The Subversive Form and Content of Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters

As part of the SALSA Collective’s panel at next month’s IBAAS conference, I will be discussing prolific Chicana author Ana Castillo’s first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986). Reading the text through the lens of Castillo’s theoretical writings on Xicanisma (the author’s coinage for Chicana feminism), I will explore how the novel’s form and content work together to challenge patriarchal and eurocentric perceptions and will also consider the bilingualism in The Mixquiahuala Letters – or, rather, the relative lack thereof compared with the author’s more linguistically nuanced later novels.

The Mixquiahuala Letters is an epistolary novel comprised of forty letters written by the Chicana narrator-protagonist, Teresa, to her friend, Alicia. The novel is perhaps most remarkable for its unconventional structure which is strikingly reminiscent of Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela (1963), which played with traditional linearity by permitting the reader to “hopscotch” his/her way through the 155 chapters. Likewise, from the outset of The Mixquiahuala Letters, Castillo warns her reader that it is not a novel to be read in the usual manner and she proposes three different reading sequences in which to read the letters. A separate reading plan is dedicated to the “Cynic”, the “Conformist”, and the “Quixotic”, depending on how the reader decides to label him/herself, and each of these sequences lead to radically different endings.

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While the commonalities between Castillo and Cortázar’s works are undeniable, many critics have perhaps overestimated the latter’s influence on Castillo’s work, a fact undoubtedly encouraged by the novel’s epigraph which reads: ‘In memory of the master of the game, Julio Cortázar’. In a 1993 MELUS interview with Elsa Saeta, however, Castillo clarifies the extent to which Cortázar influenced her structural experimentation:

When I decided to write The Mixquiahuala Letters I was 23. I had all of these stories that I wanted to tell and I started to write them down. I didn’t know how to, but I had very grandiose ideas about how I wanted to do it. So I decided I was going to play with time, I was going to do time shift, tense shift, all this kind of stuff. One day I was talking with a friend about what I was going to do with this project and he said, “That’s already been done.” He took me to the library and pulled Rayuela off the shelf and I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve already been plagiarized! Twenty years before, when I was five years old, my idea was already taken.” (p. 136)

Rather than being an explicit acknowledgment of his influence on her work, the novel’s dedication to Cortázar, she asserts, was meant as a homage to the author after his death:

The year that I finished it, in 1984 just as I finished it, he died. It was not because I saw the book, or read the book, or was influenced directly by Julio Cortázar that I dedicated the book to him, but because he was another person that I felt was the master in the particular form of writing that I was aspiring to. He had done it and had been brilliant. […] So I gave him the dedication. Obviously people would at some point see the association and wonder about it. So I think it’s better to be up front and acknowledge the credit. That’s why I acknowledged it. (p. 136)

As I will suggest in my upcoming paper at IBAAS, Castillo’s decision to adopt this unconventional literary form can be read as simultaneously conforming to and subverting patriarchal/eurocentric literary standards by making them work to convey her own feminist message. The key to this subversion lies in the relation between the novel’s form and content: while the adoption of such a form on its own could be perceived as conforming to male/western narratives, the three different reading sequences permit Castillo to offer various alternative but equally valid fates for her protagonists, ultimately presenting a nuanced, non-essentialised vision of what it means to be a Chicana.


 

Thanks so much to Leona for getting us prepared for her talk at IBAAS 2016. I can’t wait to discuss all things Castillo with a fellow aficionada!

 

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