to write brownly. And I defy anyone who tries to unblend me."

Journalists, Rodriguez insists to the roomful who've gathered, "must be harder on the language, because what it says is not true." In other words, newspapers need to nix the Nixonspeak. "Hispanics are children of Richard Nixon," he says. "In South America, there are Guatemalans, Colombians, Peruvians. . . . You have to go to Dallas, Texas, to find Hispanics. And there are no Asians in Asia: You have to move to San Francisco to date Asians."

The romance in Brown reflects the mood of Rodriguez's country. "Mexico is more sexy than the United States. Mexico knows what puritanical America doesn't want to talk about: that history begins with eroticism. History proceeds with bodies touching each other."

He has his mind on history and, at the same time, on the future. "The world is round," he says, gripping the podium, his voice rising. "I have come to Portland in 2002 to say: Sooner or later we will all end up looking Chinese or Italian, and everything is going to taste like chicken."

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