» Book Review
A Woman’s Journey
Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me, by Ana Castillo
The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2016
350 pages, paper, $16.95
For years, Joseph Campbell’s monomyth has served as the definitive narrative archetype. The seventeen-step adventure from the known to the unknown and back again describes the challenges a character faces on the path to become a hero. From “The Call to Adventure” through trials like “Belly of the Whale” and “Woman as Temptress,” the character comes out on the other side forever changed into a more mature, more capable man. Toward the end of Ana Castillo’s memoir Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me, she draws attention to Campbell’s monomyth of the journey of a male hero. As an aside when discussing how she spent the two years her beloved son was incarcerated for robbery, Castillo tells the story of when she taught the monomyth in a feminist course at a university and had to adjust Campbell’s linear narrative for a woman’s journey. Castillo writes, “… female archetypes had three life stages: lovely maiden, fertile mother, and (sterile, hunchbacked, saggy, wild-haired, banished from-the-village-to-a-hut-where-she-concocted-poisons-to-harm-men-unworthy-of-love-although-wise-and-yet-despised-for-her-wisdom) crone. Me, in other words.”
Although the various chapters are not broken into separate sections, this three-stage female monomyth forms the base structure of Castillo’s memoir, placing Castillo on her own hero’s journey from daughter of a Mexican Indian immigrant family to well-established Chicana novelist and poet. Through this journey of becoming, Castillo reflects on multiple generations of her family (her parents’, her own, and her son’s and grandchild’s), weaving together these generations and the trials they faced once the family became citizens of the United States.
The backbone of Black Dove may be the female monomyth, but Castillo mostly avoids an obviously structured approach and instead strips down on the fictive elements often found in memoir, such as detailed scenes and dialogue, and opens up for an intimate chat with the reader. For the most part, chapters cover large periods of time, placing her own journey beside those of family members. She jumps from story to story, transitioning back and forth in time, moving as though a new story has just popped into her head. For example, at one point, Castillo relates a story about her aunt dropping a busted television out a second-story window and it narrowly missing her aunt’s husband. After this story, Castillo writes, “That wasn’t the story I wanted to share about my livewire tía Flora, although that one was a good one, too.”
This stream-of-consciousness approach allows the reader to get closer to Castillo, to feel as though there are no fictive elements masking the author. She exemplifies the need to share everything about her “becoming,” with no topic off limits (childhood, love, sex, immigration, gun violence, motherhood, writing, marriage, feminism), but she also backs away from naming other individuals, thereby protecting identities and showing her compassion and understanding.
Throughout Black Dove, Castillo seems uninterested in offering readers answers, suspense, or even new revelations on the immigrant experience. This sounds like a weakness, and it may be in other books, but Castillo’s honest and affable voice easily carries the memoir through to the end. Castillo remains so likable, the reader wants to continue reading only so as to not leave her presence. Sharing her experience, trying to connect to the reader, person to person, seems to motivate Castillo’s narrative. It is difficult, if perhaps impossible, to read Castillo’s memoir without thinking of the xenophobia, especially regarding Mexicans, that has intensified in the United States during Donald Trump’s presidential race and into his presidency. Castillo recognizes this and begins her introduction with:
Perhaps some of you may come away from this book feeling that my stories have nothing to do with your lives. You may find the interest I’ve had in my ancestors as they were shaped by the politics of their times, irrelevant to your own history. My story, as a brown, bisexual, strapped writer and mother, constantly scrambling to take care of my work and my child, might be similarly inconsequential. However, I beg your indulgence and a bit of faith to believe that maybe on the big Scrabble board of life we will eventually cross ways and make sense to each other.
Castillo, then, discusses the importance of knowledge and how, growing up, she never saw people like her in history books. She does not mention the current political landscape (where recent inclusion of Native and other minorities’ histories are once again being stripped out of schoolbooks), but the connections are clear. She wrote her memoir to show readers a life they may not have lived, to show how similar that life is to each reader’s own or at least to increase understanding of the forces that have shaped her own.
The memoir, however, mostly avoids political comments, with the exception of a digression here or there. Most of these exceptions come during chapters focused on her son, Mi’jo, as though in her role as a mother, Castillo recognizes how little control she has in protecting her child, how she must turn to larger forces for explanations and understanding. For example, while discussing her son’s incarceration, she writes, “in a country proud of its wealth and resources, healthcare and public education are not guaranteed to all citizens.” Castillo’s dialogue with the reader draws connections between political, cultural, and, most of all, personal history to show how multifaceted a person is and how linked together so many aspects of our lives are. She goes deeper than her own experience by including so much from other generations of her family. One whole chapter is given over to an essay co-written with her son Mi’jo, allowing his voice, for a moment, to be just as important as Castillo’s. In Black Dove, Castillo shows the hardships faced by immigrants, hardships that last generations, well beyond those who immigrated, and most importantly, she shows that one vital way to combat prejudice is try to connect person to person. In this, she succeeds with brilliance.