Joy Castro is a writer to be reckoned with. I’ve had the pleasure now of interviewing her twice and I trust more interviews will follow in the future. Her work is widely recognized. And while she has until recently published memoirs and personal essays she’s now established herself as a mystery writer with her debut novel, Hell or High Water. That book may be turned into a movie. I finally had the pleasure of meeting Joy (our interviews have been by phone) when she generously attended a talk and reading I gave at Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln, Neb. for my new Alexander Payne book. She even bought three copies. What a sweet thing to do for someone of her stature. It’s a lesson in how we fellow writers need to support each other.
Author Joy Castro Writes Close to Her Heart in Two New Books
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor of English Joy Castro made her mark as a short story writerand essayist before her acclaimed 2005 memoir The Truth Book: Escaping a Childhood of Abuse Among the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Now she’s being hailed for her debut novel, Hell or High Water, set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Mystery author superstar Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) calls it “a terrific thriller.
Her new book of personal essays, Island of Bones is “getting some really nice press,” she says, adding, “The book critic Rigoberto Gonzalez, who writes for the El Paso Times and is part of the National Book Critics Circle, wrote a really nice review.” Island of Bones takes up where The Truth Book left off.
Castro often lectures and writes about her Cuban-American heritage and journey through poverty into academia and stability.
“Much of my work focuses on bringing attention to economic injustice as well as racism and sexism. I’m lucky and grateful to be someone who has made it out of poverty, abuse and voicelessness – to a position where I have a voice. It’s an important responsibility. My own published fiction, nonfiction and poetry all concern issues of poverty and I make a point of teaching literature by poor people in the university classroom.”
Castro shares much in common with her novel’s protagonist, Nola, a female Cuban-American reporter from a poor background. Just as Castro once sought to keep her own roots secret, so does Nola. Just as Castro explored abuse, Nola investigates sexual predators.
“Nola comes from the projects. She’s trying to pass among her colleagues and friends. She doesn’t want anybody to pity her and she doesn’t really want it to be known at all. So she’s struggling to sort of keep up with the Joneses while dealing with the after-effects of her difficult past, all while researching this creepy story.”
Hell or High Water’s been optioned as a film-television drama and Castro’s writing a sequel with Nola as the main character again.
She says, “The two artists associated with the project right now are both really fantastic Latina actresses – Zoe Saldana and Gina Rodriguez. And I’m really excited about having a mystery series with a Latino protagonist.”
Now that Castro’s own story is out there, she’s over any sense of shame.
“When you’re hiding something, the feeling you have is a tremendous anxiety that revealing it will destroy you or someone else,” she says. “After you’ve had a little practice at disclosing, you realize it’s not quite that life-or-death a situation.”
Writing The Truth Book and Island of Bones proved cathartic.
“Laying it all out in book form, I came to respect the difficulty of what I’d had to navigate. In some ways, my journey was as challenging as moving from one country, one culture to another. All the new customs have to be learned.
“For the most part, I earned and climbed my way out of trauma and poverty by myself. My family was too shattered, scattered and dysfunctional to support anyone. I’ve been on my own since I was 16. There were counselors who helped me change, sure, and thank goodness, but I paid for them, and I did the emotional work. No one stepped in and said, ‘Here, let me lighten the load.’ That’s the hard truth of it. No one’s going to do it for you, no one’s going to hold your hand.
“But the important thing to remember is that it’s your life and if you want to change it you have to put in the hours and the labor and the love. Your life is worth it, you’re worth it. Even in the bleakest of circumstances, it’s worth doing, and it’s possible.”
Her interest in Spanish-speaking cultures and identities infuses her work.
“Latinidad is hugely important to me, and it is definitely connected with class and gender. Because of the great wave of well-to-do Cuban immigrants who came to the USA when Fidel Castro took power, many people assume all Cuban-Americans are wealthy and right-leaning. That wasn’t the case for my family, who had been in Key West since the 1800s and were working-class and lefty-liberal.”
Island of Bones explores that little-known history.
“My father experienced racism and police abuse in Miami in the 1950s, after which he tried very hard to assimilate and be ‘American’ in ways ultimately painful for him and for us.”
Her father, a conch diver as a boy, moved north as a young man seeking adventure and a wider life. As The Keys became an expensive resort playground that priced old-line residents out, some family relatives were forced to leave.
Her father committed suicide in 2002. One of her essays deals with the aftermath.
“For my brother Tony and me, our father’s life is a cautionary tale about the costs of shame and of trying to erase who you are. We raised our children to be proud of their heritage. My son is fluent in Spanish, for example, which my father refused to speak at home.”
What it means to be Latina and the roles Latinas play are also primary concerns.
“I’m glad to say things are changing. But despite many advances in women’s rights, Latinas are often pushed, even today, to put men first, to have babies, to love the church without question, to be submissive and obedient to authority. It took me a long time to crawl out from under the expectations I was raised with.”
View more about the author’s work at joycastro.com.
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There’s nothing else quite like the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest in these parts. Oh, there’s plenty of literary events to go around, but you’d be hard-pressed to find something as quirky as this annual assemblage of writerly concerns and pursuits. The wording of this year’s theme, The Lit Fest Guide to Etiquette for Women Writers, is in keeping with the sardonic leanings of novelist and event founder-director Timothy Schaffert (The Coffins of Little Hope). The October 19-2o festival just goes its own way in following whatever trail of thought and literary trend that suits the quixotic Schaffert. He brings in a great lineup of authors and artists every year for never less than interesting conversations and presentations about all things related to writing, editing, publishing. It’s well worth checking out.
Omaha Lit Fest Puts Focus on Women Writers and Women in Publishing
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
It should be no surprise the author of languidly paced satirical novels (The Coffins of Little Hope) that delight in peculiar, piquant details should fashion a literary happening along the same lines.
Novelist Timothy Schaffert has done just that with the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, a free celebration of prose, poetry and other word-made-art expressions.
He founded Lit Fest eight years ago and continues organizing the annual literary salon today. This year’s event luxuriates in its delightful otherness Friday and Saturday, October 19 and 20, at the W, Dale Clark Library, where there will be a gender-centric focus to the readings, panels, topics and performances.
The 6:30-9:30 p.m. opening night party promises local female slam poets unleashing from 7 to 7:30, an altered books exhibit, an edible books contest and an all-girl string quartet.
Well-attuned as Schaffert is to literary currents he hit upon 2012′s theme – The Lit Fest Guide to Etiquette for Women Writers – after reading about disparities females face in publishing.
Featured guest authors Elizabeth Crane (We Only Know So Much), Lisa Knopp (What the River Carries), Marilyn Coffey (Marcella) and Joy Castro (Hell or High Water) will no doubt have plenty to say on the matter.
Coffey’s 1973 novel Marcella broke ground and generated push back for its frank depiction of female masturbation. The book was banned in America, though Quartet in London published it in paperback. Pol and Ms. Magazine excerpted it. Danish newspapers serialized it. Now it’s being republished in book form by Omega Cottonwood Press in Omaha, along with a collection of Coffey’s poems, Pricksongs.
Marcella was a featured work during National Banned Book Week events in Omaha, including a marathon reading at the Benson Branch Library.
At Lit Fest Coffey’s slated to be on the Saturday, 5 p.m. panel Your Guide to Unladylike Demeanor that examines “women writers making people nervous.”
Meanwhile, Castro’s debut novel Hell or High Water is drawing praise for her ability to sustain a taut thriller amid a complex subject and to evocatively exploit its New Orleans setting. The University of Nebraska associate professor of English and ethnic studies also has a book of personal essays out, Island of Bones, eliciting rapturous praise.
Liz Kay of Spark Wheel Press and burtdistrict in Omaha will address the entrepreneurial publishing scene. New Yorker Festival director Rhonda Sherman will discuss building an audience for the literary spectacle.
All of it’s filtered through the perspective of women engaged in a lit world not always friendly to them. Recent counts by the women in literary arts organization VIDA show far more men than women published in leading literary publications. That concerns Schaffert enough that he’s making it a point of public discussion.
“If the VIDA Count had not come into existence I might not have even been aware of the disparity, but it really kind of commands attention,” says Schaffert, an UNL assistant professor of English and director of the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference.
He doesn’t doubt women writers confront bias.
“Obviously some editors are going to focus on that work that crosses their desk that seems most vital and other editors aren’t necessarily going to have the best ear for writing by the opposite sex. And I think for decades there’s been some level of condescension towards the subjects women writers take on. There’s some sense of what women’s writing is that may or may not be based on anything authentic in terms of the assumptions people make about the topics of interest to women.
“I’ve heard of editors be dismissive of a story by nature of its topic as too domestic, for example, or too focused on the sentimental, as if that denigrated the work somehow.”
Castro says VIDA, whose creative nonfiction committee she serves on, has been “working to figure out all kinds of ways to address this, in some cases publishing essays about it,” adding, “In my case I got involved with guest editing an issue of a really cool online journal, Brevity Magazine, that’s responding to that count.”
She says her own anecdotal observations have long made her sensitive to the paucity of minority authors published in select periodicals (The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker) “that determine who’s a big deal and who’s not.” The VIDA breakout, she says, confirmed “it’s not just my imagination.” She says when editors are called out on the disparity they either deny a gender-based agenda or agree to proactively strive for more balance.
Castro will join Kay, Knopp and Sherman for a 1 p.m. Saturday panel on the professional aspects of writing, editing and publishing. She’s interested in exploring how it is more women writers come out of MFA programs than men do yet fewer get published.
“So there’s like this attrition,” she says. “Then where do they all go? Why don’t they continue to write and publish? It’s a good question. I hope people will come out and talk about it and have a really exploratory attitude about it.”
That said, Castro and many other women authors fare well getting their work out and finding it well-received. Her Hell or High Water (Thomas Dunne Books) is a good illustration. The widely released book has been called “exquisite,” “fierce and intense,” “captivating.” Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) termed it “a terrific thriller.”
The book”s been optioned by film producers and Castro’s already working on a sequel. She’s excited that her Cuban-American protagonist, Nola, may headline a mystery series because the genre rarely features Latinas or issues of Latinidad.
Nola, a green Times-Picayune reporter assigned to investigate what happened to the registered sex offenders who went off the grid after Hurricane Katrina, serves much the same role a detective does in classic mystery tradition.
“That’s the story she gets assigned and she’s reluctant because it’s kind of creepy. But it’s sort of her first big break as a journalist, so she goes after it and of course gets in a lot of trouble,” says Castro.
“In the first chapter a young woman tourist is abducted from the French Quarter and that mystery is going on at the same time and Nola starts to investigate that as well and then the two stories intertwine.”
Much as Castro did in her own life, Nola comes from poverty and feels pressured to hide her past and prove herself. Castro’s interest in legendary archetypes comes into play when Nola intersects with believers in the Cajun legend rougarou, which warns of a person normal by day but predatory at night. Santeria spirits also show up. By the end, Nola calls on whatever powers she can muster to protect herself.
Best known before this for her nonfiction essay collection The Truth Book: How I Survived a Childhood of Abuse Among the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Castro will read from her novel and discuss her research in a 2 p.m. Saturday program.
About choosing to write a genre book for her first novel, she says, “I guess I would have anticipated I would write a literary fiction kind of novel, but I have always loved mysteries and thrillers. In deciding what to write this was the genre I got most excited about and the story seemed to keep suggesting itself to me and so I listened and paid attention and started writing.
“Writing a novel was new for me. I went through a lot of drafts. I was a slow learner.”
For event details visit http://www.omahalitfest.com.
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Writers Joy Castro and Amelia Maria de la Luz Montes Explore Being Women of Color Who Go from Poverty to Privilege
Writers Joy Castro and Amelia Maria de la Luz Montes Explore Being Women of Color Who Go from Poverty to Privilege
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
Two University of Nebraska-Lincoln scholars and authors, one Mexican-American, the other Cuban-American, contributed pieces to a new anthology of essays by women, An Angle of Vision (University of Michigan Press).
The book derives its title from the essay by Joy Castro, an associate professor in the Department of English at UNL and the author of a 2005 memoir, The Truth Book (Arcade Press). Her colleague, Amelia Maria de la Luz Montes, is an associate professor of English and Ethnic Studies and director of UNL’s Institute for Ethnic Studies. Montes penned the essay “Queen for a Day.” She’s also edited a new edition of a 19th century novel written by a Mexican-American woman. The book, Who Would Have Thought It? (Penguin Classics), is a satiric look at New England through the eyes of a teenage Latina.
All the authors in Angle of Vision hail from poor, working-class backgrounds, a counterpoint to the privileged lives they lead today in academia and publishing. As Castro said, “when you see from a different angle, you notice different things.” The authors use the past and present as a prism for examining class, gender, ethnicity and identity. Each navigates realities that come with their own expectations and assumptions, making these women ever mindful of the borders they cross.
Montes and Castro are intentional about not diminishing their roots but celebrating them in the various worlds they traverse — higher education, literature and family.
Said Castro, “Getting out of poverty, through effort and luck, has never felt like permission to say, ‘Whew! Now I can kick back and enjoy myself.’ Acknowledging my background means that much of my work, whether it’s the short stories and essays I write or the working-class women’s literature I teach, focuses on bringing attention to economic injustice as well as racism and sexism.
“Latinidad is hugely important to me, and it is definitely connected with class and gender. Because of the great wave of well-to-do Cuban immigrants who came to the USA when Fidel Castro took power, many people assume all Cuban-Americans are wealthy, right-leaning, and so on. That wasn’t the case for my family, who had been in Key West since the 1800s and were working-class and lefty-liberal. In a forthcoming essay, ‘Island of Bones,’ I explore that little-known history.”
Castro embraces the many dimensions of her ethnicity.
“Mostly, my Latinidad has been a source of strength, comfort and great beauty throughout my life. It means food, music, love, literature, home. I’m proud to belong to a rich, strong, vibrant culture, and I love teaching my students about the varied accomplishments and ongoing struggles of our people.”
Being a person of color in America though means confronting some hard things. She said her father’s experience with racism and police abuse caused him to assimilate at any price. “For my brother Tony and me our father’s life is a cautionary tale about the costs of shame and of trying to erase who you are.”
By contrast, she said, “We raised our children to be proud of their heritage. My son is fluent in Spanish, which my father refused to speak at home.”
Complicating Castro’s journey has been the aftermath of the abusive childhood she endured, a facet of her past she long sought to suppress.
The past was also obscured in the Montes home. Her Mexican immigrant mother endured a bad first marriage. Amelia didn’t find out about her struggles until age 25. It took another 25 years before she felt mature enough to write about it.
“I do think the experience of coming from a working class family and being a minority we have certain pressures in society,” said Montes. “In order to be successful or in order to assimilate as my mother worked hard to do you had to not let on the oppressions infringing on your own spaces. You processed them in other ways, but outside of the house or outside your own private sphere you made sure you’re presenting a suitable facade.
“It is a survival mechanism. At the same time one must be careful because if you let it encompass you, then the facade overtakes you and you lose who you are.”
Amelia Maria de la Luz Montes
Being a lesbian on top of being a Latina presents its own challenges. Montes said in fundamentalist Christian or conservative Catholic Latino communities her sexual identity poses a problem. She’s weary of being categorized but said, “Labels are always necessary when there’s inequality. If there wasn’t inequality we wouldn’t need these labels, but we need them in order to be present and to have people understand. I always tell my students that just because I’m Latina does not mean I represent all Latinas or all Latinos, and that goes for lesbians as well.”
For Montes, with every “border fence” crossed there’s reward and price.
“There’s success, there’s achievement,” she said, “but there’s also loss because once you cross a fence that means you’re leaving something behind. There is a celebration in knowing my mother is very happy I have succeeded as a first generation Latina. I will never forget where my mother came from and who she is, even the sufferings and difficult times she journeyed through.”
Montes is now writing a memoir to reconcile her own self. “In looking back I’m processing what happened in order to better understand it and to also claim where I come from, so that I don’t hide I come from a working class background, or I don’t only speak English, but make sure I continue to practice my Spanish.”
Castro found writing her memoir liberated her from the veil of secrecy she wore.
“Having my story out there in the world helped me let go of the impulse to hide the truth of my life. I’m still pretty shy, perhaps by nature, but disclosing my story helped me let go of shame. And I was hired at UNL ‘because’ of my book, so everyone knew in advance exactly what kind of person they were getting. What a relief. It’s easier to live in the world when you can be free and open about who you are and where you come from. You can breathe. You’re not anxious. You’re not trying to perform something you’re not.”
She said the project helped her appreciate just how far she’s come.
“Laying it all out in book form, I came to respect the difficulty of what I’d had to navigate. In some ways, my journey was as challenging as moving from one country, one culture, to another. All the new customs have to be learned. Also, another great benefit was that writing it down…shaping it into a coherent narrative for readers helped me gain objectivity and distance on the material. It became simply content in a book, rather than a terrible weight I carried around inside me.”
Castro said her experience made her sensitive to what people endure.
“We never know what other people are carrying. In fact, sometimes they’re going to great lengths to conceal their burdens, to pass as normal and okay. Remembering that simple truth can help us be gentle with each other.”
Castro and Montes know the emotional weight women bear in having to be many different things to many different individuals, often at the cost of denying themselves . Each writer applies a feminist perspective to women’s roles.
“I’m glad to say things are changing, but despite many advances in women’s rights, Latinas are often pushed, even today, to put men first, to have babies, to love the church without question, to be submissive and obedient to authority,” said Castro.” “It took me a long time to crawl out from under the expectations I was raised with.”
“It seems to me in the early 20th century there was a big push, a big advancement, then we fell off the mountain in the ’40s, ’50s, 60s, then came back in the ’70s and ’80s. and right now I think we’re retreating backwards again,” said Montes. “The vast majority of people out of work and homeless are women and children. I’m heartsick about what’s going on in Calif. and other parts of the country concerning education and how more and more the doors of education are closing to working class people and to out-of-work minorities because of the hikes in tuition, et cetera.”
Montes concedes there’s “a lot of advances, too,” but added, “I’m always wanting us to keep going forward.”
Castro feels obligated to use her odyssey as a tool of enlightenment and empowerment. “I’m lucky and grateful to be someone who has made it out of poverty, abuse and voicelessness, who has made it to a position where I have a voice. It’s an important responsibility. My own published fiction, nonfiction and poetry all concern issues of poverty. I make a point of teaching literature by poor people in the university classroom, where most of my students are middle-class.”
She’s taught free classes for the disadvantaged at public libraries and through Clemente College. For two years now she’s mentored a young Latina-Lakota girl born in poverty. “In choosing to mentor, I wanted to keep a strong, personal, meaningful connection to what it means to be young and female and poor. I wanted to be the kind of adult friend I wished for when I was a girl,” said Castro.
Both authors were delighted to be represented in Angle of Vision. “It was a surprise and a great compliment,” said Castro. “It’s such a good book with so many wonderful writers.” “The resilience and strength of these writers in navigating through difficult childhoods really comes out. It’s amazing,” said Montes. Both have high praise for editor Lorraine Lopez. The fact that a pair of UNL friends and colleagues ended up being published together makes it all the sweeter.
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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