Ana Castillo

b. 1953
Ana CastilloRobert A. Molina
Ana Castillo is a Chicana poet, essayist, editor, and novelist who explores the tribulations of womanhood and offers pungent socio-political comment. Castillo's work is based on established oral and literary traditions, yet at the same time it is highly innovative. Calling her "the most daring and experimental of Latino novelists," Commonweal contributor Ilan Stavans noted that Castillo's "desire to find creative alternatives and to take risks is admirable." In the early 1990s, with the publication of her third novel, Castillo's success as a novelist allowed her to turn to writing full time. Previously she had served as writer-in-residence at a number of colleges.

Born and raised in Chicago, Castillo credits the rich storytelling tradition of her Mexican heritage as the foundation for her writing. When she was nine years old, she wrote her first poems following the death of her grandmother. In high school and college Castillo was active in the Chicano movement, using her poetry to express her political sentiments. Her first published volumes of verse--Otro canto, The Invitation, and Women Are Not Roses--"examine the themes of sadness and loneliness in the female experience," according to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Patricia De la Fuente. These works speak "for all women who have at one time or another felt the unfairness of female existence in a world designed by men primarily for men," De la Fuente continued. Castillo expresses her feminist concerns in another form in Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma. This book, based on Castillo's doctoral work at Germany's Bremen University, explores the Chicana experience and the historical and social implications of Chicana feminism. It is a "provocative" collection, according to Marjorie Agosin in the Multicultural Review, and the work of a writer both "lyrical and passionate," and "one of the country's most provocative and original."

Castillo's first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, was described by De la Fuente as "a far-ranging social and cultural expose." Through the device of letters exchanged over a ten-year period between Teresa, a California poet,and her college friend Alicia, a New York artist, The Mixquiahuala Letters explores the changing role of Hispanic women in the United States and Mexico during the 1970s and 1980s and the negative reaction many conservative Hispanic and Anglo men felt toward their liberation. Castillo creates three possible versions of Teresa and Alicia's story--"Conformist," "Cynic," and "Quixotic"--by numbering the letters and supplying varying orders in which to read them, each with a different tone and resolution. Her novel Sapogonia: An Anti-Romance in 3/8 Meter tells the tale of Maximo Madrigal, the male narrator, and his obsession with Pastora Ake, the only woman he is unable to conquer. De la Fuente declared: "Castillo hits her full-fledged and sophisticated stride in an intricately woven tale of the destructive powers of male-female relationships."

So Far from God was Castillo's first novel to be widely read and reviewed. The lengthy narrative follows the life of a strong Latina woman, Sofi, and her four daughters. Esperanza, the eldest, graduates from college and becomes a television newscaster, but finds her life empty and unhappy despite herapparent success. Caridad, the beauty of the family, squanders her life in a series of one-night stands. Fe, seemingly the most "normal" sister, goes into a year-long trance when her fiancée leaves her. The youngest, known as la Loca ("The Crazy One"), dies on her third birthday, only to be magically resurrected and regarded thereafter as a saint. Castillo's customary social comment is supplied through the voice of the narrator, who describes herself as "highly opinionated."

Barbara Kingsolver stated in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that So Far from God belongs to the genre of magic realism, frequently identified with prominent South American writers Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, and others. Yet, in Kingsolver's view, So Far from God stands apart from theirs because of its humor and easy readability. "Give it to people who always wanted to read One Hundred Years of Solitude but couldn't quite get through it," she advised. According to Stavans, "the novel's intent is original: to parody the Spanish-speaking telenovela, e.g., the popular television soap operas that enchant millions in Mexico and South America." Yet Stavans criticized the novel as the least successful of all Castillo's works. "The experimental spirit is absent here," he complained. "The terrain is overtly sentimental and cartoonish. . . . The novel is uneven, conventional, and often annoying." Still, the critic concluded that "in due time" Castillo's "creativity will match her passion to experiment and the outcome will be formidable."

Ray Gonzalez agreed in a Nation review that So Far from God is overcomplicated: "Castillo's novel takes on too much. It is full of stories told by too many characters who fade in and out of the vague plot." Belles Lettres contributor Irene Campos Carr also admitted that "the author's tendency to try to include everything in this book seems forced, and at times become intrusive," but her overall assessment was favorable. "The story. . . catches the reader in a net of surprises," Carr added, "as the narrator carefully details folklore, new Mexican recipes, home remedies, and more."

Reviews for Castillo's first collection of stories, Loverboys, were consistently positive. The twenty-two stories are about all kinds of relationships, including straight and gay sexual relationships as well as familial love. Taking place in mostly urban settings, the stories are dominated by strong Latina characters. Racial and cultural issues are explored as well as the sexual and personal dynamics of each situation.

In a review of Loverboys for Booklist, Donna Seaman connected it to Castillo's other work: "Whether [she] is writing poetry, essays, or fiction, her work sizzles with equal measures of passion and intelligence." In Loverboys Seaman found the author "defiant, satirically hilarious, sexy, and wise." Catherine Bush wrote in the New York Times that the collection of stories is "seductive, loquacious, full of infectious vigor, sometimes defiant, often confessional and (like all lovers, I suppose) at times annoying, rambling into the seemingly inconsequential." A Publishers Weeklyreviewer remarked, "The vitality of Castillo's voice . . . endow her first collection of short stories with earthy eroticism and zesty humor. . . . [Her] literary art resembles the cinematic Bohemia depicted by [Spanish filmmaker] Pedro Almodovar, and her inventive vignettes convey a volatile magic."

The success of Castillo's fiction has not undermined her intent as a self-styled protest poet, according to Samuel Baker in Publishers Weekly: "If Loverboys bids to occupy the mainstream of contemporary fiction, it nonetheless retains strong connections to Castillo's tremendously varied, and often quite radical, previous body of work." Indeed, the author's radical thinking was given full rein in an editing project published by Castillo in the same year as Loverboys. A collection of writings about the patron saint of Mexico, Goddess of the Americas: Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe was undertaken by Castillo because "what we could call the feminine principle is too absent from--is too denigrated by--Western society," as she noted in a Publishers Weekly interview. Castillo, not a practicing Catholic, asserted that she would love to see the book banned by the Catholic church.

The Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in 1531 to an Amerindian man who later converted to Catholicism, and she has since become a complex religious, cultural, and feminist symbol. Such complexity is reflected in works by authors including Sandra Cisneros, Richard Rodriguez, Ruben Martinez, Luis Rodriguez, Rosario Ferre, Octavio Paz, Elena Poniatowska, Pat Mora, and Denise Chavez. Seaman explained in Booklist that Castillo's virgin is "a transcendent spiritual figure revered as a manifestation of the cosmic female force," and as such is protective and maternal. Seaman found Goddess of the Americas to be a "profoundly moving and original collection of writings." Robert Orsi described the book in Commonweal: "These are not works of sweet nostalgia and childhood memory but fierce, troubled, and troubling accounts of the writers reengagement with [the Virgin] . . . in the circumstances of their lives now, often long after some of them had rejected her. The essays, poetry, and fiction in this extraordinary collection record what becomes possible and necessary in the presence of la Virgencita, what experiences, perceptions, and feelings she makes accessible." A Publishers Weekly contributor praised the "marvelous" stories and poems and recommended them to readers interested in going beyond traditional religious teachings "to a broader horizon in which the religious and cultural intersect."

In Castillo's 1999 novel Peel My Love Like an Onion, a Chicana woman named Carmen "la Coja"--"the cripple"--Santos, crippled by polio, becomes a professional dancer under the tutelage of Agustin, the gypsy leader of a Chicago flamenco troupe. Agustin both believes in and bullies Carmen, as Manuel Luis Martinez showed in Chicago's Tribune Books: "Agustin is domineering and ruthless, and yet Carmen finds that she gains strength in his refusal to see her as disabled: 'A good lover will . . . see something worthwhile in you that you never knew was there. And when there's something you don't like to see in yourself a good lover won't see it either.'" After their seventeen-year relationship begins to pale, Agustin's handsome and passionate godson Manolo arrives, and the three maintain a love triangle. Neither man will marry Carmen because she is not a gypsy, and when her polio returns Carmen finds comfort and reconciliation with her estranged mother. Martinez commented that, "In lesser hands, the plot could easily devolve into melodrama. But Castillo has shown in her past novels . . . that drama and romance are still excellent vehicles for serious, if not downright philosophic, contemplation. Castillo defies stereotypes even while she evokes them . . . , all the while being drawn in ways that successfully reconsider all the characters in all their flawed, empathic, comic humanity." Abby Arnold in an online review for Pif Magazine agreed: "There is neither self-pity here nor a stereotypical 'triumph of the human spirit.' This is a novel of love and family, in all the gritty, ridiculous, real forms it takes. And ultimately, this is Carmen's story--how she chooses to stick with her loves, whether for dancing or men or living an independent life, whether she 'should' have these things or not. As Carmen says, 'No matter what you do, when you are first a woman it means you cannot ever be afraid.'"

In addition to her work for adults, Castillo has authored the children's book My Daughter, My Son, the Eagle, the Dove. The book is comprised of two long poems relating Aztec and Nahuatal instructions for youths preparing for traditional rites of passage. As Castillo explained in Publishers Weekly, "These poems are teachings from my ancestry . . . hundreds of years old, from the time of the conquest of the Americas, and yet applicable today." According to Morris, the illustrated book "looks like an illuminated manuscript and reads like poetry. Yet what it provides is practical advice for children as they grow." "The charm and subtlety of the artwork [by S. Guevara], which borrows motifs from Aztec tradition, as does Castillo's 'chant,' saves this book from coming across as didactic and heavy-handed," noted Morris. "It's didactic and light-handed, and perhaps that is Castillo's trick." "When you speak, speak / not too loud / and not too soft / but with honest words always," admonishes Castillo in her text. "Walk--/ never with bowed head / nor / ever raised too high." The narrator further admonishes her daughter, "Don't choose your life companion / like an ear of corn, / only for its golden color."

Of Castillo's poetry collection I Ask the Impossible, John Stoehr observed in CityBeat online that the author "breaks the mono-linguistic rule by writing a Chicana-brand of poetry in both Spanish and English, effortlessly intermingling the Latinate and Germanic languages, often breeding them into an intriguing hybrid. But it's not 'Spanglish'--it's something more lyrical and thus more poetic." Geeta Sharma Jensen, in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, dubbed it "a work that celebrates a woman's strength and reminds people of social justice." Noting that Castillo "wrote these poems between 1989 and 2000," Jensen quoted the book's introduction: "They are meditations, odes, stiletto stammers. . . . They are the musings of a big-city gal and the prayers of a solitary woman who can feel equally at home in the desert or rancho." Stoehr characterized the verses as "irreverent, witty, passionate and intensely political," and added that "much of I Ask the Impossible is like hearing the voice of Carl Sandburg if he'd had a Mexican accent. Though Castillo would chafe at the comparison, she can hardly deny the similarities, especially in her homage to her hometown, 'Chi-Town Born and Bred, Twentieth-Century Girl Propelled with Flare into the Third Millen-nium.'" He continued: "Beyond the Sandburgian free flow, Castillo brings to the fore her own unique voice, rife with the pain of ethnic life in the United States, the joys of a rich and diverse Mexican-American past and the struggles of her Chicana present. . . . [She is a] writer . . . who's likely to continue to fight the good fight and to break the rules for years to come."

Career

Writer, 1975--. Santa Rosa Junior College, Santa Rosa, CA, instructor in ethnic studies, 1975; Illinois Arts Council, writer-in-residence, 1977; Northwestern University, lecturer in history, 1980-81; Urban Gateways of Chicago, poet-in-residence, 1980-81; San Francisco State University, instructor in women's studies, 1986-87; German Association of Americanist reading tour of Europe, 1987; California State University at Chico, visiting professor of creative writing and fiction, 1988-89; University of California, Santa Barbara, dissertation fellow, 1989-90; University of New Mexico, instructor in English, 1989, 1991-92; Mount Holyoke College, professor of bilingual creative writing, 1994.

Bibliography

  • Zero Makes Me Hungry (poetry), Scott, Foresman (Chicago), 1975.
  • i close my eyes (to see) (poetry), Washington State University Press (Pullman, WA), 1976.
  • Otro canto (poetry), Alternativa Publications (Chicago, IL), 1977.
  • The Invitation, privately printed, 1979, revised edition, La Raza (San Francisco, CA), 1986.
  • Clark Street Counts (play), produced 1983.
  • Women Are Not Roses, Arte Público (Houston, TX), 1984.
  • The Mixquiahuala Letters (novel), Bilingual Press (Binghamton, NY), 1986.
  • (Translator) Victoria Miranda and Camilo Fanion, On the Edge of a Countryless Weariness/Al filo de un cansancio apatricia, ISM Press (San Francisco, CA), 1986.
  • (Editor, with Cherie Moraga) This Bridge Called My Back, ISM Press (San Francisco, CA), 1988, Spanish translation by Castillo and Norma Alarcon published as Este puente, mi espalda: Voces de mujeres tercermundistas en los Estados Unidos, 1988.
  • My Father Was a Toltec: Poems, West End Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1988, published as My Father Was a Toltec and Selected Poems 1973-1988, Norton (New York, NY), 1995.
  • Sapogonia: An Anti-Romance in 3/8 Meter (novel), Bilingual Press (Tempe, AZ), 1990.
  • (Editor, with Norma Alarcon and Cherie Moraga) The Sexuality of Latinas, Third Woman Press (Berkeley, CA), 1993.
  • So Far from God (novel), Norton (New York, NY), 1993.
  • (Editor, with Heiner Bus) Recent Chicago Poetry, University of Bamberg (Bamberg, Germany), 1994.
  • Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1994.
  • (Editor) Goddess of the Americas: Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1996.
  • Loverboys (stories), W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1996.
  • Peel My Love Like an Onion (novel), Bantam Doubleday Dell (New York, NY), 1999.
  • My Daughter, My Son, the Eagle, the Dove, Dutton Children's Books
    (New York, NY), 2000.
  • I Ask the Impossible (poetry), Random House (New York, NY), 2001.

Contributor to anthologies, including The Third Woman: Minority Woman Writers of the United States, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1980; Cuentos Chicanos, University of New Mexico Press, 1984; Nosotras: Latina Literature Today, Bilingual Press (Binghamton, NY), 1986; English con Salsa, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1994; More Light: Father and Daughter Poems, Harcourt, Brace (New York, NY), 1994; Daughter of the Fifth Sun, Riverhead Books, 1995; Latinas, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995; and Tasting Life Twice, Avon (New York, NY), 1995. Contributor to periodicals, including Essence, Frontiers, Letras Femininas, Los Angeles Times, Maize, Nation, Prairie Schooner, Revista Chicano-Riqueña, River Styx, San Francisco Chronicle, Spoon River Quarterly, and Washington Post.
Castillo's papers are housed at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Further Reading

BOOKS
  • Benito, Jesus, and Anna Maria Manzanas, editors, Literature and Ethnicity in the Cultural Borderlands, Rodopi (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 2002.
  • Binder, Wolfgang, editor, Contemporary Chicano Poetry II: Partial Autobiographies: Interviews with Twenty Chicano Poets, Palm & Enke (Erlangen, Germany), 1985.
  • Bower, Anne, Epistolary Reponses: The Letter in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Criticism, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 1997.
  • Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth, editor, Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Twentieth-Century Literature, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 1996.
  • Calderón, Héctor, and José David Saldóvar, editors, Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1991.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 122: Chicano Writers, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
  • Fernandez, Roberta, editor, In Other Words: Literature by Latinas of the United States, Arte Público Press (Houston, TX), 1994.
  • Gaard, Greta, and Patrick D. Murphy, editors, Ecofeminist Literary Criticism: Theory, Interpretation, Pedagogy, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1998.
  • Georgoudaki, Ekaterini, and Domna Pastourmatzi, editors, Women, Creators of Culture, Hellenic Association of American Studies (Thessalonika, Greece), 1997.
  • Higonnet, Margaret R., and Joan Templeton, editors, Reconfigured Spheres: Feminist Explorations of Literary Space, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1994.
  • Horno-Delgado, Asuncion, and others, editors,Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writings and Critical Readings, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1989.
  • Navarro, Marta A., Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About, Third Woman Press (Berkeley, CA), 1991.
  • Pilar Aquino, Maria, Daisy L. Machado, and Jeanette Rodriguez, editors, A Reader in Latina Feminist Theology: Religion and Justice, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 2002.
PERIODICALS
  • Albuquerque Journal, October 6, 2000, interview with Castillo, p. 1.
  • Américas, January-February, 2000, p. 48.
  • Americas Review, spring, 1992, p. 65; fall-winter, 1993, p. 128; spring-summer 1994, p. 244.
  • Austin American-Statesman, September 26, 1999, p. K6; October 25, 1999, p. E1; April 23, 2000, p. K6.
  • Aztlan, fall, 1999, p. 73.
  • Belles Lettres, spring, 1993, p. 19; fall, 1993, pp. 52-53.
  • Bloomsbury Review, November-December, 1995, pp. 5, 13.
  • Booklist, August, 1996, p. 1881; October 15, 1996, p. 381; August 19, 1999.
  • Capital Times (Madison, WI), September 29, 2000, p. A7.
  • Choice, May, 1987.
  • College Literature, spring, 2002, p. 37.
  • Commonweal, January 14, 1994, pp. 37-38; March 14, 1997, p. 24.
  • Confluencia, fall, 1994, p. 67.
  • Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), September 8, 2000, p. 7.
  • Genre, spring-summer, 1999, p. 53.
  • Hispania, May, 1988.
  • Hispanic Journal, fall, 1998, p. 295.
  • Houston Chronicle, November 21, 1999, p. 19.
  • Idaho Statesman (Boise, ID), March 20, 1999, p. B1.
  • Isle, summer, 1996, p. 67.
  • Literary Review, fall, 1997, pp. 137.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 16, 1993, pp. 1, 3; August 25, 1996, p. 8.
  • MELUS, fall, 1997, p. 133; spring, 1998, pp. 65, 81; summer, 2000, pp. 63, 83.
  • Mester, fall, 1991, p. 145.
  • Midwest Modern Language Association, spring, 1997, p. 63.
  • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 8, 2001, p. 7.
  • Modern Fiction Studies,, winter, 1998, p. 888.
  • Ms, December, 1999-January, 2000, interview with Castillo.
  • Multicultural Review, March, 1995, p. 69.
  • Nation, June 7, 1993, pp. 772-773.
  • New York Times Book Review, October 3, 1993, p. 22.
  • Northwest Review, 2001, p. 124.
  • NuCity (Albuquerque, NM), June 18-July 1, 1993, interview with Castillo.
  • Poets and Writers, March-April, 2000, p. 32.
  • Progressive, January, 1995, p. 41.
  • Proteus, spring, 1999, p. 49.
  • Publishers Weekly, July 8, 1996, p. 73; August 12, 1996, p. 59; October 14, 1996, p. 77; August 9, 1999.
  • Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 1997, p. 201.
  • Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses, November, 1998, p. 69.
  • Revista de Literatura Mexicana Contemporánea, October, 1996-January, 1997, p. 38.
  • Romance Languages Annual, 1998, p. 658.
  • Sojourner, May, 1995, p. 16.
  • South Central Review, , spring, 1999, interview with Castillo, p. 19.
  • Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), October, 2000, p. F19.
  • Style, fall, 1996, p. 462.
  • Tampa Tribune, April 10, 1998, p. 2.
  • Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 26, 1999, pp. 1, 3.
  • Tucson Weekly, September 29, 1997.
  • Washington Post, May 31, 1993, p. D6.
  • Washington Post Book World, September 1, 1996, p. 6.
  • Women's Review of Books, September 1989, p. 29; May 1997, p. 16.
ONLINE
  • Ana Castillo Web site, http://www.anacastillo.com/ (March 15, 2004).
  • CityBeat, http://www.citybeat.com/ ( June 28, 2001), review of I Ask the Impossible.
  • Guide to the Papers of Ana Castillo, 1953-1990, http://cemaweb.library.ucsb.edu/ (March 15, 2004).
  • Modern American Poetry, http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/ (March 15, 2004), "Ana Castillo."
  • Pif Magazine, http://www.pifmagazine.com/ (March 15, 2004), Abby Arnold, review of Peel My Love Like an Onion.
  • Planet Authority, http://216.71.173.167/ (1998), interview with Castillo.
  • Voices from the Gaps Web site, http://voices.cla.umn.edu/ (March 16, 2004), "Ana Castillo."
  • Women Writers, http://www.womenwriters.net/ (March 15, 2004).

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Audio & Podcasts

Chicago Poetry Tour Podcast
  • Listen Pilsen
    Pilsen was a diverse neighborhood in Chicago long before anybody used the word “diversity.” Stuart Dybek and Ana Castillo read poems inspired by their childhoods there.

Poet Categorization

LIFE SPAN 1953–

Ana Castillo

Biography

Ana Castillo is a Chicana poet, essayist, editor, and novelist who explores the tribulations of womanhood and offers pungent socio-political comment. Castillo's work is based on established oral and literary traditions, yet at the same time it is highly innovative. Calling her "the most daring and experimental of Latino novelists," Commonweal contributor Ilan Stavans noted that Castillo's "desire to find creative alternatives . . .

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