"We write what we know, and this is what we do know," says Ana Castillo -- novelist, essayist, poet, teacher, truth-teller, and, as she has come to be known, one of the first generation of highly visible Chicana writers.
"They describe us as 'Chicana writers, in search of their identities.' We're not looking for identities -- we have this identity," adds Castillo during our conversation at an independent bookstore in Chicago, her hometown and a stop on her author tour to promote her newest novel, Give it To Me (2014, The Feminist Press) (http://www.anacastillo.com/content/).
Give It to Me is Castillo's sixth novel, written in only two months, a testament to her mastery and a successful journey from her first novel that she spent "so many years learning how to write." In college, Castillo's plan had been to teach art in high school, but she veered from that more conventional path to become a self-taught poet and then a self-taught everything else literary, now with two New York Times Notable Books of the Year to her credit. Today, she is called one of the most powerful voices in contemporary Chicana literature.
When Castillo moved to California after college in the 1970s, the era of Cesar Chavez, she encountered "Chicana," which was "a big word" then used in academia. "Coming from Chicago, I saw myself as Mexican-American. But I was born here," she adds. By the time Castillo returned to Chicago, she proudly brought the Chicana label with her.
"It bothers me that the various powers that be still see me as a label and decide whether that is the flavor they want or don't want," Castillo says. But after numerous volumes of fiction, poetry, and essays, she clearly isn't hampered by a label.
Little wonder then, at the reading and book signing for Give It To Me, a young woman in the audience tells her, "I see you as a role model."
In slim jeans and a lace-trimmed top accessorized by bold silver jewelry (a silversmith has launched the Ana Castillo Collection), the author is clearly comfortable with herself, which makes her a role model for everyone. She celebrates her identity and wields her considerable creative power to give it a voice.
With her long black hair and dark eyes, Castillo wears chili pepper red lipstick -- the same shade her mother wore. "My mother used to get up at four in the morning and take three buses to the factory where she worked, but she always wore that red lipstick." Here is a powerful heritage of women -- hard-working, often oppressed, and scraping together a better life for themselves -- who could still "put on that red lipstick like Queen Nefertiti."
Castillo creates characters who survive and thrive, in spite of it all, such as the Give It To Me 40-something protagonist Palma Piedras, who divides her time between Chicago and New Mexico, with a detour to L.A. in the company of two hustlers. The novel is one-half sexual adventure, and one-half poignant search for love and meaning that are always found within. Palma is feisty and uninhibited, and unblinkingly realistic about herself and the world. My favorite line about Palma and her complicated love-interest cousin: "They weren't just family but cut from the same brutal cloth of inequities. Life wasn't fair and they made it work."
That attitude raises survival to an art form.
Castillo, who has been "coming back" from breast cancer in 2008-2010, knows about surviving. Writing has been her way of making sense of what life dishes out since age nine, when she started composing poetry to deal with the death of her grandmother who had been her primary caregiver. Throughout her career, Castillo expanded genres to reach bigger audiences. "Everybody writes poetry. Few read poetry, and nobody buys poetry. So I began putting my stories in fiction," she says.
Her writing is populated by women who differ from the feminine archetypes in literature--Alice in Wonderland or Little Women -- who "were not anything like the women I knew or the girl I was." Rather, Castillo writes about "beautiful brown women -- and by beautiful, I don't mean an aquiline nose or tall and blond. Strong, resourceful, capable of making the best of it."
Indeed, Castillo writes what she knows -- and lives.