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Interview: Sandra Castillo

Sandra M Castillo was born in Havana, Cuba, and moved to Miami, Florida, in 1970.  She received her MA in creative writing from Florida State University.  In 2002 she was awarded the White Pine Press award in poetry for her collection My Father Sings to My Embarrassment (2002).  Her work has appeared in publications including The North American Review, The Connecticut Review, Cimarron Review, The Florida Review, Little Havana Blues, and Paper Dance: 52 Latino Poets.

 

Castillo’s poems are threaded with history, not just the history of the many family members and friends who take shape with her words, but with the history of Cuba and those living the exile experience.  But for all the broader issues her pieces touch on, they are never far from the deeply personal, never uncolored by her lyrical presence in the stories being told.

 

Danielle Kessinger for The Florida Review:

What made you choose the title Eating Moors and Christians for this work?

 

Sandra M. Castillo:

I’d never written about food, which is really funny because we always think about culture and the easiest way into cultures is through food. You think Cuban—you think Cuban food.  And I’d never really tried to write about food, and I wondered how I would do that. And some years back there was local poetry being paired up, poets being paired up with chefs, and somebody said to me, “Oh, do you want to participate?” And I was like, “No. I am not that cool. I wouldn’t even know how to write about food. No. Thank you though, but no.” And then I thought, subsequently, Why can’t I write about food? I should be able to write about food. I should be able to write about whatever else that I want. It took me a really long time to figure out that in writing about food you’re really writing about something else.

 

And so I was in Cuba in 2006, which was the last year that my mother and I were able to go because that’s the year that the George Bush administration changed the policy about who qualified to go to Cuba. I thought that was going to be our last year visiting in the summer. So we found ourselves there eating moros y cristianos, which is what they really call black beans and rice when you cook them together. And I thought, Wow, it’s a whole legacy of colonialism here. That’s the poem food. And there we were in Havana, after the revolution to post-exile-experience, eating moros y cristianos, Moors and Christians. And there seemed to be a lot wrong with that. So I thought this was the way to do it.

 

TFR:

Now that there are more public flights leaving, how does that change the perspective of the exile experience, and how does that impact what you’re approaching as topical?

 

Castillo:

I think I’m still dealing with how you talk about the exile experience. How do you even talk about Cuba or what it means to be Cuban American? I was at work when I first heard that diplomatic relations had been restored, and I gotta tell you, I wept like an idiot. I was thinking, I never thought I would get to see that in my lifetime. I just didn’t think that was going to ever be possible. And for somebody who had not been able to go since 2006, by virtue of the change of policy, I thought, “Oh my gosh, the opening of US-Cuba relations. This is amazing! This is like having a front row seat to openness.” We’ve needed to be there for a long, long time. The embargo was a failure. It’s a crazy policy that goes back to the dark ages of the Cold War. I think this was a political blessing of sorts. Now I just need to talk my way into being brave enough to be able to go back since I haven’t been there since 2006.

 

TFR:

So you haven’t gone back since the change in policy?

 

Castillo:

No, my mother’s always my passport to Cuba. I always think I need a passport and that’s really my mother because the relatives that remain are relatives of hers, distant family. But it’s a way back into the past and I haven’t gone.  We’re talking now about going this summer. I’m really interested in seeing what’s going to happen, what feels different but there’s a sense of openness that I’m pretty happy with and thankful that the president who did this was Barack Obama.

 

Now, I’m worrying about the Trump presidency and what this will mean for US-Cuba relations. But I can only hope that because he’s so pro-business, this is sort of like a mixed blessing of sorts, that he’ll see Cuba as an opportunity to maintain the openness of the relationship. But by the same token, I’m afraid that they’ll turn Cuba into what it used to be in the 1950s, and that’s not a good thing.

 

TFR:

It is hard to know.

 

Castillo:

I’m as weary of that and what’s going to happen with that restoration of diplomatic relations as I am about this impending presidency.

 

TFR:

So much of this work in particular is suffused with nostalgia.

 

Castillo:

Which is a disease.

 

TFR:

I was reading an interview with you where you mentioned Jack Kerouac, and I was thinking about how I hadn’t realized that he had written Dharma Bums in central Florida. Re-reading that novel and thinking of him being in Florida, it became totally different because then it has this sense of nostalgia I’d never realized it had before. Do you feel like where you are writing impacts what you write? Do you find yourself being more nostalgic when in Miami, or if you’re writing elsewhere, writing back towards where you came from?

 

Castillo:

I don’t think where you write is necessarily as important as what it is that you’re writing about. Because essentially whatever nostalgia exists in the work, you’re bringing into it by virtue of the fact that you’re recreating place and place is in your mind and so whatever place you’re creating, it’s already viewed with that sense of nostalgia. My fascination with Kerouac was that I think in a lot of ways he was an immigrant. He actually didn’t learn to speak English until I think he was six or eight years old. So, he had that sensibility about him. And I think much of what he wrote was really about where he was from, Lowell, Massachusetts. And he was trying to create place using language. And I think part of the exile experience is in the essence just that. You are trying to visit a place that no longer exists, so we create it. I think we just drag that nostalgia into it, and it’s not necessarily a positive thing. But I think it’s sort of inevitable because it goes with that sense of loss that Kerouac said, “I accept lostness forever.” Right? So there’s nothing else you can do. Just embrace it.  But, at the same time, much of what I wrote in the book is really about coming to that place of understanding that the past is gone. You’ll never get there.

 

TFR:

Do you feel nostalgia is a natural state for poets, always looking back at some loss of what could or could not be?

 

Castillo:

Inevitably. We were talking earlier about titles and getting drawn in by titles and I do this thing where I look at a poetry book, and I open it, and does it pull you in? And I think that the allure for me in people’s work, and it doesn’t matter what poet it is, is that commitment to place. And I think inevitably, that comes from that place of nostalgia. Even though it’s not sentimental because, sentimentality, I could do away with. The idea of that lure, which is what I think nostalgia is, a lure back into the past. And really, I think we all have it. Just poets try to recreate it, visit it over and over and over again. If you’re Cuban, I think you just can’t escape it.

 

TFR:

You often refer to photographs in this work.  Do you look at photographs as a doorway to explore?

 

Castillo:

My uncle lived with us when I was a child in Cuba, and he was a photographer. And he turned our bathroom into a darkroom. And so, as a kid, the photos were always hanging. He created this little clothesline. And I remember thinking about place as something that could be captured in these photos, these still lives of everything around us. And we always thought that our lives in Cuba were sort of transient because we always knew we were going to go. It’s like if you’re in exile, you always knew at some juncture you might leave the island. But in looking back, and even in living with those photographs, it’s almost like he was trying to freeze time, and that photography somehow enabled you to do that, to capture it, to hold it. And I think about memory like that, where it’s not moving pictures. It’s actually still images. So I find that, especially in this book, I think that’s what I’m doing. I think those are photos, and I’m using language to do what my uncle was doing when I was a kid.

 

TFR:

You’re doing it with words.

 

Castillo:

I think so.

 

TFR:

That’s lovely.

 

Castillo:

So there is that. But I’m also quite visual, and that’s how I think about things. So I’m always trying to frame it. And I think that’s what it is. I mean at its simplest.

 

TFR:

When I got to the back of the book, I was surprised to find that you had a glossary.

 

Castillo:

Oh yeah. [laughter]

 

TFR:

When writers have multiple languages to play with, I find language and word choice even more interesting.  This book has predominantly English peppered with Spanish.

 

Castillo:

Right.

 

TFR:

Did you start the poems in English when you wrote them?

 

Castillo:

I did. I do. Always.

 

TFR:

And the choice of when to use Spanish? The Spanish words just come out naturally?

 

Castillo:

They do. I think that there are some things that you can only really talk about in Spanish, particularly when you have all the baggage of the Cuban Revolution. It’s a complicated story because the political is personal, and the personal is political, and our lives are packed in with all of this history that had tremendous impact on our lives, sort of like being defined against your will. And so, I find that I need the Spanish to tell the story. So, even though I think in English, and I’ve spent more than half my life in the United States, that part of me that is Cuban, I need to access it in the language of home which is the Spanish. So I throw my Spanish around.

 

TFR:

Did you debate over having a glossary or not, just leaving the Spanish as is? Your glossary, it’s not just saying what the word means, but the context of the word.

 

Castillo:

I was trying to do that. I actually did a lot more than that, and the press said, “Nah, that one is self explanatory.” So they edited it down a little bit. I didn’t know if the title would make sense if you’re not Cuban, and I wanted to provide a larger context for talking about the exile experience. Because I think that while I am talking about being Cuban and an immigrant, I think that those experiences, those themes, that sense of loss and displacement, that’s not unique to me as a Cuban American. It is whoever had to move for political reasons, historical reasons, to some other place. But at the same time, the particulars I think needed to be qualified and quantified. And so I thought, “Well, okay so let me just kinda provide a context.” So, I don’t know if it’s helpful or not. Nobody’s given me any feedback on that.

 

TFR:

It was interesting reading not just the meaning, but kind of the context of it, because Spanish is very much a language that depends on the country, the place, or origin.

 

Castillo:

That is true. Yeah, absolutely.

 

TFR:

Do you have pieces that you do more fully in Spanish and pepper with English references?

 

Castillo:

Sometimes I worry that I did too much. I’m reading today, and I was thinking, Okay I don’t know what the makeup is going to be of the audience. Do I need to do more poems that don’t have that much Spanish? And that’s always kind of hard to gauge because you don’t know and you find yourself translating. I feel like I’m always trying to provide a context. And so, when I write in Spanish, I always feel like I have to kind of keep myself in check. Did I do too much? And there are several poems in there that I think maybe I did too much, but I don’t know. Nobody has complained yet.

 

TFR:

I think it comes across as very natural and your words are just as they should be.

 

Castillo:

Oh good, thank you [chuckle]. Thank you very much.

 

TFR:

You have a lot in here about your family. Do they participate at all in approving the pieces that feature them?

 

Castillo:

That’s really interesting. My sisters always worry about what I say about them, and they’re the only ones that say, “Please don’t read that poem about blah blah blah.” And so, they’ll kind of say, “So and so is coming. Don’t read that poem.” My mother is interesting in her response because I always say to her, “Listen I’m gonna tell this story.” And she’ll go, “Do you really have to?” And I always say, “Yes, so I’m just telling you.” And then she never asks me, “Well, what did you say?” And she doesn’t read it. I just give it to her. “Okay, I said this and I said this and I said that and I hope that’s okay.” And sometimes she’ll frown heavily, but she’ll never say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have done that.” She’s never said any of that. And I think my other relatives don’t know.

 

TFR:

Have you ever had a piece that you decided to leave out of a collection because of this?

 

Castillo:

There’s a poem in there I wondered if I should have included at all. And I’ve never read it out loud. I did a presentation at Tallahassee Community College two and a half weeks ago and I didn’t read it. I’ve never read it. And a student came up to me afterwards and said, “I want to talk to you about this poem.” And I thought, Wow. Wow really? And he was a young man, and he said, “I found it really curious that you wouldn’t have read it.”

 

And it’s the one called “Porn.” I don’t know if you had the chance to look at that. And no one knows that I wrote that poem. I was sexually molested when I was a kid. And it’s the kind of poem that I don’t think I need to ask anybody for permission to tell that story. It’s my story. It happened to me. That’s exactly what happened. And I think it’s one of those things that, had I said anything to anyone, I would have been told not to tell that story. But I think as writers, if the experience belongs to you and it did, you just have to claim it and then deal with the fall-out later. And that’s one of those poems. I don’t know if that answers your question.

 

TFR:

No, no it does. Do you feel that sometimes even asking someone about a poem is giving them permission to say, “No, don’t use it.”

 

Castillo:

Yes. And sometimes I tell them afterwards, “I wrote about this,” as opposed to, “I’m going to do it.” The first poem of the collection, “El Bayú”—this story I only found out about recently. My grandmother was somehow running some kind of bordello. I was like, What? Are you kidding me? I mean that’s just a crazy story that I verified. That’s indeed something that happened. And there was no way I was asking anybody for permission to tell that story. It was told to me, I verified it, and I told the story. I don’t think my father would be too happy that I told it either.

 

TFR:

So much of your poetry explores history. Do you feel that when you’re living in a time that feels like it’s more heavily creating significant history that there is a pressure to commit to writing about the present?

 

Castillo:

Speaking as a Cuban American who lived in a time when things were so volatile, I think that history isn’t something that’s separate from our daily lives. And I think that when you’re born in the “Third World,” you come to understand that historical events directly impact our lives. That you can’t say, “Oh well I’m not worried about that,” because you see the response immediately. This is going to impact my life in a way that I will never be able to get past. You think about exile, all the things that had to have happened historically for me to even be here, to be the person that I am. So that whole concept of history shapes and defines us against our will. You can’t escape that. And, as immigrants, I think because we grow up in it, you understand that. Americans don’t have that experience in the same way, because events seem further away and it takes longer for you to feel the impact.  You don’t get a revolution but you do get a presidency that we’re still grappling with. And so it’s gonna be interesting to see. I’m really interested in seeing how writers and poets respond to this presidency. What’s going to happen? And is this the beginning of another civil rights movement? There is already that move towards people mobilizing to express concerns about women minorities, etcetera. So this is new. And I’m looking forward to what writers have to say about that. This is one of those events that we’re gonna have to deal with.

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Danielle Kessinger

Danielle Kessinger has work published in Bartleby Snopes, the Drunken OdysseyBaltimore ReviewBurrow Press, and the anthology Jack’s Porch.  She has lived and written in the mountains of Colorado, North Carolina, Japan, and Costa Rica but now resides in the flatlands of Florida where she is on the Board of Directors of The Kerouac Project writing residency. This is her third interview for Aquifer: The Florida Review Online.