Congratulations to Melissa Castillo-Garsow (GSAS, '11) who published her first novel Pure Bronx with Fordham University African and African American Studies Professor Mark Naison in November 2013. A short interview with Melissa follows below.
Pure Bronx is your first published novel. When writing Pure Bronx, did you have a general idea of where the story would take the reader, or did you work out the plot as it came to you?
When I first started writing Pure Bronx, I had no idea where the plot would go. In fact, the character I wrote, Rasheeda, came as a response to a first chapter written by Dr. Naison in the voice of the other main character Khalil. The idea to write a novel came out of a provocation by Dr. Naison while I was in a class he taught titled "Hip Hop Street Narratives." The class was to write our own version of street literature. At first I wasn't at all interested in either writing street literature or collaborating with the class, but then his first chapter peaked my interest. As an exercise, I wrote a second chapter, and he wrote back, and no one else joined in. After a few weeks we sat down and came up with a plot, but it was very organic. We really just followed the characters as we got more engrossed in their lives.
Pure Bronx was co-authored by Fordham University African and African American Studies Professor Mark Naison. What was the collaborative creative process for this novel like?
It was actually really straight forward and simple. He would write a chapter and I would respond with one. He wrote Khalil's voice and I wrote Rasheeda's. Every two weeks or so we would meet to discuss where the book was going, and about how the characters were developing. Collaboration was also easy because we're both insomniacs! I would write late into the night, and by the time I would wake up in the morning I would have more material from Dr. Naison or at least commentary on what he thought of my latest chapter!
What is your personal relationship to the Bronx, and what drew you to it as a source of inspiration?
I have lived in New York City since 2003 and grew up coming here several times a year (I grew up upstate), but I never really spent much time in the Bronx until I came to Fordham. So I got to know the Bronx, especially the south Bronx where the book is mostly set, as I got to know Rasheeda and the other characters in the book. The inspiration really came from soaking up my new environment. Luckily, Dr. Naison is a 40 year veteran of the Bronx so I was also guided and inspired by him.
What social issues does Pure Bronx aim to address, and how?
Pure Bronx addresses a lot of social issues - poverty, racism, wall street corruption, drug use, immigration, religious intolerance (towards muslims), the hyper-sexualization of women of color, etc. But the main thrust of the story is the tragedy of these two young, talented, bright people, Khalil and Rasheeda, and the limited options they face due to their family and home circumstances. In that way they reflect a larger story of social inequality, but also the tremendous talent that is being wasted in many inner city neighborhoods like the South Bronx.
Can you describe your research process for Pure Bronx?
I tried to inhabit the areas that Rasheeda would frequent as much as possible - the Mitchell Houses, local restaurants, etc. Rasheeda works in a strip club and that material actually came out of research for a short story I had written previously which included frequenting and talking to young women who worked in these establishments. I was also lucky to have access to materials from the Bronx African American History Project which Dr. Naison runs, a project with a wealth of materials including oral history.
What was your goal when you set out to write this novel (in both form and content), and did you see this goal accomplished in the text by the time the book was complete?
I wouldn't say I had a set goal. At first, I had no intention of even writing a novel. I was just following Rasheeda and responding to Dr. Naison's writing. So everything that has come out of this experience is completely unexpected and amazing!
More information on Pure Bronx can be found here.