Most of us have probably known somebody like Elaine Castillo. The smartest person in the class, the person who held forth with assertions that didn’t invite discussion but a kind of acclamation. You interjected at your peril, inviting exposure of your intellectual inferiority. While you were digesting point A, she was deeply into point B and beyond, leaving you hopelessly behind. You were made to recognize that you moved on a lesser intellectual plane, involved with lesser ideas, reaching conclusions not necessarily wrong but of lesser importance and consequence.
Castillo is the author of the novel, America is Not the Heart, and most recently, the non-fiction How to Read Now. Self-described as a bi-sexual Philipinx, the California-born Castillo is riding the crest of what appears to be a wave of authors of color intent upon making an overtly political treatment of subjects like white supremacy, colonialism and racial inequality part of a literary establishment that has long been dominated by white writers, editors, and publishers, and thus, following the logic of that construct, dominated by literary expressions of white concerns.
White, in Castillo’s hermeneutic journeys into literature, film, and personal history that make up How to Read Now is much more than a descriptor. It is a filter through which the world is perceived, a filter that rendered her family and friends and neighbors in the San Francisco Bay area as brown-faced people who did the jobs that allowed the white dominant class to maintain its comfortable lifestyle. Whiteness not as a flaw, per se, but a limitation cemented by centuries of oppression and exploitation of the black and brown inhabitants of the world. There is no room in this cultural reading for white liberal pieties. Whiteness, as in Jordan Peele’s popular film, Get Out, equates to cluelessness, and Castillo has no interest in providing clues, or, as she says, doing the work that white writers and white readers should be doing for themselves.
As a cis straight white male—a construction Castillo also employs as a subset of the aforementioned whiteness—and a lifelong liberal who has decried racism and exploitation of people of color—I could take offense. I could accuse Castillo of painting a large swath of society with an exceedingly broad brush. But she wouldn’t care. She hasn’t invited us to the party, so to speak. The injured feelings of the white people in her audience are their concern; she is doing the work of humanizing the historically dehumanized and if some toes are stepped on in the process, maybe those people will pay closer attention and think about the work they ought to be doing to decolonialize the institutions that still facilitate that dehumanization. As a cis straight white male—her words again, not mine—I can’t pull out my liberal credentials and thus divest myself of any and all relationship to Donald Trump or Harvey Weinstein or King Leopold and the other white, European purveyors of unspeakable colonial cruelty. We all bear the weight of our history, whether we like it or not.
The title of How to Read Now suggests that reading—and Castillo means reading as much more than processing the words on a page—is not only due for revision, but can in some fashion be taught. I didn’t fully grasp all her contentions, because reading the book sometimes felt like listening to someone who talks too fast and refuses to repeat anything. But I’ll freely admit that the deficit in understanding could be due to my own intellectual limitations. I can’t pretend to be as smart as Castillo, who has not only read many works of fiction and non-fiction unfamiliar to most white readers, but taken what looks like a deep dive into Greek mythology and freely refers to names, places and themes in a way an unsympathetic reader might see as performative, a kind of flaunting, rather than an educational excercise.
For writers like Castillo, everything is political. The historic oppressiveness of social and economic institutions is a central fact of their lives and art that doesn’t engage with this fact can’t make a meaningful claim on our attention. That is to say, art by and for white people, who, even if they have a clear-eyed view of their brutal, colonialist history, continue to regard elements of that past and its current vestiges as heroic and worthy of celebration. Art that looks at the world with a kind of exhaustion, dipping its brushes into the wells of ennui and irony when people like Castillo’s immigrant parents work multiple jobs, exposing themselves to all the permutations of racism in a desperate effort to pave their childrens’ way to better lives. People who have girded themselves with hope, not despair.
To illustrate, Castillo trundles out Joan Didion, an easy target for someone who wants to topple the statue the literary establishment has erected to a writer who often regarded her surroundings with a weary, jaundiced eye. Those are my words, not Castillo’s, who makes much of the fact that Didion was repeatedly identified as a fifth-generation Californian as if that fact endowed her with some special authority, when in reality it meant that her ancestors were complicit in the bloody theft of the land, first from indigenous people, then from the Mexicans. Didion’s wraith-like whiteness is observed, as if it might serve a metaphorical purpose, although it has always seemed to me more of a publicist’s idea for an author photo, like a romance writer’s glamorous author photo, meant to be suggestive of the torrid proceedings between the covers. Beyond this, I can’t comment. Although I admire Didion’s use of language (another literary trope Castillo associates with whiteness), I have never been able to drag myself to the end of one of her books.
Castillo does find writers and works in the white-dominated literary canon that she can admire. One, perhaps surprisingly, is Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. This admiration, however, serves as introduction to a lengthy anecdote about a professor in a graduate writing class she took at London University (she lived in England for a time.) She diligently read and considered the text of this famous novella and was prepared to discuss it with her fellow students (all white, along with the professor) but was thwarted by the professor’s acceptance of complaints by the students that James’s long, clause-ridden sentences were too much work. I’ll give Castillo the benefit of the doubt, even though it strains the imagination that this occurred in a graduate writing class in a major university. I first read The Turn of The Screw as a college freshman in an introductory literature class at a Midwestern engineering and agriculture school, and while I don’t remember specifics, I do recall that the teacher guided the discussion in a way that made it lively and engaging.
Castillo professes outright love for the writings of John Berger, the white English novelist and art critic whose most famous book, “Ways of Seeing,” was one of the earliest serious works of non-fiction I read and one of the more influential, in terms of provoking reflection on things I hadn’t considered before, such as the “male gaze.” But she takes on another easy target in the recent novel, American Dirt, a book reeking of controversy not so much because of its content, but the fact that its white author presumed to write from the point of view of a poor, Latin American migrant. I haven’t read the book and find the discussion of cultural appropriation often tedious, trampling important ideas about the uses and limits of imagination in the dust of literary politics. A discussion that leads to accusation is one I’d rather not have. And she misfires badly when she speaks of point of view in the literary sense, saying that the second person typically used by writers of color is regarded by white readers and writers as a “non-kosher, extra-literary” mode when in fact there is a long list of well-known white authors who have employed this mode in their novels. Paul Auster, Lorrie Moore, Tom Robbins, Jay McInerney, and Stewart O’Nan, to name a few.
How to Read Now is a compilation of pieces Castillo wrote and talks she delivered at writers’ conferences, delivered with a kind of exuberant self-regard that might be off-putting to readers used to writers who approach the subjects of her concerns in a more measured, even-handed way, but colonialism, racism, cultural erasure and genocide aren’t artifacts of a distant past but evils embedded in our most basic institutions. Manifestations of this are all around us, glaringly obvious to all but the willfully blind. The English monarchy, which enslaved and oppressed and exploited millions of black and brown-skinned people, is celebrated when the Queen dies. The names of the missionaries who helped enable Spanish dreams of wealth and domination by destroying indigenous lives and culture adorn public buildings. These are just two examples, artifacts of evil perpetuated because they are artifacts of history, even though that history was written by the perpetuators and makes up only a few pages in a book from which hundreds of pages have been ripped out and destroyed.
But it was hard for me to find space in How to Read Now between acknowledgment of white privilege and the work white people should be doing to rid institutions of its injurious manifestations in the lives of people of color, and the nagging sense that using whiteness to symbolize centuries of oppression and exploitation demanding reparations won’t help bring about the mutual respect that is the basis of true equality. Some years ago, I read a quote from a female writer of color who was part of the local literary scene—and I’m paraphrasing here—telling white male writers to “get out of the way, your time is over. It’s our time now.” No doubt that sentiment arose from a genuine sense of being disregarded, but what does calling, in essence, for a kind of literary apartheid accomplish?
“We rise together or fall together.” Nothing more than a platitude uttered by politicians cynically trolling for votes among the sentimentally inclined? Or the truth?