This review is a bookend on the shelf.
On one end of the shelf is 1987, when I was an El Tecolote employee and reviewed Ana Castillo’s first novel, “The Mixquiahuala Letters.” I loved it and felt lucky to meet her at the now-gone Café Nidal near the [former] Acción Latina office.
The other end of the shelf is “Doña Cleanwell Leaves Home,” Castillo’s latest collection of stories. I feel lucky to be the reviewer again and write again for this publication.
Castillo has been busy publishing an ongoing stream of well-regarded books, in the intervening years. “Doña Cleanwell Leaves Home” suggests there is no risk of her running out of stories to tell. The idea that she has not shared everything is key to interpreting the stories.
In “Doña Cleanwell Leaves Home,” she spills out seven tales to charm readers, old and new. They are the tales of a practiced storyteller. To her, there are no boring incidents, no characters without an element of charm, and no story without tension.
I admire the writer who creates these elements from the building blocks of daily life. Though there are whiffs of the supernatural, most of the suspense comes from people with recognizable experiences. They are not fantasy or living tales ripped from the headlines.
Tension in “Doña Cleanwell Leaves Home” comes from the everyday unknowns. Telling stories means being as careful about what you leave out, as you are with what you put in.
Missing information spices a story, but what you don’t know can hurt you. Castillo’s protagonists are often in a funk, precisely because of what they don’t know. At the same time, there is fear that learning the truth will be just as painful as not knowing.
The stories are a litany of not knowing. “Dad never talked about it,” is one such line in “Cuernavaca,” the opening story. Here, the narrator seeks to fill in holes in her father’s oft-recited narrative about going to Mexico as the young drummer in a band.
In Doña Cleanwell’s story, Katia is a girl on the verge of adulthood who makes a trip to Mexico to retrieve her absent mother, having no idea what awaits her. Her mother’s few phone calls to the kids she left in the U.S. have offered no clarity.
Castillo writes: “Whenever one or another asked why she left, what she was doing in Mexico or if she was coming back, the woman remarked that the bill was running up and cut it short.”
Katia’s trip upends her young concepts of life; of what is right, of what is feminist, and even of what is possible.
In “Ven,” the unknown consists of a brother’s quest to understand his sister, who died too young. Can he bring her past research trips to Mexico into focus? What was the role of the mysterious man she knew there? The narration speaks his mind: “Why had she not told her brother she’d heard from Rigo? Why never mention him again?”
The reader, as well, is pulled along by the stories’ incomplete nature. There are gaps in what Castillo tells us. Sometimes, the partial picture we have reflects the protagonist’s ignorance of what is going on. Sometimes, Castillo is content to leave us in the dark.
What motivated a friend’s vengeful act of betrayal? What really happened in the library? Why does a woman decide to live with her husband’s infidelity? I read the stories, but I don’t have answers.
It is up to us to complete the story, just as we have responsibility for our own lives. In the end, all stories are incomplete, partial.
Life is too complicated (and sometimes too boring) to tell people everything. Moreover, there is always something that comes after the book is closed. Life continues.
In that last sense, this review is a temporary bookend. “Doña Cleanwell” is only the provisional end of the shelf. Castillo’s imagination shows no signs of letting up, and we can expect more of her work for the bookcase. She already has a novel due out next year.
Thirty-six years ago, I noted that “Mixquiahuala Letters” held out “the promise of a rich, universal literature based on the life of Chicanas and Chicanos.”
Indeed, writers have broken out of the boxes of Chicanx literature/feminism/xicanisma that can be descriptive, but limiting. What Castillo and others have accomplished is to demonstrate to the literary world that our stories are indeed “rich, universal literature.”
Castillo is top shelf.