Ana Castillo: celebrated author discusses her most personal life lessons

  • by Laura Moreno
  • Tuesday July 26, 2022
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author Ana Castillo
author Ana Castillo

Great books spur readers to grow and discover truths for themselves. Each of Ana Castillo's books delivers just that. In fact, Ana Castillo has been instrumental in the fight for LGBTQ acceptance, particularly within the Hispanic community (which is slightly more accepting than the general population).

With a well-earned reputation as a fearless, sensitive, extremely intelligent, intuitive writer. It's a combination of traits that allows her to instinctively ask the right questions to get to the core truth. So much so that the Tucson United Schools banned two of Castillo's books ("So Far From God" and "Loverboys") along with Shakespeare's "The Tempest."

Recently inducted in the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, Castillo is an award-winning author who has been called an "American treasure" (she's of mixed European and Native American ancestry), "fashionista" and newly minted fashion designer, and (although atypical of literary figures) drag queens in Mexico dress up like her. She's also the inspiration for the new Desert Mirage IPA by Shiner.

Her unexpectedly influential book "Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma" was met with excitement by the academic community. Xicanisma is the term Castillo invented for Chicana feminism. Through interviews and ethnographic research, she documents the labor struggles, spirituality, and sexuality of Chicanas in the 20th century. The 2014 anniversary edition includes an essay, "The Real and True Meaning of the Virgin of Guadalupe," that won the Gloria Anzaldúa Prize for Independent Scholarship. In it, Castillo uses astronomy (as her Native American ancestors did) to research the cryptic origins of the goddess of the Americas.

Her brilliantly titled "My Book of the Dead" (UNMP; NM, 2021), is an elegy for the people in her life who have died, but also for the countless people who've died due to gun violence and systematic racism. Notably, it is a return to poetry for her, and includes lighter poems and her own intricate drawings.

The backgrounds of the drawings seem matrix-like, representing the energetic vibrations of the universe that we each draw from and contribute to, according to Native American lore. The drawing of a young woman, strikingly, has a large snake coiled around her. It is a symbol of creativity/sexuality and healing and represents her own power and fearlessness in the face of challenges.

This is a book for the ages. Surely future generations will look back in disbelief that the United States of America, known for successfully eradicating infectious disease everywhere, suddenly approached the coronavirus from a vantage point of helplessness.

It's the way we seem to approach everything now from world events to the weather, apparently having forgotten that we have nothing to fear, as FDR said, 'Aren't we a superpower?' The pandemic wreaked grief on all of us who lost loved ones, lost valuable time, and lost earnings. Native American communities in the Southwest were devastated and Hispanics disproportionately lost our lives.

This book is a clarion call to look beneath the surface and at last take care of one another as we know we should.

"Black Dove: Mama, Mi'jo, and Me," a recipient of the 2017 Lambda Literary Award for Bisexual Nonfiction, is a memoir. It delves into her hardscrabble upbringing, traumas, her bisexuality, a near-death experience, battling cancer, the incarceration of her own son, and the largely ignored prison-for-profit racket.

Castillo came out in a time before the LGBTQ community was united and bisexuality was criticized as a "betrayal" of gays. The mind always wants to judge, rather than simply behold what is. The hardest thing for a human to do, still, is to simply be. We always want to create categories and labels, as if they are real when reality is actually far more complex and varied.

The chapter "On Mothers, Lovers, and Other Rivals" gets real about the great love of her life, a well-known, unnamed woman author. "So far in life, I've been truly in love only once with a woman. How it came to be was like a personalized meteorite had plunged from the sky faster than the speed of sound and left a radiating crater in my chest."

Although her son's incarceration was perhaps the most painful experience of her life, the chapter "Mi'jo's Canon in D Major" is must-reading for anyone in a similar situation seeking solace and understanding.

The chapter gives us a glimpse into the unconditional love that was fostered by the experience. Full of soul searching, she recalls that her son was always a good kid who had only recently become distant and depressed. As she searches for answers, she must ask herself: was she too blame? "Had I held my head too high and gained God's disapproval for the sin of pride?" Or not high enough?

"When I Died in Oaxaca" is a near-disaster story told with humor rather than poignancy.
"It was as if I had found myself in the embrace of God. If you can imagine what it would be like to be cradled and welcomed and loved by a divine presence, this is where I was."

Misdiagnosed by two doctors, certain that at 47 she was not having a heart attack (she was!), a friend became alarmed after the doctors left her for dead. So she performed a Native American medicinal maneuver that seeks to put the soul back into the body. Castillo writes, "I felt her hands go under each of my armpits and, with the instinct of a curandera, which we had both inherited from our abuelas ... she yanked my body up from the pillows...I didn't want to come back."

A comedy of errors, but all's well that ends well. Castillo answered a few questions in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

Laura Moreno: Any hints about the identity of the famous author you were in a relationship with?
Ana Castillo: You're referring to a personal essay included in my collection, "Black Dove: Mamá, Mi'jo, and Me" (Feminist Press; NY 2016). I think people know.

Regarding your near-death experience, did you see/sense God or heaven?
I didn't see God or reach heaven as I chose to return once I was aware that I was transitioning. It was a beautiful experience and I agree with others who've had near-death experiences, you don't really want to return to this life. Afterwards, you may even feel depressed. [The full account of Ana Castillo's death and resurrection is in "Black Dove."]

Like many single mothers, you've discussed being both mother and father to your son. How have people and mothers in particular responded to your candid writings about his incarceration?
My son and I agreed to tell our story because we believed there are many families across society that would identify. While the prison system is an industry in this country the majority who are incarcerated are People of Color. Yet, there remains a stigma and shame in our communities and families.

On a personal level, while I was grateful for the handful who showed up, I received very little support or compassion, otherwise. I don't recall hearing directly from any writers. Sometimes, because I am a public individual, I take "silence" as a sign of people wanting to respect our ordeal as private, rather than interpret silence, in this case, as judgment.

Too many families are left bereft by the prison industry in this country, by the violence and predatory attitudes of authority against POC. We are now discussing the lack of support in American families regarding mental illness and drug addiction, the results are also reflected in the numbers of POC in the prison system.

Also, I will add here, that while many households are run successfully, even sheroically by women, despite the lack of resources and support from society, mothers are too often blamed for children's missteps, perceived failings and unhappiness.

72% of bisexuals are still not out, according to PEW research, very much in contrast with your own courageous path. Do you agree with the growing idea that there's really no need to come out anymore? What is your view?

Unfortunately, in the 21st century, the U.S. has taken a sharp turn in the direction of homophobia, racism, misogyny and class divisions. While a few trans people are bravely living successful lives, many more experience risk to their professional lives and their very lives, overall. The less privilege the individual has, the greater the threat to their well being.

What would you like to say about the stunning Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade?
The phrase used during the Trumpian Era has been "shocked but not surprised." Vice President Kamala Harris has voiced my own sentiments. Justice Clarence Thomas has announced what we may next expect. I'm not sure what 2/3 of the U.S. population can do to stop or even slow down the GOP agenda in motion. Hope springs eternal. Do whatever you can and as much as you can, if you have a conscience.

What are you working on now?
I just finished a new collection of stories, "Doña Cleanwell Leaves Home" (HarperVia NY, 2023). And the next book, "ISABEL 2121," my first dystopian novel, will follow in the near future.

I also actively draw and am planning a small showing of my drawings this August in San Miguel de Allende. I'm currently working on trying to maintain an inner calm as the U.S. resumes an atmosphere of gun violence, open racism and diminishing Women's Rights including abortion.

What advice do you wish someone had given you when you started your literary career?
When I decided to make writing, specifically poetry, my life's work, Chicanas weren't published. It was critical personally and politically to create that path. I'd advise anyone taking an untracked but necessary path, always love yourself, work on that first. That will lead you and carry you through to meet your goals.

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