Ana Castillo is a New Mexico-based poet, essayist and novelist.
So Far From God, The Guardians, Sapogonia
1994 New York Times Notable Book of the Year (Sapogonia); 1993 Carl Sandburg Literary Award in Fiction (So Far From God).
Which one or two American books or plays would you yourself recommend to the foreign leaders?
The Collected Plays of Lillian Hellman. Since I have published plays and had one produced that addresses U.S. policy, it shouldn’t be a surprise that my recommendation would be along those lines. Given the ongoing move by conservative groups against Latinos, Mexican immigrants and women’s civil rights, I revisit the plays and writings of Lillian Hellman. (Pentimento is also one of my all-time favorite books.) Ms. Hellman’s famous quote, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashion,” spoken as a response to the McCarthy years, rings painfully true in 2012. Among other states, Arizona has taken the lead against Latino and Native American writing. (Two of my own books are on their ban list.)
Ms. Hellman’s plays enjoyed popularity and success in her lifetime and Hollywood movies were based on them. The plays The Children’s House and Little Foxes—classics—remain popular. Ms. Hellman’s works have been embraced by Marxists and later, feminists. In my opinion, while her strongest characters are women, her theme is always that of human rights and exposing the core of (wo)man’s conscience in mid-twentieth-century U.S. society.
I’ve also taken away from her work her tongue-in-cheek style and sharp humor. I would recommend her entire collected plays but in addition to the two mentioned above, Watch on the Rhine. Today, she might have written “Watch on the Mexican Border.”
Who in your childhood—for example, parent or teacher—encouraged you to read books, and which one or two books do you remember most fondly?
I was born and raised in Chicago and attended the Chicago Public Schools. I did not have encouragement in this regard. As it turned out, however, my own advanced reading skills drew me on my own to seek out books.
I do have one book-related memory. My cousin and I helped my third-grade teacher, Mr. Stump, an older, mild-mannered, light-skinned black teacher, to clean his room on grading day. As a thank-you he gave me an old book off the bookshelf in his classroom. It was Huckleberry Finn. Of course, I read it and treasured it. After innumerable moves over a lifetime, it is still in my library.
Which books by writers of the other G8 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom) have been most important to you as a writer?
Having neither studied literature nor creative writing, my choice of reading has come to me over my lifetime—sometimes pragmatically or by sheer accident, or because at that time in my life, a nagging question burned inside me requiring a literary response.
In my mid-twenties to early thirties many of the writers of the early 20th century held my avid attention. They have included many of the French, Russians and also the ex-pats. Anaïs Nin, who may be considered a citizen of the world, led the pack. Among the French, De Beauvoir, LeDuc, Genet and Colette were my “book friends.” Many of the books I discovered at used bookstores, which Chicago was rich with. Dostoevsky will always remain among my long-term fiction teachers. Jean Rhys comes to mind and V.S. Naipaul, speaking of the colonized experience. Born in Chicago before the Civil Rights Movement and coming of age during that era, I have always sought out writers who in some way spoke of the outsider’s experience. This also applied to my gender. I was in my twenties when the white middle class was going full throttle. I needed to carve out a little space for my own experience. In recent years, I have discovered French writer Georges Bataille and Italian novelist Marianna Sirca and what I could find on them in English. I could of course go on with books and writers who have been my friends throughout my life and my journey as a writer.