By Cristina Rose Smith June 12, 2014
In spring 2014 semester, I had the honor of being the Teaching Assistant for Ana Castillo and her class "Writing Spiritual Memoir." Castillo, is one of those writers for me. Reading her work changed my life, and I remember the first time I read her novel So Far From God, which is set in a part of New Mexico where I have motherline roots. I remember where I was both locationaly and contextually in my life when I read this story: Monterey, California; an undergrad at an evangelical Christian university in love with Keats and the Romantics; 21 years old. With nuevo mexicana roots myself, I read Castillo's revision of the "Way of the Cross" to Chimayo (sacred Earth in NM) with her character la Loca, and I felt intimately connected to the procession! If you haven't read this novel, I can't recommend it enough, particularly this scene in Chimayo. Indeed, reading So Far From God over ten years ago, I was so affected that it lingered with me, so much, in fact, that the novel plays a key part in my dissertation.
Altogether, this class was unique to me (even though I have been a TA before in other really exciting classes) both because the teacher and her writing are key figures in my life and because of the focus of the class as well. My studies align with "Writing Spiritual Memoir"; in particular, I am attempting to integrate spiritual memoir writing into the academic framework of a dissertation. Thus, for all these reasons, I felt a synergy in being Ana Castillo's TA, additionally because it was my final semester at CIIS. I mean, how perfect is that?
To give a brief overview: Castillo's "Writing Spiritual Memoir" is a hybrid class. We met face to face in January for a weekend, and then the class discussions and assignments continued online. Although a hybrid class can be tricky - we must have different expectations on caucus than in face to face classroom settings - the class topic is perhaps ideal for this situation. Writing spiritual memoirs takes a lot of solitary time to self-reflect and then put it all on paper.
Maestra Castillo's exercises and assignments encouraged the students to think about their lives as a whole and then to dive into a particularly poignant memory. Her words free memoir writing from having to be objective or chronological. Her suggestions call students into more depth and intimate engagement with their stories. Then, too, Castillo asks students to (re)consider their definition of spirituality with assignments to read a memoir of their choice along with Castillo's anthology, Diosas de las Americas /Goddesses of the Americas.
Overall, from a TA's perspective, "Writing Spiritual Memoir" was both affirming as well as challenging. Through this class at CIIS, there was great opportunity to both learn from Castillo as well as to learn from ourselves through the spiritual memoir writing process.
Moreover, I was excited to connect with Castillo more having been given this great chance to work with her. Castillo offered the class the chance to join in on her writing workshop in Chimayo in April for Holy Week. I attended along with another student in the class. Lastly, being there for Holy Week, I had the opportunity to actually walk the "Way of the Cross" procession with this amazing writer. I would never have thought it possible as I was reading So Far From God so long ago; however, I am not so surprised.
Truly, mine is a story of much synergy, or good luck, in the WSE program, and I am grateful to have been a part of this community of sister scholars for the last four and half years.