Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Stirring Things Up

I like books that stir things up a little bit.

So Far From God, a novel written by Ana Castillo, is an example.

So Far From God,
by Ana Castillo
This book follows the lives of several Chicana women, whose lives are anything but ordinary. The novel is set in a little hamlet in New Mexico, called Tome, in the rich, historical context of Pueblo tradition and folklore. And Mexican Catholicism. Throughout her narrative, Castillo constantly re-defines women in these contexts, recuperating them, as it were from hegemonic constructs, and the "good-girl, bad girl" dichotomy. This "good girl, bad girl" thing is nothing new. It's a very familiar trope which feminists have campaigned against for the greater part of the last half century. Basically, it's a dichotomy that states that "good girls" stay at home serving both their husbands and children, and are moral vigilantes. Bad girls, on the other hand are "open," "loose," or "sell-outs." Good girls are virginal. Bad girls are whores. In Chicano culture, this good-girl, bad girl dichotomy is especially prevalent, but Castillo is having none of it. In So Far From God, she takes this construct and turns it on its head. Sofi, the headstrong mother of four daughters, for example, is called La Abandonada, because when her daughters were all quite young, her husband, Domingo, abandoned them. Nobody sees hide nor hair of him for almost 20 years. Sofi raises her daughters alone, and the narrator states that for years and years, she shuns society and avoids social functions in her community. She wears the pants. Later, we find out that Domingo has spent the last two decades gambling his life away. He is a downtrodden man when he returns to the home of his wife and grown daughters, and entirely dependent on Sofi, who by this point has done an about-face, and become an activist in her community, establishing a food cooperative as well as other community organizations for the improvement of Tome's civic life. Castillo implies that it is Domingo who is essentially the "bad girl," in the equation, as he "whores"  after money, exposing his family to financial difficulty. Furthermore, he remains quite uninvolved in the revitalizing community efforts of his wife, and an outsider in other respects.

Each of the daughters in the novel resist the "good-girl, bad-girl" dichotomy as well. One example is the daughter, Caridad, who shuns marriage--and men, for that matter, and under the tutelage of a curandera--or female faith healer--named Dona Felicia, becomes a curandera herself, with psychic abilities that give her heightened spiritual insights into her patients and her loved ones. Caridad falls in love with a woman, and is later stalked and sexually harrassed by a supposed "holy man,"--once again turning traditional gender roles on their head.

Ana Castillo,
Author and Poet
I like books that shake things up. Stir the pot. I love it when writers can grab hold of a cultural paradigm and divest it of power or redefine it for a specific social end. Ana Castillo does this with panache, and I love her for it. Writing like this pushes the point, for me, of the role that fiction can and should play in our society. Not that all creative works should necessarily be didactic, but if they comment on prevalent issues and dominant paradigms, they're doing their job. They're invested with a more potent voice. It's that unapologetic voice that I feel needs to be heard more in our creative works.


  1. Great post Laura!

    I love books like this also. Especially when they combine aspects of feminism versus cultural restrictions.

    When I was in school I studied an excessive amount of American literature, and I always loved the Chicano lit because it was so culturally rich.

    I'll have to pick up a copy of this one.

    - Lauren

  2. You definitely should pick up a copy! Castillo is witty, lyrical, and a wild ride in addition to a no holds barred feminist writer. I just finished it and it's already on the re-read list!

  3. This is wonderful and so insightful. I'm ready to read the book. Congratulations to you both!



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