Writing in Netantla

A celebrated Chicana author goes to the border in The Guardian exploring the politics of the border with irony, lyricism and desert-spare clarity.

By Almah LaVon Rice Nov 04, 2007

YET ANOTHER VOICE is weighing in on the fate of la frontera these days—but it’s a poet, not a pundit. In her latest novel, The Guardians, the multi-genre writer Ana Castillo takes a look at life on the U.S.-Mexico border with sensitivity and imagination—qualities often sorely lacking in the immigration debate today. Told through the eyes of several characters, The Guardians explores the politics of the border with irony, lyricism and desert-spare clarity.

 Dubbed “the most daring and experimental of Latino novelists,” Castillo also coined the term Xicanisma, or Chicana feminism, in her Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma.  Her fearlessness and commitment to social justice are reflected in her critical and creative writings, as well as her history as a community activist. The prolific Chicago-born author garnered the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award for her novel The Mixquiahuala Letters, among many other honors.

Why did you write this book? Because I am a novelist and a writer, and the story came to me. I think with most novelists, you start out with an idea and then you decide whether you’re going to be able to live with it for the next year or two or 10. And that’s how it became a book.

What would Miguel (a character in The Guardians) say about the immigration bill that died this year? He’d have a whole lot to say about all that, obviously. For myself, I would say that we’ve had a guest worker program for the last 500 years. I don’t think there’s going to be much change unless you break down the borders altogether.

How did writing The Guardians transform you? I think by surrendering myself as I did to my characters at any point in time with any of my previous books as with this one, I do learn a lot. But how I’m transformed is spiritually, by going into the fictitious soul and life of another person. I feel like I am humbled.

When did you first get the idea for The Guardians? I think it was approximately January 2005 when I wrote the first chapter as a short story. Then, I started to think about it in terms of exploring these characters further and seeing if they would take me somewhere.

How did you know you were done writing the novel?
My editor told me.

Where do you write? I wrote most of it in my home in the desert in New Mexico. I use a laptop, so I write all over the house. I did some finessing of it in my apartment in Chicago when I went back to teach. I was teaching at DePaul University during this time.

What are the top three things that make someone a good novelist? You have to have a great deal of discipline, humility, and love and respect of the written word.

What books are you reading today? I’m reading a collection of short stories by Manuel Muñoz, The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue. I’ve been reading some very old material, about 500 years old—the letters of Cortez…that should give you a hint as to where I might be going in my next novel.

What would you be if you weren’t a writer? I would like to be the person who comes up with the cure for AIDS, an individual who’d make a contribution to healing people on this planet. I could even be the assistant of the person who finds a cure for AIDS. That would be an honor enough.

If you could change one thing about this country, it would be… The president and his administration.

One word to describe the border today. There’s a word in Nahuatl, a Mexican indigenous language that’s still spoken today: netantla. It was used in the times of Aztecs as a kind of nether place, and I would agree that the borderlands is a netantla: not here, not there.