Joy Castro has been writing since she could hold a crayon. Now, she just celebrated the Nov. 1 release of her seventh book “Flight Risk,” and plans to write at least four more.
Castro is a Willa Cather professor of English and ethnic studies and is the director of the institute for ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Her latest release follows Isabel Morales, a sculptor in Chicago with a seemingly ideal life. When her mother dies in prison in Appalachia, where Morales grew up, she decides to return home, where she is faced with secrets of her past.
“As she confronts the past and gets into some dangerous situations, her flawless façade unravels, and we get to see what she’s willing to risk,” Castro said in an email.
Castro said the idea for the novel came to her after observing the character Jessica Brody, played by Morena Baccarin, on the show “Homeland.”
“There was something so trapped and lost and beautiful about her character,” Castro said.
The rest of the novel came together after Castro’s foster daughter’s birth mother began writing letters to her from prison. The imprisoned mother also wrote a letter to Castro.
“It was heartbreaking,” Castro said. “I think that combination of beauty and heartbreak is kind of my drug, so somehow those two wires got crossed in my mind.”
Castro said she tends to draw from her personal experiences to develop her stories. In many of her books, she references her own experiences navigating class, gender and cultural differences. Becoming a mother at 20, Castro faced poverty while caring for her child. She worked her way through and managed to find time to write. Castro credits these experiences for shaping her into who she is.
“I became incredibly disciplined,” Castro said. “I prefer to work hard but wear it lightly. Now that I am a professor and caring for my own physical and financial needs, it feels like every day is easy, a relative luxury.”
However, being an established professor and writer doesn’t come without challenges, according to Castro. Being a woman of color, she has seen the discrimination that can be present in the publishing world. Castro said firmly held beliefs like “Latinos don’t read '' and “white readers won’t buy books from authors of color” guided the publishing industry and posed obstacles when she began to publish her work.
“I’m so glad to see things changing now, but there's really no way of measuring the long-term impact of racism in the publishing industry on a BIPOC writer’s career,” Castro said. “If I’d been in it for money or recognition, I’d have quit a long time ago-- and there have definitely been very demoralizing moments. Luckily, I just love writing.”
Charlie Foster, assistant vice chancellor for Inclusive Student Excellence in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and director of the Office of Academic Success and Intercultural Services, recognized how important Castro’s impact is on students.
“Our student body benefits as they learn the endless ways that our Latina faculty and staff are present and active in academia,” Foster said. “We often talk about how some students come to campus and never have had multicultural experiences. Success of authors and researchers like Dr. Castro highlights the great work that is going on in the world, and more specifically here in Nebraska.”
Foster said she hoped Castro’s spirit can help show students what they are capable of, despite problems they may come across.
“I hope they are encouraged to dream big,” Foster said. “Our students are amazing, they can do anything. Just like Dr. Castro, they can live their dreams.”
In “Flight Risk,” several themes can be found involving the issues of discrimination and poverty that Castro has faced. Rather than dwelling on setbacks, she prefers to draw inspiration, reflect and move forward.
“Obstacles, annoyances, interferences, and so on are an ordinary and inescapable part of life--everyone’s life,” Castro said.
Castro’s next book, “SMOKE,” a novel set in the time of the Cuban insurgency and radical labor movement in Key West, Florida, is set to release January 2023. Beyond that, Castro has no plans to slow down, with three more novels and one set of short stories in the works.
Castro hopes to inspire those who also couldn’t put down the pencil since they were young, and show them that setbacks don’t define an individual. She urged young people to read and write voraciously, just as she continues to do.
“Read hungrily, according to your tastes and passions,” Castro said. “Read books from all time periods and from all over the world. Write all the time. Write like it's your secret vice, your private pleasure.”