Ana Castillo is a writer, poet and scholar whose new novel Give It to Me (Feminist Press) is sure to raise some eyebrows and induce some belly laughs.
Give It to Me follows Latina bisexual protagonist Palma Piedras as she figures out what “it” is — is “it” love? Life? Herself? From dating her ex-con cousin to a butch restaurateur, this 43- year-old fashionista’s journey through mid-life is anything but quaint or easy. Called a “cheeky, amoral, and a gritty survivor,” Palma is a sexual powerhouse who, while guided by her libido, oftentimes neglects her own basic needs.
Like all Castillo’s work, which explores themes of race, sexuality, and gender, and how they are manufactured and navigated in culture, Give It to Me attempts to challenge set ways of thinking with the most unlikely of female heroines.
I chatted with Castillo about her fascinating and controversial protagonist, as well as how she sees herself embodied in the novel.
AfterEllen.com: What led you, creatively, personally, or professionally, to Give It to Me?
Ana Castillo: My son and I were reading Bukowski. I’d read his poetry a very long time ago but in spring of 2012 I read his prose. One evening I did an exercise in writing “raunchy but fun.” Palma Piedras was born.
AE: What was the creative inspiration for this novel? Who are writers you admire, and why?
AC: Besides Bukowski, I called upon early 20th century writers. I pay tribute to these writers in the novel. A writer I did not read again for this book but whose works stayed with me in my molecular memory is Georges Bataille, especially his novella My Mother.
I admire all good writers — because good writing takes diligence. As a self-taught writer, they have been my teachers.
AE: The novel leads with a disclaimer that it is not autobiography, yet arguably all writing, produced and emergent from a particular, lived body, is in some sense autobiographical. Even the inclusion of the disclaimer works inversely to attest to such. Would you say that Give It to Me has noticeable autobiographical elements or moments to you?
AC: The job of the fiction writer is not to tell what “actually happened,” but to tell a good story. As I embarked on the exercise of creating Palma Piedras my rule of thumb in the storytelling was asking myself all along the way, “What would I do in this instance?” Whatever I’d reply, I’d have my character do the opposite. This led to interesting writing for me as I tried to figure out for her what the following actions would be.
Disclaimers are primarily to protect the writer and publisher from people who may or may not know the author and who may claim to be in the book. Some readers think or assume a main character is the author. This doesn’t credit fiction writers have great imaginations and hopefully, talent to render these “believable” stories.
AE: Why the title Give It to Me? Is the “it” modifying sex? Life? Love? Finding oneself?
AC: Give It to Me came up a couple, if not a few times in the narrative in different contexts.
AE: Who is Palma Piedras? How is her complicated relationship with members of her family—her abuela, her smarmy uncle, her cousin Pepito, with whom she has an affair—reflect her own working through of her own Latina identity?
AC: Palma Piedras is who she is. Her dysfunctional family is what it is. I don’t see the character working through her “own Latina identity.” I do see her working through human experiences, for example, the desire to know her parents and understand why they abandoned her. She is also, as I see it, working through a spiritual understanding of her life’s meaning—she attends a sweat lodge, has a meeting with a lama, etc.
AE: How does all her travel across mirror her own internal journey?
AC: Ever since Don Quixote, the greatest novel in the Spanish language, to Kerouac’s On the Road, internal journeys are often told through the characters’ actual journeys. The reader gets to see a little of the character’s “actual world,” but I’m not sure it isn’t more than setting, at least in the case of Give It to Me. Cities in the States, maybe the world are all starting to look the same. In Give It to Me, Albuquerque has corporate shops, hotels and restaurants as do Chicago and Los Angeles, also in the story. If anything, maybe the moving around is reflective of how people are prepare to get up and relocate across the country these days without missing a beat.
AE: I have a question regarding the chapter about Palma’s affair with Ursula, particularly these lines: “They showered together and made love. (Two women making love required a whole lot of patience. More when they were standing up.),” and “The truth was she liked Ursula a lot, but unlike Snowball, Palma knew that when she was gone Palma would not love her.” Do you feel like these are stereotypical sentiments of a bisexual women engaging in an affair with a lesbian?
AC: No, I don’t feel these are the stereotypical sentiments of bisexual women. Palma Piedras doesn’t follow anyone’s road map.
First, Palma is a fictional character that exudes independent thoughts and actions. I don’t see her having exchanges or listening to anything anyone else has to say about how she should live, love or act. If anything drives this character it is overcoming, running from, hiding from heartaches since earliest memory.
You refer to page 34, her shutting down after Ursula leaves her without discussion. Just prior to that, we have an insight to her [on page 32]; Palma is talking to her heterosexual male cousin: “Tell me you love me, she heard herself say. It wasn’t something she had ever told anyone herself…”
She has learned to cope with abandonment by developing a hard exterior.
She may run from heartache but doesn’t run from love’s possibilities. She does not leave Ursula. It is Ursula who abandons her. Why would this character “love” her lover after she’s left? It seems wise or at least, practical, to move on.
Toward the end of the novel Palma falls in love with a married woman. Again, things don’t work out and again, it isn’t Palma rejecting her lover.
Intimate, romantic love has always been complicated, in the past and present. I’m not sure it is more or less complicated because the main character is attracted to both sexes.
Fundamentally, in the case of Palma Piedras, she is a complicated character. She has always been acutely aware of her sexual desires. I’m not sure she is monogamous. You could say she is looking for love in all the wrong places. The first place to look, she at last learns, is within. I think this comes out in the meeting with the Buddhist monk. It may be hard to love yourself when your parents abandon you and leave you with unloving guardians.
AE: Is it difficult to write a novel that is honest about a character’s journey while at the same time not blindly reifying stereotypes? Are the use of stereotypes inevitable if one is crafting a story about self-discovery?
AC: I don’t know if writing a novel that is honest about a character’s journey is difficult without simultaneously ‘blindly reifying stereotypes. I can tell you that Palma’s character was a challenge for me because she is like no one I’ve ever met. I’ve always liked to write complex characters who, nevertheless have aspects that I admire. I admire Palma’s dare and verve. She is more than a survivor of the bad hand society may hand her. She is a warrior.
Thank you for your questions.
AE: Thank you, Ana!