Ana Castillo is a renowned poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist. Castillo’s books include the novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters (Bilingual Review Press, 1986; Doubleday, 1992), for which she received the Before Columbia Foundation’s American Book Award in 1987. She is also the author of Sapogonia (Bilingual Review Press, 1990), So Far From God (Norton, 1993), and a work of non-fiction, Massacre of the Dreamers: Reflections on Mexican-Indian Women in the United States 500 Years After the Conquest (University of New Mexico, 1992).
As a poet, Castillo is the author of several works including the chapbooks, Otro Canto (1977), and The Invitation (1979); these were followed by several volumes of poetry which include Women Are Not Roses (Arte Público, 1984), My Father Was a Toltec (West End Press, 1988), and I Ask the Impossible (Anchor Books, 2001). She recently published Water Color Women, Opaque Men: A Novel in Verse (Curbstone Press, 2005).
In addition to the above books, Castillo’s other works include Peel My Love Like an Onion (Doubleday, 1999), and a children’s book, My Daughter, My Son, The Eagle, The Dove (Dutton Juvenile, 2000). In 2005 she published a dramatic work Psst…I have something to tell you, mi amor (Wings Press).
In her new novel, The Guardians (Random House), Castillo ventures into controversial terrain as she explores the issue of undocumented immigration through the hardships of one family. She tells her story through the voices of several distinct and unforgettable characters as we follow Regina, a middle-aged widow living in southern New Mexico, who cares for her teenage nephew, Gabo, an undocumented immigrant. Gabo’s mother died seven years earlier attempting to cross into the United States from Mexico. Now Gabo’s father, Rafa, might have met a similar fate. As Regina and Gabo embark on their search for Rafa, they confront the underground and dangerous world of coyotes who are willing to smuggle immigrants into the United States for a steep price.
Born and raised in Chicago, Castillo currently lives in New Mexico. For a complete listing of her publications, awards and scheduled appearances, visit her website.
Castillo kindly agreed to take time out of her busy book tour to answer a few questions for La Bloga.
DANIEL OLIVAS: Undocumented immigration is such a hot-button issue which, sadly, brings out some of the worst xenophobic feelings in some people. Writers such as Luis Alberto Urrea and Reyna Grande have stepped into the fray in non-fiction and fiction, respectively. Why did you decide to put this issue at the center of your novel’s narrative?
ANA CASTILLO: Living in the desert in Southern New Mexico, near the border since the end of 2003, brought this reality front and center for my imagination to run with. I’ve taken on subjects of concerns in a variety of genres, and I have to make a decision each time as to which genre I will choose. I have found that storytelling is the way to reach out to audiences who might not come to an article or a poem.
OLIVAS: The Guardians is not a traditional novel in the sense that you use many different voices to tell your story. Did you try other structures first or did you decide on this structure from the start? What are the benefits to you, as a writer, to the multi-voice structure?
CASTILLO: The quartet of narrators happened as the story evolved. I don’t work with an outline. As the story develops the structure takes shape. In this case I felt it was important to give Gabo, the young man, his own voice. And Miguel/Mike, the Chicano, naturally had to speak for himself. And as they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, so Miguel’s grandfather also spoke for himself.
The benefit it gave me was the challenge of trying something I hadn't done in a previous book. For me personally as a writer, structural challenges are very important. They keep things interesting. I call myself a “genre jumper.” For example, a few years ago I started to re-work a long poem while I was supposed to be writing a novel. Six weeks later,I had written a novel in verse, Watercolor Women, Opaque Men: A Novel in Verse (Curbstone Press, 2005).
OLIVAS: One of my favorite characters in your novel is El Abuelo Milton. Is he based on anyone in particular? How did you create a character who is so different from you?
CASTILLO: I believe for every novelist it’s the same. All our characters have some of our selves in them just as they do in our dreams. We dream about our dead grandfathers, have arguments with old lovers, but in fact, all of those dream characters are ourselves. We’re working it out. In the novel, we writers do that and to make it accessible to the reader, we further develop a character that is a composite of many people.
OLIVAS: Do you have a favorite character in your novel?
CASTILLO: I put the same amount of love in each of them and each returned it.
OLIVAS: As you were writing The Guardians, did you have any friends or family members read drafts?
CASTILLO: I credited the friends who read a late draft in the acknowledgements. Sometimes I read passages out loud to people close to me as I'm writing. Basically, it’s to anyone who will listen! It started with my poetry -- to hear cadences. It helps me to hear it out loud.
OLIVAS: If there’s one thing you’d like readers to take away from The Guardians, what would it be?
CASTILLO: Extraordinary reading pleasure.
First and foremost, and I teach this about fiction: it’s for pleasure. No one reads a novel or short
story for the news of the day. “Pleasure” doesn’t necessarily mean that the subject has to be “pleasant” or comfortable for the reader.
OLIVAS: What are you reading these days?
CASTILLO: I'm reading Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life, by New Mexican Governor Bill Richardson. Let’s not rely on CNN and NPR to give us all the information we need to make responsible decisions for our communities. When I’m writing, I don’t read fiction. My other recommendation is: Vote in the primaries.
OLIVAS: Any advice for beginning writers?
CASTILLO: Short and sweet: Read, read read. Write, write, write. Re-write, re-write, re-write.
OLIVAS: Thank you for spending time with La Bloga.