The epilogue of Marcos Gonsalez’s debut novel, Pedro’s Theory: Reimagining the Promised Land, is a letter to his younger self. Here, Gonsalez addresses a photograph taken of him as a child in the nineties, a photograph that evidences the joy that readers watch the “promised land” deny him over and over again. For Gonsalez, the promised land is, more often than not, what José Esteban Muñoz calls a “poisonous and insolvent present.” While he does not remember his joyful, childhood self, Gonsalez hopes to rewrite these histories after decades of struggling to survive. To the boy he doesn’t recognize, Gonsalez says,
We need this image of you so desperately. This other form of Pedro, this Pedro existing elsewhere. Pedro with the goofy smile, the dorky swagger, on some Monday or Saturday, laughing at a joke or being theatrical.
Some of the most powerful moments in Gonsalez’s memoir are these close readings of photographs, striking invitations into a life he does and does not know, a life haunted by what he calls “ghosts in the attic” and the attempt to forget. I remember thinking, stunned by the close reading of an image of him and his father in the opening chapter—Foucault could never. Pedro’s Theory not only teaches us why memoirs and life writing matter, but contributes to a larger conversation theorizing structural inequity and the fight to create something better: an otherwise. My experience teaching Pedro’s Theory in my queer life-writing course has taught me, at least, that it’s time to put Walden and The Order of Things aside for a while and center authors like Gonsalez and their hard earned theories, their attempts to, as he writes, “unmake and remake the world as we know it.”
Pedro’s Theory traces Gonsalez’s particular and unique experience as a “queer and fat and poor and brown boy who comes from the ‘Mexican ghetto’” to a city and academy where he was “never meant to survive,” to quote Audre Lorde. At every turn, Gonsalez narrates foolishly believing in a system that will not rescue him and was never intended for him. He asks, “What to do with such a realization? What to do when the structures you believe in fail you as they were always intended to do?”
Gonsalez’s experience in various educational institutions that do the work of whiteness reminds scholars like me that systematic racism is insidious and pervasive, and will continue to be until white people reckon with their complicity and performative allyship. No amount of white academics performing antiracism on Twitter will pay unexpected tuition, a harrowing moment in Gonsalez’s narrative. No amount of private conversations with students of color about how we are “all in this together” will confront professors who dismiss students like Gonsalez writing on— for example—the transatlantic slave trade, pugs, and luxury in Jane Austen. No amount of proclaimed solidarity will lead to the structural change necessary to support thinkers and educators like Gonsalez in their efforts to remain in the academy, to continue to offer us work that white people will, more often than not, forget. To quote Nam Le’s father in “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice”:
“Only you’ll remember. I’ll remember. They will read and clap their hands and forget.” For once, he was not smiling. “Sometimes it’s better to forget, no?”
In Pedro’s Theory, Gonsalez fights to remember and to convey these memories—“snatches of memories drifting in and out on the tide, down and down the stream until they are no more”— but also to reclaim these memories, to rewrite them in a way that offers children he sees himself in something better. In addition, through gorgeous and innovative aesthetics that work to advance the genre of memoir, Gonsalez helps readers not to forget.
I am a devoted and long-time fan of Gonsalez’s work, first experiencing its magic when I read “When ‘Good Writing’ Means ‘White Writing’.” I recognized myself as the white woman he describes sitting around the table in a teaching workshop, thinking I knew something about what it meant to teach CUNY students. Gonsalez offered me an alternative. And his later article on The Tempest became a staple in my Shakespeare courses, a sharp critique of Shakespeare studies that continues to speak to my students of color who’ve never seen themselves in characters like Prospero, like Hamlet and his “universal” struggle. When I assign my students Gonsalez’s work, he invites them in, addresses them, and sees them. Gonsalez’s work is always an offering in my classrooms, an offering from an “ignorant schoolmaster” who sees putting texts that matter into her students’ hands as most crucial to learning.
Eric Anthony Berdis, Remembering Erie (and a performance), 2019, Digital print, Sharpie, oranges, Band-aids, and rhinestones wallpaper.
It will come as no surprise, then, that Pedro’s Theory downloaded to my Kindle automatically on its release date and my hardcover copy arrived shortly after. I had already put in the book order for my “Queer Life-Writing” class at William & Mary (queer as in LGBTQ+ lives; queer as in authors who remind us the here and now is not enough; queer as in Black and Brown futures and voices in a world designed to silence and extinguish them). I knew Pedro’s Theory would enrich and inform the other course texts. I was right.
Less expectedly, Pedro’s Theory helped my students and I overcome painful and particular hurdles; in a terrible semester and worldwide pandemic, Gonsalez reminded us joy was, and is, possible. My students and I struggled, first, because I was overzealous in the number of texts I assigned, but this is nothing new—every text I teach I love, every text I teach changed how I see the world, every text I teach taught me, to use Kiese Laymon’s words, that “we never had to be this way” and “we will never have to be this way.” I am white, I come from an upper middle class family, I am exactly the kind of person academia caters to. Without authors like Gonsalez, I might have spent my whole life assuming this wasn’t the case. My excuse for over-assigning has always been that I want to offer students the chance to reckon with the stories they tell themselves through as many texts and perspectives as possible. And, selfishly, I want to watch students fall in love with authors like Gonsalez—my whole life is devoted to this kind of magic.
What I failed to consider was the cumulative exhaustion caused by a worldwide pandemic, and how the consecutive and unabating trauma in these narratives would wear my already exhausted students down to the point they couldn’t bear them. When many students told me they could not finish Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, especially after Myriam Gurba’s Mean, I took their critique personally. A mentor of mine once told me to avoid teaching texts I love and I dismissed her advice – that is, until I held Heavy in my hands after class that day and felt like I had failed it, along with my students. Laymon writes, “it is possible we will not remember.” So many of my students did not have his narrative to forget.
Pedro’s Theory was up next.
When one of my students proposed a smart compromise in the class GroupMe to reduce the number of course texts so that we could spend more time on each, other students heartily agreed. Their consensus was that these texts deserved emotional energy they were struggling to offer, and this made sense to me. I was still unable to hear them in that moment, though. There were so many memoirs beyond those I assigned that I wanted to put into their hands, and deciding which narratives to cut was painful. Of course, the realization I had not fully prepared students for the trauma in the narratives or thought about how this trauma would drain them—especially my queer students and my queer students of color—challenged my persona as a caring, accommodating professor.
Before fully working through these feelings, I decided to cut all remaining texts except Pedro’s Theory, Fun Home, and Zami. I also kept a class on Star Trek fan fiction assigned by one of my students. (Look out for their piece, “‘Live Long and Prosper’: Spock as an Icon for Queer Hope.”) I gave us all a week off and turned towards literature on how to teach trauma narratives (see here and here for a start). I also shared my struggles with my lovely graduate teaching assistant and department chair, who offered me perspectives that softened my initial response; and eventually invited students to share their feelings about the semester so far and these accommodations. I wanted to hear more about the feelings and conversations amongst them that inspired the request for these changes. I also wanted to explain my own process of working through how to best move forward; I wanted to model the kind of vulnerability the best life-writers, like Gonsalez, teach us matters.
Despite having authors like Gonsalez as fearless guides, I am still terrified of being vulnerable in the classroom. I know it is part of my job to create a space for difficult truths, but I am not tenured and never expected to end up at an institution like William & Mary—one that is prestigious and values research as much as teaching. The fear that students at William & Mary expect an expert continues to haunt me, compromising who I am as a teacher. When I walked across the stage to get my doctorate degree just two years ago, I wondered if I knew anything at all. The foundation of my pedagogy, however, is informed by bell hooks’s perspective in Teaching to Transgress: to teach, I must cultivate a relationship with students “based on mutual recognition.” hooks writes:
In my classrooms, I do not expect students to take any risks that I would not take, to share in any way that I would not share. When professors bring narratives of their experiences into classroom discussions it eliminates the possibility that we can function as all-knowing silent interrogators. It is often productive if professors take the first risk, linking confessional narratives to academic discussions so as to show how experience can illuminate and enhance our understanding of academic material. But most professors must practice being vulnerable in the classroom, being wholly present in mind, body, and spirit.
I knew when I invited students to talk about their experience of the course so far in order to address the loss of queer joy and community, I had to be “wholly present in mind, body, and spirit.” I had to offer up the feelings I was working through, the sadness I felt cutting texts I knew would speak to them in different circumstances. I also had to be “wholly present” with the vulnerability I was asking from them—and the difficult truths I might hear.
Their consensus was that the moments of joy and possibility in these narratives had been swallowed by moments of trauma in our discussions. Many students remembered one of our classes on Myriam Gurba’s Mean fondly, when I asked them for moments in the text that made them laugh out loud. (Gurba has a wicked and fearless sense of humor—please read Mean.)
This conversation reminded me of how I’d lost sight of Saidiya Hartman’s call to refuse re-oppressing these authors through a white gaze, occluding the kinds of imaginings Gonsalez so eloquently argues for in Pedro’s Theory:
If I don’t practice this descriptive imagining, then there is no way to reach out to that little boy, to know a different narrative than the ones imposed upon him, defining and limiting how he understands himself.
As a class comprised of mostly white people, this reorientation was crucial—and my students steered us in that direction.
After this conversation, we brainstormed ways in which we might center different, even joyful, narratives—center different ways of understanding the course texts as well as ourselves. Along with the suggestion to move forward keeping Gonsalez’s call in mind when reading the course texts, to orient ourselves towards blueprints for a better world, one student suggested that, like Gonsalez, we share pictures of ourselves that depict rapturous laughter, big grins, the savoring of moments—photos that remind us that we can exist, and have existed, elsewhere, if only for a moment. As Gonsalez writes of his own photo, “this everydayness is lost to you but this photo is yours, too.” Gonsalez is the “you” in this construction, yet he invites readers to create their own theories and relationships to themselves.
The magnetic energy in the images my students shared in our GroupMe is indescribable, but: satin dresses; eyes squeezed together, laugh lines; childhood photos that scream “I’m queer”; loved ones, siblings, mischief; voluminous hair; galentines day parties; bright, red tops; beaches; naughty cats; subways… laughter, laughter, laughter.
I narrate this experience with Gonsalez’s work in the classroom to urge us all to consider texts like his—contemporary life-writing and literature—as just as important, fruitful, and aesthetically gorgeous as texts by Thoreau, Foucault, Austen, Shakespeare. The work life-writing, in particular, can do in our classrooms and worlds matters—and Gonsalez’s memoir was a turning point, a pivotal moment, in my students and I’s collective realization this was the case. The photos of queer joy shared amongst us are a microcosm of what Gonsalez has to teach us. As he reminds us in his epilogue, wreckage often occludes joy—but it cannot erase it. He reminds us that the journey to know ourselves and others, a kind of knowing that is always on the horizon, is its own kind of promised land. As one of my students emphasized, sharing a caption from Gonsalez’s text alongside a childhood picture—changing only the pronouns:
I have desperately wanted a way to speak to my younger self. I have wanted to know them so totally, so determinately, believing this full knowing would somehow allow me to tell the little boy they will be ok, they will make it through.
Alicia Andrzejewski is an Assistant Professor in William & Mary’s English Department. She is a scholar of early modern literature and culture; queer, feminist, and critical race theory; and the medical humanities. Her work has appeared in Shakespeare Studies, Shakespeare Bulletin, Literary Hub, and Synapsis. Her current book project, Queer Pregnancy in Shakespeare’s Plays, argues for the transgressive force of pregnancy in his oeuvre and the expansive ways in which early modern people thought about the pregnant body.