In his 17th book and third memoir, Rigoberto González begins by recalling a boisterous early family life, making cascarones (hollowed out eggs filled with confetti) to sell in the town plaza in Michoacán, Mexico. But after his family moved in with his vicious abuelo in the States, his mother died, and his father left them, life got increasingly unbearable for him and his younger brother, Alex. In What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth, our reviewer says González “offers a riveting account of the bond that saved two brothers from their tortured past while offering lucid glimpses into the meaning of Latino manhood.” Here we talk with González, a recipient of Guggenheim and NEA scholarships and many literary awards, about his imagination, superpowers, and work ethic.

In your memoir, you mention that as a boy living in Mexico, you freed a girl your abuelo essentially kidnapped to work as a family servant. It’s an exhilarating, wild scene. How did that moment influence you?

As an early adolescent living under the watchful eye of Abuelo, I had to learn quickly how to exercise what little freedoms I had. I valued my imagination and ingenuity and recognized them as my own personal superpowers. That moment of bravery also taught me that I had agency and that if my situation worsened in Abuelo’s household, I could always find a way out.

The book is dedicated to your brother, Alex, whom you call by his (and your) nickname, Turrútut. How did that nickname come about? 

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Our father tried to play a word game with us, trying to convince us that another way to say “two minutes to two o’clock as well” was “two to two too.” We thought the phrase sounded too silly so we mocked it, as immature boys will do, until Alex produced that sound, turrútut. We began using it on each other as a term of endearment and a reminder of one of the few intimate moments we had with our late father.

Not many memoirs focus on sibling relationships. What led you to write about yours?  

My brother and I have had a very lengthy and complicated journey. Growing into adulthood without parents forced me to take on a parental role with him that eventually became a burden. To write this book meant I had to examine the nature of brotherhood and to retrace my steps (and missteps) in order to understand that the dysfunction and failure of our relationship did not compromise the love and affection I have for him.

Gonzalez cover Describing Días de los Muertos in Oaxaca, you say, “everyone is complicit in the theater.” In what ways? 

The Days of the Dead have become so commercialized and public that it’s drifting away from the intimacy of that personal connection between those who are still living and their departed loved ones. Losing its spirit is typical of any holiday, I suppose. At the same time, it also ensures that a celebration takes place each year. So for the sake of its longevity, I’ll welcome the sideshow experience.      

In your memoir, you mention an intricate altar in your Queens apartment. What goes into the art of raising an altar?

In the traditional altar the four elements have to be represented, hence the incense (air), candle (fire), flowers (earth), and tequila (water). But more importantly, the personal symbols for memory, sadness, joy, and heart have to be present by placing the items that remind the living of the dead. Also, all senses have to be stimulated, which is why an altar must also have food and music, or at the very least, prayer and conversation.

What are you working on now?

I’m in the final edits of my next collection of poetry, The Book of Ruin,which comes out next year with Four Way Books. And I’m also working on a nonfiction book about Abuela, an Indigenous woman from Michoacán. I’m trying to piece together what little I remember in order to honor this incredible person who didn’t know how to read or write and whose courage, wisdom, and work ethic were the best life lessons I’ve ever had.

Karen Schechner is the vice president of Kirkus Indie.