“I have always seen myself as a poet,” says Ana Castillo, AM’79. “I think that poets, true poets, are witnesses to their society and the world around them.” (Photography by Claudia D. Hernández)

Radical curiosity

Poet and novelist Ana Castillo, AM'79, on feminism, writing, and a momentous education.

“Knowledge makes you strong,” writes Ana Castillo, AM’79, in the introduction to her new memoir. “Not scattershot information … but checking and cross-checking your resources, going to the source, radical curiosity.” Castillo was a newly published poet in 1978 when she read in the Chicago Sun-Times about a new Latin American studies graduate program at the University of Chicago. She enrolled a short time later. “I believed that I would be a good poet and a better poet,” she says, “if I understood the subject matter that I wanted to write about and the world.”

Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me (Feminist Press), comes out in May. The personal essays in it weave together the experience of Castillo’s Mexican American family over five generations, from her immigrant grandparents’ forced repatriation during the Great Depression to her mother’s return to the United States, and from Castillo’s upbringing in Chicago to raising her own son to recently becoming a grandmother. (Read one of the essays, “Bowing Out.”)

After UChicago, Castillo published more poetry as well as essays and fiction, becoming an influential literary and political voice and one of the first Chicana writers to reach a broad audience. Her breakthrough novel, So Far from God (W. W. Norton) was published in 1994, the same year as the book version of her dissertation, Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma (Plume). Castillo coined “Xicanisma” for the vocal, historically and politically conscious Chicana feminism she is known for.

Her interview with the Magazine is edited and condensed.

How has studying social sciences influenced your literary career?

As a Latina, Mexican, Chicana, indigenous woman, I was interested in history, politics, and culture because we are very underrepresented and undervalued in society. I felt that what I needed was more information. It’s very funny now because we have such a proliferation of MFA programs, making that the road to be a writer. But I didn’t see that as important. I figured, I can write, I will write, I will teach myself to write. But I have to have information.

You helped create the opportunities that exist today for writers of color.

One of the reasons I began writing is that there was a void. And as much as I love literature, there were not Latinas publishing in the United States. I felt a need as a political person to make that happen. Even in a very modest way, whether it’s a small press or self-publishing, you’re putting it down. That’s a political act. I started out that way and 40 years later I have to say, yes, writing wasn’t even a realistic thought. It was a dream, it was a vision, it was a really revolutionary act. I wasn’t doing it for money or fame. I was doing it because it was a political act.

How did you wind up at UChicago?

I just walked in and had an interview with the director of the program. And then I was accepted—it happened very rapidly. It was almost informal. It was one of the most singularly important educational experiences of my life, that program.

What made it so important?

This was the late ’70s and I was a very political Latina, up on many of the things that were happening in Latin America. Several of the countries were taken over by dictatorships: Chile, Argentina. The program was focusing on that, and also on Mexico, which is my family background. So it was speaking personally to me and it was speaking politically to me.

I’ve always told people who have very different impressions of the University of Chicago, what I appreciated about my program was that they gave the left point of view, the right point of view, and the neutral point of view, and they never told us or guided us or directed us which one to choose. You chose. It was so incredibly fabulous for me as a poet, as a thinker, to be told, “Here, look at all these points of view. You decide. And we’ll respect you as long as you can defend yourself.”

Who did you work with?

Friedrich Katz, John Coatsworth, and the director of the program, T. Bentley Duncan, AM’61, PhD’67. They were the original professors of that program and it seemed to me that they had enormous respect for us. We were treated with equal respect: Señorita Castillo, Señor Coatsworth.

I was respected, and I had never had that experience before. It meant so much to me to have that be a given. I remember having a horrible flu during the snowstorm of 1979. I had a job and I was so sick. And I didn’t do very well on an exam that I took. I got a C. I went to Professor Coatsworth and asked if I could redo it. I said, “I know what I can do.” And he said, “We know what you can do too, Ms. Castillo.” I was like, “You do?”

It meant so much to me. For a poor brown girl to be recognized for her intellectual acumen was unheard of. He just said that: “We know what you can do.”

Did you go directly to pursue your PhD?

The PhD is also one of those great, tremendous opportunities. I was by then known as a poet and had published my first novel, which got some attention. I was invited to speak at the German Association of Americanists and American Studies at the University of Bremen. There was a great deal of interest in my theories and ideas. At one point I said, “I’ve written it in fiction and poetry; one of these days I’m going to write it all down as nonfiction.” The dean of American studies said, “And the day you do, we will accept it here as a formal dissertation.”

I said, me and my big mouth. I went back to the States and thought about it. My friend Sandra Cisneros said, “You theorize all the time, you just don’t write it down.” And the other women in my clique said, “Of course you should write it down.” So I wrote back and said I’ll accept your offer, but I’m not going to write it for academics. I’m not going to write it for white people, and I’m certainly not going to write it for Germans. I’m going to write this for other Chicanas.

That dissertation was Massacre of the Dreamers, which is my only formal book of feminism. It just had its 20th anniversary and came out in a special edition (University of New Mexico Press, 2014).

What does being a feminist mean to you?

People have always thought that feminism is politics or an ideology, and it really isn’t. It really is about focusing in on women’s identities and rights and their places in the world. When I was very young and was thinking about these things as a Latina, I read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970). Here’s this tall, Anglo, white woman feminist who seemed to have nothing to do with me. Something she said that continues to make sense to me is that the one thing a woman has a right to do is to pursue her happiness. When you hear that, it sounds frivolous. She’s happy because she belongs to the country club, or because she doesn’t have to worry about her bills, her children are taken care of. But that’s not what she means. She means that unless you feel like you are a full participant in this world, you can’t feel happy. You can’t feel joy.

It’s a lot harder to achieve than what it sounds like. And that’s been a guide for me in terms of leading my life. When I feel unsettled, when I feel devalued, demeaned, dismissed, I search for space that would make me feel comfortable, that would make me feel whole. So my goal is to achieve joy.