Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Q&A with Ana Castillo




Ana Castillo is the author of the new story collection Doña Cleanwell Leaves Home. Her other books include the novel So Far from God. Also a poet, essayist, editor, playwright, translator, and scholar, she was born and raised in Chicago.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in Doña Cleanwell Leaves Home, and how did you decide on the order in which they would appear in the book?


A: The process of writing these seven stories was remarkably expedient; one story came after the other. Once I decided (or realized) I was back to writing fiction, I let it flow.


My last publication was a poetry collection, My Book of the Dead, which was during COVID but not necessarily influenced by COVID. Mass gun violence, ongoing deaths due to COVID, cancer, aging-related illnesses all around. Heartbreak also contributes to death.


In the short fiction collection I then started the prologue was written as flash fiction many years ago.  Otherwise, these stories came together from 2021 to 2022. I put the seven narratives in order, the long title story being the last.


Q: The writer Xochitl Gonzalez said of the book, “Castillo has always birthed indelible characters, and the men and women who inhabit Doña Cleanwell Leaves Home prove her gift for illuminating the nuances of humanity are more lustrous than ever.” What do you think of that description?


A: It is a generous quote from Xóchitl González which I received with appreciation. It does beg the question, which of my books does she refer to, which I assumed are among the novels. As lit lovers our taste is personal, even idiosyncratic, as most anything else: how we like our coffee, dress style, the art on our walls and playlist on our phones are all particular to our personalities.


While I’ve heard feedback most about the characters in So Far from God, there are other readers who still connect with the women in my first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, or the anti-love story in Sapogonia. Carmen in Peel My Love like an Onion is relentless in manifesting her creative ambition.


My most recent novel, Give It To Me, is being embraced, I believe, by Chicanx/Latinx identified readers, who appear most readily open to the fluidity of human sexual desire.


Q: How was the book’s title (also the title of one of the stories) chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I’ve long played with language, especially how dominant Spanish speakers adopt English words and vice-versa or what is known as Espanglish. 


The long short story Doña Cleanwell Leaves Home took a minute to write and my guess is that during the process the title of the book came to me. When I say a minute, in terms of writing fiction, it may have been weeks. It was a steady flow.


Another story, The Girl in the Green Dress, came to me almost in its entirety during dawn waking hours. It’s a crucial enough account in the collection to have inspired the designer of the new book cover.


The title story takes place mid-1970s around a teen who’s just graduated from high school. This is an era familiar to me. My own mother was a hard worker who held down more than one job at one time. I imagined the Donna Clean Well Products was constructed from the recesses of memory when my mother had similar secondary hustles.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: This is a tricky question. It may be more applicable to essays or memoir, where an author may assume they are delivering life lessons. In fiction, however, the agenda, at least consciously, isn’t instruction. For me, it’s always been about putting a spotlight on a culture, usually focusing on women that dominant society overlooks in plain sight. 


Since the stories are relatively recent and were written with a flow and expediency that was surprising to me, the idea of reader reception didn’t come to me.


Once the project was accepted for publication (I was still writing) and as it is about to debut, I ask myself similar questions. I won’t say I’ve always written just for myself. I’ve written for a readership much like myself that historically wasn’t represented in fiction and if so, usually in stereotype. 


These stories, as with the brutal honesty of the narrator in my first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, or the candid unselfconscious frankness of the narrators in So Far From God, Peel My Love Like an Onion, The Guardians, Give It To Me, or the lead story in my first short fiction collection, Loverboys, I hope gives the render an accurate representation of the lives of individuals mainstream society doesn’t acknowledge as 3-D human beings who are also vital contributors to society. 


Ironically, we may say, it has always been the case that from these most dismissed sectors often come dynamic cultural trends, fashion, music, hip-hop and its range of trends, etc.


Capitalist (now, more often thought of as “entrepreneurial-ship”) investments, awards, White culture or White wealth appropriate them and the trends assimilate into pop culture across all sectors. They are stripped of any alien aspects that at first feel threatening by the status quo. And in fact, any threat or even challenge to the status quo is then detonated. 


Once upon a time, when I was a child in the U.S., tacos were views as the food dirty Mexicans or beaners ate. Now, the worldwide is a “beaner.”


The “masses,” as we may refer to a majority in the population, become confused. Did they simply want acceptance? Is it a “win” that their trends are adopted? (Even if a few among the more successful profit—what does it mean for the rest?)


As I developed the stories I also asked myself what are these stories about? (Besides, for example, that women in the Doña Cleanwell sell cleaning products.) We also get to hear some background about secondary characters, which I hope allows for appreciation of the times. We, as a society, can’t appreciate where we are now (slow progress as women or regression of women’s rights) if we don’t know or recall how it was just a generation or two back.


Fighting for women and gender rights is a long, ongoing process throughout the world. As I read the stories as a whole, I see the questions the characters ask, mostly about life choices and the varying limitations given we live in a colonized, patriarchal, and capitalist world, in some places run by monarchs and despots.


These stories take place in the latter half of the 20th century when proverbial strides were made with regards to women and gender rights. Unfortunately, we’re undergoing a severe backlash. I think it makes the stories more relevant than ever when individuals born into society with obvious disadvantages were looking around and asking how do I change the pre-destined path for myself?


We tend to call stories like these as “quiet” or about “ordinary people” because they don’t pick up a banner on behalf of an entire population or show exceptional bravery and a calling like Joan of Arc. In this respect I’d say I’ve given myself the task of the poet, asking the reader to pay attention to the nuances that take place in daily lives.


For instance, I wrote a dark poem in my most recent poetry collection in My Book of the Dead called “Mierda.” It tells of how a spider keeps its victim alive eating it bit by bit. It was written during a period when I was diagnosed with clinical depression. In the poem,  the narrator is identifying with the spider’s trapped prey.


This could be thought of as a “quiet” poem. We are focused on a spider and a suffering insect. It’s the way of the world, right? At the same time, however, such quiet or ordinary in our social order may refer to anyone of those nameless soldiers who fought alongside a larger-than-life hero like Joan of Arc. Why are they important enough for our focus? Where and how does social change truly take place?


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My next book will be a hybrid novel. The title is Isabel 2121 and it takes place in the future—not necessarily on Earth, in the early 16th century at the time of the Conquest of Mexico and in the 1970s in the U.S. The genres are relatively new to me, sci-fi and historical fiction. I’ve always set challenges for myself in writing, which keeps things interesting for me.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Although I continue my writing pace, I’ve returned to my first love, art. This June in Chicago, I’m excited to announce I’ll be having my first official show with the Hilton|Asmus Galleries, which will be featuring mixed media drawings I’ve been working on over the last few years. Interested people outside of Chicago may go to the gallery websites in June to view them.


Thanks so much for your questions.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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