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Please post your blog response to Island of Bones here before September 9!  Looking forward to seeing your comments.

20 thoughts on “Island of Bones by Joy Castro

  1. Island of Bones blog:

    I started this book twice. I had already read Educated, by Tara Westover, and my brain was adjusted to reading a book with a traditional timing angle. I couldn’t think of why I was so frustrated with this book until I realized that these are linked essays, to be read alone AND taken as a whole memoir experience. Once I had this awakening, I devoured this book and each of its essays. I like some better than others, but overall I was so enthralled with Joy Castro that I purchased her The Truth Book online, to be read at a later date.
    I am always uncomfortable with discussing craft because I try to sound so logical and reading has always been a truly visceral thing. I never read as a writer prior to my undergrad, which I embarked on in my early 40’s. I read as a reader. I understand plot and character-driven stories. That’s easy. I know what I like, but if you had asked me why, I would have stammered, just because.
    With that being said, I will give this my best.
    I will start with “Grip.” This is such a powerful piece. Flash CNF has an obligation to quick, succinct, and brutal. Castro’s use of an object—the bullet-ridden paper target—in this piece has this last desired effect ten-fold. It acts as a talisman, of sorts. It is the center of the story. Each separate stanza ebbs away from this object and still flows back to it from the memory of her mother’s victimization to the safety this object promises.
    On page 11, “What My Mother Told Me When I Found Her” is so deliberately grounded in setting (place) that I was transported to the abortion room, horrified. I could feel the baby clothes in my fingers, their softness, and the broken heart.
    Her descriptions come alive and propel the story forward.
    There are only two instances where dialogue is even used to convey what her mother told her when she found her and each time the simple lines hold the weight of the heart break. This is such a conscious writerly choice.
    I also noticed that this story is italicized. This decision is a nod to the fact that this piece is NOT Castro’s memory, but her birth mother’s memory, as told to Castro. It was a powerful way to tell this experience.
    “In Theory” strikes me hard. Castro uses the creosote bush as an object to symbolize what alone or amongst others means in the white space of the page: Rape, misuse, alone, and together. The descriptions of how the creosote bush survives/grows is compared to the survival/growth of the girls—In theory, of course—with such deliberate care. Her words are careful to not say the obvious out loud—that the space in the bush is equal to the space of violence in any woman’s life on any given day. And yet, her last comparison resonates survival in the family, not growing in solitude, despite the violence of being a woman.
    On “Hungry,” I enjoyed that she started this essay with such an open-ended statement: “I came to college hungry.” It is deliberate in that the reader knows this could be literal and/or metaphorical hunger, which she goes on to describe as meaning both. This essay does not stay within a short time or just ONE moment, as a lot of her pieces do. Instead, it jumps through the years to show the reader where she landed years later after her life’s trauma, growth, etc.
    Overall, Castro’s pieces are lyrical, melodic in the reading. They are compressed and distinct. Nearing the end of the book, she reverts to more typical storytelling: beginning, middle, and end with rhythmic flare thrown in.
    One of the only things that would have me rereading pages and circling dates and names was the inconsistencies in her use of the word “Dad” and “Father.” Granted, I could eventually tell whom she was referring to because of the difference in personality and experience, but sometimes, there was not enough of a transition for me to garner this without having to back track in the piece/book.

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    1. As time goes on and you read more with us, and share with your fellow writers, you’ll find your way into feeling more comfortable about talking about creative writing. “Getting Grip” is actually a good example of how to do it from a writer’s perspective.

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  2. Throughout the course of reading Island of Bones, I was struck at how Joy Castro was able to illustrate the fluidity and fractures of identity. From the very first essay, Castro uses this pastiche in her explanation of Cuban American identity, using title headers like “Home,” “Money,” or “God.” This focus on searching for identity and struggling to fit continues throughout the book, where the second essay opens with “I was alone,” and in “An Angle of Vision,” where Castro explains the struggles of not fitting in academia’s social structure. Though these themes filter throughout most of the book, Castro’s essay on her experiences living with an American family of Jehovah’s Witnesses feel most striking through the potent language and often grim details, threading through the rest of the narrative almost as an explanation of “why.”

    In her essay “Vesper Adest” near the end of the book, she explicitly states, “My upbringing made me prone to stray,” further explicating the ways in which the before has affected her after, and the ways in which her identity (or what she thought that identity was, as we come to learn) made her feel out of place. In the rest of this essay, she uses more poetic reflection, using her body as a marker for the self. Here, this identity does not feel like a distant idea she is working through, but instead something physical and present. The final line in this essay, “These bones, robed with now” was most powerful to me. Castro’s essays are not forcing us to come to some conclusion with her experiences, but to understand the meanings of identity and image in the present.

    
Though this theme was most present to me when reading this collection, I also enjoyed Castro’s clean and powerful prose. Some of these essays are extremely short, but each feels weighty and important on their own. Of course, I found “Grip” to be one of the most potent when it came to flash narrative, using the image of the bullet-holed target above the crib. This essay is a point where I feel like Castro slows down and uses the image as something tangible for readers to hold onto, and to see the physical effect of her mother’s past and her own experiences with abuse. The essay that follows, “Getting “Grip”” again uses the section markers that are found in the first essay of this collection. With titles like “Genre,” “Audience,” and “Form,” she breaks down the elements that contributed to the making of her previous essay. This mirrors the way in which she broke down the Cuban-American identity in the beginning – this experimental form works to illustrate the interlocking parts of the narrative.

    Castro’s vivid details transport readers to a certain mindset or understanding each time. I noticed this in “The Athens of the Midwest,” one of my favorites of the collection. She encapsulates the small town in Indiana through descriptive narrative, walking us through the Kroger and the museum and her home, using that movement and direction to better showcase her physical and mental place within this setting.

    I admire the way in which Island of Bones was able to work as separate stories while still threading each essay between a larger narrative arc. Castro’s declamatory language, ability to transport the reader into separate settings and times, and her pensive reflections on her past and identity all worked for me as a reader. Though, she uses a unique storytelling style, one that can feel confusing when she is jumping between separate places without and background, like in the essay “No Mas Monkey,” where she shifts to second person. A question I am still thinking about after finishing this book is why Castro seems to place us in the scene near the beginning of the book, in the middle of many difficult traumas and experiences. As the book progresses, she appears to move towards more summarization and reflection and less dialogue. Though those beginning essays were hard for me to get through as a reader, I found them striking in a different way than the essays near the end of the book.

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    1. I totally agree with your point that “some of these essays are extremely short, but each feels weighty and important on their own.” This is especially true of “You Can Avoid the Mistakes I Made,” where even the blank space in the second half of the last page is full of grief.

      P.S. I had to look up “pastiche” in the dictionary! LOL

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  3. In the collection of essays Island of Bones, Joy Castro shares with readers snippets of her life, family, trauma, and identity. In the opening essay of the same title, divided into sections like “Home,” “Nostalgia,” and “God” Castro lays her identity bare with a brief history of Cubans in America, and what it meant to be Latina in a part of Florida that forced out a rooted population in favor of wealthy tourists. The twist comes in the second to last section, “Blood” when Castro tells us that she is “passing” – she’s actually of Anglo descent, adopted and raised Latina.

    This revelation threw me off center, a deliberate choice I assume made by Castro, as I found it is difficult to find firm footing through the rest of book. I had to question my own uneasy essentialism: could this “white” woman call herself Latinx because she was raised in a Cuban American household? Was nature versus nurture bullshit? These questions nagged at the back of my mind throughout the book, namely in essays where she codeswitches, where italicized threads like dignidad, la Virgen, and familia are woven in with English. I believe that she is using this technique to highlight her connection to Latinx culture and her feelings of Otherness, like in “Quién es ese Jimmy Choo?,” but at times this device felt forced and took me out of the reading. However, with both the above essays bookending the collection, it makes the interspersion of Spanish language feel like a frame narrative – deliberate as well.

    I found myself first contemplating the organization of the book at the end of “Farm Use,” which is only a quarter of the way in. After only 35 pages, I needed to put it down, walk around. Some pages felt too much, too close to home, and I went into “Hip Joints” with a sense of dread. Castro, however, doesn’t wallow in her trauma, she moves on, and reaching the halfway point of the book is starkly different. I stopped to look at the date of publication when reading about Castro’s time at Wabash; it’s hard to imagine anywhere in the country where people still leave their doors unlocked, even twenty years ago.

    If the first third of Island of Bones is an acknowledgment of where, and how far Castro has come, then the final third is a reinforcement of how she got there. “On Being Educated” is an indictment of higher education, a system Castro is trying to impact from within. “Quién es ese Jimmy Choo?” feels like an epilogue when read as part of the whole, detailing Castro’s life now. “Vesper Adest” is the lone essay that feels like does not belong, lyrical and in stanza-like paragraphs, this seeming ode to her husband and their “merely comfy monogamy.” So many of the included essays are sharp around the edges, the harshness of Castro’s early life like a knife sliding in between the ribs when you think she can’t possibly take more abuse or disappointment. Vesper is too soft, too slow, too much comfort too late.

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    1. I do not necessarily agree with the sentiment that code-switching “felt forced” because her word choices are deliberate. She uses this device to highlight even further the cultural nuances that keep her connected to her adoptive roots.

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  4. For me, one of the most surprising parts of Island of Bones was “What My Mother Told Me When I Found Her.” While it is clearly nonfiction in that Castro is writing the story of her birthmother, I was surprised at the way she adopted her mother’s voice. Castro could have told this story in dialogue, perhaps adding details about her mother to give the reader a sense of her character. Instead, Castro tries the voice on to produce a new interpretation of her own life. It was a take that I didn’t expect, and it gave some agency to her mother in a situation where she had none. I think this was also such a compassionate and complex portrayal of her mother. There is no animosity in this short piece, just an attempt at understanding.

    I really appreciated that Castro gave a brief overview of her family history is “Island of Bones” so that I could have some context for the collection as a whole. While the piece can stand alone, it also serves to hold the collection together. Each piece functions as a spoke of a wheel of which that essay is the center.

    Additionally, I loved Castro’s “Getting Grip,” a response to “Grip.” Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot in my own work is allowing space for complex, and seemingly contrary feelings, about specific incidents or people in my life. I found that the response to “Grip” allowed Castro to display her full feelings toward not only the incident that spurred the essay but also the essay itself. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in my own work ever since I read Megan Falley’s poetry collection Redhead and The Slaughter King. There are several poems that are followed by Falley’s “retraction” to the poem, and these offer a sort of alternate perspective. Castro is using this same idea with “Getting Grip,” allowing “Grip” to stand on its own, but also supporting it so that readers can have a more complex understanding.

    I also appreciated the “Synecdoche” section of “Getting Grip” where Castro goes into the ways in which she tucked more into the essay than it revealed to the reader. In this way, she was able to honor her full story, which allowed her to create a succinct piece of writing that carried all of the meaning she needed it to.

    This leads to another aspect of Island of Bones that I really appreciated, Castro’s self-awareness. She calls herself out, such as when she refers to her aunt’s supposed “internalized racism” and recognizes that that was a thought formed from her “hubris.” This is repeated in “Getting Grip” when Castro levels with her readers and lets them look behind the scenes. I found this piece to be touching in a way, because it shows Castro’s willingness to be vulnerable as an artist as well as the subject of her art. Both of these moments indicate that Castro has put a lot of time and thought into her personal philosophies as well as each piece that she included in Island of Bones, and this awareness makes the collection stronger as a whole because Castro’s voice is consistent and reliable in its honesty.

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    1. I actually felt like many of the essays were very forgiving. The compassion and complex portrayal of her biological mother seems to come through for her adoptive mother as well. This was especially true for me when reading the last scene in “Farm Use.” Can’t wait to discuss in class tonight!

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  5. In some ways, the opening essay “Island of Bones” in Joy Castro’s collection of essays by the same name seems misleading to the reader. With only one other essay, “Getting Grip,” sharing the more ‘academic’ essay structure—using headings to separate different topics, such as ‘Home,’ ‘Money,’ ‘Looks,’ and ‘Blood’—the format and the way this essay is read doesn’t necessarily seem to fit with the rest of the collection, which strikes me as being more free and fluidly moving. Yet, I see the need for the essays “Island of Bones” and “Getting Grip” (which I would love to talk about in class but won’t dedicate much time to in this post because it has already been mentioned a few times), in this collection. It just doesn’t seem like Castro’s message would be clear without these essays.

    “Island of Bones” serves to orient the reader into Castro’s mind and life, introducing the overarching themes of identity, family, and religion in an organized and intentional manner, clearly laying out what the reader needs to know before being able to truly understand the rest of the essays in the collection.

    The immediate transition from “Island of Bones” to “What My Mother Told Me When I Found Her” keeps the reader on this ‘informational’ journey while simultaneously thrusting them off the naturally-trodden path that had previously lay before them. In this essay, Castro chooses to use italics to indicate dialogue rather than including the whole essay within quotation marks, and it seems, that she is completely removed from the essay beyond the reader’s knowledge (assumption) that Castro’s mother is speaking directly to her in this moment. I was taken by the way Castro seems to take on her mother’s explanation as if it were a role in a play, without apparent judgement and without leading the reader to the conclusion she wants them to make.

    Castro writes in this way—without leading the reader to a specific conclusion—often throughout her collection. While her own thoughts and opinions are clear, especially during her asides of reflection, she doesn’t tell the reader how they should feel or how they should react. I think that this is best shown through essays like “Turn of Faith,” “Farm Use,” and “Hip Joints” in which Castro tackles the difficult topics of physical, mental, and sexual abuse. While it is probably easy for the reader to assume blame of her step father and her coworker at the factory, Castro doesn’t really plant that seed. She manages to tell her story how it happened, using her reflection intentionally and sparingly, without strong bias or blame.

    The way Castro uses reflection in each of her essays was a notable takeaway for me. At times, her reflection was subtle and seamless within the essay, but there were other times, such as in “Fitting” and in “Getting Grip,” that she experimented with her reflection by directly addressing the reader and by using wording like “thinking back” or by explaining her writing and thought processes behind the essay. In “Fitting,” she also used the framework of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own to help the reader along in her reflection of her husband’s importance in her life. This felt important because it was one of the only times Castro went into explicit detail about another writer or their work in one of her essays. Even in “On Becoming Educated,” Castro does nothing more than mention the male theorists she references. She only delves deeper, it seems, when it comes to something pivotal to her experiences and to her understanding of herself years later.

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  6. One thing I noticed while reading Island of Bones was how Castro used sentence length to emphasize power disparity. The first time she does this is in the beginning when talking about the difference between the post 1959 Cubans and those who came before. The amount of space Castro uses to describe the well off and larger voting bloc of post 1959 Cubans is evident by the length of the sentence: “Mary Urrutia Randelman’s cookbook Memories of a Cuban Kitchen is laced with photos of her family’s fifteen-hundred-acre tobacco plantation, their fourteen-thousand-acre cattle ranch….” which almost takes up a third of the page versus the very short one line description the pre 1959 Cuban immigrants get, “we’re mostly poor people, workers, cleaners of other people’s houses, grocery checkers, cops.” (3) Castro does this again when demonstrating the power dynamic between her step-father and her mother: “The Witnesses’ doctrines, based on Paul’s letters in the New Testament, gave him complete control as the new head of the household; my mother’s role was to submit.” (18) The amount of space afforded her stepfather in the sentence is much larger than that afforded to her mother, similar to the dynamic of their relationship in real life.

    One thing that I consistently noticed while reading Bones was Castro’s sentence structure. At one point Castro questions why “things that got shoved into other things were called male, and the parts that waited with open holes were called female” (41). Despite questioning why this is, Castro frequently uses semi-colons to emphasize certain description in her writing. From my understanding, when you use semi-colons it’s like interlocking parts with one part of the sentence clarifying or adding meaning to the other part. For me, this connects back to the idea of the things being shoved into holes Castro talks about on page 41. The half of the sentence before the semi-colon is the hole that the description or second half of the sentence fits into.

    An image that stood out to me occurs in edging, when Castro describes the place they’ve moved to in east Texas, “Horses sauntered up to the fence and lipped sliced apples from our hands.” (53) Something about it being a rural setting, her not having a lot of money and the sliced apples bugged or didn’t sit right with me until I realized it was because the section Edging parallels the section Farm Use in a lot of ways. The most prominent being the sliced apples. The act of feeding horses sliced apples is a benign family friendly activity. However, in Farm Use, Castro is cutting “The halves into halves. The half-moons of the cores, the pith and seeds into the pot of waste.” (35) Here the ever shrinking parts of the apple represent Castro cutting herself into ever smaller pieces until there is nothing of value left. Because of how closely the two sections interact I’m conflicted on how I feel about how quickly the apples no longer have weight behind them. I feel that this also points to something in the middle section of Hip Joints where Castro almost casually mentions that she made a decision to not let the trauma inflicted on her (for the reader one section ago in Farm Use) affect her. Everything in this section of the book just happens a little fast for me.

    In both sections Castro is also turned away by outside forces that have the ability to help her out of her current situation. In Farm Use it is the Jehovah’s Witness as an organization who refuse to help because it is a family situation and a private matter. In Edging it is the student friend who is annoyed by her baby getting on his nerves.

    There is also the perversion of the relationship between parent and child which happens between the two chapters. In Farm Use, Castro’s step-father is predatory, lying in bed with her and undoing her nightdress while saying things like “I’m here to protect my little girl” (32). On the other hand, in Edging a father loses his son when a woman hits the boy with her car, but Castro imagines this man’s “helplessness, the emptiness of the arms that weren’t fast enough.” (53)

    There is even parallelism around the shiny marketed sale of women’s items versus the reality in which they exist. In Farm Use, Castro’s adoptive mother has started a thrift store with a clever name, wanting it to have “chic-girl-down-on-her-luck-wit” (27) but the reality is the women who use the store are just poor. In Edging, Castro flips through a magazine that “cheerily informed me I didn’t need to iron my family’s t-shirts….as if we owned an iron.” (51) This is both a revealing of class disparity but also how sometimes the things (both tangible and intangible) marketed towards women are completely useless.

    A few questions I had for the class include:

    Is the image of puppies as ruined for you as it is for me?

    How do you feel about Castro’s fairly neutral portrayal of her mother when it comes to how she dealt with her stepfather? I found it hard not to blame the mother, especially after the apple cutting scene. 

    I am struggling to make sense of the inclusion of the Getting Lost section and the No Mas Monkey section, because they don’t really seem to fit to me. Do any of you feel the same way?

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    1. Jessica,
      As a reader, I completely relate to the “blaming” you mention in regard to the Castro’s mother. As a writer, I understood why she wrote it like that: expressing the facts without bias to make it an objective portrayal. It still made me sick, though.
      Holly

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    2. You just totally blew my mind about the sentence length. I also noticed that many of the essays connected to the one that followed in very small ways… The apples, loneliness/emptiness and even dreams/imagination, when moving from “Hip Joints” to “No Mas Monkey.”

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  7. A Complicated Island…

    In a heady collection of essays—a few of which standout as poems disguised as essays—Joy Castro’s Island of Bones rocks back and forth between her various identities—a nod to the rocking ships that have carried generations of Cubans across the 90 miles to Key West, in search of dry feet. Within the first sentence I was hooked!

    Although adopted and raised by Cuban Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Florida, we learn early on that Castro’s biological mother is “a nice Midwestern lady” of Irish, French, Swedish, and Cherokee decent. A few essays later, “In Theory” pays homage to Castro’s Cherokee ancestors. Here, the creosote bush’s ability to house inherited family trauma explores Castro’s ability to carry both the stories passed down to her through DNA and those she was exposed to during her formative years. When she opens the essay with the birth of the creosote in a barren desert, this is in reference to her adoptive parents’ struggles with infertility. She later goes on to allude to her displacement from, yet connection to, her ancestors when she describes a creosote living “alone or in the company of its kin.” In this instance, the creosote, like Castro, is a specimen that contains a small throng of weeping women, which is a connection to the Trail of Tears anecdote in the opening essay. Further into Island of Bones, “Hungry” recounts Castro’s ease with dual-citizenship, when she describes feeling at home in a Mexican American barrio in Texas. The confluence and discord of these identities, throughout each essay and the overall collection, is indicative of the multicultural and bi-cultural experience. In braiding these two identities throughout, Castro allows the reader to feel the push and pull of belonging to both worlds, which—as a Cuban American born in Venezuela to a couple of Spanish and Polish-decent—is a cultural identity issue that has ebbed and flowed throughout my life.

    In addition to the sense that one is traveling back-and-forth from one identity to another, Castro also rocks between cold prose/ hot topic to hot prose/ cold topic, and then back. When we first learn of Castro’s father’s suicide, it is delivered in cold prose: “he washed dishes and fried eggs and died alone in his Chevy.” Later, when she describes the warning signs of suicide, she conveys with great emotion the act of water clinging in the shower “with molecular gravity as if reluctant to let them go.” In this way, the reader continues to sway along with the narrative.

    Yet the most haunting literary technique found in Island of Bones is Castro’s haunting use of allusion when continuously referring to the loneliness and isolation that marked her father’s life and death. This literary element allows Castro to do what most adults who have experienced the death of a loved one by suicide do, which is to connect the dots as far back as possible. This element of craft not only convinces the reader but also invites them to feel the emptiness that her father must have experienced his entire life, all at once. From her father’s home movies and black-and-white wedding photos—where neither Uncle Mario nor her mother look in his direction—and the empty roads of the English countryside to the last lonely moment in his Chevy and the subsequent emptiness left behind in “You Can Avoid the Mistakes I Made.”

    Castro is a master of the lyrical essay, but should warn readers to take a Dramamine before settling in for a hypnotic journey.

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  8. Renee’ Drummond-Brown
    Island of Bones Blog
    8-28-2018

    Author Joy Castro’s words are well written with distinctive passion that literally pulls the reader into her story lines causing her writings to take on a life of its own. The repetition and razor-sharp lines throughout this work stirs emotions. For example, the title Island of Bones, parallels Valley of Dry Bones a biblical reference (Ezekiel 37:1-14). Notable similarities exist in Castro’s writings to biblical Scriptures possibly because she was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness.
    Castro’s very first sentence is foretelling. It gives voice to her hidden identity. She noted “The anthologies don’t mention us.” As a woman of color, I can relate to Castro’s thought process. She posits, “I don’t fit. I don’t fit, and that’s okay, and that’s where I write from: that jagged, smashed place of edges and fragments and grief, of feeling lost, of perilous freedom. I extract small fragile bones from the sand, dust them off with my brush, and build strange, urgent new structures, knowing too well how small my island is, how vast and rising the sea” (p.10). In this instance I believe the author skillfully refers to the cliché “No man is an island.” However, I also believe that she definitely understands that one cannot and will not be fulfilled without nourishing their gift and sharing their creativity housed within.
    This writer beats to the rhythm of her own drum unapologetically. She is unafraid of getting lost and navigating her readers in the direction she wants the reader to travel, when she writes “At forty-three, when I say I’m Latina, it’s a shortcut. It’s true, and it gets you quickly to what I want you to know, but it’s a falsification, too, simplification, a smoothing over layers of complications, deconstruction, loss, of chronic self-interrogation, multiple erasures, and years of painful reconstruction.” The fact that the author claims this type of stake within her writings proves that her craft is a culmination of research and preparation. Her personal experiences of proving her identity exemplifies her courage to step out of fear and have faith in what she writes and believes to be true.
    In Castro’s essay “What My Mother Told Me When I found Her” mirrors a confessionalism writing style similar to those of master poet’s Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, because of the detailed admission of the unsuccessful abortion that she suffered. Nonetheless, she skillfully uses her experiences and creative master writing skillsets to minimize her guilt and shame as she wrote “Sometimes I’d sit in playgrounds and watch the mothers with their children. I folded my left hand over my right so my ring finger would show and I could sit there without embarrassment” (12). The courage of this personal admission in Castro’s ability to detail this event adds phenomenal depth to her intense writing structure.
    In Castro’s abusive world, she lived through being seen and not heard. Therefore, I believe this writer to be recluse and an introvert with a passion for penning a variety of complex issues. Castro’s issues of fundamentalism, adoption and confusion about her Latinidads’ imprisonment and suicide allowed her to get a grip of her own story lines and paint the reader an accurate version of what she believed to be truth. Castro was a literature and creative writing teacher for nonfiction, which adds credibility to her as a writer, backing her authority to master the craft of personification in her style.
    She is not afraid of taking risk when penning poignant words. Her works give life and meaning when she lessons the reader with words such as “Inside, you are different, too: never the same river twice. And this is the long exploration—the faithful, wondering marriage to the self—that writing permits and invites” (p.22). The refrains in her voice range from an identity dilemma, starvation, sexual abuse and ultimately climbing the educational ladder of success that afforded her the title of a master writer which ultimately leaves her skilled imprint on the world.

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