ARUN RATH, HOST:
When Richard Blanco read his poem, "One Today," at President Obama's second inauguration in January 2013, he was the youngest poet ever to read at a presidential swearing-in. But more attention went to Blanco's other distinctions. He was the first Latino, the first immigrant, the first openly gay poet to get that commission. Blanco was born in Spain but grew up with his Cuban family in Miami. In the memoir about his youth, "The Prince Of Los Cocuyos," Blanco describes a hyper-masculine conservative culture in which he took pains to hide his sexual orientation. But there was one thing he couldn't disguise - his increasing attraction to mainstream American culture and food.
RICHARD BLANCO: I always dreamed of like Fruit Loops and Easy Cheese and all these things that they never had at the Cuban grocery stores. So one part of the first chapter is how I plotted and sort of lured my grandmother into finally taking that trip into the forbidden zone, which was Winn-Dixie, where all the few remaining Anglos in Westchester, Miami, still shopped.
And it was just sort of - you know, growing up in Miami there was this sense of - it was kind of like living between two imaginary worlds. One was the 1950s and '60s Cuba, of the community in the minds of my parents and grandparents - this place where we came from, this place where I was from, but had never been. And the other sort of mythic place was America. Because growing up in a very sort of monolithic Cuban community, it really did feel like America was somewhere else. It was somewhere to be found in the food, in the TV shows, in all those other sort of mythic places that we find and try to find meaning about in another place.
RATH: You mentioned TV shows along with food. And I love that one place you went to for - to get into America was "The Brady Bunch."
BLANCO: Yes, certainly. You know, I mean there were others - "Leave It To Beaver" and whatnot. I mean, I really truly believe being naive and a child and also growing up in Miami, that this is the way the rest of the world lived and that there was a "Brady Bunch" house to be had everywhere north of the Dade County line. And to this day, I still - I'm still addicted to reruns of "The Brady Bunch." Of course, now I look at them with a different eye and I realized they were slightly disturbing as well.
RATH: And the other thing, of course, you're navigating, is your own awareness of your sexuality as you're growing up.
BLANCO: Yeah and that was - that was a very sort of subtle thing to do, because, of course, the memoir starts from about age seven, six to 17. And in the book I haven't come out.
But what - the story that really interests me is everything that happens before you finally come out. All those things, all those subtle moments of how you start slowly gaining courage or understanding yourself or contextualizing yourself as a gay person and how that collides with one's sense of cultural identity and also artistic identity.
I would always be hiding sort of my creative side and also of course my sexuality or sense of it. And often in literature - at least I'm even guilty of this myself - we sort of only look at one slice of that when we look at cultural identity or when we look at a struggle in terms of an artistic career or we think about only sort of the gay person and the coming out story. And I wanted to sort of throw those all together and see - and see what happens.
RATH: It was interesting reading in more detail about your grandmother, because people who know your work had previously encountered her in your poem, "Queer Theory According To My Grandmother" -
RATH: - Which is kind of a list of ways to hide your queerness.
BLANCO: Yes. She was as homophobic as she was xenophobic, so...
RATH: We get more of a sympathetic side of her though in this book.
BLANCO: Well, you know it's true. And, you know, it was surprising even to me because it was really a difference between genres. It's really interesting in poetry, you zero in on a person's sort of essential being - their soul, right? And in the poetry, my mother comes across as this sort of angelic martyr figure - this sort of, you know, woman who has suffered and had to leave all her family in Cuba.
And my grandmother comes across as this sergeant - like vigilant and aggressive. And in the memoir, those personalities sort of switch. I think it was part because on the exterior, my grandmother's character - she was hilarious. She was the life of the party. She was gregarious. She always had a fun joke to tell.
RATH: Worked for the organized crime - worked for a bookie.
BLANCO: She was a bookie. She had friends. You know, she was wheeling and dealing. But that was the exterior character, which you come across - you develop a lot more in prose and in memoir. Whereas her interior character, of courses, comes through in the memoir. But in poetry, that's where it's much more prevalent.
RATH: You know, I - when I heard about this book, I was expecting your coming-out to sort of be the midway point in this book. And, you know, we would read about what had happened. But this is really more about that development - all the things that people were telling you about what it meant to be a man - building up to that point. You know, towards the end of this book, you're still - there's still families trying to set you up with their daughters.
BLANCO: Yeah, I think that's when I became interested - I mean, not only because that's sort of the way it happened. But I really didn't end up coming out until much later in life.
But of course it took that long. And it was all these little subtle moments. And what really fascinated me as a writer, as an investigator, is how does that happen? How is it that moment by moment the next notch of encourage, the next notch of self-understanding, even though you know you're gay at 12, 13, 14. Those words can't even enter your mind. You can't even have the vocabulary. You don't say gee, I think I'm gay. No, it doesn't happen that way.
It's just a slow sort of easing into, and all the little things that propel you to that place, all the people that support and move you an inch in that direction. The moment of coming out is really the end of a story, and the beginning of a new one obviously, but it's really the whole life story to get to that one moment.
RATH: That's Richard Blanco. His new memoir, "The Prince Of Los Cocuyos," is out on Tuesday. Richard, thank you so much.
BLANCO: My pleasure.
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