David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between the Covers is brought to you by the podcast Lit Up. Host Angela Ledgerwood talks with writers she loves about modern life book culture and all the ways sharing stories illuminates our world. Tune in for conversations with brilliant minds from the literary world and beyond, like Kaitlyn Greenidge, Lisa Taddeo, Maeve Higgins, Clint Smith, Min Jin Lee , and Stanley Tucci. Whether chatting about the book writing process, navigating our complex relationships to the internet, to America, to the past, to each other, or figuring out how to cope in uncertain times, Lit Up offers a glimpse into the minds, hearts, and creative practices of some of Angela’s favorite writers and thinkers. Angie wants to know what lights you up. Lit Up is produced by Sugar23. Look out for new episodes twice monthly on Tuesdays and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Elizabeth Brooks’s The House in the Orchard, a gothic novel which Tasha Alexander calls, “Alluring, atmospheric, and deliciously creepy.” The story begins in Victorian Era London when young Maude Gower is orphaned and forced to leave her city home for Orchard house in the countryside. Though Maude initially loves her new life, she finds herself struggling to make sense of an adult world she does not quite understand, and confused about who she can trust. Ultimately her efforts to maintain control lead to a violent tragedy, the repercussions of which will haunt Orchard House for the rest of Maude’s life and beyond. Says Erika Robuck, “Brooks is a master, enticing the reader forward, one step at a time, but only revealing the path by the light of a candle. Bewitching.” The House in the Orchard is out on September 27th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Every now and again, I have an interview where even with the long-form multi-hour format, I have way more questions than I could possibly ask, where either beforehand or in real time during the conversation, I have to puzzle out what conversation to have, what conversation to have out of many possible great conversations. My conversation with Elaine Castillo is one of those where we could spend all of the two and a half hours on questions of empathy and reading, or we could have spent all of that time on the pitfalls of positive representation, or on problematic writers and problematic writing, and the word problematic and whether it itself is problematic, and when and how if ever we can separate the art from the artists. Or really, I could have spent that time on Asian film where in an alternate universe, where I’m not doing this show but rather another show, one on film with Elaine and I as co-hosts, as the new version of Siskel and Ebert but with an analysis of film, not only as an art form but one like every other that comes from, is implicated by, and is entangled in the politics, prejudices, ethics, blind spots, and vision of the people who make it. We touch on all of these things today, every one of these things. But really today’s conversation, the one we do have, is about reading, reading books for sure, but also how we read, what we watch, films and series, how we read our histories, how we read the world, but also the question of “Are we actually reading and what would it mean to bring our full selves to a text, even texts that don’t welcome us, and what are the implications for raising our reading game to our own writing practices?” It may seem like it was by design that September is a trio of conversations about reading and re-reading, and revisioning and self-revisioning with Claire Schwartz’s book where we discussed extractive reading versus reading that endows meaning with her collection asking us, challenging us to read outside the margins of types and forms, and then the latest Crafting with Ursula on The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction where really this essay of Le Guin’s is about a certain type of critical reading that can lead to a revisioning of narrative, a revisioning of self, a rereading and rewriting of the writer themselves. Today’s conversation fits perfectly into this continuum even if it wasn’t by design. Like the way Lidia Yuknavitch. Characterized Ursula K. Le Guin in that last conversation, Elaine Castillo is fiercely opinionated and she’s aiming to disrupt and overturn, and yet there is something also wonderfully open and generative in her approach and in her book, giving a lot of respect and space for the reader of her work to come up with their own conclusions. Before we begin, I’ll mention that about two hours in, Elaine’s earpods fail. I leave that moment in when that happens in the audio so you’ll understand why her voice suddenly sounds different. I think it actually sounds better afterwards. But either way, I didn’t want you to feel confused when that happened. Lastly, if you appreciate these in-depth conversations, perhaps in the spirit of this other type of reading, writing, and attending the self, these conversations that go beyond the normative length of a podcast, consider joining the Between the Covers community and help us shape the future of the show and help ensure its future as well. Every supporter at every level gets the resource-rich email of everything I discovered in preparing for the interview and the things referenced in the interview. In an interview like this one, that email is particularly robust. There’s just a lot of other things: gifs, collectibles, bonus audio, tons of other possibilities. Check it all out at patreon.com/betweenthecovers and enjoy today’s episode with Elaine Castillo.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, novelist and essayist Elaine Castillo, studied comparative literature at UC Berkeley, studying everything from ancient Greek to the medieval poetry of old French, to the politically engaged poetry of the 20th and 21st century. She was an editor for the multilingual literary journal on campus, “Vagabond” and a three-time recipient of the Roselyn Schneider Eisner Prize for her prose while studying there. Later she moved to London to pursue anMA Creative & Life Writing from Goldsmiths, University of London. Just before returning to the US after eight years in England, she was commissioned by theSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Open Space to make a short film, a film she entitled A Mukbang, translated from the Korean as an eating broadcast where hosts traditionally eat a large amount of food while interacting with their audiences via webcast, but in this case, where she eats a Filipino meal with her mother via Skype. Elaine Castillo’s return home as a writer was a triumphant one. Her 2018 debut novel America Is Not the Heart was met with wide acclaim, with starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, and named the best book of the year by NPR, The Boston Globe, The New York Public Library, and many others. Ligaya Mishan for The New York Times, “Hungrily ambitious in sweep and documentary in detail, and reads like a seismograph of the aftershocks from trading one life for another.” The Rumpus adds, “The novel is both a sweeping family saga, and a fervent reflection of the Filipinx-American borderlands. . . . Castillo uses fiction to reveal the influence of the past on the present and the role silence plays within our communities, creating a blueprint for seeing the complexities present in the intimacies of our daily lives.” John Freeman for Lit Hub adds, “Quite simply one of the best first novels I’ve ever read. Castillo’s is a story of immigration and its costs, a meditation on brutality and where trauma goes, a love story, a friendship story, a family story, and its also a deeply funny story. It’s astonishing she fits it all in. I’ve watched friends who got this galley walk around in the days after reading it as if clubbed on the head, as in, how I’m supposed to read something new after this? For a while, you won’t.” Shortly after this, Castillo joined the likes of Greta Thunberg, Billie Eilish, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Financial Times list of 30 of the planet’s most exciting young people. She’s here today to talk about her much anticipated second book, a book of essays with rave and starred reviews across the board called How to Read Now. Andrew Sean Greer says, “Castillo’s How To Read Now took my breath away. Energetically brilliant, warmly humane, incisively funny, it whips the tablecloth from under the setting of contemporary reading, politics and intellectual culture in a literary act of daring. It seems there is nothing Castillo can not do.” Gina Apostol adds, “How To Read Now is a powerful punch in criticism’s solar plexus: Castillo’s take as the ‘unexpected reader’ is what literature needs now, both an absolute bomb and a balm—a master class in the art of reading. Her art is a corrective and a curative but also just a joy—humorous, insanely erudite, and absolutely necessary for our times.” Finally, Preti Taneja says, “How to Read Now is the book we need now: a clarion call for decentering whiteness and for a truly decolonised publishing, critical, and reading culture. It reaffirms that writers of colour are here; we are here to hold power to account; we are here to read each other and cheer for each other; we are here to stay. I am so grateful for Elaine Castillo’s beautiful mind, and for this vital and moving book.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Elaine Castillo.
Elaine Castillo: Oh, my gosh. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to move forward from that. That’s I think one of the loveliest things I’ve ever heard in, almost certainly, the start of my villain origin story. [laughter] I was thinking the whole time, especially when you were going back to [inaudible], I was like, “This is like Hot Ones.” I don’t know if you’ve seen that, do you know that YouTube series, interview series Hot Ones with the hot sauces? I’m obsessed with it and occasionally make my friends do it. He also pulls facts really from the vault. I was like, “Oh, wow. I’m on literary Hot Ones. They’re bringing up Vagabond from Berkeley. This is amazing.” [laughter]
DN: Well, I want to start our conversation as you start your book with astrology, not only because we begin with a section called Author’s Note, or a Virgo Clarifies Things, but because I learned in your acknowledgements that you were born to two Aquarius parents, that your agent is a Virgo, that the entire editorial process for this book with your US editor was a Virgo, Taurus, earth sign solidarity, that your dog Xena is a Libra.
EC: She’s actually a Scorpio, that was corrected. We did a DNA test and found out what her actual estimated birth is and now I’m like, “Oh, obviously she’s a Scorpio, he’s very much a Scorpio.”
DN: My apologies, Xena.
EC: No, that’s the first thing I’m correcting in the paperback. [laughter]
DN: So your dog Xena’s a Scorpio and your partner is a Scorpio.
EC: No, he’s an Aquarius.
EC: Yeah, yeah, also an Aquarius. Everyone in my childhood home was an Aquarius. Lots of people came in and out of our home but the most permanent members, my mom, my father, my grandfather, my younger brother, all Aquariuses, and then I eloped with an Aquarius so it’s a lot of that energy. [laughs]
DN: Okay. So my astrology is all wrong, but I also know from your book that you associate bossiness with being a Virgo, that when you were a student, you not only read everything assigned to you multiple times but brought in related research to bolster your interpretations, that you see this is a Virgo trait, and that when you were speaking to an audience recently in the Philippines for Fully Booked, you said that being non-stop critical was, as a Virgo, your love language. I have a twofold question for you. One is if you could speak further to Virgoness in your mind and how it informs your approach to the book, either tonally or substantively, but also given that I’m a Taurus with a Virgo moon–
EC: Oh, earth sign solidarity.
DN: How does this vote for us in this conversation we’re about to have?
EC: I think that votes very well. I love all the signs equally and roast all the signs equally but in their own special ways, I do obviously have a soft spot for earth signs. I don’t think I was into astrology. I think it was maybe a two or so years ago that two friends told me to download the Co – Star app and subsequently ruined my life forevermore. [laughter] I think now I realize this is a very typical Virgo trait where I’ve known it for two years but I’ve done so much research into it, I could now do a PhD about it. Someone was talking to somebody about my north node a while ago. I don’t know what’s happening to me but I think I do realize that actually, astrology and the language of astrology is really helpful for someone, as I said, whose love language is non-stop criticism because it’s a softening, it’s a funny lower stakes, not lower stakes depending on who you’re talking to. Some people get very heated as do I, but as opposed to just being like, “You’re doing all of this wrong. You didn’t do this,” I have that person and certainly in my family. My family’s also full of Aquarius. I love Aquariuses clearly because I keep spending my life with them and I’m Aquarius rising as well. I do have them. They’re the other sign of the Zodiac that I feel is very much my family. Yeah, I think it might have been in that interview as well where I think the adaptation, the much maligned newest adaptation of persuasion came up and just for weeks afterwards, I was just yelling that that adaptation was earth sign erasure, that it meant that they were acting like Anne Elliott was a fire sign and she was not. She is very clearly a sensible earth sign, a highly functioning repressed person, and I was like, “She might not be a Virgo but she’s almost certainly like a Capricorn or a Taurus.” I think that’s a softer, funnier language through which to express some of the things that, left my own devices, might just be outright harshness. [laughter] I’m trying to grow as a person. This is the thing, Beyonce recently told us, that this is the era of releasing perfectionism, so I’m trying to hold to that gospel and be a looser. [laughter]
DN: Well, let’s start with the title How to Read Now. You say in the preface, How to Read Now rolls off the tongue easier than a title like How to Dismantle Your Entire Critical Apparatus. Though you’ve since said on tour that this latter title is really more apt, but very quickly in the first pages of the book, you expand and dilate what you mean by reading. For me some of the most thrilling parts of this book are your close readings of texts of Peter Handke and Joan Didion most notably. But what you mean by reading is not limited to books, that as you say in the book, reading doesn’t bring us to books, books bring us to reading, that books aren’t the destination, that it also includes how we “read” what we see on a screen, that perhaps if John Berger hadn’t beat you to it, you could have called this book Ways of Seeing also. So let’s begin here with this broader sense of reading. Tell us why it’s important to look at film and television as much as literature, and that you’re addressing non-readers and readers alike, and what you’re challenging us to do.
EC: I was listening to your interview with Abdellah Taïa. We were talking about this earlier and he is just one of my favorite writers of all time and my favorite writer in French, it has been for a long time, and he talks about this also. In the interview, he talks about not being influenced by literature primarily and also about that resistance of understanding particularly because of his class background growing up in poverty in Salé in Morocco, the idea that literature was this place for the elites, this place were either Moroccan elites who spoke French and who lorded it over people like him or his family, or obviously, [inaudible] a larger corona of what to write in French means and their dictates from on high. I think I had that because whenever I hear him talk about that in interviews, I get choked up every time and I got choked up when I was listening to you, because it resonates so deeply with how I felt growing up. I talk about it in the book. There was one person in my life who was a reader and that was my father. He was 54 by the time I was born so he was old enough to be my grandfather. He was a security guard by the time I was born. My mom was a nurse, so like on paper and in practice, our family was very just typical working class, fragile lower-middle class, middle-class aspirational Filipino family. But his class background in the Philippines, years before I knew him, was as an upper-middle class kid. That’s how he grew up in Vigan as someone who read, who had access to literature, who was literate. He was a surgeon so he didn’t grow up with literature and humanities. This is what 18th century literature, this is what modernism is, but he grew up with a facility with it in ways that were entirely opposed to my mom, the way Taïa talks about his mom whose handle on literacy was much shakier, and not just literacy in English but also in Tagalog, supposedly the lingua franca of the Philippines, but it wasn’t her first language and it’s not my father’s first language. I think I was always aware that my reading life was also class inflected, a gift, a gift I was grateful for. But it was also this world that I was squirreled away into that did feel distinct from the rest of my life, the rest of my class background, my neighborhood, my other cousins. I hadn’t thought about this for a while, but someone was asking me like, “Oh, when you were a kid, did you give stories to people? Did you talk?” and I was like, “I never talked ever that I was a reader or that I wanted to be.” I was quite late when I thought I wanted to be a writer as well. I think I always knew that it was a world that I entered that seemingly was only populated by me and my dad. I was aware that there was something about it, that there was a suspicion about it from other people in my family sometimes that “Oh, by reading maybe you think you’re better than us.” I was always really at pains to not fulfill any of those or to meet any of those suspicions. I was such a b*llsh*t kid. I was getting into fights all the time as well, and probably that schism in my young life was part of it. I think that’s how early reading really came to me as something that I was connected to books but I never had a comfortable relationship with books or with literature. We didn’t have a New York Times subscription. I didn’t know anyone who read the New Yorker. When we got the San Jose Mercury News and I flipped to the literature pages, if they reviewed like a travel book, I’ll be like, “Wow, amazing,” [laughter] but I don’t know who Michiko Kakutani was. If the Milpitas Post reviews a book, I was like, “Well, amazing,” because I knew that I had this incredibly tender obsessive, but also fraught, somewhat secretive relationship to books, and that my father and I, when we went to books, we went to Goodwill to get used books, we went to the library, or we went to the second hand bookstore in Mountain View, which has since closed down which was such a big warehouse, we could just get lost in it. But when we would go to like the indie bookstore and the town similar, you felt palpably that you were being looked at like you didn’t belong there. I remember I was telling Christine Bollow, an amazing bookseller at Loyalty Books in DC, how much I wished I had a bookseller like her or the kinds of bookstores that specialized in the works of writers of color that were decolonial in that way because that just was not my experience of bookstores. My experience of white-owned bookstores was very much one of like “If you’re here, we’re watching you because you and your dad look like you’re potentially shoplifters.” I think there was that relationship to books and to read, and also the fact that like none of these bookstores were in Milpitas. We would have to go to the Peninsula, which is noticeably wider, more middle-class, that’s also where my mom essentially killed herself in order to pay for me to go to Catholic school over there. So there was also that kind of schism that also spatially geographically, I had to exit my own community in order to access a world of books that wasn’t just Goodwill or the library. Then the other side of that is that I just watched so much TV growing up and everyone around me watched TV growing up in films, and one of my most formative films was Terminator 2. Abdellah Taïa talks about that also that he grew up on films, but not just like what’s called Highbrow Cinema but the popular cinema or popular TV, and Manuel Puig talks about it. He’s also one of my favorite queer Argentinian writers. Also, his work is so much about what’s thought of as the melodramatic popular telenovela, those genres that are not often considered art because they’re consumed by the people, and I think that was also so huge to me. I talk about it a little bit in that essay where because of that formation, I didn’t want a book called How to Read Now to leave out those huge parts of my life and those huge parts of my community, people who were not book readers but who were readers, who taught me how to read by virtue of how they reacted to the way someone stereotyped them or the way they reacted to an anime character, on Late Night PBS or something. At the same time, I didn’t want to let them off the hook, like people who are like, “Oh, well, I don’t read. I’m not part of literature. That world doesn’t have to do with me,” and it’s like, “Well, you are. You just watched Kenobi and Stranger Things so there’s stuff to it and you are reading and being read,” so I think that was the impetus behind that expansive, or hopefully capacious idea of what reading can mean.
DN: Yeah, no. I felt like the book is ultimately about how to read our world regardless of whether we literally are reading words in a book where you say just because you don’t read books at all doesn’t mean you aren’t reading or being read in the world, which makes me think of a conversation I had with Adrienne Maree Brown for the Crafting with Ursula series I’ve been doing where she similarly characterizes us being an imagination battle, that if we don’t actively engage in the work of imagination, we will be imagined by others and we’ll be living within the confines of that imagined world that isn’t ours, which obviously is particularly vital to consider for marginalized people and marginalized writers. I suspect most people don’t often think of the imagination as being vital to reality, but I think of this notion of Adrienne Maree Brown’s when I think of your preface when you say that you felt like you first became a reader and then became a person. I wondered if you could elaborate on that a little bit, what that means to first, see yourself as a reader and then through the reading, come into a sense of becoming.
EC: A sense of personhood
DN: If I am reading what you said correctly.
EC: No, yes. That is absolutely how I felt. I don’t know, how many of us can remember the first time we realized we were a person? When I look back on my life, I really genuinely cannot remember a time when I thought, “Oh, that’s it. I’ve become a person now,” but I do very much remember, and not just remember myself personally in terms of I have memories of myself being very young in a checkout line, face buried, these are the ancient stories my mom will tell about my childhood about me always reading. People used to say they didn’t know what my face looked like until like my teens just because they were like, “Well, you would come to the dinner table,” not that we ever ate dinner regularly, but “you’d eat and you would have your plate in front of you and then you would have a book balanced in front of your face so we never saw you.” that I think has stuck with me in the sense that I still wonder how settled into personhood I feel. I think that’s a larger existential question. I’m reading a lot about virtual reality right now because this is the kind of thing that happens when you’re writing a novel or trying to meet a novel deadline. People ask you what you’re reading and you have to say very bizarre things, very out of like “I’m reading about different types of weathers,” and just the weird research. I’m reading a lot about virtual reality and thinking a little bit about personhood and ego dissolving, and also the profound people who are are using virtual reality for medical purposes, for therapeutic purposes thinking about virtual reality as perception modifiers, something that fundamentally can change because of the overwhelming visual output it sends to our brain, how we feel and how we think, and not just about what we’re seeing in front of us but about our bodies, about our sense of self, about where we end and the world begins.” There’s been some really exciting, really intriguing research being done about how it can be used for people who have chronic pain, anxiety, or PTSD. Because the ways that they’re describing virtual reality or how something like that works, what they’re really talking about is imagination also. There are so many instances where in the things I’m reading about, the powers of virtual reality, it sounds like reading a book, to a much lower extent. Obviously, the power of virtual reality is that it’s so all-encompassing sensorily in ways that in this headset, you’re immersed in this world but it’s not that different from what happens when you are truly viscerally captured by a book or viscerally captured by a film. I love that idea of the imagination battle or the imagination as a theater for a really fundamental battle ultimately. But what you were talking about with imagination or if we don’t imagine ourselves, now I’m going to paraphrase it even though you said it literally 30 seconds ago, it’ll be left to others or we’ll be stuck with how we have been imagined by others, I think about that. This is the thing that comes around I feel like every season, like seasonal allergies, some very reactionary faux white liberal article that’s about like, “Oh, white people should be able to write from the perspectives of people of color. Otherwise, we lose the powers of imagination and we lose free speech, we lose artistic freedom,” etc., all of things that, in principle, I don’t find noxious, but things like free speech or artistic freedom are very easily weaponized to ultimately protect the powerful from any substantial critique. I was thinking about it when I think you can have an article like that that’s supposedly defending the rights of I guess middle-class white people to write whatever they want and also to inhabit the worlds of anyone they want. What they’re always talking about here is “I should be able to write like a person of color.” that’s always it, and don’t tell me that I can’t, don’t tell me that my freedom is restricted in that way. When you put that hand in hand with the statistics that we know about literature, which are that since the 50s, like 3% or something of literature has been written—of course, I’m not a numbers person, it might be 3%, it might be 8%, so you’ll understand that there’s a numerical, not dyslexia, the other word for it in my brain—but I think it was something like since the 50s, just the percentage of literature that had been published in America was by writers of color, a pitiable percentage I think, and in 2018 that year, that my first novel was born, I think it was something like 10% or 11%, which was like one of the highest. You put that statistical reality with these kinds of self-aggrandizing arguments, the logical endpoint of that is not only do people not want writers of color to write their stories in a material way in terms of the books not actually being published, but white people should also think they should write those stories for us. Ultimately, that’s the end point that you’re reaching when these two arguments are being employed side by side.
DN: Well, let’s flip that and think about it from the perspective of the reader too, because I really like this, for instance, when you say that white supremacy makes for terrible readers, which I think is a great quote, and that we excuse racism as coming from ignorance as if, in your words, “If only people had told me Filipinos were human, I wouldn’t have massacred them,” but that in fact, it isn’t ignorance but rather that we’re overeducated in white supremacy. I think this is a really brilliant framing, you call white supremacy a formative collection of fundamental reading techniques that impoverishes you as a reader, a thinker, and a feeling person, a set of techniques that we’re so educated in that sometimes I think we can’t see that we are educated in it in the first place, and thus, we might even mistake it for ignorance of the other rather than seeing that the ignorance of the others actually baked into the education itself, if I’m understanding you correctly. But if I’m understanding you correctly, I think you are not just speaking of the education of white readers and how white readers read, but of how we’ve all been given this over education in white supremacy and its reading practices. Because one book that I’ve been thinking a lot about as I was reading your book is a book by Dionne Brand called An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading, which is about reading. It speaks into this too. One of the things she mentions is a quote by the Marxist Trinidadian historian C. L. R. James when he says, “Thackeray, not Marx, bears the heaviest responsibility for me,” and Brand whose own work has been influenced by Marx’s thought says that Thackeray, not Marx, made her too. She then goes on to do a close reading of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and how when she read it when she was young, she laughed, like C. L. R. James had, as she was supposed to do alongside Thackeray as he made fun of the aristocracy. But reading it now, she’s amazed that she didn’t see that there was a Sambo character on page one and on page seven. She barely remembered Miss Swartz, the quote “rich woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitt’s” who appears 36 times in the book, and she describes her not remembering of a horrific drawing in the book of a black woman portrayed as uncomfortably ill-suited in Victorian clothes as an act of “clinical forgetting”, that to use your framing perhaps—and I want your thoughts on this—perhaps Brand and James were also overeducated in white supremacist reading techniques, something that you and Brand are step-by-step suggesting ways to unlearn. I wondered if this rang true, but either way, I was hoping you could just speak a little bit more to this question of racism and racist reading practices being an over-education rather than an ignorance.
EC: I love the idea of Thackeray. Thackeray made me, not Marx. I haven’t heard of that book. I’m going to pick it up after this interview. There are multiple things I want to get into in this question. That is the magic of not just white supremacy but the magic of a particular type of reading technique, and it is political interpretation, its ability to make itself invisible, to make itself seem invisible, inevitable, and thus neutral, universal. This is just how we see the world. I think that’s the overwhelming effect of treating racism as a product of ignorance as opposed to as a product of very studied, over education, studied epistemic production, a way of producing knowledge about the world that then produces people in the world. I think that my equivalent or my version of that would probably be Homer made me, before Marx made me. I read Homer before I read Marx. I read Greek myth, I was a real big classics nerd from a kid because my dad gave me Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and we read all of these children’s versions of the myths and then the translations of things like Homer, Herodotus in the era where I thought I was going to be a Filipina Anne Carson. I talk a little bit about my classics past in the last essay of the book, especially I’m talking about Homer’s Odyssey and a specific scene. I think it always stuck with me, the scene, it’s a one of the most famous scenes from the Odyssey, the scene of Odysseus essentially blinding Polyphemus, the Cyclops. The passages that I’m talking about, they feel like they could have come out of Christopher Columbus’s journals, the way that Odysseus sees Polyphemus on his island, the unspoiled land of it, the savagery of him, the savagery of someone who doesn’t have agriculture in this, doesn’t exploit the land to its fullest, the vision of his home as a place that someone who brings civilization like Homer can exploit, extract resources from, and the violence, it is one of the most violent scenes of the Odyssey. Then the turn of the essay is that Homer didn’t write any of this, or at least not the passages that I’m describing, Samuel Butler wrote this. Samuel Butler, the colonial era translator of Homer wrote this. Samuel Butler who left England to come to New Zealand on a ship called Roman Emperor wrote this. So what are the kinds of ways of thinking about the world, ways of thinking about who constitutes a monster and why, who constitutes a killable life, a destroyable world and why, and how is that being passed on to Butler’s specific readers? Because there are distinct differences in Butler’s translation as compared to, for example, Emily Wilson’s translation, the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English, the kinds of things that Butler elides, for example, Odysseus’s name, his name comes out of his grandfather. His grandfather Autolycus whose legacy is hating others and being hated by others, and that’s the etymology of Odysseus, hate pain, wrath, suffering. It’s both suffering you meet out to other people, but also suffering you incur. But the Butler translation only says, “My legacy is that I hate everybody else.” Butler doesn’t include “It also means you’re hated by other people.” But Wilson preserves that nuance that is in Homer.
DN: She also uses the title for that chapter A Pirate in a Shepherd’s Cave, which is making Odysseus the pirate and then Cyclops the shepherd.
EC: Exactly. There’s that fundamental turning on the head of who is the hero in this scene and why are we being told that Odysseus is the hero in this scene, and not that we’re being told that by Homer himself. I think in the text, there’s a complexity to it. I think what I’m thinking about is how the classics have been deployed by people with specific political agendas to uphold specific ideas about what constitutes western civilization, even things like the 18th century German British archaeologists like Heinrich Schliemann and all of the people who wrote long tones about how the white statues of Greece really represented something about rationality, purity, and beauty. Of course, carbon data later tells us none of those statues were originally white. They were all painted colors. They were all very colorful. But that idea, that vision of what Greece might have looked like doesn’t line up with very specific ideas that people are trying to uphold about race and the classics and about what they want the classics to corroborate about their ideas about race.
DN: My last guest, the poet Claire Schwartz, curated a multi-author meditation on Toni Morrison’s only short story, the one where there are two girls of different races but it’s never explicitly said which one is which. How this story really exposes a lot about how we read, in Claire’s essay, about the story which is called Reading Otherwise, she says, “In Specters of the Atlantic, Ian Baucom posits the novel as the genre that conditioned thought in line with the speculative finance system that underwrote the transatlantic slave trade. The novel, Baucom explains, honed the idea of ‘types’ that tethered the present to a fixed set of futures—if a person is x, then they will be y—a mode of thinking required for the brutal calculations by which a person, kidnapped from their home, could be sold as a commodity in a place far away. The reading practice that corresponds to ‘types’ is skimming—a process of extraction carried out in accordance with prefigured ideas about what one will find, and then fastening those findings to a limited set of meanings. Or, as Baucom puts it, the novel ‘altered the knowable by indexing it to the imaginable.’” Then she continues, “Morrison’s story, which Morrison called ‘an experiment,’ exposes the extractive practice of skimming—what often passes for ordinary reading—as itself a set of brutal experiments, racial propositions, and hypotheses that constrict meaning to marshal the present toward a fixed future.” I don’t know if you do, but I think of your project in conversation with this. For instance, when you bring up Pamela Paul’s ex-husband Bret Stephens’ article in The New York Times–
EC: I literally did not know any of these facts until I think a month ago. [laughter]
DN: Me neither. So Pamela Paul’s ex-husband wrote about the controversial awarding of the Nobel Prize to Peter Handke, or as you call him, the casually fascist stylist Peter Handke. You look attentively at Stephens’ defense of reading him and his desire to add books by him to his shelf, especially the “non-political” ones. But thinking of this notion that Claire brings up, that much ordinary reading may not be reading at all, but rather a form of extractive reading that is really skimming, if I read you correctly, if I read Elaine Castillo correctly, your argument is that to read Handke non-politically is not to read him, to imagine you’re reading him for the aesthetic experience is actually not to read many of the things that are right there in front of you that he wrote. I guess I wanted to put that in your lap and see if I was on the right track. Do you hear a kindred analysis in what Claire was speaking earlier?
EC: Yeah, absolutely. I’m going to say something that might be provocative but may also launch a new era of literary criticism. I’ve said that I really love Aquariuses. Toni Morrison is an Aquarius, that short story is one of the most Aquarius pizza pieces of art of all time. [laughter] my agent and I have this private battle where we’re trying to start the astrological school of literary criticism. That Wong Kar-wai is a Cancer filmmaker which absolutely tracks, these are very much Cancer films. [laughter] I understand that as being deliberately sh*t stirring. But for a while, not as an air sign, as an earth sign, there were some times where I had not difficulty with that short story, but maybe sometimes difficulty with the kind of thrill I think people got from reading it or the thrill people had about feeling like its provocative lack of labels unsettled their assumptions. But this is probably an earth sign thing. I’m like, “Just give us the material facts.” But I think what you’re talking about with the extractive process of reading, and I am going to bring it back to virtual reality, but in one of the things that I was reading with respect to virtual reality, there was essentially a clinical experiment where essentially they were trying to understand why do we see some things and not see others. They were doing a visual experiment and a bunch of I think doctors were in a VR landscape and were asked to count how many balls went into a hoop or something like that. They were asked to look at a specific thing. But in the experiment, they had a person with a gorilla head just run through the landscape. Later, they asked the people what they saw and it turned out something like 70% of the people didn’t see the gorilla at all, didn’t see it, didn’t register it at all. It was because they had been told to look at something else, they’d been told to look for something else, and because they weren’t told to look for that or to be aware of that, they just didn’t see it. It reminded me of some of the points that I was thinking about when I was thinking about how Handke’s Nobel win was being lauded and vociferously defended, and under what terms? Because I read Handke and a lot of Austrian writers growing up as I talk about in the essay, and there’s nothing in me that’s asking people to not read his books or any books that we might deem problematic, which I have been saying is a very nothingburger of award, but it’s just this idea that “Well, I’m reading him but I’m reading him non-politically.” Okay, well you’re not reading him because it’s there on the page and it’s not even the sense of one separating his aesthetics from his politics as if that were an endeavor that were possible in any case, but that’s just simply not the person with the gorilla head is running around on the page. The idea that you would read the books and be like, “Well, no, I’m only reading for these very specific beautiful sentences,” okay, the sentences are literally like about white victimization, and seeing yourself as a suffering Chinese man when you’re a white middle-class person, but okay. It requires a real willful act of ultimately misreading, it requires a very willful selective type of engagement to say, “Well, those things make me a little bit uncomfortable but I don’t really want to engage with them or deal with them. But all the other stuff, the rhythm of the sentences, the succinctness of the prose, or the way the ruminations are shaped, that’s what I respond to.” I’m not saying that that’s an unworthy way of responding, but don’t say that that’s not political because I think that’s also what I’m trying to get into in the larger argument of that essay, which is called like reading Reading Teaches Us Empathy, and Other Fictions. My analysis of Handke also came out of just seeing these kinds of cliches around literature being circulated, perpetuated, Reading Teaches Us Empathy, and the subtext to that was always like, “Well, reading marginalized people teaches us empathy because we have to feel empathetic towards queer people, people of color, and immigrants because it’s really hard.” When I read these books, it really makes me a better person. What I say in the book is that it creates this dynamic by which we go to marginalized writers to learn specific things, to extract ethnographic data. What you’re talking about is extractive skimming. But white writers, we get the pleasure of just feeling the universe. I’m just reading about marriage. I’m just reading about existentialism in Salzburg, in this Austrian town, and we don’t talk about how the project—going back to this idea of white supremacy as a specific educational practice—the project of telling us that reading Handke is non-political is obliging us of a very specific type of politicized empathy, it’s obliging us to emphasize with a specific political racial class perspective, context in very imaginative, in material ways it’s asking us. It’s obliging us of an empathy that we don’t name empathy and we don’t have to call those types of imaginative leaps empathy. Then going back to the magic, that is the magic trick of white supremacy that we don’t have to think that this entire way that we’ve been taught to see, feel, and excuse them is part of an education.
DN: I like that you say magic trick. I think you make a really persuasive case in walking us through this specific book of Handke’s, that that book—perhaps all of his work, I don’t know his work—can’t be truly read not as deeply political, writing that you describe as, which I love, the white-man blues, with a goose-step beat. But what’s interesting, thinking of magic trick, is not only how blazingly obvious the politics are when we attended the pros alongside you in the book, but also the way he, at the same time, casts a spell, I think of intentionally imprecise language that both the book and the protagonist are dodging true seeing of the story that they themselves are telling. He does this successfully enough, as you recount in the book, that the critical response to the book, while mixed also misses the troubling politics of its main character. It’s wild how you expose not only the way the author asks us not to see but the way the critics don’t see that loser, the main character, is obsessed with skin color, with foreigners, and with immigrants, but also what you alluded to earlier about this notion that even while he is obsessed with this, he sees himself in the subject position of the suffering Chinese man. He’s a white man. I wondered if you could speak a little bit to this protagonist, to the weird translation of the title, and this connection you make I thin, convincingly between a politics of white victimhood, where he’s more upset about being reminded of what Austria did than by what Austria did, but I was hoping maybe you could just talk a little bit about it because it is a very weird but familiar flipping of a narrative, but also a lot of smoke and mirrors.
EC: A lot of smoke and mirrors. We’re going to return to that kind of weaponized ambiguity later. I think the English title of this novella is Across, the German title is Der Chinese des Schmerzes, which basically means The Suffering Chinese Man, which I guess I imagine an American publisher was like, “Let’s find something else for the market,” but the French title and the Spanish title preserved it almost literally translated. It centers essentially around this middle-class white classics teacher—speaking of the classics. Imagine having this person as your classics teacher—who essentially sees a person scratch a swastika into a tree, becomes enraged by this, kills the person, dumps the body, and then the rest of the book is the existential fallout from that, of which existential fallout because there is no judicial or he walks free, there’s no actual consequences for this murder. As I talk a lot of the critical response to it, it was about framing this novel as this existential novel about murder, being on the threshold, and what is between the singular life disrupting act, tosses someone between one part of the world and another. I just could not find critical essays that were talking about the fact that he’s constantly noticing foreigners, he’s wanting to internally yell at these noisy foreigners to be quiet because this is Austria, but he’s constantly having these grotesque fantasies about slaughter at the hands of foreigners, that all of his metaphors are something that’s scary, it’s like an Incan temple. So much of the novel is meditating on this particular type of white grievance and white victimhood. It’s very of a piece with the people who say something like reverse racism because then he thinks of himself as “I’m the different one. I’m the one who is alone and isolated by the other boorish Austrians who don’t understand me so I’m the suffering Chinese man.” there’s this appropriation of marginalization while at the same time revulsion of people who are actually marginalized in Austria. As you say, the language, and I don’t read in German, I can read a little bit and understand a little bit but my partner reads in German, but I have enough to analyze some of the grammatical structures. When you talk about smoke and mirrors, the way his sentences are structured, I talk about it in one pivotal line where the narrator describes throwing the stone that ultimately kills the person who vandalized this tree with a swastika and the way it’s structured in German—because the German structure puts the verb at the end, already, that’s just German grammatics. The verb is deferred—but the way he says it is “But then the stone was thrown.” in German, you can say, “But then I threw the stone,” like you can say that, that’s not a grammatical impossibility. [laughter] there can be subjecthood but there’s a very specific way where this action appears out of nowhere and there’s no responsible actor. The stone was thrown, and there’s a complete abdication of responsibility of how it’s thrown and by whom. There’s that diffuse smoke and mirrors that deliberately obfuscating use of specific grammatical structures to defer responsibility or defer clarity. As you’re saying, it’s absolutely part and parcel of how we come to read someone like Handke, as this incredible existential stylist of a piece with other Austrian writers who can also write in a similar style that can sometimes be perceived as convoluted like Thomas Bernhard, although I prefer Thomas Bernhard’s work. In Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, the word she uses when she’s talking about how people manage not to talk about race in literature is evasion, there’s this elegant language of evasion that says that it’s more elegant, more civilized, more worthy of literature—I’m obviously horrifically paraphrasing now—but that elegance of evasion is one that allows pernicious racial stereotypes or an entire racial and racist framework to persist. I think that’s very much alive in Handke’s work. I think it’s something that I’ve been wrestling with generally. Talking about earth sign literalism versus Aquarian air sign [inaudible], I’m going to start this astrological school of literary criticism, but I try to develop it a little bit more in the essay. That’s one of the, not the penultimate, but an essay towards the end that’s about a John Berger short story, but also about my experience in my MA program, and just because I’ve been thinking about concepts like ambiguity, indeterminacy, and the unknown, and how, as a diasporic person, all of those things, that’s my city, I live there, and also as someone who has some experience with the kinds of abuse that John Berger or that I’m talking about him, that essay understand how ambiguity, indeterminacy, and very deliberate unknowns can also be weaponized. I just read this amazing novel that Tommy Pico recommended to me, it’s Post-traumatic by Chantal V. Johnson. There’s this great line in there—oh god now I’m going to paraphrase it again, I hate doing this to other writers—“Ambiguity is necessary for aesthetic c expression, but it’s terrible in real life,” something like that. I’m so sorry Chantal, but that dichotomy, I remember thinking about that and holding that for a long time.
DN: Well Handke’s only one example of a way of reading that reveals text that don’t see and also seem to help the reader not to see in the way that you’re talking about. You also do this with Joan Didion and with others. When I think about Dionne Brand on C. L. R. James laughing as Thackeray wants them to, or the critics who fall for loser’s worldview in the suffering Chinese man, they both speak to me to a certain seductive power of story that how things are framed, who is granted interiority and complexity, what is described or ignored, all can be ways to set the reader in allegiance with one character or another. One might not even realize the various ways that we’ve consented as we read. Returning for a moment to Claire Schwartz, who said, “When we skim, we extract meaning. When we read, we endow meaning,” and also, “The great possibility in tradition is not the smooth fiction of continuity but the jagged edge of unfinishedness, the infinite invitation to reread and thus revise, a way out from the real of the now: What, otherwise, might we mean for each other?” I think of this when you say that having grown up, you were almost always the unexpected reader, but also that in the end, you see that being the unexpected reader has been one of the greatest gifts of your intellectual life. What I imagine that you mean when you say this is that it has to do with, in a sense, attending to the text deeply enough to not consent to its system of meanings as invisible scaffolding, but to engage with its structure, which I’m guessing as the unexpected reader, would be a more apparent structure perhaps than an expected reader. I don’t know if I’m saying this well, but introduce us to this concept which is one that I’ve already been mulling over and quoting from. I really find this a useful concept, so if you could tell us what the unexpected reader is more generally speaking and then how having lived it, you find from a critical perspective as a reader that it actually has ended up being a superpower.
EC: Yeah, well thank you, first of all, that’s very kind. I think I started thinking about that or started phrasing it that way, when was that, now I can’t remember what is time in this pandemic era, but I think it’s not that long ago, just because when you’re a reader on your own, especially you’re a reader on your own the way I was for so many years a reader on your own, at least I wasn’t really exposed to how other people read or expected to be read. As I said earlier in the conversation, it was such a solitary activity for me. Because of that, I was used to reading books that were not for me, that had not imagined me, that in all likelihood could not imagine me, where I wasn’t an invited presence, where it was not about my community in any literal sense, where sometimes you would read a book and suddenly people would be talking about Filipino seductresses, I mean [inaudible] book that I mentioned. I remember I was talking to, I think I might have talked about it in that Gina Apostol interview, I was watching Ab Fab, Absolutely Fabulous, that British show. I thought the show was so funny. It showed on PBS. I think I was 12 or 13 and I wanted to show my friend, another Pinay, this cool British show that I was watching, and the very episode that we had a sleepover and the very episode that we watched was one where they just tossed off this racist joke about Filipino house boys. I remember my friend just looking at me like, “Oh, really. Oh, this is your show?” The embarrassment that I felt in that moment, but I think at the same time, I was also inured to that. I think I also never had the sense that books were a place to escape to and I think I also had the sense that books were not a safe place, which is distinct from saying that books were a place that I loved or books were a place where I felt viscerally connected or alive. Those two things are not necessarily the same, or viscerally in the world in ways that were, in that phrase that you said that was very beautiful, what is it, free us from the reel of the now, something like that. I thought that was really moving.
DN: A way out from the reel of the now.
EC: A way out from the reel of the now. Yeah, that’s just what I thought reading was. Then later, and particularly as a published author to come to realize that, “Oh, that’s not what reading is for everybody. Lots of people come to books expecting to have their hands held. Lots of people come to books expecting that everyone in the book sounds like them, looks like that, maybe has a life that’s different from them, but that life is legible to them. Lots of people come to a book expecting to understand every single word in it.” Certainly if you read Homer, you didn’t understand all of the words that were being used, but even if you read Manuel Puig, you don’t understand, if you read George Eliot, you don’t understand, there are loads of Greek in George Eliot, if I hadn’t understood Greek or get very [inaudible] and feel very alienated if there’s untranslated words in an otherwise English book, it just started to feel apparent to me that there were actually readers and reading practices that were entirely predicated on being expected, on being catered to, on being maybe performatively or challenged, but ultimately centered and edified in very specific ways that prioritized them. It seems so anathema to me, it seems so alien just because it seemed to me such an impoverished way of reading, not least of all because it does nothing to meet a book’s vulnerability with your own, and that felt imposed on me from being a kid just because I was always an interloper in the books that I read. Sometimes I think about it a little bit like when you think about those big country estates that are in Austin or the big Gilded Age townhouses that are in Edith Wharton, I love Edith Wharton, maybe I shouldn’t use Edith Wharton as an example. I also like quite a lot of Austin, and the difference between being invited as a guest to those houses, coming in through the front door, sitting at the table, speaking the language, and being in the main dining room versus being a thief or a servant in one of those houses, as someone like me would have expected to be, not necessarily imaginatively, obviously, I very much identify with Anne Elliot as a highly repressed person who f*cked up and doesn’t want to bleed on other people. Anne Elliot is my person. [laughter] but the difference between what it’s like to prowl around a house and what you might see if you come to a house not necessarily invited, versus how it is to come to one of those grand houses invited, catered to, fed the kinds of food you might have to scrounge for yourself, the kinds of things you might see that if you were invited, you might otherwise miss, or be invited to miss.
DN: The flip side of that equation of the unexpected reader that I also thought was useful was that writers, comedians, or whoever who are shocked by negative feedback that they receive, it’s because of this notion that they haven’t even imagined this reader or this audience member, they didn’t conceive of this person engaging with their art. Perhaps in their dismay at the negative feedback for their racist or homophobic activity, they wish they weren’t reading their art perhaps.
EC: Yeah. I think the obeisance that’s often demanded, at least it seems to me that’s being demanded when people try to weaponize free speech as a way to essentially shield themselves from legitimate critique by BIPOC writers who are pointing out racism in an author’s work or trans writers who are pointing out transphobia in an author’s work or public persona, all of these things are just saying, “Well, I didn’t expect you to talk back.”
EC: Right. Well, speaking of talking back, I was watching a video of the French-Algerian writer and philosopher Hélène Cixous recently. She was talking about her close friend, Jacques Derrida. When he moved to France from Algeria, he aimed to master French in order to harm it, which makes me wonder if this gives a subtext to deconstructionism and to the tortured syntax of Derrida’s language. Because I had a recent guest on, Hernan Diaz, who studied under him and called his writing style poisonous, but I wondered if that was by design, if part of what he was doing was wounding French, wounding a colonial language. But it also makes me think of my conversation with Abdellah Taïa who also feels at war with the French language, something he speaks about inside of his own books as well as outside of them. But he’s definitely another author who’s creating a new French through his encounter with a French that would rather have him submit to it on its own terms. This is my long way of asking you to talk about your name which you engage with in this book, which looks like Castillo (kä-STĒ-yō) but is pronounced Castillo (kahs-tee-lyaw) because it feels like perhaps it too is a way to stand before a system of naming before an entire imposed colonial language and find a way to create agency or to unpin oneself from a system that’s trying to pin you. Could you talk to us a little bit about that legacy of this system of naming in the Philippines or what it means to you that your name is Castilio, and if there’s something about it, some aspect of that gesture that carries over into your writing in other ways?
EC: I love that you brought up Derrida. He’s someone I have a very fraught relationship with, I love Hernan Diaz calling his writing poisonous. There was a time in my college life, so I guess between the ages of something like 18, 19, this is around the time that people get into continental philosophy, I read a lot of Derrida. There’s a book of his, El Monolinguismo del Otro, and I think the opening line of that is which is “I only have one language, it’s not mine.” Essentially, it’s talking about how he speaks in French and yet his [inaudible] within French as a Sephardic Jew of Spanish descent who was born in Algeria and the kinds of cultural contexts that subsequently followed him and influenced his work. One of the books of his that I was reading just before he died—I was living in Paris actually in 2004 when he passed away. It was a strange time to be in Paris anyway, but it was a strange happening—and I think at the time, I was reading his book on Paul Celan, the Romanian poet who wrote in German and who very famously wrote and felt enormously conflicted about writing in German, writing essentially in his language, in the language of his poetry, but also in the language of the people who butchered his parents. The way Celan’s poetry is grappling with the meaning of writing in the language of your parents’ butchers, undoing German in a way, undoing it from within, dissolving it, breaking it down, arguing with it, but also ultimately making poetry out of it. I remember I held a collection of Celan with me for a long time because it resonated with me. Then I remembered after that, there was a history of Derrida essentially defending one of his colleagues who had been accused of sexual assault. I can’t remember the exact details, and then of course, going back to some of the things that I’m writing about in that Berger essay, I think probably you’re bringing it up but I think subterraneanly, I must have also been thinking about Derrida in that time period. I love how Abdellah Taïa writes in French. When I said he’s my favorite writer in French, when I lived in France, I remember going to the [inaudible] and reading in French and going for books and being so struck by how there were rows for literature, fiction, essay, whatever, and then there was the corner that was littérature francophone or [inaudible] which is to say the literature from the colonies, francophone literature, which is not French literature, let’s be clear about that, it’s literature in French, it’s literature written in French by the people we colonized. But Édouard Glissant, Aimé Césaire, they were all in the francophone literature category. I started learning French and then it subsequently became my second language. I speak it now better than Tagalog or Pangasinan which is a very, very weird fact of my life. I started learning French in 2004 and then I think I found his books in 2006 or something because I think that’s when I have them here actually in [inaudible] but I got, I think that’s when L’armée du salut came out and Une mélancolie arabe. It felt like breathing after having been underwater. The way he wrote in French, the way he writes in French, and the way his French is such a resistance to the kinds of French I was being taught, what constitutes proper French, what constitutes French literature, what [inaudible] says about French literature, all the f*cking shows in France with old-white dudes talking about the latest novel, just even the way the intellectual culture in France was. I’m saying this because I’m going to France next month because the translation of my novel is coming out so [inaudible] I’m gearing up to have all of these arguments. It’s such a resistant French. I think in the interview with you, he talks about it as pauvre français, not mauvais français, not bad French but poor French and how the specific context, the specific ways that he speaks French, the things that he is drawing into that French, the rhythms, the language, and even the incantatory rhythms of it are all in allegiance to something that is not the hallowed, all the laureled writers, [inaudible] says are the great lights of French literature. I was grateful to read him at that time. I think it illuminated things for me that are now fraught to me. But there is a line about “I only have one language, it’s not mine,” I felt that very much about English. Before my brother was born, I was the only person in my family who English was their first language. My partner also, English is not his first language. Actually, besides my brother, I’ve never lived with someone who was a “native” English speaker. I think I’ve always been surrounded by people who themselves were works in translation and then I think they passed that on to me that I also felt that my English was fundamentally felt and I lived in it fundamentally differently from people who, we talk about generational wealth, I also think about generational linguistic wealth, generations of people who always felt comfortable speaking this language. That’s just English. The passage that you’re talking about it towards the end of the essay, someone said to me recently, “This is a very clever thing you did talking about how to pronounce your last name in the essay because now you know who’s read the book and who hasn’t depending on how they introduce you or how they pronounce your last name.” I was like, “That was not intentional. That sounds like a scorpio thing to do,” which I’m saying this with love, my best friend is a Scorpio, or maybe it’s a Virgo thing to do, to put this secret quiz. But I hadn’t realized that was it. I’ve often thought about my name and sometimes just as a person going around the world, as a Filipino person going around the world, sometimes you say your name to people, and this especially happened in England, obviously, not in the Bay Area because I’m not in any way an anomaly in the Bay Area but when I was living in London, you would say your name and be like, “How does that not visibly Spanish-looking face to my eye, are you married to a Spanish person?” I go, “What?” Thinking about why I have a Spanish name and why we pronounce it the way we do. It just got me to research and think about surnames, because the thing that I talk about in the essay is the Claveria Decree which is essentially this decree just basically telling colonized Filipino natives to choose a name from the catalog of last name that essentially the Spanish colonial government distributed throughout the archipelago which worked successfully in some areas and worked in these very idiosyncratic ways. Sometimes the governor would just be lazy and just give you the part of the catalog from C through E, and it was like, “You can choose a name from here. I’m not going to give you the whole catalog,” all of these things that are entirely dependent on the whims of that particular colonial governor are things that we are living in the legacy of that through that. That’s how easily cultural genocide can happen. I think about that when I think about how obviously my family pronounces our name and how I routinely have to say “I’ve started to get better at it. If you call me Castillo, that’s not…” before I would become very militant about it but as Beyonce has said, I’m trying to release perfectionism and be more accommodating and less of a d*ckhead in my life. But I used to be a lot more militant about it. Actually, no one in my family talked about the fact that we pronounce the name wrong, ultimately wrong and within a Spanish colonial view, this is always “This is how we pronounce our name.” I remember the first time I think I was watching a video with the Filipino author R. Zamora Linmark and he’s talking about a character in his book and the character’s last name is Castillo. He was reading aloud from it and then he said, “This person Castillio,” I think it’s Edmund or Edward Castillo and he said it the way I say my name and I felt there was this visceral shock because there’s a specific way that Filipinos say this name that I don’t hear often outside of my own community. When I saw that clip, I remember feeling surprised, you’re not even able to categorize if what you’re feeling is joy or pleasure, and the pleasure that I feel when I hear Filipinos pronounce my name the way my father pronounced it, when he said you’re a Castillo, all of those things, I think we’re just trying to take a journey back into why we pronounce our name that way and how it could be an act or a form of resistance or a way of, I think the line I use is like a punchline back into the void, and how that relates to how Abdellah Taïa uses and deploys French or resists French or hides with French. He made me even understand Beckett using French. For a long time, I had a real suspicion, and I still do have maybe a suspicion or impatience around Beckett’s use of French just because the way it’s often framed is that he was using it to purify his language, he’s able to access this pure language by writing in French. I think he himself describes it that way, it’s easier to write with no style or something like that. Obviously, he still writes with a very specific style, but I think I started to come to think of it as like, “Well, he’s also an Irish writer. To write in English is also a very specific thing for an Irish writer. How is that choice also, in its own way, have echoes of the colonial or specifically political?
DN: Well, if we think of your name Castillo and bring it back into reading, I wonder if part of the equation is not only that we should really read what is there, really read the words within all the different matrices of meaning, and whether sociopolitical aesthetic or ethical or psychological but also that we should be bringing our full selves to the text aware of where the texts themselves don’t welcome aspects of who we are. Again, I’m going to bring in Dionne Brand’s book because she, like you, examines different strategies to engage with text to try to find a way to be fully herself in engagement with the text. At first she takes passages from Camus’ The Stranger but gives the name to the Arab and rewrites them with these unnamed characters being named. But then she looks at counter narratives after doing a reading of Jane Eyre that’s similar to the one you do of Jane Austen. She looks at Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and the ways that it successfully repositions narrative and also the ways that it falls short. Then she looks at past Between the Covers guest John Keene’s Counternarratives engaging with Mark Twain and finds it remarkably successful. But she settles on a different strategy altogether than renaming or counter narratives. She asks the question “What if one were to completely ignore narrative demands’ synergies between social arrangement and metastory? To narrate our own consciousnesses, to describe a Black life in the register of the social and the political, and not in the pathologies or the pathological,” and something that she later calls “a sovereign point of view.” I wondered if you see your revision of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, his landmark book of Filipino-American immigrant experience and a book that you’ve said is important to you and written about, if you see a revision of its title to America Is Not the Heart in your debut novel, if you see it in this light of a sovereign point of view, that the nation-state can’t be in the heart, or at least not the nation-state that occupied the Philippines. But perhaps no national narrative can be in the heart of a sovereign narrative, perhaps in the way that Dionne Brand describes. But I’m curious about that practice of revision for you.
EC: I think like all great fights that title started off as a joke. [laughter] because essentially, I wanted to call the book America Isn’t the heart with the conjunction. But for whatever reason, that potentially was something as simple as SEO or something that we couldn’t do, it turned into Is Not the Heart. But the last chapter of the novel is still America Isn’t the Heart to preserve that. I think it was, and this is a very Filipino thing, it was an oral pun just because if you say America Is in the Heart with a Filipino accent, to me it always also often flipside sounded like America Isn’t the Heart, and I always thought that was funny. I always thought there was a shadow of that. Also just because in Bulosan’s work itself, I often say there are two endings to that book, there’s the penultimate chapter which ends rough and not optimistic, ends in a not radical pessimism but the final chapter gives us this sweeping belief in America, which I’ve always found those two chapters very disjointed in fruitful ways potentially or in honest ways. Potentially that is truly how we feel about a nation state and even a colonial nation state. Abdellah Taïa talks about this in his really adult relationship with friends feeling sometimes a great love for certain things, certain movies, certain actors, Robert [inaudible] while also obviously having a profoundly fraught colonial relationship with France and its legacies in Morocco and North Africa. The title initially started out as a joke. I wanted to put into existence this private joke I had always had about America Is in the Heart, but absolutely, I love that idea of claiming sovereignty. I think it falls a lot into some of the frameworks that I feel most–I don’t know if the word useful to me or the frameworks that maybe I feel most beholden to. But absolutely because I come out of an ultimately anti-colonial point of view. I think I can also recognize that my subject positionality as someone who was born in America, who was born with American citizenship, and thus as someone who is not an immigrant has the space then to not feel beholden to it because I’m of it. But I don’t have to feel like it’s in my heart because I was made here. I recognize that the difference of opinion, we might say, that I might have with Bulosan is we’re speaking from very different positions in the world despite his background and provincial background is very similar to my mom’s too, to my families also, from the town next to my mom’s. When he describes rural poverty in Pangasinan, I’m like, “That’s my mom’s childhood.” I think it’s always been easy. That’s on flipping. It’s never interested me to hold America in my heart. I remember as a kid when they would make us put our hands over our hearts when we said The Pledge of Allegiance. I was a kid. I was like, “This is fascist. This is so weird. We’re in a very weird moment.” Maybe I thought that as a kid because of the subtle political education that my parents were imparting out to me. But I think it’s also because there was an indifference to that romantic romanticizing of America and its meaning that they passed on. I think both of my parents, my mom in particular, were very practical about what moving, fleeing really, but moving to America meant for them, meant for my mom as an escape from rural poverty but also as an escape from the Marcos regime. I’m a martial law baby. My existence is entirely made by my mom being from the generation that fled through the Marcos regime, so I think that understanding ourselves, I don’t want to once again paraphrase and f*ck up a paraphrase but resisting entirely, can you repeat that line?
DN: To narrate our own consciousnesses, to describe a Black life in the register of the social and the political, and not in the pathologies or the pathological.
EC: Yeah, absolutely. I think that really speaks to my materialist, in some ways, proto Marxist feminist, just the social and the political, not the pathological. Yeah, I think that’s always been my way into things. I think that’s probably also why for so long, and still to this day, etymology.com is probably still one of my most visited websites just because I always think when I use words, you’re dragging them out of the ground and they still come to you like dirty carrots, that they’re still covered in all the dirt, all the manure, and all the things that made them. When you see the etymology of a word, you see all of that, everything that went into making it.
DN: Yeah, no. Thinking of you digging for these meanings, you say in the New Zealand chapter, “As Americans, we remain willfully illiterate to ourselves.” If we think about that, our own self-reading as Americans, maybe in connection to this notion of extractive reading and skimming or weaponized ambiguity, which also I guess I would also consider like a weaponized incuriousness because I think as a host for this show, I can’t rely on, if it’s not a white writer who’s speaking to a normative white audience, presumed white audience, I can’t presume any shared knowledge of my listenership. If you would come on for your novel, I can’t assume that anyone knows about the Spanish-American war, let alone the Philippine-American war. When I had Morgan Talty on from the Penobscot Indian Reservation, no one knows anything about the history. Or Myriam Chancy whose book is set during the post-Haitian earthquake. Indemnity is something that most people have no idea about. It’s this continual sense, I think that you rightly say, of willful illiteracy. But I loved your chapter on New Zealand and Australia because for all of the book, you’re super fierce and confident and then you become very uneasy with yourself and you response when you go there. You even go so far as to say at one point, “Maybe I’ve discovered a new species of white person,” but then you reel it back and you realize you’re romanticizing.
EC: I was like, “I’m having [inaudible] moment. Chill out.”
DN: You’re worried about adopting colonial travel writing. But you’re also compelled by this bilingual origin story in New Zealand, a national story that isn’t entirely illiterate to yourself even if it may only be aspirational. I don’t know what it’s like on the ground and you complicate your own romanticization and gushing about it. But maybe you could just spend a moment and talk to us about the way this different framing there in relationship to indigeneity made you fall for it in a certain way.
EC: First of all, for the first part of your question, you’re a better person than me because I am the type of assh*le that expects people to know. I’m growing as a person. Someone told me recently, “You cannot expect everyone to know about that or you can’t just get mad at people or get mad at me when I haven’t fulfilled the adequate level of knowledge that you deem.” I think this is something about dogs so this wasn’t even about anything that was explosively political even though dogs to me are a very political subject. This entire book would not exist if I hadn’t gone to New Zealand just off the bat. I was very reluctant to accept what was happening to me. But I think the word you’re saying is compelled, I did feel compelled being there. I didn’t feel like something was happening to me and to my brain being there and just started writing and was writing in the hotel rooms. I think as you said, the genre of travel writing is very complicated, very fraught, very rife with neocolonialism. I was aware of that and also aware that, I keep bringing it back to this Abdellah Taïa thing, but he says something very beautifully where he doesn’t have to write to feel like a good person. I’m also okay to animate the parts in myself that might have been reproducing or interrogate the parts of myself that might have been romanticizing things that I didn’t understand completely. But I think the overwhelming thing that I felt there besides just what anyone feels when you’re away from home, you’re jet lagged, your mind is porous and your body feels porous in ways that they aren’t otherwise, for one thing, it felt like I was seeing a settler colonial story that shared a lot of similarities with the one that I came out of, but then also evince some very specific differences. One of the things was just seeing why people speak Māori. Obviously, I was at a literary festival, which is a very rarified atmosphere, and I make pains in the essay to show that I’m not romanticizing woke white people in New Zealand as having it all figured out. Although I will say in terms of their ban on assault rifles after what happened in Christchurch, I think they’ve got some things figured out. I’m not on that level but I was just starting to think like, “Well, I live and was born on [Tamion] land and none of the government officials and the signage in my town was [Tamion],” or I don’t think I’m being unkind to say that I think a lot of the people that I grew up with would never have even heard of the indigenous languages of the region that we were in. I was thinking about that with respect to California but then I think it was also animating things that I felt about the Philippines because so much of the essay is about my experience in New Zealand but also the way because I was hiking in New Zealand, this is a very new thing. I’m not a hiker. I am now. The way the colonial history of their flora and fauna was being framed and how it made me think about how to read landscapes connecting that to how do I read the landscapes and the colonial landscapes of California and how do I read the climate disasters that are in the Philippines and how all of those things have inherited a specific history of colonial era exploitation and resource extraction that have left legacies, ravaged legacies on the actual land. I think when I was seeing these connections, sometimes it’s even something as emotional as understanding like the word mana and how that word in Māori is connected to the word as it exists in Tagalog or in Pangasinan and understanding that that language family was once the most widespread language family in the world before the 16th century, which is to say before the colonial era, and seeing all of these bouncing resonances that essentially proved that there was these echoes that were speaking to each other or echoes that were in conversation with each other in ways that I hadn’t been aware of. I think sometimes you’re vaguely aware of it. Because of the specific ethnic positionality, at least in the Filipino community that I came out of, which did sometimes feel, and I certainly sometimes felt a dislocation within, for example, larger Asian-American identity just because the history was often different, the ethnic stereotypes were often different, the relationship to English or the relationship to coloniality was very different from, let’s say, my East-Asian classmates or something. Sometimes there was this affinity between Filipinos and Pacific Islanders in ways that I think sometimes elided differences between us. In Guam, for example, I think my grandfather worked for the US army in Guam, which is to say, he worked for the colonial state in Guam as a Filipino person. That was how basically he was able to even somewhat feed his family. Thinking about how his position in Guam was one of ultimately subtler colonialism as someone whose own country was also colonized, I think about that also with Hawaii. I talked about it a little bit in the Didion essay about how Didion writes about Hawaii, about the history of Asian-Americans and Filipino-Americans particularly in Hawaii who are brought over to work as sugar-cane workers but whose presence in Hawaii is also part of settler colonial history and sometimes eliding that fact or assuming a solidarity between Asian-American and Pacific Islanders in ways that it often is assumed is one that does a disservice to the latter certainly, but also to the former, and the more nuanced ways we actually relate each other. We’ve now gone very far. You can see what going to New Zealand is to me, I’ve now spiraled further and further into it until just a larger Pasifika like grand unified theory which I don’t have one at all. I think I just was seeing these constellations.
DN: Well, I want to talk a little bit about your chapter The Limits of White Fantasy, which looks at Handmaid’s Tale, Hunger Games, X-Men, and also hold it in juxtaposition with the chapter named after the John Berger quote, “Reality is all we have to love,” which feel like they’re in a conversation or maybe there’s a friction between the two a little bit. But I was hoping we could hear a little bit from that chapter first.
[Elaine Castillo reads from her essay collection How to Read Now]
DN: We’ve been listening to Elaine Castillo read from her essay collection How to Read Now. What’s so interesting to me about this, about a book say like Handmaid’s Tale using real historical oppression of women of color but transposing it to a dystopia with white women as the target, the way it shows black experience but without actual black people, and these other ways in which these books, comics, and shows you mention signal solidarity and justice when doing something else entirely is that it improbably makes me think back to the moves of Handke and Didion that you point out, and that in this light also now to me feel like fantasy moves if Handke’s character can both hate non-white people and yet imagine himself as one, or the way Didion does and doesn’t situate herself in Hawaii. What she’s seeing is this wildly imagined fantastical world while simultaneously insisting that she’s attending to the details. You describe the characters in her essay Letter from Paradise as not being good at seeing but rather at a performative kind of scene. Like when she says, “I do not believe that the stories told by lovely hula hands merit extensive study. I have never heard a Hawaiian word, including and perhaps most particularly aloha, which accurately expressed anything I had to say.” It seems to me she seems to be simultaneously saying that the very language that arose from this place is ill-equipped to describe it, or at a minimum, we don’t need to study it to find out. But also at the same time, the subtext is that what she herself sees and has to say will be “accurately” expressed. I guess I just find it wild to think that these two “realist” writers are doing something in a similar way one might expect in a project like Hunger Games, Handmaid’s Tale, or X-Men.
EC: Oh that line is wild the thing about lovely hula hands. I was like, “Oh, y’all are just letting this play.” [laughter] I used to say in early interviews from my first novel that I grew up thinking Baywatch and Beverley Hills 90210 was science fiction. The California that they were depicting felt that might as well have been Mars to me. I went to SoCal recently for the first time in years and years. I remember we were driving down the Pacific Coast highway and I saw Malibu. It’s like, “Oh, that exists.” Baywatch I guess, I’ve been ragging on you this whole time, it wasn’t science fiction after all. But it just impressed to me how much something like the predominance of shows like that, or indeed the phenomenons of a writer like Didion, really disseminates this particular idea and this particular meaning that California has to the world. I like that idea of thinking about Handke and Didion as unintentional fantasy writers. Probably, that’s a description you could extend to any of us in a way. Nation building is a certain feat of science fiction. My father, I think he just used to tell me unbidden, he’s like, “You’re an American made with Filipino raw materials.” As someone who grew up on Terminator 2, I was like, “That’s very cyborgian. That sounds like I’m a synthetic person.” [laughter]
DN: Yeah. I like that too. Well, I feel like I could have spent all of our time together just talking about the notion of “problematic” writers, and that’s a term that I really do not like, but it does feel like it’s the subtext of this collection. In the world at large—and I’m not saying you do this—but at the world at large, I have uneasiness about things that are seen as problematic but I think are different. They might lead to the same question about how am I going to engage with this art and this artist, but they’re not the same thing. For instance, if we think of the Didion and the Handke examples of being people whose politics is being skimmed over and excused as if you could decouple the aesthetics from it, that seems to me like one category. I’m not saying these categories don’t overlap. There’s another category that you have art and then you have somebody who made it who does something horrible in the world, but it’s not necessarily manifest in what you see in the art. That’s another one. Some of them you bring up as you did with Pablo Neruda, but you also bring up, well, Steinbeck’s not a good example of it not manifesting since he actually stole material, but they’re people who do terrible things in the world which may not be as obvious in the work. But the third category that is I guess the one that’s most interesting to me, and I don’t know if you’d agree that these are separate categories but this is the category that’s most compelling to me to spend time with, but also the one that worries me that gets collapsed into the other categories. Because I think this third category of so-called problematic writers describes a lot of people and it’s where there’s an aspect of the work that is truly visionary and other areas where it is limited or even regressive in the same work. When you say about Didion, “This is writing as sleight of hand, as balancing act, writing as parlor trick to be pulled off, not writing as a practice of being in the world, being of the world.” speaking of sleight of hand, it made me think of the Mexican film Roma. I think it’s doing something very different than how it was received culturally, something that involves a sleight of hand with gaze and point of view where the indigenous maid’s subjectivity is largely evacuated so that the white upper-class Mexican director’s childhood memories can then be told through her eyes, and it’s told in a way that also largely indemnifies the family from any structural responsibility for the very real things that happened to her in this film, let alone erasing any backstory, any meaningful connections or memories of her past or thoughts that she might have had outside the home. There’s a really great review of it in The Believer by Pablo Calvi that unpacks a lot of this and the subtitle is Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” is the unaware “Get Out” of Latin America’s indigenous people and its working poor. I don’t mean to be singling out this movie, it just made me think of how there’s something in the way you described Didion and the way I experienced Roma that if you were to pull the string on the problem with its gaze, the entire thing unravels in a certain way. There’s a politics that falls apart. Obviously, there are things about it that are positive representation, that were things that had not happened before that the movie could be credited for. But what worries me is that when someone’s doing something visionary and limited at the same time, which I’m not pointing these out as examples of that but of the opposite, that they’re often also treated as if irredeemably ill conceived, as if the thing that is limited or regressive, by necessity, contaminates the visionary part. I love the way you engage with the Wong Kar-wai films about how one of the reasons you love Happy Together the most now is because it only has men in it and that you’ve realized as you’ve aged that his portrayal of women feels lacking in his other films that you’ve loved, or how Watchmen is profoundly radical and yet falls completely short around how it portrays Vietnam in relation to the US Imperial Project and the way it shows Asian-American characters, which feels different, for instance, to the Spike Lee Vietnam film, which to me feels more of a problematic, like something about the gays at least for me goes through the whole thing despite seeing his, what I would call failed gestures at a liberatory politics in it. But most movingly, I love how you both speak to the vital importance for you of Bulosan’s book that it remains groundbreaking today in your mind, but also the ways he falls very short again regarding women. In your essay in The Nation, you say as a Filipinx writer, I know well that I’m one of Bulosan’s many children; It’s a fact that I cherish with my whole heart. I also know that to be part of a family also means having to fight, and that fighting with your family is sometimes a way of fighting for them.” I guess I just wanted to hear a little bit more about that. I love it. I think it feels so much outside of this dynamic of whether we’re canceling somebody or not also. It’s inviting in nuance and complexity. There are people that are easy to cancel but then there are people who, I’m not saying they’re getting canceled but there’s a tendency to just reduce it all down to its worst element.
EC: Yeah. David, you do not know how many fights I got into about Roma when that film was out. It felt like every single day I was fighting for my life. [laughter] I remember yelling to one friend about another friend. I was like, “Don’t listen to this person. They think Roma is valid.”
DN: Viet Thanh Nguyen has problems with that movie too.
EC: Oh my good god, yeah. Basically, it’s nice to say that everything that you said is absolutely how I feel about that film in its critical reception. This is news flash, this is going to be another very long-winded circuitous spiraling answer, surprise, surprise from someone who is terminally long-formed, I was thinking about that recently. Recently, I’ve been wanting to write and I definitely won’t do it. I don’t have the time to write this essay about people who write about are filmmakers non-western, which is to say not from the American west, and specifically not American, filmmakers who make movies about the American west. I was thinking about it with Nomadland, which Nomadland is very much I was also fighting for my life.
DN: Me too.
EC: The Mustang was another one. The Power of the Dog which I think comes off a little bit better than some of the other. The Mustang is I think French or Belgian film, has Matthias Schoenaerts in it and also takes place in the American west and just the ways people animate their fantasies about the west and civilization and marginality through these kinds of preconceived notions about the west and how the west lives on in these people’s and these artist’s memories, but yes, they’re very much so about, and I think in a similar vein, I’m not really interested in cancellation either, not because I’m not interested in it, I feel like I’m a very combative person. I was like, “Cancellation is too light a word. I’m fighting with people.” When I was thinking about writing that essay, I was trying to think about works that might be visionary in some ways and just the way that you very definitely put it, visionary in some ways and also sometimes in the same breath regressive. One of my friends is going through a real Philip Roth moment and they’re also fighting for their lives. I have been reading because of her recommendation. I was like, “I like a lot of this.”
DN: That’s funny because if we had spent time with “problematic,” I have like too much. But for me, he was—and this isn’t to push back against the things that people critique him about—but for me he was life-saving. Around certain ways, he interrogated Jewish identity in the United States, that I do think were visionary. But since you brought it up, I’m just going to read one thing from Garth Greenwell. My favorite Philip Roth is also his favorite Philip Roth which is Sabbath’s Theater.
EC: I haven’t read that.
DN: He has bad books. He has maybe 10 books that are not very good, but Sabbath’s Theater, and Garth Greenwell talking about how we rarely see sex scenes involving disabled or infirm bodies but also calling one of the moments which is a scene of these two people urinating on each other is one of the most tender moments in literature. This is what he says about Philip Roth since you brought him up, “One measure–maybe for me the most important measure–of the greatness of art is the extent to which it is open to the full range of humanity, including the monstrous, the abyss we all stand on the brink of. In Sabbath’s Theater Philip Roth faces up to that abyss. He forces us to spend time with–to come to know–a man who is in many ways repugnant. Also brilliant, hilarious, aggrieved, wounded, entirely human. He reminds us that moral condemnation is seldom a profound mode of knowledge of the other; he reminds us of everything else we can know about a person if we suspend our condemnation. It’s one of the greatest books I know.” Then in his class about it, “Can we value art that offends or outrages us? Can we bear to feel sympathy for characters who do monstrous things? Must literature uplift? What is the role of moral judgment in art? And are there good reasons to preserve art, or at least some art, as a space that resists moral judgment?” Even if there’s a progressive impulse, there’s a conservativism in the word problematic that I wonder, and fear I guess ultimately.
EC: No, I feel that absolutely, and I like the categories that you’ve set out. Certainly they do overlap. But I think those are useful categories for thinking about the degrees to which we allow ourselves to surrender to art, refuse to surrender to art, or can’t help but surrender. I think the last category is the stuff that personally we can’t help but surrender to. Going back to something we were talking about earlier, which is the relationship to art which is either morally condemning or morally edifying. I think a lot of the problem and a lot of the incomplete and very unsatisfying politics of a word like problematic, I think a lot of the mistake people make is thinking that the things that they love, because they love them, should be morally good. I love it, therefore it is good, therefore it makes me good. It’s a lot harder to parse “I love it. It’s monstrous,” I mean, to use Garth Greenwell’s phrasing, it’s uncomfortable, it’s uneasy, it’s asking me to look into the abyss, and that’s saying something about me. I say that it’s harder to parse but at the same time, that is what art does to us, that is what art does to us. It doesn’t hold up the Snow White mirror that says, “You’re the fairest of them all.” As kids, we know that the person who does that is the villain. I don’t know how we can forget that as adults. I remember in my first novel, there’s a scene where I have a young child level this slur at one of the child main characters, and it’s a slur that was leveled to me. It’s an anti-indigenous, basically, it’s Igorota, a particular indigenous group from which I likely descend considering where my family is from. Certainly, the way it was deployed in my community growing up, it was a slur, it was a way of pejoratively talking about someone who was dark-skinned, savage, or something. Then I remember someone who does have active links and does identify as Igorota, coming up and being like, “I really hated that you used that slur. I felt really shocked to see it.” I think the feeling that I felt about it was that as an author, I myself know that’s a slur. That’s not a slur that I’m using, but I’m depicting a particular community, and it’s not commensurate to that community, one, to not talk about the fact that colorist slurs, anti-indigenous slurs, anti-black slurs were being freely used within that community, but also, it would also be a disservice both to that community and to the art to then put in this authorial note, “But she knew that was a slur in this extra diegetic narrative way,” which would only serve ultimately to absolve me so that all you readers know I’m using this slur but I’m using it like I’m like a little person, I’m conscious so this is the character, not me. I can hold myself above it. I think one of the things about the art that sometimes feels the riskiest to us, the most visceral to us is when we feel that the artist has not held herself above the world that they’re building for us, that I am implicated in those slurs, that I’m implicated as someone who’s been the subject of them, and maybe as someone who’s grown up in the education of them, if you’re growing up in logic, in that type of ultimately racist colonial case system logic. When I think about the books that matter to me, I never think of them in the context of things like it was morally edifying, it made me a better person, or it was not problematic. When people talk about books or art that means something, the language we use is visceral, “That saved my life. This wrecked me. This destroyed me.” The ways that books can dissolve us, which is not that dissimilar to how life dissolves us, how the people that we meet, that we will love, and live with and fight with, and have to leave, I’m also talking about what it means to have a family, what it means to have friends, what it means to be a person in the world, none of that can be understood under the rubric of, “Well, is it problematic or not?” That’s not what it is to be a person.
DN: Well, I love this idea of family and fighting, and fighting with family being part of being in a family. In your critique of Didion, your notion of writing as a practice of being in the world and being of the world rather than, as you’ve just talked about, perhaps erasing the world in a certain way to tell your story on an elevated platform, it reminds me of the last conversation I had with Cristina Rivera Garza who has this notion of disappropriation of writing practices that don’t hide their debts to others, that emphasize the material conditions of production, that allowed the writing to exist in the first place, that disappropriate materials essentially to, in her words, return all writing to its plural origins. This makes me think of your 25 pages of acknowledgements and endnotes at the end of the book and how you describe your work’s cited section as a literary land acknowledgement. But I wondered if you see your citational practice as part of being in the world and of the world, or of returning writing to its plural origins. Because there does feel like a sense of generosity in the ways that you’re revealing the materials at the end.
EC: Oh, at first I didn’t want to do that, just because I was like, “Oh, the work, there’s a lot of stuff that’s cited in this. I’m going to have to go through it.” Then my editor was like, “But you could do it in this playful way. It could be in your voice and I wouldn’t really edit it.” Then I was like, “Oh, what?” which basically she was like, “Just go ham and then I could go full nerd and do long digressions on Spencer.” It’s just like a weird director’s commentary of a book and that was fun. It is also, I think as you said, even when we were talking about etymology and things like that, I am always interested in all of the earth that gets dragged up. Books can be very, especially when they’re circulating in a market as a commodity and have a beautiful cover and exist like a jewel in a bookshop, they can seem like these discrete objects that just appear sweet, generous, and then you read them. I love that idea about the material production that goes into the work. I also think this when my acknowledgements are always very, very long. I feel like I always thank anybody that I met. During the time of making a book, you’ll probably be named within the acknowledgments just because I think that I have a complicated relationship to indebtedness, debt and inheritance, which I think is probably clear from the essays. I think in the essays, I’m more generous about how indebtedness lives in me and trying to contrast it to the received ideas we feel, especially in American or in western literary discourse, which is about artistic freedom, which I’m trying to oppose to things like artistic inheritance or indebtedness. Wouldn’t it be more interesting rather than to think of ourselves as artists that are completely free to do anything and have no limits, to instead think of ourselves as also people who are, to think of all the places where we are delimited, where we are contextualized, where we’re all with dirt around us, around the carrot of us, the root vegetable of us hasn’t yet been washed off to sell, to make a beautiful jewel of a thing. I’m saying that I have a complicated relationship to it because I think in my fiction, I wrestle a lot more with indebtedness and inheritance. Recently, because I’m working on fiction now, I sometimes feel that my fiction and my non-fiction are almost, not diametric, they are absolutely in relation to each other, but I feel like sometimes everything that I say that I want to do in non-fiction, I have to almost do the opposite in fiction, or all the stuff that I’m scared of, all the stuff that I think is “problematic,” or all the stuff that I think I would otherwise run from seemingly,. That seems to be what I have to do in fiction. While at the same time, I feel like I’m haunted by the idea of indebtedness—and this is because I grew up with the Filipino concept of the debt of the inside which is a great cultural touchstone and also, as my father once said, the worst thing to happen to our culture. Maybe I think specifically women and other marginalized people have a different relationship to debt and inheritance and how, for some of us, it can also be powerful to, going back to the idea that you were talking about earlier, Didion Brand about sovereignty, so thinking about that sometimes thorny relationship between indebtedness and also rejection and sovereignty, I think those are the questions I’m working through now.
DN: We have this quote by Berger in the book, “Reality is not a given: it has to be continually sought out, held — I am tempted to say salvaged. Reality is inimical to those with power,” which I really love. I want to bring that just for a moment into questions of representational politics. You express frustration that a lot of Asian-American anti-racist politics and art focuses on Asian visibility, and how visibility is being confused with liberation or justice. To quote you, and this also touches on debt again, you say, “The art that I truly love, the art that has saved me, never made me just feel represented. It did not speak to my vanity, my desperation to be seen positively at any cost. It made me feel—solid. It told me I was minor, and showed me my debts. It held me together.” It would feel like a crime not to have you speak to positive representation at least for a moment, and also what it means to be shown you’re a minor and in debt in a positive way. I think a lot of people would think of being shown to be minor in a debt, I’m not going to read that, I don’t want to engage with that art, that’s going to make me feel minor and in debt.
EC: Well, particularly from an American context, we hate anything that shows us to be powerless, to be surrendered, to be vanquished, to be small, to be not that meaningful. So much of the mythos of ourselves, the story that we tell ourselves as being exceptional, grand, beautiful America, the beautiful, blessed, and an enchanted people in a very specific way. I feel like the line I kept saying was about how when my first novel came out, the thing that obsessed me was banality and the thing that I kept returning to, and politically, the thing that felt the most exciting to me or exciting or even radical now sometimes, I sometimes lump radical in with problematic in terms of words that seem to have political content, but as you said, when you pull a string on it, it all dissolves. Positive representation, much like I was fighting for my life about Roma, I feel like I am in several group chats fighting for my life about positive representation and its discontents. Going back to Garth Greenwell, actually I was doing an event with R. O. Kwon, the launch at Green Apple Books. Now I feel like once again this is going to be [inaudible] this interview, my anxiety around quoting authors wrong, she said something beautiful, we were talking about positive representation art and we were talking about mainstream, should we say mainstream like queer art that nevertheless fulfills like heteronormative standards around able-bodied people or around whiteness, et cetera. I think she quoted Garth Greenwell saying something like, “I understand what that art got us. But I’m not making art for people who already think I’m disgusting.” I got emotional, everybody in the room got emotional. But I think that’s a very beautiful, very succinct encapsulation of it. I think the concern that I have with Positive Representation Art is that so much of it is ultimately still just, as I say in the essay, just another armed wing of white supremacy. I think about it just because the drive to positive representation, as I’ve seen it, has been one that says, “Well, you’ve got to have it be palatable. Don’t threaten white people. Have these things be translated. We don’t want to see if there’s a queer side character still handmade into the main hetero narrative, ultimately, all of this is an audition for us to be seen as human. Let’s continue auditioning to be seen as people.” I’m just not interested in auditioning to be seen as a person. I think that’s the issue that I have, that’s the largest issue that I have with positive representation. The other issue that I think I grapple with particularly, I think in the specific Asian-American representation question is one that I touched on earlier about some of the experiences that I have as a Filipina feeling and having felt all my life a dislocation or a disjunction from some of what we might think of as Asian-American politics, and feeling that a lot of the racism that I experienced growing up was intra-Asian racism, was an intra-Asian classism, a very specific racism against Filipinos and Filipino people by middle class or wealthier East-Asian communities, people, and classmates, and just to have all of those experiences and then be expected to cheer lead art that celebrated ultimately my oppressors, that feels as strange to me as being asked to co-sign Handke or Didion in the way I don’t see a difference except that because of the umbrella of solidarity, I’m expected to essentially confer legitimacy or to fall in line as it is. I think about that when there’s supposedly like AAPI Heritage Month, like here are all the AAPI writers or books you should read and there’s no Pacific Islanders on the list. Okay, explain to me how that’s AAPI. I think that’s been an ongoing conversation and I think it’s not easily resolved just because of the vast economic differences, the vast historical positioning, the memories. I grew up watching Japanese anime and my grandpa who, as I said, worked for the US army, held very anti-Japanese views because of his experience essentially being tortured by Japanese soldiers. My uncle, my father’s brother, was in the Bataan Death March, so to have asked them to understand that me watching Sailor Moon was this act of Asian solidarity was utterly incomprehensible to them. I remember my grandpa being like, “Why are you watching this?” in ways that we might now tell a young kid of color who’s watching racist art like, “Why are you watching this?” Those are the ways that my ease or feelings about positive representation are complicated. The other side of it is that the art’s just bad fam. As I say in the essay, when art is made to represent people positively, you feel it.
DN: Yeah, you do. When I said earlier that I wish we could have talked the whole time about problematic writers, which I think I could have and I think we could have talked, the other thing that I wish we could have done this whole time is geek out on films because I’m a film nerd and many of my favorite directors are from Asia, though the ones I’m most passionate about are different ones than the ones you focus on here. But for a last question, I do want to at least touch on your chapter Autobiography in Asian Film, especially since we’ve been talking this whole time about reading and seeing, we can’t not talk about one thread of this chapter which is the way some of these directors create scenes where the viewer is not seeing everything, but not in the way of Didion and Handke, not a willful not seeing as a sleight of hand, but a not showing as a form of privacy and also showing love as sometimes a way of creating a safe space for someone else to be free and alone by themselves. In one film, you dissect how the director shows someone covering their face to sob and that he is showing us a private grief, showing by not showing essentially so we don’t see but we see, or what we imagine into the seeing as much as we can. Which somehow I also connect to the way you don’t translate or explain non-English languages in your novel, for instance. But either way, I guess talk to us for a moment about this different mode of not showing qualitatively different than the not showing we’ve been discussing because it’s not a weaponized not showing for one, which reminds me of Glissant’s notion of the right to opacity, but I want to hear what you are bringing into this because it feels important to art making to me.
EC: Yeah. Well, first of all, I want to know what are the directors.
DN: [laughs] I would say probably number one is Lee Chang-dong. I think all of his films are amazing. But Poetry, that movie I think is mind-blowing, and Secret Sunshine, that’s great. But Poetry is my favorite. Ryusuke Hamaguchi, not just Drive My Car, the movie that got overlooked the same year Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, but even more, his five-hour film Happy Hour, amazing. Happy Hour is incredible. The one movie that is close to my heart, I like a lot of the films that you engage with. I’m a Wong Kar Wai fan but the one movie that you do talk a lot about that is very close to my heart is The Assassin.
EC: Oh my gosh.
DN: So good.
EC: Oh, it’s so good. Sometimes my partner knows it’s that day if I’m just playing that song, the one with the bagpipes and just like blasting it in my earphones and crying. He’s like, “Okay, it’s that kind of day.
DN: I should also add Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film.
EC: Oh, Memoria, I haven’t seen that, with Tilda Swinton.
DN: So good.
EC: Is it? Oh, I haven’t seen it. I think the latest film I saw of him was Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. I think that the last film I saw of his.
DN: The new one recreates cinematic language. It’s a first in a new form of cinema actually. It’s never going to be on computer so if you get a chance to see it, you have to see it.
EC: Oh god, okay. This is my nightmare. I’m going to have to find a way to see it.
DN: You can go online and find out where it is and it’ll show up in each town for just a day or a week. It only plays in one theater at a time.
EC: That’s incredible.
DN: Do see that.
EC: That Syndromes and a Century, I almost wrote about Syndromes and a Century because that movie also really f*cked me up, but yes, The Assassin, [inaudible] I watched that I think it was in London. I just was like, “Oh, I love The Assassin and I’m going to watch it.” Talking about the visceral language we use, I was wrecked in the theater. It’s funny just to use this deliberately visceral punchy language for a movie, especially in the critical reviews of it is so meditative, is so slow in some ways, so careful and is also a movie that just in the way it’s framing how the human characters are situated in the frame, how he deals with natural beauty in a way that’s not fetishistic, how he puts people in the world in a way that feels very true to what it feels like to being in the world, which is to say to feel small and beholden and helpless. Yeah, that movie f*cked me up. But that scene that you’re talking about, and that is the scene that f*cked me up, the scene where Shu Qi’s hearing something very emotional but she herself, all of the characters that I like, I’m now realizing the relation between this character and Anne Elliot, every character I love is some highly repressed person who then has to have a capital E Emotion and basically upends their own life because of it. When she covers her face and all you see Shu Qi’s body and not her face, her head, her shoulder shaking as she weeps, and I just remember thinking that I hadn’t seen something like that before, I hadn’t seen private grief depicted that way before, depicted so banally because also he maintains a lot of diegetic sound throughout the movie so it also just reminds you of sometimes how awkward it is if you’re in a room crying and you’re the only one crying and there’s still like ambient noise around you and the feeling is “This momentous thing is happening to me and the world is just going on around me.” He’s so attentive to what that sounds like and what that feels like. But I think going back to the things that we were talking about with ambiguity, I think this scene and some of the other scenes that I talk about in that essay are exactly, as you say, scenes that ask us in undetermined or indefinite places but that aren’t ultimately ambiguous. They’re not weaponizing their own opacity to avoid telling us something. In fact, they’re showing us a specific opacity to remind us about the parts of our lives that are sometimes illegible even to ourselves, the parts of ourselves that are sometimes illegible or unreachable to others, or even more than that, the parts of ourselves that are legible, that are comprehensible but in ways that almost go beyond the visual or the linguistic, which is to say sometimes, we just feel something, we’re with another person and we feel it and it’s not because they said it and it’s not even because they were sobbing in front of me and therefore I understood. I think the thing that I’m really talking about is intimacy, the shock of intimacy and how it comes in unexpected ways, which is also the realm of art. The scenes that haunt us later on, the scenes that we watch in our lives and then haunt us forever, I find, at least in my life, there are scenes of intimacy that speak to something somehow unnamed in my past or in my life as yet unnamed maybe that I’m not ready yet to put a name to, but nevertheless touched met, were kin with. I think a lot of writers will tell you that despite the fact that, obviously, as writers, words are our medium, I think a lot of what we also are working with is the ineffable, of course, things that can’t be said. I obviously grapple with that. I grapple with that in the Berger essay where I think about how the ineffable and things that can’t be said somehow are conveniently used essentially, like confidentiality clauses where we don’t ever have to talk about institutional abuse and sexual harassment in academic institutions. That’s one way the ineffable gets deployed. The fact that it can be weaponized doesn’t take away from the truth of it, the truth that there are parts of our lives that are ineffable, that there are parts of our writing, I would say certainly for me, I think a large part of my writing is writing into places that I don’t feel I have the words for. What is that thing that Trinh T. Minh-ha sometimes said, and maybe she said it in Reassemblage or she said something like “I’m not writing about, I’m writing around.” She might not have said writing, she might have said “I’m filming” because she’s obviously a theorist but also a documentary filmmaker. Just as the medium of writers is as much words as things that can be put into words, I think for the cinema is the same. It’s things that can be seen but also fundamentally the things that evade our senses, that evade our vision, that somehow come to our knowledge through ways that feel, I think that’s why a lot of people thought like the cinema was, going back to the idea of magic trick, they thought it was sorcery.
DN: Well, in lieu of us having a deep conversation about empathy, which you do in this book and which comes up a lot on the show with Natalie Diaz, with Solmaz Sharif, originally with Leslie Jamison, along many, many years ago, but some of the funniest parts of the book are also in your empathy section. I think a lot of your snart comes out here. I’m just going to read a couple lines in lieu of that conversation we could have had. “The concept of instrumentalizing fiction or art as a kind of ethical protein shake, such that reading more and more diversely will somehow build the muscles in us that will help us see other people as human, makes a kind of superficial sense—and produces a superficial effect.” Or “If marginalized stories serve primarily to educate, console, and productively scold a comfortable white readership, then those stories will have failed their readers, and those readers will have failed those stories.” I don’t know any writer who have asked what they wanted their work to do in the world, would reply make better white people, which is just incredible. It feels fitting that you end the book, as we’ve already touched on, with the Cyclops, with this question of “Who is the pirate? Who is the shepherd?” and this notion of seeing and the pirate who is our hero putting out the eye of the guy who’s minding his own business with his sheep. But I was hoping we could end with a final reading from the empathy chapter.
[Elaine Castillo reads from her essay collection How to Read Now]
DN: Thank you, Elaine, for being on the show today.
EC: Oh my goodness. This was incredible. This was so much fun. I wish we could talk Asian film all day. [laughter]
DN: I wish we could too. We’ve been talking today to Elaine Castillo, the author of the essay collection How to Read Now. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers I’m David Naimon, your host.
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