Writers have to Write Right Now: An Interview with Ana Castillo
Lisa Galloway: Alright, let’s do this.
Celeste Chan: We’re both nervous, to be honest.
Ana Castillo: Do you want to have tea? I forgot to tell you, they have tea.
LG: We did start talking about labels as an entry point. I know Lambda put your book in the new bisexual category. I’m curious…for example, I identify as lesbian but people call me queer or genderqueer based on how they perceive me.
AC: Many years ago, I had an interview in a major paper after one of my books had come out. A very lovely woman. I think she was straight, and she didn’t ask me about my sexuality. Next thing I knew the interview came out and it said “the polysexual Ana Castillo!” I had never heard that term. But oh yeah, I could see that. And then I read….“oh, she’s polyamorous.” Oh, now we’re getting into other territory.
I’ve got a poem called “The Invitation”, and it talks about desire—desire for one’s self, masturbation, woman friends, just owning it. I wrote this 40 years ago. And 40 years later, thank you for RSVPing. I just felt that desire, rather than some identification or labeling of a sexuality.
CC: So more about naming desire….
AC: And owning your desire, since we’re deprived of it. Especially for women born into conservative families and cultures. You know, Catholicism, Mexican culture. I felt very repressed very young…and I didn’t have a place to go with it, except of course in my head. Yes, there was the whole culture of women’s lib…but it was white middle-class women or hippies (laughter). So right after college I got on a greyhound bus and came to the Bay Area. I was here at 21 years old. Believe me, I came out here as soon as I could leave my home. Yeah, I got my nose pierced. It’s a constant negotiation, or sense of outsiderness. Sometimes you give up your family and your culture, leave other things that are familiar to you. This culture will always accept you a little differently.
CC: There is that tension…it’s like how do we create a space that’s truly…that truly holds all aspects of the self. That’s not like: your queerness is welcome here, but your other parts are not.
With Watercolor Women and Ella, there are all these lines you come against, and can be boxed in by…
AC: She’s kind of every woman.
You know, I’m a self-taught writer. I’ve always read what I wanted to and learned from it. Decades ago I discovered the poet HD Hilda Doolittle, and her book, Helen in Egypt. I was in my 20’s and finishing graduate school, and I remember thinking, “what an awesome thing to write an epic poem. Maybe one day I’ll be good enough to write an epic poem. Helen of Egypt was a beautiful woman, a queen.
Decades later, I decided to tell my version. She’s a person born in a labor camp. She has no name. She’s not a queen. She’s a queen in a way, in her sense of herself, but she doesn’t own anything, and she’s not given anything. That’s how Ella became her name. She could be anybody. For me, it’s always been about the collective “I” and the collective objective in society, towards equality. I didn’t want to elevate a dominant figure—I wanted her to stand for everybody.
CC: You’re such a powerful voice. As my friend Meliza Banales was saying, “She’s a Chicana superstar. You need to talk to her.” I was really taken by “Women Don’t Riot” and “A Countryless Woman”—can you tell me more?
A: I wrote “Women Don’t Riot” in the 90’s—and just recently saw a meme of it superimposed over the women’s march. I remember a Latino male Facebook friend took objection with it, thinking I meant that women in Latin America don’t protest. I get that. The point is, I wrote “Women Don’t Riot” in the vein of “Day Without a Mexican”. Try a day without a woman in this society—the world would stop functioning! Think about all the ways that women work, every single day. Every single day, women are paid less, their roles are diminished or undermined. We still have this auxiliary position in many many ways…religious institutions, all kinds of institutions, the person behind. We haven’t even had a woman president in this country, and we say that we’re so progressive. Where other countries have had women leaders.
And we say we’re the most progressive in terms of gender politics and equality. I know that’s part of what made me a feminist, working alongside men as a young Latina, and we were doing all the work, writing the speeches, making the flyers, and the guys were getting all the credit. “Women Don’t Riot” was about every woman going out into the streets, putting down their work, whatever their role or pay or not pay…just get out and walk out. Let’s see how this world would function!
Even statistically speaking—every few seconds a woman is raped, every few minutes a woman is being killed in her home. These are horrible statistics and we live them very casually. We accept it. We’re not rioting about the fact that women are being abused every single day in some situation. It’s not like once in a while. All the time. We are living it. Why? Because they can. And that’s what “Women Don’t Riot” was about.
I wrote “A Countryless Woman” when I was living here in SF during the 80’s, as a young mother. My son was a toddler at the time. Some places in this country and in the world, where laws did come in to protect women, the laws were there in practice but they were not in place. When I read now, they say, yeah the laws are there but not often employed. So things like that. How many women call the police in the middle of the night, they talk with the perpetrator, and then agree, “everything is gonna be fine.” Then a month later they get a call and they find her body. So the laws are there, but in a society where they’re not put in place, how far have we come? So in my poem, “This is Not My Country”, the end of it says “This is not my world” and I look at that poem. Today it does ring true to me.
Many Chicanas of my generation are experiencing PTSD, reliving what we struggled and fought against as younger women. How much has really changed? In the 20th anniversary edition of Massacre of the Dreamers, I didn’t have that much statistically to update. That was shocking to me. I thought….I’ll have to write a whole new book, we have a Black president, there’s all these laws, women’s conditions are improved in so many ways. But when I went through the first edition, the change in statistics was only very nominal.
Back in the 80’s I was reading women’s literature of the Middle East, making connections between Muslim culture and the old Spanish Catholic culture that was brought to the Americas. I learned from the politics of feminist writers in the Middle East at that time, fighting against the extreme repression of women’s rights, so I was coming from that, and separating what was man’s law vs. God’s law. Now, there’s a lot of Middle Eastern feminists reclaiming the veil and the Muslim faith. I know I need to update my thinking—I’ve become more aware of Middle Eastern culture and Islam than was ever discussed prior to 911.
CC: Two things. You mentioned the larger dialogue within feminists of color and Middle Eastern feminists. Where else are you seeing these broader dialogues? Where else might you be updating your ideas? Where have things changed?
AC: I try to keep up with the dialogue and always be open and flexible. I feel refreshingly vindicated on the binary! The binary of sexuality. Thirty years ago, I was rejected quite often, by lesbians and straight people. Getting the backside of people’s hands, on both sides. I’d show up to do a reading, and hear, “she’s a lesbian” and at the same time “oh no, she’s not lesbian, she’s with a man.” Being Chicana and brown, they were already thinking, “where do we place her politically?”
I didn’t really want to talk about it publicly or privately, but when I signed up to be a writer I became a public person. However, people in my life did not sign up to be in the public eye, such as my mother, son, and lovers. It was a question of trying to be respectful to their lives and their livelihoods and their families.
I’ve lived this history. I would be silent out of respect for them. I would be with my woman lover at dinner, with the group, but I wouldn’t say, “oh, this is my lover.” Maybe it’s different now. The particular women I’m thinking of came out later to their families. Now it’s okay with everybody and they’re comfortable enough in their lives. If you go against the grain as a person of color, and you have a traditional family, where are you going to go if you get outed? There’s homophobia, misogyny to have to deal with on top of everything else.
Feminist Press and Lambda labeled my book bisexual. My editor labeled it bisexual. I said, Oh, that will work.
I’m Chicana. I don’t mind saying Chicana, or Mexican. It’s a political decision never to use the word Hispanic. At the end of day, I feel very indigenous. I know how I’ve been treated, and it has a lot to do with how I identify. Sometimes I reject Latina, also. I take my mother’s identity and know that I’m regarded in this world. It all depends. How strongly you’re feeling something at a certain time, you take up that banner to take a position. Other times you hear it from outside. For example, I received a Hispanics and higher education lifetime achievement award. I wasn’t going to say, “I refuse this honor on the basis of the fact that I’ve never used the term Hispanic and there’s no such country as Hispania.” I felt it was more important to go and be supportive of this wide range of struggling brown people in academia than to make a point or make them feel bad about how hard they work and the diversity that’s within that organization. You can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. I try to be open and a little bit more flexible than some people are.
CC: That makes sense. Also the binary of sexuality—transgender and genderqueer complicate what that binary even is.
AC: I’ve experienced it being…just being me. I’ve been observant of it, maybe because I was a poet and an artist. Maybe I went against the grain. Like in my novel Give It To Me, a woman goes to a man’s gay bar and makes out with a drag queen who turns out to be transgendered. I always negate that anything is autobiographical. That was a good twenty-something years ago. I didn’t make out with the person, but I was dancing with her all night. Maybe it’s just been me who’s been so open to people—how they live their lives and make their choices.
CC: You talked about negotiating the need to tell these stories—and the power of these stories—vs. protecting people who didn’t want to be outed. It’s hard because our stories do actually bleed together, so that’s complicated, but you approached that in a really delicate way.
AC: As a writer, you also decide what genre to use. I did write about these relationships in fiction and in poetry. In Loverboys, there’s a poem called, “I Ask the Impossible.” The book flew under the radar because it was so complicated, so many things going on. I fictionalized one relationship that I had off and on for over twenty years. We met in the 80’s, she was much younger than myself. We met at one of my readings. She was first generation Syrian.
They came from money, and she was her aunt’s beneficiary. Her aunt and younger brother beat her up when they discovered her gayness. She couldn’t talk…very conservative atmosphere. We went like that for a very long time. Ironically, the younger brother—nobody ever said it—but I think he was gay, everything about him. If I came around he would be there. He’d sleep on the floor in the living room. It was many years of that, on and on. I haven’t told that story, although I’ve written about her a couple of times in different ways. She’s out now. She has a longstanding relationship with a woman.
There’s a lot of things at risk, that people don’t appreciate the risks for the people around us. It’s not that easy. I know that she could have gotten killed. Her younger and older brothers were both after that inheritance, and I thought they would kill her when she inherited her aunt’s money. Fortunately, her partner is a prosecuting attorney, so it’s good. (Laughter) She went after those two guys. They got everything, and she had them do a public apology, because they actually attacked her in public at the funeral. I thought I was gonna see it on Late Night. Watch them tell me, I read that you were talking about us. They’ll be fine. They’ll be fine.
LG: Growing up in Chicago, and seeing the Democratic national convention, the roots of the riots, politically…right now, what is the call to action? What is it when everyone’s afraid? Especially for you, as a woman of color, as a bisexual, or (to Celeste) not entirely sure what you are.
CC & AC: queer
AC: (to Lisa) We don’t know what you are either—today.
LG: Today, I feel lesbian. (smiles) I grew up in the midwest with Southern Baptist parents. I was adopted. So they are very much Trump supporters and conservative. And I’m trying to maintain a relationship with them. They are reflective of so many other people. I’m feeling almost catatonic, in some ways, to react. Because I’m scared. I’m sure this is other people’s experience in a different way.
AC: Well, the fear is real. Things have been happening at such a rapid pace. Taking away human rights is part and parcel with the greed of a corporate fascist—and I use the word today very carefully. Fascism is a horrible thing. I don’t think we have it today, but it’s headed in that direction. We’re going on that train if we don’t derail it. So, the fear that we’re talking about, it is very real. Everyone has to do what they have to do. If maintaining calmness and steadiness is what you have to do, maybe that’s your political action. I’m going to try and keep it together.
A lot of people, including myself, became immediately depressed. Surprisingly so, how fast. Clinically depressed, just like that. I felt anxiety. I’ve had some talks with Chicanas, older Chicanas—who, as children, experienced severe racism in Texas. I had a conversation with somebody who was, in fact, imprisoned under a dictatorship and tortured. We’re having these similar reactions. There’s PTSD we’re experiencing. All those things are real. You have to take care of yourself, first and foremost. I thought I would leave the country. I thought if he wins, I’m outta here. I will give my passport to anyone who needs it. I’m giving up my citizenship and they can give me their green card and I can leave.
When it actually happened, I thought, what do I do now? Where do I go? And I became very depressed. My son and others said, “there’s a lot of people who look to you, to hear you, to listen to you, and to count on you. You touch a lot of people.” They had to remind me. I just felt like giving up. I was in Latin American Studies at U of Chicago in the 70’s, when Milton Friendman, one of Pinochet’s consultants, was one of our professors. We’re in the belly of the beast.
So I thought—I’ve come too far to turn back now. What good would it do if I went to Mexico? I’ll be an immigrant, a gringa over there. What good will it do if I take my own life? For a few days people will feel bad about it, and then they’ll just remember what I did, and not what I can do, what I can say. What I experienced before, those poems—from My Father Was A Toltec—during the Reagan days, was not this. It is a progression. We’re not repeating history. And so we are actually moving in that direction. It’s very important to continue to serve as witness, as a historical witness.
I reach a cross-generational readership and circle, including my son who is in his early 30’s. They need encouragement. Because they don’t know what we can survive. Your mettle and strength are being tested right now. Nothing challenges me more than a rejection. Nothing challenges me more than when people tell me no. And it sounds dramatic to say, but I decided to stay, to live, in the last six weeks or so. I don’t have to shoot myself to say I’m gonna go. I could just give up. I was aware of that. I thought if I just let my little spirit keep dwindling, I will go.
I decided to stay—and have my work cut out for me. It’s the collective objective, talking to other people who haven’t seen what those challenges are, who haven’t been tested before, and are lost in that. You have to tell them that what you are feeling is real, whether it’s depression, or losing a job, or the myriad pain this administration causes. Taking away millions of dollars of support—to South Africa—knowing the people who are going to be dying this summer. NGOs that give support to women and people with HIV are not going to be able to do that around the world. I mean, what are we unleashing to support a few people’s greed?
I made a very real decision on the first day of his office. I was going to put myself out there. Like Zapatistas said, “you’ll take me down standing up but not on my knees.” I made a satirical video letter to Mr. Trump. I said, why don’t we just cut to the chase. We know you’re not a populist. We know you don’t care about anybody. Why don’t we cut to the chase—highest profitability. You want to go back to slavery. Let’s start with Mexicans. Anybody who talks a foreign language. Then we’ll go to the Muslims. All women who aren’t there to give you pleasure or serve the men or serve the men serving you. We’ll get rid of them and their children. For a while your followers will enjoy a nice, new leisurely aristocratic life, then you’ll get bored with them and having to support them, as well. Eventually you can replace them. This is how I really see the mentality of this administration. So, I put that out on Facebook.
People told me to be careful—in a dictatorship or authoritarian rule, there is no enemy too small. I knew I was on the radar back in the 70’s and 80’s. Rather than go down with a whimper, let me go down with a bang. Let me just do this, that’s what I’ve been doing all my life. Why am I going to let my sorrow and my fear overtake me? People need to hear, need to be encouraged—as they say—to carry on. So, it’s still a struggle, a struggle emotionally and spiritually. In every way that I can, I feel it’s important to speak out. I lead a spiritual activism writing workshop in Sacramento on Saturday so other people can get some of the tools to write their own stories, whatever that story may be. If it is a story about fear, a childhood story about trauma, let’s get it out, let’s talk about it, and help each other move forward.
LG: Thank you. Thank you.
CC: I appreciate that. It’s definitely a call to action.
AC: It’s an independent decision. It’s very important not to get burnt out. One of the strategies of the opposite side is to exhaust you, to tire, to burn you out. I learned this from my early 76 Foglifter
community activism, when in your 20’s you think you can save the world, the world you inherited. And then you burn out. Rather than do that, people have to pick what matters most to them. Focus on that, save the rest for yourself and your loved ones. Create a life. Otherwise, you’re not good to anyone, including yourself. We have to be careful.
CC: I was really struck by “they don’t know what we can survive.”
AC: We have to believe that human resiliency will win out. There will be people that will be strong enough to resist. Always.
CC: We don’t know what’s coming next. I know in my parent’s lifetime, my Dad survived the Japanese occupation of SE Asia while he was very young. I just keep thinking, what have people seen and survived?
AC: You can look to the past for those reminders, when you think about your father. To try to guess too much about the future can be debilitating. To be open to the possibilities. Maybe our people are the surprise element. Find out what we are capable of doing. Or joining. Those strange allies that we get sometimes, because we have a common bond, I think is what we have to always keep open to. The opposition does feel powerful, but your will and your spirit can surprise you. And then suddenly you find yourself pushing through it. And you will. You’ll make it. Then there’s people also who join the opposition. Certainly many people did during the Third Reich. They still got picked up and thrown into camps. It’s a question of your conscience and your will and desire. So you know, it’s been a very quick process for me to make this decision to stay. To stay here, and to stay here (alive). Whereas, two months ago I was thinking differently.
CC: What a gift to us all. Your work. You are very prolific. What a gift to the future, also. I think we really need these words. We really need these stories, the ones that have been suppressed, made invisible or erased. We really need this.
AC: Thank you. I see this. I saw that. I took the hard road as a writer. During the 90’s and the 2000’s and the amount of people living a life of illusion and delusion as to their resources and their lifestyle. There came a time when I wasn’t all that popular, people were looking for the American dream. Just six weeks ago I was seeing some of my poems and work coming out there. I thought, that’s what I’ve been talking about all this time. Whoa…interesting that it’s catching up. But still there are things to write about, things that are going on right now. This is a new time. It’s important to assess. I could not write—I couldn’t even get out of bed—two months ago. What I found with that first video tape: one has to write what one has to write. So I wrote that Mr. Trump letter.
Writers have to write right now. Another week I talked about how he was playing up his victimization, how we have to watch language. I write as a writer also—how he’s using language to turn it on his head. I realized that was healing for me. I wanted to be writing something. What good is another novel right now when we’re living this? He shifts so quickly. He shifts so quickly. Next week he’ll deny what he said, almost like he can’t hold onto it. At least for us today, we can quickly assess where we’re at right now. Maybe that’s what I need to be writing. I did 3-4 of those, constantly going into the dark place. It’s very difficult, you know. And then of course I’m doing speaking engagements.
CC: That’s it. Resistance by any means. What would you say to the next generation, as far as how to resist this? I know that you’ve talked about speaking out—that some of it might be individual, people do what they have to do.
AC: They are younger—preteens, teenagers, children. I just read this afternoon there was a mock vote in a first grade class. Three kids voted for Trump, and there was a riot in the classroom.
You don’t know your true convictions til you’re tested and have to stand up for them. That’s how we really know if we’re just talking or if we really want something to change. Then we go out and get our allies—create or find our allies—so that we can work towards that.
There’s always men and women who say there’s no activists like back in our day. True. There aren’t. The ones now are going to be tested in a different way. They are facing other things. Globally, now. It’s not just a national thing. What to do is very different—it’s digital, mass media, social media. I mean, everywhere I go in this country people show up because the word was passed around through mass media. That’s huge now, a way of organizing and getting people out that wasn’t done in past times. Younger people will know what they have to do, will know what they have inside themselves. We don’t know what the outcome is going to be. If we let that fear override us, then it’s already a loss.
Something inside me since I was very young: the moment you say no to me, I fight back. Not against my mother—my sisters and I were very respectful of our mother. When I wanted to pick a fight, it wasn’t with my mother, it was with an institution. Some people are afraid of that. That’s where my energy went. That will define who you are.
CC: I appreciate that big picture vision—the fight is with the institutions, with these structures of racism.
AC: Because I do think that the purpose right now is to create chaos and crisis so that people lose their bearings. And everybody’s talking about self-care and re-centering themselves and they can’t, and they’re sad. I’m with them. I made that decision decades ago when I couldn’t save the world and got burnt out. My activism was going to be through my writing, through speaking. That, I think, is what’s gotten me through these decades. I’m not doing ten other things, I don’t run out to every march, I don’t join with every organization. I don’t work like that. Sometimes I feel bad about that when I’m not physically out there, but that’s how all these books got written. I spent days and weeks and hours and months in seclusion, putting together information, and that’s what’s kept me going. The other things might have been too devastating, trying to do too many things. Young people have so much energy, they don’t think they ever need to sleep or eat right. Then they hit 30 and their bodies start to betray them. To be reminded of those limitations is important.
LG & CC: Thank you so much.
AC: Thank you so much for this forum.
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