One character in Loverboys, Ana Castillo’s new collection of short stories, is a successful writer, despite something she calls the “thing,” which comes into existence when “all the voices of those who call writing a craft, who speak grammatically correct, who studied with this name or that one, well up in my head and tell me once again, each time I sit to do it, that I have no business doing what I’m doing. I don’t have enough credits, awards, no Guggenheim, no South of France-New York poet in residence, nada, hombre. It’s just me, desperately cutting an unknown path with a machete, trying not to remember but writing it all down anyway.”

Castillo, like the character, is a “self-taught writer.” “I didn’t trust going to writer’s school,” she says. Early in her career there were few prominent Chicana writers to inspire her or to serve as mentors. In the intervening 20 years, Castillo, Denise Chavez, Sandra Cisneros, and others have brought Latina voices to the forefront of contemporary American literature. Castillo attributes these changes to decades of activism as well as to a steady chipping away at the old order.

A novelist, essayist, and poet, Castillo says she works on as many as four books at a time. She also contributes short pieces to anthologies and newspapers. A recent essay, soon to be published in the Tribune, is about her father, who changed his name to Castello to pass as Italian. Castillo has inadvertently taken on more identities than her father–she’s written about being dark-skinned enough to be mistaken as the product of a number of backgrounds.

The writing in Loverboys also straddles cultures, sometimes incorporating Spanish slang in the middle of English. “Some people said I should have a glossary,” Castillo says. “But I think everyone will be able to figure it out.”

Throughout the book Castillo delivers painfully detailed yet often comic insights into all kinds of pursuits. In “Crawfish Love,” a saleswoman accidentally reveals her attraction to a gruff waitress and describes “feeling something that I had not felt before . . . something like discovering you still have your name tag on on the street, but worse, more like a combination of the name tag, a piece of toilet paper stuck to your shoe when you’ve come out of a public restroom, plus, maybe, discovering afterward that you had a little spinach lodged between your front teeth.”

Some of the most striking entries in the collection mix unlikely plotlines with a matter-of-fact delivery. In the noir-ish “Ghost Talk,” a young woman tracks down her biological father, “the jerk who pressured a young Mexican woman who didn’t speak two words of English.” Passing herself off as an official from “the mayor’s new department on the concerns of senior citizens,” she makes her way into his home, then pulls a one-two punch involving her short skirt and a gun. In the end it’s not clear whether he survives the encounter.

Chicago is the setting for several stories in Loverboys. In “Ghost Talk” the city is romantically described as “the windy city, Chi-town, where Latin people with open minds can congregate and share and talk as if we were all just passing through this country.” In “Maria Who Paints and Who Bore Juan Two Children” Chicago is “racist and resplendent,” “holy and evil.”

Castillo, who grew up in Chicago, left town in 1985. “I wasn’t getting the support I needed as a Chicana writer here,” she says, explaining her move to California. “In San Francisco there were people who were interested in my work and who were already familiar with it.” She also lived in Albuquerque, where she continued building a body of work and a reputation that would allow her to live anywhere she chose. After more than ten years out west, Castillo returned to Chicago–in part so that her 13-year-old son could be with his extended family in a city full of significance for him. “Even though he was only two when we moved, he’s always thought of Chicago as his hometown,” she explains, “and besides, we have the Bulls here.”

Castillo will read from Loverboys at 7:30 PM Wednesday at a Guild Complex event at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division. Musician Paulinho Garcia will also perform. Tickets are $5; call 907-2189 for more information.

–John Sanchez

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Ana Castillo by J.B. Spector.