Joy Castro is the adopted daughter of a Cuban man and a white woman who was a devout Jehovah's Witness.
She's a former Jehovah's Witness herself, a survivor of abuse, the first person in her family to go to college and now an associate professor of English and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She's the author of a novel, two memoirs and many essays and short stories.
Amid those roles, she's given some thought to identity. She identifies as Cuban-American — she has dark eyes and hair and was born in Miami. Growing up, she assumed her birth mother was Latina — likely Cuban, just like her adoptive father, who longed for a baby who looked like him.
When Castro found her birth mother at age 26, the Cuban woman she expected turned out to be a white woman from Illinois.
“When I think of all the Spanish courses I've taken in high school and college, the doctoral exam in Spanish, all the Latina literature I've devoured to be ready to commune with her ... I laugh, because laughing is the only thing to do,” she writes in her first memoir, “The Truth Book,” published in 2005. “I discovered a beautiful world: not mine, but beautiful.”
She decided, after a time, to identify as a Latina woman anyway.
Identity is slippery and subjective. It's a constant theme in Castro's writing, which in 2012 received much attention. “The Truth Book” was re-released as a paperback by the University of Nebraska Press last fall. Around the same time, Thomas Dunne Books published her first novel, “Hell or High Water,” and the University of Nebraska Press published her second memoir, “Island of Bones.”
Both her novel and her memoirs received praise in national newspapers and magazines. “Hell or High Water” received a review in the New York Times. The novel also was selected for the National Latino Book Club.
“I work with a lot of great writers but she's one of the wonderful ones,” said Kristen Elias Rowley, humanities editor at the University of Nebraska Press.
Elias Rowley had admired Castro's work before she became her editor, and she was honored that Castro — who is quickly gaining a national reputation — was willing to work with an independent university press.
The stories Castro, 45, writes and the subjects she tackles — identity, feminism, race issues, class issues — are compelling and important, Elias Rowley said. Just as compelling is the way Castro tells them.
“The way she handles language is just graceful and beautiful,” Elias Rowley said.
Castro soon may have a wider audience. In December, actress Zoe Saldana's production company optioned “Hell or High Water,” and the company is looking at turning it into a movie or television series.
It was a bit surreal, Castro said, to discuss film and television treatments for her book with someone from Los Angeles from the downtown Lincoln apartment she shares with her husband. But she's enjoying it.
Castro, who spent hours writing stories about horses as a girl, who wrote to escape from her constricted, abusive home as a teen, and who ultimately chose a career in teaching and in writing, has always identified as a writer.
“If you're a writer — if you stick with it — you do it because you love the work,” she said over coffee at the Mill in downtown Lincoln. “Success and recognition are just gravy.”
And she has stuck with it, writing before even getting out of bed, for a few minutes at the kitchen table, in the evenings on the porch of the first house she and her husband shared. She found time as a busy graduate student and single mom, as a newlywed and new professor at a small private college. And finally, in the cozy home office with red walls — the first space she has ever had entirely devoted to her writing.
“Hell or High Water,” though fiction, also deals with identity, of its heroine and of New Orleans, the novel's setting. The book's heroine, Nola Céspedes, is also a writer, and she grew up poor in the Lower Ninth Ward. Nola's hard work and high test scores land her scholarships, first to a tony private school and then to Tulane University. After college, she begins work as a features writer at the Times-Picayune, but she dreams of working for the New York Times. In hopes of impressing her editor, she dives into a story about sex offenders living off the grid in post-Katrina New Orleans. Plucky and ambitious, Nola meets with inmates and sex offenders, visits crime scenes and repeatedly risks her safety, all to get the story.
Outside of work, Nola is strong and brash. She favors tight, low-cut clothing, she says what's on her mind, and she likes to drink, dance and generally have a good time. She also is a proud Cuban, and her ethnicity is as much a part of her character as her occupation.
It's a suspenseful, fast-moving crime novel, but one written through the eyes of a college professor and scholar. Castro includes in her book nuggets on the history of New Orleans, about the impact of poverty on high school and college education, on Cuban culture and the workings of the Louisiana sex offender registry. Setting the book in New Orleans was deliberate. The name of the book's protagonist — the city's own nickname — was too.
“'Hell or High Water' is very much a crime novel about aftermath — the long aftermath of sexual assault as well as the fallout of incarceration,” Castro said. “It made sense to set it in a city that has struggled with the aftermath of Katrina.”
Castro's writing about her own life, though, is just as compelling and suspenseful.
She was born in Miami in 1967 and given up for adoption. When she was four days old, she was placed with a young couple who had been told they were unable to have children. Shortly thereafter, Castro and her parents moved to London.
Castro's early childhood included weekend getaways throughout Europe with her parents, long Saturday drives with her dad and tense weekdays at home with her nervous, religious mother. When she was five, her parents had a child of their own, Castro's brother, Tony. Shortly after Tony's birth, the family relocated first to Miami, then to West Virginia.
Her parents divorced when Castro was a preteen, after her father was excommunicated from her mother's church for smoking. Castro's life became difficult after that. Her father moved away, into an apartment with his young, pretty girlfriend. Her mother, high-strung and at times fanatically religious, lashed out at her children or left them alone in their beloved home in the country for long stretches while she ran a furniture store. Castro buried herself in books and school.
When Castro was 12, her mother got remarried, to a man who sold the farmhouse Castro and her brother had loved, moved the family into a trailer and beat and starved them. She was forbidden from wearing anything revealing, fashionable or worldly, from watching television or even reading anything other than religious literature, though she often smuggled books from the library home in the waistband of her jeans. She stuck out at school and had few friends, but she was still a good student. She dreamed of escaping to college, though it seemed impossible.
Her escape came before that. She ran away at 14 to live with her father, and has had little contact with her adoptive mother since. She graduated from high school at 16, moved to Texas for college at Trinity University, and at 20, became pregnant and had a baby while finishing her degree. In “The Truth Book,” she describes nursing her baby while writing term papers, living in a poor, crime-riddled neighborhood while attending school among classmates from wealthy families. The difference between Castro and her classmates was stark even before her son, Grey, was born.
“Working part-time as a security guard, part-time as a waitress, I hang out with kids who drive their parents' hand-me-down Volvos, who ski at Vail over spring break, who can afford to study abroad,” she writes.
She felt like she was living in two worlds, not entirely fitting into either.
Throughout, she wondered about her birth mother. She began to prepare for meeting her.
“As a doctoral student, I will take one of my foreign-language exams in Spanish. I read everything I can by the cadre of Latina writers beginning to emerge,” she writes. “I want to be ready.”
She found out she wasn't Latina, not technically anyway.
Castro's mother was of French, Irish and perhaps Cherokee descent, which accounted for her dark eyes and hair; the adoption lawyer had fibbed about her heritage.
This led Castro to question the identity she had struggled to build. Her adoptive father had mostly hidden his Cuban heritage — passing as white was just easier. Her presumed Cuban mother ended up not being Cuban at all.
Ultimately, Castro decided to embrace the heritage she had sought, though it wasn't always easy.
“For me, retrieving that lost heritage has sometimes felt a little fake, a little bit like a performance, so it's been awkward,” she said in the interview, “but I still find the effort valuable and meaningful.”
Castro grew up visiting her adoptive father's parents and siblings in Key West, and through them, she tried Cuban foods, learned Cuban traditions. It was the heritage she was raised with.
Castro was writing short stories when Mitchell Waters, her literary agent in New York, first heard of her through another writer he represents. That writer encouraged Castro to write her memoir. But she wasn't quite ready. She was vague when her family or past came up in conversations. She was ashamed of the abuse and poverty and dysfunction.
And then her father committed suicide.
“It was devastating,” Castro said. “His death prompted an urgent need to figure things out, and writing has always been the way I've done that.”
She began work on “The Truth Book.”
Memoir is a difficult genre, said Waters, in large part because there are so many personal stories on the market. But he believed in Castro.
“I just thought her personal story was so riveting and moving and that her writing was exquisite,” he said.
The book was critically acclaimed and excerpted in the New York Times Magazine.
After “The Truth Book,” Castro decided to try something a bit different. She began work on a mystery novel, which eventually became “Hell or High Water.”
Her father again was an inspiration.
“My father was always privately proud of high-achieving Latinas and Latinos of all national backgrounds. I remember him telling me when I was a little girl that Rita Hayworth and Raquel Welch were actually Hispanic,” she said. “With Nola, I had many aims, but one goal was to write a powerful, beautiful, smart Cubana character my father would have liked.”
Castro's new memoir, “Island of Bones,” which was published in September, is part of the University of Nebraska Press's American Lives series — a collection of memoirs about the experience of being American. The theme of identity runs through this book, too, as it does in many books in the series, Elias Rowley said. Castro's take on the subject is different from most.
“Identity isn't just about the facts,” the editor said. “It's about the way we were raised.”
Castro is publishing another book with the University of Nebraska Press this year — an edited collection of memoirists' musings on writing about family. A sequel to “Hell or High Water” also will be published in 2013.
Waters, who described Castro as “prolific,” expects more work to follow.
“She's written some brilliant essays lately, and some I thought had the seeds of great fiction in them,” he said. “I definitely hope we're going to continue with novels featuring Nola, but I would love to see her write another big novel.”
Castro, for her part, has been at work on another project — one so new that she hasn't yet told anyone about it.
“I don't really know where it's going yet, or what it's going to be,” she said.
But it shares a thread with Castro's other books, and with the story of her life.
“I can tell you that it involves a lot of suspense.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1052, firstname.lastname@example.org