November 3, 2006

Five Questions With Sandra Castillo

Sandra CastilloSandra M. Castillo was born in Havana, Cuba. She, along with her family, fled Cuba in 1970 on one of the last of President Johnson's Freedom Flights. She received her M.A. from Florida State University and is currently an associate professor at Miami-Dade College.

1. Which author and/or book has most influenced you?

Jack Kerouac once said, "I am made of loss," but he also said, "I accept lossness forever." I think about such profound sentiments a great deal, and I would have to say his work, particularly Visions of Cody and On the Road, his ability to render details, moments, to capture a place and time, as well as his sense of loss and displacement have always moved me, and in many ways have shaped my own work.
I think about exile literature in that same context, for it attempts to traverse those two points, establishing a dialogue, a living dynamic between two polarities. This is but the reality of being and living in exile. As a Cuban-American, I find that I vacillate between such profound sentiments though I do not think the notion of loss is exclusive to exiles. I do feel, however, that such thoughts capture what is at the center of exile literature, this complex persona struggling between the self and the other, between what was and what is, as well as what could have been. Kerouac, to whom English was a second language, never escaped his own sense of foreigness, and this regard, he, too, was a child of exile. French-Canadian by descent, American by geography, he was attempting to shape and define his world through his adopted language.

2. How has living working in South Florida shaped your work?

I was born in Cuba, and I lived there until I was eight years old. Though I have lived more than half my life outside of my homeland, I still feel connected to that island. In dreams, I walk the streets of Havana and see myself in a place I will never truly inhabit. Miami, however, by virtue of its geographical and cultural proximity, has always been a bridge to Cuba. As such, I would have to say that growing up Cuban in Miami intensified both my fascination with all things Cuban, as well as my sense of disconnect.
As a writer, I remain haunted by the weight of the past, this notion of home as an abstraction, an imagined place that I never knew.

3. "The act of writing is for me often nothing more than the secret or conscious desire to carve words on a tombstone: to the memory of a town forever vanished, to the memory of a childhood in exile, to the memory of all those I loved and who, before I could tell them I loved them, went away.--Elie Wiesel How does this relate to your poetry, especially the section about childhood.

This is a beautiful quote, and I have always thought this is exactly what Jack Kerouac was attempting to do—photograph everything and everyone before it changed, vanished, but I think it can also be said about my own work, particularly the poems in My Father Sings to My Embarrassment. I think about where I came from, the person I might have been, my ancestors before me, and yes, it keeps me writing.

When I was a child, my mother's brother, who was an avid photographer, lived with us. In his spare time, he documented the city and our lives in black and white stills. These photographs, which he developed and hung in the bathroom (which doubled as his darkroom), linger in my memory like ghosts. Over the years, I have come to realize that much of what I remember from those eight years of my life, the black and white of my childhood, are my uncle's photographs. These photographs have become the Cuba of memory and they remain a constant, my unreal city forever preserved in a still life. This has shaped my aesthetic, and I recognize that I am using language to create my own photographs, depicting a time and a place, as well as the spaces we inhabit.

4. Describe the process of coming to terms with your father's mortality or the subject of parenthood in "My Father Sings to my Embarrassment"?

My father was very inner-directed, danced to his own beat. I have to say he was quite brave, driven. He had, for example, this desire to re-invent himself, become a musician, a songwriter, and he never let go of that vision of himself—he took it with him. Growing up, my sisters and I were always mortified by his appearances in local venues, to which we, of course, were dragged. It certainly wasn't how we saw him, but he was not at all discouraged. I think, however, that my father was enamored with the notion of starting over—Miami as a metaphor, a new city, where you could be who you wanted to be. I often wish I were that brave. That being said, my poem, "My Father Sings to My Embarrassment" combines these two polarities my thoughts/feelings about my father in those early years when we first arrived in Miami, and his own sense of self.

5. How has visiting Cuba changed you and your writing?

Cuba greatly informs my work, not just as a place. Cuba is, in essence, my center. My mother first started talking about going back to Cuba in the early 1980s, when it first became possible for Cuban exiles to travel to the island. We spent ten years talking about it, dreaming about it, imagining it, as if daring ourselves. We finally went in 1994, and it was certainly a very emotional trip for both of us though I know it was much harder on my mother. I was looking for myself, who I was there. My mother was looking for her life, everything and everyone we left behind. I cannot tell you what I felt exactly, for it was a mixture of grief and loss, nostalgia for a place I never had the opportunity to truly know. Curiously, I found myself oddly at home.

Traveling back to Cuba enabled me to delve deeper into that which interests me -- issues of memory, history, gender and language, as filtered by a personal vision, tied primarily by history, personal and otherwise.

6. What makes you laugh?

In life, irony.


1 comment:

Short Stories said...

Jack Kerouac has been an inspiration to me as well.