Both Past and Present: A Conversation with Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

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Poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s debut memoir, Children of the Land, out January 28 from Harper, is poised to become an instant classic. Seamlessly combining nuanced reflections on immigration, nationality, and the divided self, Castillo weaves a page-turning story about how the US-Mexico border has impacted his family across several generations.

In a starred review, Booklist wrote:

Castillo uses his prodigious poetic craft to plumb each family member’s odyssey through the US immigration system… and to describe the raw emotion and pain experienced while… living under a cloud of uncertainty and fear. In the tortured dynamic that plays out in his cross-border family, Castillo lays bare the inherent unfairness and high psychological toll of the current immigration system on people in both the US and Mexico.

Castillo is the author of the award-winning book of poetry Cenzontle and one of the founders of Undocupoets. He lives in Marysville, California where he teaches poetry to incarcerated youth and teaches at the Ashland University Low-Res MFA program.

He and I spoke recently about the difference between writing poetry and prose, the challenge of finding the right narrative structure, the impact of writing about trauma, and whether it’s ever possible to express yourself without being conscious of how your work is received.

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The Rumpus: I first came to your prose through an essay, “Place, Origin, and Stalks of Corn,” on the Best American Poetry blog. I was so haunted by that piece, which felt more like a work of cultural criticism than a piece of memoir.

So when I read Children of the Land, I was struck by how fully you embraced the memoir form, and how successfully you merged this highly reflective, lyrical voice with suspense, tension, and other storytelling elements. Did you always intend this book to be a narrative memoir?

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo: Definitely not! What I pitched was very different than what I delivered. At first, I wanted to make the book more rhetorical, like a book of essays, but it kept wanting to be a memoir. I was really fortunate to have an editor who allowed me to follow those hunches.

I first started writing essays like the one you mentioned several years ago, at a time when I wasn’t thinking about a book. It was just the genre that I was using to try to figure out what was happening with my life, for instance, when I was going to see my father for the first time since he had been deported, or dealing with his rejection from his immigration hearing, or my mother’s departure for Mexico.

I didn’t want to write poems about those things. Maybe those experiences were too immediate. Maybe if I would have waited ten years, I would have written poems about all of that and not prose. Poems seem more removed from the present time. If you left an essay unfinished for ten years, there’s a good chance that you might not come back to it. It might just slip through your memory, slip through your fingers. But a poem will still be there in ten years if you haven’t written it. It feels like poems exist without you, independently. You’re just there to bear witness to what they have to say.

I know a lot of people say you need seven years before you can start writing about something that’s happened to you, but I didn’t have that. I didn’t have the luxury of waiting. The immediacy of what was happening to me is central to the whole project. It’s central to my identity as a writer, to how I approach my subject matter. And objectivity doesn’t really exist, does it? Ten years into the future you’re just biased in a different way.

Rumpus: One thing I admired so much about Children of the Land is the way you toggled between a meditative, discursive mode and extended scenes in which you are fully immersed in the physical world.

For instance, the book begins with that short section in which ICE agents raid your home when you’re fifteen years old. That scene establishes such critical thematic points—the split between body and mind, your longing to remove yourself from various situations, the continual state of surveillance you and your family lived under… but at the same time you are firmly situated in scene, totally embedded in place and time. That scene is immediately followed by a more reflective, wide-ranging section in which you’re meditating on your family history and your feelings about returning to Mexico after a twenty-year absence. The counterbalance between these moments of high tension and that more meditative narrative voice ends up working beautifully.

Castillo: Thank you. That was the biggest challenge. I didn’t want to write a very abstract, lyrical book.

Rumpus: Why not?

Castillo: I guess I was afraid of only being able to write only that. I didn’t simply want to wax poetic. The lyrical mode has been the way I’ve written for so long. My poetry is absent of an actual “I,” located in a time and place. When I write poems, I think about objects in relation to other objects in the poem, images in relation to other images. I think in these fractured, lyrical ways.

But in Children of the Land, I wanted to write what I wasn’t able to say in a book of poems—what I fell short of saying. I wanted to try doing a more traditional, narrative style of storytelling. I wanted to try to find some canonical balance between poetry and prose. But at first I was terrified of narrative. What was I going to say? How was I going to say it? What is setting, what is expository writing? I wasn’t sure what the conventions of prose were, so I really started from zero. It ended up being very freeing to not have that pressure on myself, to be okay with failing, to be okay with scrapping ten pages because they weren’t working.

Another challenge was the fact that I have a terrible memory. I think it has to do with all of these things that I just wanted to block off. I don’t remember many years of my life, being ten or twelve or anything like that. Because of my memory loss, I’ve gotten in the habit of writing in my journal, taking notes, taking video of different moments. Otherwise I’m going to forget it, so I’ve become obsessive about it. I look back and I honestly don’t remember many of the videos that I took. I see them as though they were happening to someone else. I guess it isn’t any different than what I’d always done as a writer. The habit and impulse is there to document the material. A lot of it leads to anxiety because of all that self-analysis.

My wife Ruby and I have been together for thirteen years, since high school, and she’s become a vault of my childhood. Everything I’ve told her over the years, she has kept it all. I had to consult with her a lot to double-check what happened. And that’s a different process, looking for information about the past and grabbing for it, versus having it be right there in the present in front of you.

Rumpus: How did you move from all that raw source material toward the five-part structure you ended up settling on?

Castillo: First, I looked over everything I had written and recorded, and wrote down notes, and then I tried to excavate my notes. What feelings was I having back then, and what are the feelings I was injecting into that moment from the place that I’m in now? It’s such a challenge to separate the two, and all of that reflective material in the book is a combination of both the past and the present. The reflective nature of the book comes from that process, I think. For me, slowing down was the only way that I could turn these ideas into more tangible matter, into narrative.

After I did that, I had ideas for what would enter the book but I didn’t have the narrative framework to put them in. So I had to cull through and expand my memories. For instance, wanting to document this feeling of being so divided, or being split in half.

But I always started with states of mind, these moments of emotional resonance that are left unsaid in your head, that are always in the background and hard to put into words. And then I started looking for the right experiences, the right events, the right actions that would express those states. It wasn’t that the events, images, and details led me to the ideas themselves. The ideas came first, and then I tried to think about the tangible objects that would embody these ideas.

Rumpus: One of the tangible objects that ended up doing so much work was a little plate shaped like a pig, with its back hollowed out to hold salsa. It shows up in the book just after you’ve done your green card interview, when you and your wife went to a Mexican restaurant to celebrate the fact that it seemed to go well. That little salsa plate just seemed like the perfect object to hold all of this energy about a very nuanced experience. You write, “How little I deserved any of it, I thought, as I dipped a chip into the bright red salsa inside the little pig.”

Castillo: Yeah, when I read sections back to my wife it was so eye-opening to see how many different things we remembered. She had completely forgotten that we even went to a Mexican restaurant. But all of those objects were there; I just needed to find a way to find which objects were best.

That was my main preoccupation in this book, finding what object or image or piece of dialogue sufficed, what did the best job of aligning with my inner feelings. It really helped me to see to speak through symbols. I think I ended up choosing the structure that I did because it allowed me to have these lyrical gestures, these symbols, and these moments where I can play with language, and but could also juxtapose the more expository writing.

In order to get the structure right, I ended up finding this huge whiteboard—those are harder to find than you might think—and I used it to map out all the big ideas I wanted to hit in each chapter. Then I asked myself, how am I going to go about talking about those ideas? What are the events that would best accompany those ideas? And then it finally made sense, once I started looking through them, what the book would entail.

I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to write a chronological story, as that would contradict what I’m saying in the book about beginnings and endings. About how my great-grandfather was the first to come here back in the 1920s, and we’re still doing the same things to people who immigrate now. We’re not delousing people anymore, but we still have the idea that anybody who isn’t from here is somehow infested or diseased.

Rumpus: There’s a quote by Charles Baxter I think about a lot when it comes to writing memoir: “Drama requires the opening of a wound.” Writing this kind of reflective memoir, in which you’re looking closely and unflinchingly about the experience of the self in the wake of trauma—can be so painful. That was my experience, at least. When I wrote my memoir, it was such a mindfuck to re-immerse myself into those difficult moments, so I could write them vividly, in scene.

Was that the case for you, too? Do you feel a sense of relief now that the book is written?

Castillo: Absolutely. I did not have fun writing this. It was one of the most difficult times of my life. I wasn’t taking care of myself in the way that I should have been. I lost a great deal of weight. I had all this emotional turmoil, and I think it was a direct result of mining through all this material. That never happened to me when writing poetry. There’s a line in Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” about living like “an exposed column of nerve and blood and muscle.” That’s what writing this book has been like. I had to expose the nerve.

For me, writing poetry is no less personal than writing memoir, but there was still a kind of distance I could create with poetry that I didn’t have with this book. There was a kind of separation I could make. I could store up those experiences and give them away. When I wrote poems about things that have happened in the past, I could write them in the language of the past—not in the language that exists inside me, right now.

All this reminds me of this roundtable discussion I had with some friends who teach writing, about students who are writing about very difficult, triggering, traumatic experiences. We were talking about how, just because the writing is painful, it doesn’t mean that the end product is effective. I bring that up because while was writing, I kept thinking, well, there’s no point in me putting myself through hell and having nothing to show for it. It’s like what we say in AA— if you’re going to be sober and miserable, you might as well just drink.

Rumpus: We’re doing this interview in November, so you’re still two months away from the publication of the book. Given what you’ve said about that feeling of exposure, I’m curious about what it feels like to have the release of the book coming up so soon.

Castillo: I was terrified, and still am, of each subsequent step in the process. I was terrified of turning in the first draft. I had no idea what would happen. Maybe they’ll say it’s good, maybe they’ll say I need to work on this or that, maybe they’ll say that we need to renegotiate our contract. I was also really nervous about how my family react to it, what they would think about it. There have been a lot of mixed emotions and very difficult conversations. A lot of crying. A lot of talking about what we don’t like to talk about. So I’m still nervous about when it goes out, how it will go out, and how it will be received. I want the book to do well, but at the same time, I’m afraid.

Rumpus: I just have one more question for you. There’s this wonderful moment in the book where you ask yourself if there would ever be a point in your lifetime when you could say “absolutely everything about myself with complete abandon, without fear of judgment and repercussions.” I was curious if the process of writing Children of the Land helped you get closer to that state of freedom.  

Castillo: I’m not sure I’m even halfway to the point of doing away with all the filters. I’ve always had to choose between simply experiencing the world or expressing my language, my unique identity, everything. Even in my journals, I’m always conscious of some kind of performance.

I’ve thought and thought and thought about the conditions I would need to experience a different state, something closer to pure thought, free of any desire for my writing to be published, or heard, or read, even to exist outside of me. I think the purest form of artistic expression would probably take the form of sculpture, working in clay. But really, the only way that state of pure expression could take place is if you just didn’t care about your life anymore, but at the same time, you thought that literally everything mattered. It’s a dangerous path to go down.

I should also say that the passage you mentioned is from a section of the book in which I’m reflecting about how I’ve been affected by all the surveillance I’ve lived under since I was a kid. I’m asking myself how long it will be before the behaviors that have defined me will start to fade away. How long it will be before I can behave in a way that isn’t motivated by fear, by an awareness that I’m being observed.

More and more, I’m convinced that it’s too late. I’ll always look down at the speedometer to make sure I’m driving in that sweet spot. I’ll always get nervous around figures of authority. When somebody asks me where I was born, there will always be that initial flinching. Part of me had hoped that things would change once I established my residency status.

But if I were to agree to that logic, then I’d have to admit that there’s something inherently different about me now that I have documentation. And I refuse to do that. I won’t go along with this idea that my papers are what gives me value. I won’t go along with the idea that my residency status is what makes me human.

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Photograph of Marcelo Hernandez Castillo by Kenzie Allen.


Jessica Wilbanks is a nonfiction writer based in Houston. Her memoir, When I Spoke in Tongues, came out from Beacon Press in 2018 and will be available in paperback June 2020. To learn more, visit her website or find her on Twitter. More from this author →