"I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books."


Friday, September 28, 2007

A Conversation with Ana Castillo

Ana Castillo is a celebrated poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist. She is considered to be one of the leading voices to emerge from the Chicana experience. Castillo is an incredibly prolific author and poet whose work has been critically acclaimed and widely anthologized in the United States and abroad. She has long been an activist and feminist as well as a strong voice for social change.

Castillo’s books include the novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters (Bilingual Review Press, 1986; Doubleday, 1992), Sapogonia (Bilingual Review Press, 1990), So Far From God (Norton, 1993), Massacre of the Dreamers: Reflections on Mexican-Indian Women in the United States 500 Years After the Conquest (University of New Mexico, 1992) and I Ask the Impossible (Anchor Books, 2001).

Castillo has coordinated an anthology on la Virgen de Guadalupe entitled La Diosa de las Americas/Goddess of the Americas (Riverside/Putnam, 1996), Peel My Love Like an Onion (Doubleday) in 1999 and a children’s book My Daughter, My Son, The Eagle, The Dove. In 2005 she published a dramatic work Psst…I have something to tell you, mi amor (Wings Press) and most recently published her latest book The Guardians (Random House).

Born and raised in Chicago, Castillo currently lives in New Mexico, although she is currently teaching at MIT in Boston. The Ana Castillo website contains a complete bio and list of publications and awards.

For me personally, Ana Castillo is my hero, a role model and one of my favorite authors and poets. I've always admired her activism and her writing. Ms. Castillo very kindly took time out from her busy schedule at MIT to speak with me about her poetry, her books and her activism. I found her to be gracious, warm and brilliant. We had a lovely conversation and I gained both knowledge and inspiration from it.

GR: I loved your children's coming of age book My Daughter, My Son, The Eagle, The Dove - do you ever think you will write another book for children?

AC: Well, it's not always a matter of wanting to write something; sometimes it's a matter of getting it published. That book didn't do very well and is going out of print soon. I did write a book for babies from the huehuetlatolli but couldn't find a publisher that was interested in taking it on.

GR: It's a shame that the coming of age book is going out of print. It's such a beautiful book.

AC: I know, I know. And like I said I had the baby book, the huehuetlatolli, for the newborns and we passed that around. I wanted to do that about a year or so with this one. So you know you kind of lose your energy on it and then you move on to what else you have to get done like you know, a novel and so all those things are on the back burner right now.

GR: I loved The Guardians.

AC: Thank you.

GR: I loved Regina. She was a lot more timid and vulnerable than like say, Carmen La Coja of Peel My Love Like an Onion but she was wonderful. She was such a great character and I liked her so much. She was very easy to relate to.

AC: Thank you.

GR: What was your inspiration for The Guardians?

AC: Well I have been making my home in Southern New Mexico for the last four years splitting my time there and teaching and it’s out in the desert. The Franklin Mountains are in view. There’s a picture of me standing there outside of my house and you can see the Franklins behind me and actually that was the initial take off point for me in the story imagining someone on the other side of those of those mountains waiting to cross over. It was a cold morning and it was very misty – you couldn’t even see them but you knew they were there. That’s how it started for me. The first question is how would it be like for someone who’s waiting this morning to cross over and the other question was who’s waiting. And so I went over to my laptop and started writing the story.

GR: It’s a beautiful story, especially for someone like me who grew up with people who came during the revolution. My grandfather came over when he was about 14 years old from Guanajuato.

AC: Well my grandmother brought her son who had chased after Pancho Villa. He was 14 at that time too. She grabbed him in Torreon and then they went into Chicago and didn’t stop till they got there.

GR: A lot of people ended up in Chicago. My grandfather used to call it Cheecago.

AC: Yeah (laughs), so did we, ah ha Cheecago. But that’s how we got there and it’s just funny how people don’t know the history. Back in the 70’s people would say, “oh you’re from Chicago and you speak Spanish?” Of course a lot of Mexican people went up there. There were factories and the stockyards and the steel mills. So there was work for people.

GR: Yeah it’s how people ended up where they ended up during that time. My grandmother was born on the way and her family ended up in Piru – Ventura County picking oranges. They were hiding from Pancho Villa. So many of these families have these interconnected Pancho Villa stories.

AC: Exactly. That’s what the book does with el abuelito who is claiming these connections and say okay well fine we don’t have these connections but we could have had them.

GR: That’s why I think The Guardians is so important. It touches on so many of our personal immigrant stories and our family stories. It’s very relatable to what’s going on with the borders. It’s an amazing book and probably one of my favorites next to I Ask the Impossible.

AC: Thank you.

GR: One of the questions I had for you was about activism and what more do you think needs to be done? What advice would you give to young Chicana women today? How to keep it going?

AC: Well I’ve had a couple of inquiries as a result of the subject of the book that I haven’t had recently from young people, like you know new college kids maybe. I decided sometime back personally for myself most of my activism goes into my writing and the commitment I have to the books that I do and speaking and so on. That came because as a very young person when you discover, when you have some consciousness and you discover where you fit and where your people fit in society and you decide that it’s not just. You know you have that zealousness of the young person that feels like you can go out and do it all. You know you save the world, save your gente, save women and before you know it if you try to do that you will burn out very quickly. My feeling is that I always think that and my advice to young people regardless of what times in these decades we’ve been living in there’s always work to be done. The point is what can you do personally that you can live with so that you can get up the next morning and have the strength to start it all over again. So whatever it is that people find that they want to work on they also have to remember that they are human beings and they need to save some time for themselves for personal growth, for mental health, for their families, their loved ones so that they will have the strength to continue doing that work. So if you decide well you know I don’t have much time, my kids are in school and you want to get online and do letter writing to your senators, your local congressman on the Internet that’s something to do. That can be done. It doesn’t have to be doing it all, going out into the streets rioting, getting arrested. There are other ways to show your presence.

GR: Yes and it can consume you if you’re not careful.

AC: It does consume you because once you realize that one thing is related to the other, you’re outraged by injustice in general. So that’s what I would recommend. I have found my blog one source for that because I have readers. I don’t know how many readers but I know I have readers. I know there’s people out there because they respond every now and then and they’re not only in this country but they are in other countries and I think that is such a tremendous tool that we have these days with the internet. To be able to reach out to people all over the world that 20 years ago or 30 years ago was just impossibility. So I would say that and I think that another way to do that if you’re more hands on is to start in your own immediate community. That community could be your town, it can be your ward, your district, your town, your school and to see what needs to be done there. That’s one step. I also feel that it’s very important for young people to have a sense of history and do research and don’t re-invent the wheel and don’t think that you’re the first martyr to discover social injustice but to take advantage of previous generations of activists and find out what they did and how they resolved things.

GR: Right, right. It’s interesting. My mom was an activist and I saw her burn out very fast. I’m a danzante Azteca and that’s how that and book reviews – trying to get the Latino community reading is my personal torch to carry.

AC: And we absolutely need that as we have a growing body of Latino literature. We absolutely need it and I found myself on a tirade recently if you read my blog because you know it’s been happening obviously since the 80’s. You have activists coming out of the 60’s and 70’s and then you start getting people that are taking the opportunities for their education and then becoming Republican and becoming to my mind retroactive activity. One of them are we are living still in the time in which it’s not as if every Latino writer has the same opportunity as every white writer to get published. We are still seeing many of us, except for a handful are still seen as ethic or minority writers and therefore we are not writing to the universal experience. This has been a truism as far as I’ve known since the 80’s. The first people to go out and slam another Latino or Latina or another minority are their own people.

GR: Right, the crabs in the bucket.

AC: Yes! I was just outraged, not because people don’t have an opinion to like or dislike my work but why are you going to go do that out in the public? We already have enough going against us than to have our own people doing the dirty job for the mainstream.

GR: That kind of thing drives me crazy which leads me to my next question. What steps forward do you think we’ve made as women and Chicana women and what steps backward have we made since the 70’s, 80’s?

AC: Well we aren’t isolated from the rest of the country and the rest of the world and so as we were opening up those opportunities just as other ethnic groups, newer generations are able to assume that perhaps that they can get into college, that they can go away to school, that they can take certain careers. I think those are some of the wonderful things that have happened. The downside is that in my opinion we lost, some of the work that we also did as Chicana feminists that still needs to be done and that is and this isn’t the case of course with everybody but we also see now they’re not feminists, their not necessarily self defined as Chicanas, are young women marketing their careers vis a vis their bodies and that’s okay for them. And those are things that started evolving in the last ten or 15 years that when I started to see that I couldn’t believe what I had fought for was to see that. So I think that we’ve gone backward and I think that there is going to be a backlash with that. Maybe not today or tomorrow but there will be one. There was a reason that Chicanas wanted to be taken seriously for their intellect. To be able to get into positions of power for their intellect and not because you know they had cleavage, just the opposite in fact.

GR: Yeah I see a lot of the teenage girls and the way they dress and I just want to stop them and say mija – stop aren’t you reading? What are you doing? It’s a struggle with the girls – the media and the Internet and being so caught up in their looks. I think you’re right; we’re going to be hit with a backlash. Not just Latina women but women in general. We’re overly concerned about beauty, weight, etc.

AC: Well you know on the one had you can say that, when I hear for example that JLO is such a role model for Latinas, on the one hand I respect her for her business sense and I respect her for her ambition. But again, she’s in the entertainment world. She’s done it on her looks and very specifically on her anatomy. Madonna is also considered a great businesswoman and so is Yoko Ono. In the entertainment world that is a whole different story. I feel if I had a young daughter right now, I would feel a little discouraged if that was my daughter’s primary role model for success and for young people, for Latinas and Latinos. You know they think, oh she’s such a businessperson and she does this and that. Well yes, after you’ve made your money in a certain way whatever that way maybe. But again to me it is about social change and using your mind to implement those changes.

GR: Right. You know I just read a children’s book that I’m going to be reviewing. I have a children’s book review site for Latino children’s literature called Cuentecitos and I just read Monica Brown’s book on Gabriela Mistral. Now that’s a role model.

AC: Right and someone that we need to know about, that our children need to know about. In France where they have no shortage of adulation for their writers, I remember about 20 something years ago meeting some little girl, she was about ten years old and she had something like playing cards but they were about French writers. So that’s what I’m talking about. Those are the kinds of things we need to put out there for our young people.

GR: It’s important. Literacy is a big issue and sometimes I get a little discouraged but I just pick myself up and keep on going.

AC: What else can you do?

GR: One of my of my favorite things you write is your protest poetry. My favorite is Women Don’t Riot. It hits you in the gut. It’s an older poem but it still packs a punch.

AC: Yes, I wrote it right after the OJ Simpson case, after the decision was made. I think I wrote it right after that. It’s funny you mention that, I was just thinking that my son that is in his twenties now recorded me reading that and I think we posted it on the website. The way he sent it to me was Save My Mom and I saw that on my computer and I thought Save My Mom what is this and it was me reading that poem. It reminded me of what you were saying about your own mother. So that’s how he sees it.

GR: It’s a great voice and a beautiful poem that says so much. Are you going to be doing any more books of poetry?

AC: I never dismiss that possibility. I sure do hope so. It takes a very long time to get a collection that you want. You have to be selective and there’s also a theme and as I’ve gone more into prose there’s been less poetry. But you know Water Color Women was a 300-page poem that I did in 2005 so it’s not on my immediate agenda but I do hope that I am able to do another book in my lifetime. They take about ten years usually. Not Watercolor Women though.

GR: Well you have such a beautiful poetic voice it would be wonderful to see another book, another collection.

AC: Thank you.

GR: I read a Washington Post article recently about how you are haunted by your ancestors. Do you care to expand on that a bit?

AC: Well I think that’s one way, speaking of poetic voice I think that’s one way to put how writers come to their material. Especially postcolonial writers we come to our material haunted by our families, our parents, our grandparents, our great grandparents migrations, haunted by history in a way that dominant society doesn’t have to do. You know things just have been going on as they’ve been going on, you know victory after victory. And we are reliving or working on a wound that we inherited and that’s the way it came to me to describe why I do write about Chicanos and Latinos, Mexicans I don’t even know how to describe us when we are American citizens who are always looked on as immigrants.

GR: Sometimes I think we do it to ourselves too. I mean I think of myself as a Mexican woman versus an American woman even though I am third generation, I was born here. My culture is so saturated in me that I consider myself a Mexicana.

AC: Well but that’s the debate that is given by people on the anti-immigrant side. They say that as long as you don’t assimilate like the good Europeans did who came to Ellis Island, you yourself are contributing to your own alienation. But I don’t really agree with that. I think that part of that comes because we have this unique relationship with being the Southwest of the United States became part of the U.S, in 1848 that no other country outside of the Native Americans really experiences that on this territory. At that time we are really made to feel alienated in this country forever. You know I live in New Mexico and there are people there in the village that I live in that their great, great, great grandfather established a town there and they definitely – I mean they may call themselves Hispanic (that’s the preferred term if your not a Mexican citizen) but they speak Spanish, they are you know look at Mestizo, proud of their Apache background but they definitely see themselves as marginalized or not white. And we’re not white. So I mean part of that has to do with we can’t assimilate because we have a very long history of being marginalized as people of color on these lands. You go where you feel most comfortable.

GR: I don’t think we want to assimilate because for me personally, I fight it kicking and screaming because I feel they are trying to take the color out of my life and kind of white wash me. Que no, que no! I am a danzante Azteca. I put on feathers and go out into the street and dance around in Native regalia. It’s very hard for me to assimilate.

AC: Well you know, this past weekend I was at the Brooklyn Book Festival and I was on a panel with two gentlemen writers and one was from Jamaica and one was from India and the point for me is that I am not from another country. Now I guess I live on the border but I do live on this side of the border.

GR: But we are treated as foreigners.

AC: Yes. So it’s a constant and you are treated as a foreigner and when they find out you’re not they lose interest in you. [Laughs]. Oh okay, one of those. You know what I’m saying? It’s like you lose credibility. When I’m asked if I write in English or in Spanish, I say I write in English why would I be writing in Spanish? I’m not Laura Esquivel. I’m from Chicago. So then they lose interest in you.

GR: Bueno, it’s a hard battle and it’s uphill but we gotta keep going.

AC: But I guess we signed up for it so it’s too late to turn back now!

GR: Right.

AC: Okay. Well thanks so much for the wonderful review that we received. You know you put a lot of hard work in your books and it’s easy for someone to say you know I didn’t like it.

GR: Well I loved it.

AC: Thanks for the work that you do too.

GR: Thanks so much.

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