Writer Ana Castillo focuses on inequality

Writer Ana Castillo focuses on inequality

November 6, 2007 | Sarah H. Wright, MIT News Office

“Ana Castillo is an American treasure. Fearless, compassionate, and flat-out brilliant – she is the writer we need as we navigate the challenges of our ever-changing world.”

MLK Visiting Professor Ana Castillo is a novelist, poet, essayist and painter who has used every means necessary--the clack of typewriters, the flap of mimeograph machines, the thwip of copiers, the tick of e-mail and her personal blog--to tell the tales that had to be told.

"I used whatever technology we had to talk about social inequalities," Castillo said in an interview in her office at MIT. "Forty years ago, I was that insurgent radical, taking advantage of mimeo-machines in basements, getting the word out. Since then, my work has been to put creativity and social action together."

Castillo's published books include the award-winning "My Daughter, My Son, The Eagle, The Dove" (2000); "Peel My Love Like an Onion" (2000); and "My Father Was a Toltec (Poems)" (1995).

She will read from her fifth novel, "The Guardians," an exploration of family life along the U.S.-Mexico border, at 7 p.m. Nov. 8 in Room 6-120.

A Chicago native who lives in New Mexico, Castillo, 54, came of age as a writer and an activist in 1968--the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated and Chicago police battled anti-Vietnam War protesters at the Democratic Convention.

"I decided where I fit in this life that year. By that time, I was fifteen, and Latino activists were out there, demanding things like better schools. I'm a product of the Chicago public schools, and I agreed with them. I was nourished by that generation of activists--some were distant mentors to me," she said.

Castillo cites Chinese-American author Maxine Hong Kingston and African-American author Nikki Giovanni as among her distant mentors. Both women wrote from their own experience, and both wrote for years before mainstream publishers discovered their work.

"When I saw Kingston on television, when Giovanni came to my community college to speak, I thought, 'That's who I want to be for Latinas!'" she said.

Castillo, whose MIT residence is Simmons Hall, spends most weekends on book tours, reading and signing "The Guardians" and giving workshops to young writers. She laughs at the thought that she might have watched what she prayed for as the frequent flier miles add up.

"When I was young, my only plan was not to work in a factory. I spent the years writing when Latinas weren't published. I didn't go to writers' workshops, and it was my third novel--not my first--that 'crossed over.' I appreciate my success. And I'm still on the periphery of writers, telling about what people must overcome," she said.

Castillo received her B.A. from Northeastern Illinois University; her M.A. from the University of Chicago in 1979; and her Ph.D. from the University of Bremen, Germany.

Her journey to MIT began at a conference in which she spoke on the role of ecology in literature; a participant encouraged her to consider the Institute.

By that time, she had published "So Far From God," her 1994 novel portraying the devastation of border communities by toxic waste dumping, by the comings and goings of sweatshops thrown up in towns like Juarez, which have since moved offshore entirely, leaving workers literally high and dry.

"Depletion starts with poor communities. The sweatshops use toxic materials, dump the waste, and move on, leaving depleted soil, depleted water table, depleted people. We hear, 'Las Vegas needs water!' It's a DESERT!" Castillo declared.

As an MLK Visiting Professor, Castillo will be teaching two writing courses. She is also using her year on campus to begin work on "The Last Goddess Standing," a novel about women during the conquest of Mexico.

She prepares for this project by reading omnivorously--everything from Esquire to Hip-Hop, "The Da Vinci Code" to old books on the conquest of Mexico, she says.

She also turns to songs that remind her of her personal and artistic mission. On a gray day, what could be better than listening to Chicana singer Perla Batalla's tales of romance and politics, performed in English and Spanish?

"God blessed her with song. Her voice is a great picker-upper on a Friday afternoon in New England," Castillo said, looking out her office window.

But her gaze never really strays from the margin, the border towns that keep her activist spirit burning. "Right now, Immigration is walking through my friend's classroom in New Mexico, looking for kids who don't belong there. I'm always with them when I write."

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