Ana Castillo Talks Teaching at Dominican University, the Art of Writing
When acclaimed poet and author Ana Castillo led a course in memoir writing as Dominican University’s Lund-Gill Chair in the fall of 2014, there was an air of familiarity in the stories that were born on the pages.
“I identified with some of the young students,” Castillo explained. “Many of them came from working class backgrounds, many were first generation to go to college, so there was an affinity with their earnest dedication to what they were doing. Nothing was taken for granted—at least by the students I had experiences with.”
Castillo, herself a first-generation college student born to parents who worked in Chicago factories, is known as one of the prominent voices of Chicana literature with a career that has spanned nearly half a century. Her impassioned poems and novels tackling themes of race, politics, feminism, love, contemporary world issues and the Latinx experience earned her the Fuller Lifetime Achievement Award from the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in March 2022.
“All writers, regardless of age or background, are always so appreciative and happy when our work is recognized, but this was something special for me personally because it’s my hometown,” Castillo said of the Fuller Award, which recognizes the achievements of Chicago writers. “I was aware of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame organization, so I was very happy the day I received the call and was told I was the awardee for the next award.”
The Fuller Award ceremony was attended by five Dominican student writers and artists and also featured remarks from English Professor and Department Chair Jane Hseu, PhD, who initially proposed that Castillo be invited to the university as Lund-Gill Chair in 2014.
“We are celebrating Ana’s work—especially today—because she is a distinctly rooted-in-Chicago writer,” said Hseu, who has taught various Chicago-based works by Castillo in her U.S. literature classes at Dominican.
Shortly before accepting her award earlier this year, Castillo spoke with Dominican University about her time as the Lund-Gill chair and her writing.
Dominican University (DU): What was your time like as Dominican University’s Lund-Gill Chair?
Ana Castillo (AC): It was a really wonderful experience for me personally. The endowed chair teaches one class and the class I designed was a memoir-writing workshop-style class. I guided the students through how to write their autobiography and they were very receptive. They were all good students, but I had a few that were exceptional and I would love to encourage them to continue with their writing. My colleagues were also very supportive and it was the 20th anniversary of my critical essays book, so that was incorporated into some of my activities.
DU: What did you teach your students?
AC: I think sometimes we think our lives are not exciting if we haven’t had extraordinary events (happen to us), but our lives are equal to everyone else’s lives in terms of emotion. Someone said, “If you survived childhood, you have something to write about.” Many of them were just out of their teen years, so it was really, for them, assessing their childhood and teen years, how they got into college and then of course you begin to look at that and think about the next steps for your life.
DU: Why did some students stand out to you? Was it the stories they were telling or the way they told them?
AC: It’s a combination of things. I’m of the mind — and it’s debated by different writers — that creative writing cannot be taught. That’s sort of a special talent. I had one student in particular. Not only did he have what I considered extraordinary personal stories, but how he told them in his writing stood out. Several of my students wrote very moving pieces because, in the way I teach memoir writing, the number one rule is honesty. Honesty without judgement, honesty without self-criticism. Your experience is what it is and it’s only worthwhile to the reader if they believe you are being sincere. So it really did allow for students to truly dig in to tell their stories.
DU: How has your work evolved and changed over your career?
AC: I’m hoping that after nearly a half-century I’ve gotten better at my craft and have more control over it. That goes for all genres. I do write contemporary work, so I’m addressing the times. My objective is to give voice to marginalized groups of people. That hasn’t changed that much. I think there are poems I have written 30, 40 years ago that could be read today and apply to a new generation.
DU: What other themes do you find yourself returning to in your work today?
AC: When I was in high school and through college and out of college, I got very involved in grassroots activism and politics. Coming out of that, I turned to feminism also. A form of feminism, or a woman’s perspective that may not always been seen, but can be experienced through my poetry or fiction, is something that continues to be very important for me to serve as a witness to. I don’t represent all women or Chicanas or Latinas from Chicago, but it’s a point of view that hasn’t been seen until more recent years.
DU: Of the multiple genres you have written in, is there one you enjoy the most?
AC: I find fiction writing has been the easiest for me. I started writing stories as a child and I loved the narrative and telling stories. Then there’s the whole challenge of the craft and developing them and so on. Poetry is something that is a gift from the gods. I have to really focus on that and say, “This is what I’m doing.” I had a book of new poems come out last fall and that took 10 years to put together. The hardest genre for me is critical essay form, for all the left-brain, right-brain reasons that go along with writing an essay. But each one of them I enjoy doing and whatever I want to say, I’ll say it in that genre.
DU: What advice can you give to Latinx writers who are trying to break into the literary world today?
AC: I see so many Latinx people developing venues, developing outlets. There is such a vast range of opportunities for people to get their word out there, whether it is digital or paper, so I don’t feel I have any advice as far as that goes. In my generation, you had a book or you didn’t. Nevertheless, even though there is a lot of support and you can develop a blog and website, it’s very important to keep reading. I do advocate for book reading and to keep up with other writers. If you’re aspiring to be a poet, read other poets and learn from those poets who have come before us. That’s how I learned my craft. While we’re anxious to get the word out about ourselves today on social media, it’s really important to step back occasionally and look at what other people are doing so you can learn from them.”
DU: Reviewers often have a long list of descriptive words that they give you as a writer, just because you write across multiple genres and about diverse themes. How do you describe yourself as a writer?
AC: I see myself as a poet and writer. When I decided to pursue writing poetry, I was in college at Northeastern Illinois University, majoring to teach, but on my own I decided to pursue poetry. I told myself that, in order to become a good poet, this was all I could do; I couldn’t write anything else. I gave up my art and visual arts and so on just to write poetry. As time went on and I began writing stories and published my first novel (The Mixquiahuala Letters, 1986) there was a whole new audience that saw me only as a novelist and didn’t even know I wrote poetry. Then I wrote articles and a play that was produced at the Goodman, but I still see myself as a poet and a writer.
DU: Your last collection of poetry was published last year. What are you currently working on?
AC: It’s called Doña Cleanwell Leaves Home. I went back to short fiction a year or two ago. The English version is scheduled for May of 2023, with a Spanish edition to follow six months later. After that, it’s a novel called Isabel 2121. It’s something I began working on a few years back and I pulled it out again. This is a new genre for me. It’s novel, but I’ve never written a dystopian novel before and it’s partly dystopian and partly historical.