The new novel by Ana Castillo, The Guardians, is set along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and tells the story of a Mexican family whose members straddle it. Told in the voices of four central characters, the narrative traverses desert terrain populated by immigration agents, the coyotes who smuggle undocumented immigrants past the border patrols, gangbangers and other dangerous predators.
Castillo is a poet, essayist, playwright, novelist and recipient of the Carl Sandburg Prize, but is perhaps most familiar for her novel Peel My Love Like an Onion. A native of Chicago who now lives in New Mexico near its border with Mexico, Castillo appears at the 2007 Wisconsin Book Festival with the best-selling author and Pulitzer finalist Luis Alberto Urrea at noon Sunday, Oct. 14, in the Overture Center's Promenade Hall.
The Daily Page: The Guardians has been getting spectacular reviews in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and on and on. Which three things critics have written -- individual words, phrases or sentences -- have you found most gratifying?
Castillo: It's not my policy to read reviews or critical papers about my work. Some reviews or parts are read to me by my agent over the phone. When I hear that people have kindly endorsed a book it is, of course, gratifying. No one but another artist knows how much work goes into a project like a novel and we do hope that our public will embrace it.
Where were you and what were you doing when you conceived The Guardians, and what was your inspiration?
I conceived the idea in my home in the desert of southern New Mexico. One side of the house faces the Franklin Mountains. The mountains are shared with Mexico. I found myself wondering one morning what it might be like to be trying to cross over without documents. I also wondered what it would feel like to be the person waiting for someone who was making the dangerous journey. It started as a short story.
Given the polarization in public discourse regarding immigration and the xenophobic backlash against amnesty for undocumented workers, did you entertain any apprehensions as you were writing The Guardians?
Please bear in mind that for over thirty years I have been writing about Mexicans, specifically those without much means, on both sides of the border. I started the telling of another such story, as an organic outcome of what I witness and share in life with other Mexicans.
I was in the throes of the story when the immigration issue blew up and hundreds of thousands went out in the streets to protest. At first this left me unsettled because I felt that it would appear as if I had written my story as a direct political commentary of the times we are immersed in. When the book came out the following year immigrants were less enthusiastic about defending their rights to be here to work. The anti-immigration bill was rejected.
Once again, Mexicans are looked at as ungrateful residents of this country, whether we are here legally or not. There are presently many immigrants from other countries, also not white, who do come here precisely for the opportunity to realize the American Dream for themselves and their families. They, as well as much of the American public, fail to recognize the particular history Mexico shares with the United States which makes Mexicans not immigrants but migrants.
There's more that I can say about that but as I said, I wrote a novel to tell a story about one family and what others will take from it will be left to them to do.
What can readers learn about these issues from reading your novel? What insights might you hope it contributes to these debates?
Okay. Fiction writers write with intent to elicit certain emotions from their readers. I strive in all my work for compassion. My novels are not formulaic. If The Guardians starts off sounding like a mystery or thriller it's because I start as a point in my character's lives where there is, in fact, a problem. The sooner you introduce conflict for your characters all the better.
In the case of The Guardians, like many people who live along the U.S./Mexican border, on both sides, unfortunately there is preponderance for violence and missing persons. Whether it sounds cliché, there is a preponderance for organized crime and gangs. Human trafficking is big business in this world today. Domestic violence and unsolved murders of poor Mexican women occurs with such regularity that people don't even consider taking to the streets en masse to protest. A few do. We're always the same bunch.
How did you conjure Regina, Gabriel and the novel's other central characters, and which did you find most surprising as you wrote them and they became more familiar?
Regina came first. I gave Gabo a voice after the original drafts of the stories you read about him. The grandfather's voice came easy to me. After that, it seemed reasonable to allow Mike to speak for himself. I can't say these characters surprised me. But when I realized how the story would end I was very heart broken.
What emotions did The Guardians provoke in you as you wrote it?
Knowing how the story was to end broke my heart. It was difficult to write when I got there. I read it for Books on Tape and it was difficult to read. Above all, I hope my characters engender compassion for what many poor Mexicans on both sides of the border endure. Compassion is what I felt along with the indignity I have always felt and I believe inject into all my work on the subject of social injustice.
Why divide the novel's narration among four characters?
It happened organically. Once I wrote two characters with first-person narratives, it stood to reason that the principal characters should all speak in their own voices.
Who did you envision as your audience for this book? How have the audiences at your readings differed from the audience you anticipated?
So far my audiences remain overwhelmingly Chicano and mostly women. There are always others who for various reasons of their own are open to reading my work, but they are the minority. The fact that after thirty years of writing on and about Mexicans and Chican@s and that my work is mostly perceived to be for them (and not seen as a universal experience) affirms my suspicions about the healthiness of racism toward Mexicans.
You once said you don't believe it is the mission of the novelist to be political. Why not? Is it even possible for a novelist to avoid being political? And if being political is not the novelist's mission, what is the novelist's mission?
Every novel falls on the side of the author's political views. As a poet those views have been even obvious in my work. What I meant was that as a creative project, it allows for greater artistic promise if you focus on the craft and not the political agenda. The writer's politics aren't ever left out. They are much of what defines how the story is shaped, just as much of what I write is formed by my experiences.
I have been asked about the forms of spirituality prevailing in The Guardians. That came not from a religious platform I wanted to impart vis-à-vis a novel but from the fact that I am also intrigued by the way Mexicans express their spiritual needs in various ways.
You write something down. Language is tricky. Rhetoric is more so. Usually I have sung to the choir. I understand that the CIA has recently established its presence at universities along the border (as well as, I've heard, at colleges with mostly African American populations). They are teaching ethnic studies and women studies their own way, most likely using my books. It has been a couple of decades when the Alberto González' and Condaleeza Rices were already in the making.
The novelist's mission, to my mind, is to tell a good story that sustains the reader's attention throughout the 200 or so pages of its telling.
The theme of this year's Wisconsin Book Festival is "Domestic Tranquility." How would you define domestic tranquility? How might Regina, Miguel, Gabo and the other characters who populate The Guardians define it?
The resiliency of the human spirit is admirable. Recently I became aware of a woman, I'd call her Chicana, she might refer to herself as Hispanic. The fact is she's a poor Mexican woman born in the U.S.
She was making a living selling home made tamales and burritos out of a wagon truck at a truck stop. This is in the town next to the farming community where I now make my home. At 35 she had managed to earn a B.A. in business and was looking forward to finding a decent job when a drunk driver hit her and pinned her against the wagon truck. She went into a coma and when she came out she was paralyzed from the waist down.
Not long after her husband left her. They sued each other for custody of the children and she finally won them back. She was left to fend for her three young children and aging parents. It seems she has not been hired for a job suitable for her credentials. She is back at the truck stop in a wheel chair with her wagon truck.
Generally, Mexicans don't believe in welfare. We also don't believe in depression. She is now raising money in hopes of going to China where they do stem cell research. She is Catholic and the stem cell procedures she seeks are those relating to the umbilical cord. She says if it doesn't happen for her, "Ni modo." This to me is domestic tranquility.
To what degree can domestic tranquility exist at the border zones of geography, ethnicity and class where The Guardians is set? How might it be rendered attainable to your characters and the real people they represent?
Your questions anticipate the sequential thought to my previous replies.
I think I may have answered with the story I shared in the previous response. We find contentment in relation to our experience in life. While I'm not known for being a person who laughs easily in public, I find I have a great time with people like Regina, and I know them, female and male, and I may add, Regina contains some portion of my own character.
You've written essays, short fiction, poems, plays and novels. Which form do you find most challenging, and which the most rewarding -- and why?
The most challenging is the critical essay. The English language is very difficult for me. It isn't easier in any other language, either, by the way. Fiction is easiest, although I did write my novel in verse, a 300 pages poem in the span of about six weeks. But that's because poetry takes hold of you not the other way around which is the case with prose.
What are your earliest memories of your impulse to write?
I wrote my first poems as a response to my grandmother's death. I was 9 and 1/2.
What are your expectations for the Wisconsin Book Festival?
It's my first time attending. I'm not sure what to expect. But I am looking forward to reading (and to see who comes our reading).
What can your audience expect from their attendance at your Wisconsin Book Festival appearance?
They can put the voice to the characters in The Guardians. I have been told this by the recent attendees to my readings.
Which of the festival's other presenters most intrigue you?
Amazon.com customers who bought The Guardians also purchased The Borderlands of Culture, by Ramón Saldivar; The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue, by Manuel Munoz; Once Upon a Quinceanera, by Julia Alvarez; A Handbook to Luck, by Cristina Garcia; and your own Mixquiahuala Letters. Other than these, which two books might you recommend as complements to The Guardians?
Something non-fiction, specifically about the present anti-immigration issue and if they are not familiar with the historical relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, that would be helpful.
What was the last book you read that you would recommend to a friend or stranger, and why would you recommend it?
I've read quite a few books lately. I'd recommend them all in no particular order. Bill Richardson's new autobiography; I do appreciate his work for human rights as a Latin American. Last week I found some books on the bargain shelf at MIT bookstore. I've finished two and liked them both: Ellen Finley, the feminist performance artist's memoirs and biography of Jerzy Kosinski. The background about The Painted Bird would be of high interest to anyone who read that book and thought it was autobiographical. I could go on. I'll stop there.
Why do you live where you live?
New Mexico is very special to me. The desert and I understand each other.