Bonnie Cisneros Interviews Ana Castillo
Ana Castillo, una de las madrinas de la literatura Xicana, has gifted readers with Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me, a collection of essays that feel very much like listening to a good comadre while sitting on the back porch, looking out at a rainstorm, or maybe it’s late en la madrugada en la cocina with cafecito, recounting stories “like rosary beads.” The stories are written in her signature style, con mucho cariño and clarity. Like the countless cover versions of the titular song “Paloma Negra,” each essay works its own magic on the reader. I recommend listening to the song a few times while reading the book and reading Tómas Mendéz’s original lyrics. Tequila may or may not be involved.
Front Porch: The essays in Black Dove were twenty years in the making, but the stories contained within took generations to accumulate, to be lived, remembered, and to be passed down to you. Can you speak to us about writing across the generations? How is passing along the story of the (usually matrilineal) journey of the family a form of love?
Ana Castillo: [The] form of love is that remembering and holding with respect our families’ stories, [which] is an aspect integral to love. A mother’s unconditional love, in my opinion, is the ultimate selfless love. Women, in general, have been the bearers of family history, cultural traditions and even religious beliefs.
FP: How do you play with the linearity of time within generations, as well as epochs within you own lifetime, without getting messy? Can you speak to the organization of your collection, in particular how you weave the narrative trenza (you, your mother, and grandmother), but that also of you, your son, and your nieta? How did you map out the scale of the narrative?
AC: The essays in the book Black Dove were written over a long period of time. The oldest essay is “My Mother’s Mexico,” which was written in 1993. Several are very new—speaking on my son’s recent history and even about my young granddaughter—in the present. Some essays were written during my son’s teen years. I hope it all comes together, as you say, a trenza or weaving that readers will enjoy following.
FP: “Remembering Las Cartoneras” reads like a love letter to your Tía Flora. It is clear that her influence still colors your world. Even if you did not live her life, your conversations with her over time allow you to almost relive her stories when you write about her. How do you navigate through the journeys of other people’s stories and how they collide with yours? And, how does one stay true to the facts without having lived them?
AC: For several years now, I have been giving workshops and full courses on memoir writing. An aspect critical to the memoir is that it is not told in chronological order. After decades also, of writing novels and stories, often non-linear, in answer to your question, a lot comes now as part of a developed skill. As a self-taught writer, how I learned to write was by reading extensively and carefully writers I admired and whose styles I admired in order to develop my own. Yes, I did want to immortalize my querida tía who was also one of my closest friends for a long time during my adulthood. Something else about storytelling. As a Chicana, it has been essential to take those kitchen table stories, try my best to stay true to the narrator, in this case, it would have been my aunt, and transform it into the written word, creative literature.
FP: I feel like the first three essays work together to build up to the fourth essay in the collection, “Peel Me a Girl.” Can you speak to us about the form of the essay and how it can be more conducive to these pangs at understanding? Does lyricism allow for the speaker to approach and quickly relent on revelation?
AC: I think when you speak of lyricism, you are addressing a style recognizable in much of my prose that shows the roots of my initial start in writing as a poet. I dedicated myself to poetry for many years before I decided to extend my stories into prose. If you hear lyricism in the prose it is embedded in my writing much the way. One never loses a slight accent from her first language regardless of how fluent she is in her subsequent languages. The poetic use of language is part of my writing style.
FP: “When I Died In Oaxaca” recounts what popular culture would call your near-death experience. You write: “Love, I learned, transcends this life and life transcends all that we perceive—which means, of course, that both go beyond the limitations of corporeal existence…I do not even know how to end this story and not sound unworthy of your gracious attentions” (137). How is love related to your writing? Do you think about your readers when creating, revising, publishing?
AC: In this essay, I think I am more conscious of an audience than perhaps in others because of the process we come to when arriving at the version in the book. First, I recounted orally the experience several times, across kitchen tables and in private communications. Not long after, it was solicited in a publication and was published over a dozen years ago. In looking at it more recently for the book, I tweaked and it is then that I think I added your quotes. At this point, I know there is a readership for the essay, and I am familiar with the story’s content. Therefore, some new reflection came, which is when I actually address the potential readership.
FP: “Mi’jo’s Canon in D Major” is bookended on one side with your son’s essay “What’s in a Nombre,” and on the other side with a compilation piece of your correspondence with him while he was incarcerated. Can you speak to the process of drawing from a variety of texts as supplements, support, and sustenance for your story? Do they fall in your lap or do you research the engine of your mind to make a mosaic of thought for the essay?
AC: Writing Mi’jo’s Canon in D Major was one of the most difficult essays I’ve ever written. My beloved son, a college graduate and young father with what I believed could only be a bright future ahead, ended up in prison during the Recession and as I was recovering from cancer. It was a difficult time. My editor felt that it might be a good idea to include his voice in this telling of his journey. Editors are a major, sometimes unsung collaborator in books. It is why the relationship between writer and editor is so important and sensitive.
What I found in looking at many of my essays is the indisputable influence of literature in shaping my life and then my son’s. Mi’jo, of course, grew up with books. How I selected something of our correspondence demonstrates the influence of books in our lives. His essay, “What’s in a Nombre,” he wrote while in prison and submitted to an online zine. It was accepted.
FP: In “And the Woman Fled Into the Desert,” you write about the updated version of Massacre of the Dreamers, your groundbreaking collection of critical essays on Xicanisma. How far do you think we’ve come in the past twenty years? What are some positive changes you have seen in your lifetime? What do think is the primary challenge women of color face today?
AC: The new updated edition of my book of critical essays came out on its twentieth anniversary. When I first started, the project feminism was perceived by women of color, and in our case, Chicanas, as an ideology belonging to white women. We had our own issues as brown women in this country and our rights as women to pursue them. Those of us who were also politicized and identified as Chicanas had both the issues of ethnicity and gender to deal with in society, law, and government. I came up with the term Xicanisma as a collapsed form of Chicana feminism.
Of course, all women in this country and society as a result, have benefitted from the struggles toward equality based on gender. As women of color, and particular as Chicanas, however, in general our condition hasn’t improved greatly. Poor women and girls in the world still comprise 80 percent of the world’s impoverished work force. The primary challenge of women of color today would entail improving the living conditions of women, often heads of household, often mothers, who must work at jobs that place them at risk for their safety and health conditions and have their children and families also exposed to similar risks.
We are making strides in regards to integrating women and U.S. Latinas into all facets of society. We may see this as positive changes. As long as we live with the economic systems we do, the majority of the world’s population will pay to provide most material gains to a few.
FP: Can you tell us about your conscious or unconscious choices to include Spanish terms and phrases? What is lost or gained by using Spanish? Do you worry non-Spanish speakers might lose meaning or that an in-text translation might mar your flow? Also, how did you decide to title the book Black Dove rather than the Spanish song title Paloma Negra?
AC: I write mostly in English and publish in the United States. The decision to call the book Black Dove (with reference to Paloma Negra in the title page) is based on that. I use Spanish when it is true to the character in fiction. In poetry, I use it as I please. In other words, I may write a poem in Spanish or use words as they fit within the lyricism of the verse. I do not worry about monolingual readers understanding Spanish because I use it in a way in which understanding may still be achieved through the context.
Ana Castillo is a celebrated Chicana poet, essayist, editor, cultural activist, novelist, and playwright. She has a PhD from the University of Bremen, Germany and has held many prestigious university posts, which include the Distinguished Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Scholar at M.I.T. She is the founding editor of La Tolteca, a zine devoted to “promoting the advancement of a world without borders and censorship.” Her first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986), won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Her works of fiction include the short story collection Loverboys (1996) and the later novels Peel My Love Like an Onion (2000), nominated for the Dublin Prize; The Guardians (2007), which was named a best book of the year by the Chicago Tribune; and Give it to Me (2014), which was published by The Feminist Press and awarded the 2014 Best Bisexual Fiction by the Lambda Foundation. Castillo’s forthcoming book, Black Dove: Mi’jo, Mamá and Me, is forthcoming from The Feminist Press in May 2016. Her numerous honors and awards include the Sor Juana Achievement Award from the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Chicago, the Carl Sandburg Award, a Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in both fiction and poetry.