Author Elaine Castillo talks about empathy, Jane Austen adaptations, and "How to Read Now"

"I don't really hear, 'We've checked our quota for white middle class authors from Brooklyn'"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 4, 2022 5:15PM (EDT)

Composition with books on the table (Getty Images/FabrikaCr)
Composition with books on the table (Getty Images/FabrikaCr)

"Literature shouldn't be politicized." "Separate the art from the artist." "Books build empathy." These are very silly and simplistic ideas, and Elaine Castillo would like to encourage you to shed them.

After achieving success with her breakthrough debut novel "America Is Not the Heart," Castillo found herself traveling the world, engaging with audiences and writers, and as she puts it, "thinking about how to read." Not in the simplistic, reading group guide way. Definitely not, as she says, to "Make better white people." Instead, she understood that "The way we read now is simply not good enough," and that this not good enough reading applies to everything — "films, TV shows, our history, each other." So she is not going to fix you or tell you what books to put on your shelf to offer the appearance of being sufficiently progressive. Instead, with her new book of essays, "How to Read Now," she's going to explain why comfortable obliviousness makes for bad critical thinking. "I can't say I love this world or living in it if I don't bother to know it," she writes, "indeed, be known by it."

Salon talked to Castillo recently via Zoom about "How to Read Now," the myth of empathy and the trouble with Jane Austen adaptations.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me what you wanted to express in this book, in this story that is so personal but is also a guidepost for all of us.

Besides it coming out from my entire reading life, I started writing it when I was in New Zealand. It was about a year into book tour, and it was really one of those somewhat like epiphanic experiences of travel. I was at the Sydney Writers Festival and then the Auckland Writers Festival. That period, especially being in New Zealand, felt altering and eye-opening, but also formative in a way. I remember I was just in the hotel room, writing sort of in a fugue state.

What I was writing was obviously coming out of the experiences that I'd had on book tour already. I'd been touring for about a year, a year of experiencing what it was like to not just be a writer but to be a published author and a published author of color on the book festival circuit, and how the books of writers of color were being discussed and the discourse that was being applied to them. And the difference between that discourse and the kinds of discourse I would see applied to white authors, or white middle class authors.

I probably always would have written a book about the classics or about Asian film. It ultimately came out of passion. All of the things that I write about in the book are things that I feel passionate about. I'm vulnerable to have felt myself in a state of submission, which is the  feeling that you have when you encounter a work of art that changes you, that moves you, that alters something in you.

"It was either I write this book or I was just going to get out of literature entirely."

I also wrote the book because it was either I write this book or I was just going to get out of literature entirely. It felt untenable to continue working if I didn't put down in writing some of the things that I was thinking and feeling. So despite the fact of having been an obsessive, inveterate reader all my life, it was a time where I felt what I assume religious people would consider a kind of crisis of faith about literature or being in what would probably more accurately be called the literary industry.

You talk in the book about that experience in New Zealand and your experience of readers, and white readers in particular.

My overwhelming experience of New Zealand was one of complete love. I've been thinking recently about the genre of travel writing, because it's such a fraught genre. Obviously it has neocolonial histories and it's fraught with fetishism, exoticism. But I also remember really reading and loving the tradition of writers of color writing abroad.

Probably the biggest example of that is James Baldwin writing about Europe, and Paris and Switzerland in particular. There was this tradition of writers of color writing about being outside of America and their experiences of being outside of America that I felt a kinship towards, even though travel writing is a very tricky genre. But it's something that I think about. I left the States when I was 25 and I lived in England for almost a decade.

The experience of the American abroad is not new. But I think writers like James Baldwin give writers, and writers of color in particular, who want to write about travel, a blueprint for how to write about other places in ways that illuminate your relationship to your own place, because that's really what being there did. If you can make travel writing about finding connections between disparate places, as opposed to being like, "Oh, our man in Havana now talks about Havana to all of the middle class people back home to titillate them," I think there is something still to be salvaged in travel writing.

You start very early on by addressing with this idea of, "Reading builds empathy." Tell me, why is that a fiction? Why is that an easy, calming idea that we need to go deeper into?

It's a really way of turning books into a specific type of technology, like a type of app. I apply this and then suddenly, zoop! "Oh, I know how to be empathetic about Southeast Asian people. I know everything there is to know about Filipinos now because I read this particular book."

This is not a case against empathy. I don't have a wholesale argument against empathizing with other human beings and what they've gone through. I also live with other people and live in a society. But I think about the way that it's applied in books, in literature, in art generally. It's true of the television and the film we consume. I'm speaking as a writer and as a reader, because books are the industry and the world that I find myself in the most. When we think about empathy, usually what it means with marginalized people, with people of color, with queer writers, that becomes the vehicle through which to justify the presence of these writers on our bookshelves. "I'm reading about queer writers because I'm not homophobic. I'm reading Filipino writers because I've learned a lot about the Philippines through it." But we don't ever say the kinds of books. Peter Handke, for example, the Austrian writer that I talk about in one essay, who the New York Times defended for being apolitical.

We don't talk about his books, as someone who has very publicly been a fascist apologist for the regime of Slobodan Milošević, that his books also oblige a very specific type of empathy fo the kinds of white characters that he puts forth in his books. What ends up happening is that we go to writers of color to learn the specific and we go to white writers to feel the universal. So it's like, when I read a white author's book, I'm just reading about marriage. But if there's a book by a writer of color about a Filipino marriage, then I say, "Well I'm reading ethnographically about what Filipino marriage is like."

The ways that empathy is instrumentalized for writers of color means writers of color in turn are instrumentalized to provide this essentially therapeutic relationship for predominantly white readers, or readers outside of that particular writer's community.

Then literature becomes a case study. As opposed to what you talk about, which is the idea of solidarity, being able to sit with someone else's experience. It is not, "I know what it feels like to be you, because I read a book."

It also contributes to this idea of the only one, or that false narrative of scarcity that I think a lot of writers of color feel. "If there's one Filipino author, then there can be one or two and then we've learned everything from them." I think that's changing, but certainly I remember other writers of color being like, "We checked our quota for that." But I don't really hear, "We've checked our quota for white middle class authors from Brooklyn."

The whole concept of separating the art from the artist, as you say, is absurd. It doesn't deepen our reading. It doesn't deepen our understanding of literature. It creates this very superficial experience. What do you think is the fear? That if I know more about the historical context of a Jane Austen novel, I won't be able to enjoy that Dakota Johnson movie?

I don't think I really criticized Jane Austen so much as the fervor around protecting her. Or protecting her work from the stain of politics. It's not just absurd, it's just very boring. It's just very boring, anodyne, not particularly curious or rigorous or historically accurate. It's just not readership, basically. It's just willful misreading. I mean, "Persuasion" . . .  That's my Austen. I was telling somebody, "Anne Elliot is the Jane Austen character for earth signs. Virgos feel very offended by the transformation of Anne Elliot into a fire sign. She's not a Leo. She is not feisty, stop this. She's a Virgo or a Taurus. You'll need to stop."

Anne Elliot is a sensible person.

Sensible people representation is under attack.

And we can have something like "Fire Island" as an example of putting Austen in context. Austen is very political. Shakespeare wrote plays that were literally about politics. You really are talking about looking at things critically, which is what the humanities teach us to do. It's okay to read in a way that deepens our understanding of the world.

"There's that anxiety about suddenly being suddenly not being able to have a pure, neutral, ahistorical, apolitical relationship to a work. "

There's that anxiety about suddenly being uncomfortable within a work or suddenly not being able to have a pure, neutral, ahistorical, apolitical relationship to a work. Apparently people are very attached to that. Well, I've never been able to have that relationship to authors. Plenty of readers have never been able to have that relationship to authors. Just speaking for myself, the experience of being a young Pinay reader, in elementary school and high school reading predominantly white authors, that's never been an experience of, "Wow. I really have this pure, ahistorical, apolitical relationship to this book that is saying extremely racist things."

I don't think anyone should be able to read ahistorically or apolitically. What we're talking about is dismantling the illusory idea that some people are allowed to. I just have never experienced that. So the idea of other people being like, "What if this damages my relationship to art?" I'm like, "We've all been here." There's tons of people who have had to navigate art in that way, literally their entire lives. The fact that you only are reaching that point now after college or whatever, that's enormous. I don't discount that might be an undertaking, but there's kids of color at seven who are having to navigate it.

It's kind of the same argument when people are like, "I don't want my kids to learn about queer people," or the conversation that's around children's books that might be about race or politics. Kids of color experience racism in their classes, but you don't want them to read children's books about it? You don't want them to learn history about it? Make that make sense.

I don't know if I can point to how I built those muscles, because ultimately it was my life that made me the kind of reader that I am. I had a father who was such a huge, voracious reader and passed that down to me and passed down a very idiosyncratic, non-hierarchical, vast but expansive — I don't think he would've said diverse, even though it was — view of what to read and how to read and to read everything, and to not feel like things were beyond me.

I inherited that from him, for which I'm grateful. And because of that, I had experiences very early on about being uncomfortable in books. I don't even think I would've characterized it as being uncomfortable. I don't think I felt discomfort because that was the baseline feeling of what it was to be in books. Instead of thinking about that discomfort as something to be afraid of, that's something that is just part and parcel. It's uncomfortable being a person. It's not like it's a cakewalk to be vulnerable in the world, but it's also not a cakewalk to be vulnerable in a book. That's what it asks of us.The least we can do to show up for it.

There's a kind of gatekeeping that to me is so deeply elitist, because it says there's only one right way to read things. And that if have a response that's different from my response, you're wrong. Which is so discouraging.

That's the experience certainly that I had in the writers program that I was in. And I don't think my experience was in any way unique. I think that accusation is really leveled at, especially students of color or writers of color, readers of color, who dare to read a book beyond what we would think of as the politically neutral aesthetic. "Let's just talk about sentence construction and how beautiful these sentences are and nothing that gets into the politics of a rape scene in a book and how it's deployed in the book and how it's buried in discussions about the book," or things like that.

It is discouraging. I know it was discouraging to some fellow students because of after hours or after class extracurricular conversations you have with other students, especially students of color, and not even my fellow students. I remember talking about it with other writers of color who've been in similar programs. And after the sh*tshow of the class, the most life-giving stuff would be being in the bar after, with your drinks and with your cigarettes and doing the postmortem of everything that you just experienced. And then also just having to vent.

I don't consider myself easily discouraged, just because I'm a Virgo for one. I'm generally very combative. But even for me, the second year of my program I was like, "I'm just not going to talk anymore." I would see it even with other students, if there's a certain climate about what can and cannot be said within the classroom, especially students of color who might not be as combative or as confrontational as others, or as I would be.

A lot of those writers might never come back to writing because they think, "Oh, well this is what literature is about. This is what writing pedagogy is. This is what it means to be a writer." Or, "And I can't speak that language," or, "I feel alienated from that." That's the very definition of gatekeeping.

What do you think about where the state of books is now, where the state of reading is now? Do you feel hopeful? What are you seeing that's maybe different now than when you started writing this book?

I'm excited by the books that I read nowadays. I also really love reading across generations. I don't also only read contemporary books. That's something that I think it's important to point out, it's not only the books now necessarily that are teaching us about how to read now, or that are the most progressive or are the most sort of disruptive.

Even something like Toni Morrison's "Playing in the Dark." For me, it's almost cliche to be recommending it. Then I remember, "Oh wait, you're old. Some people haven't read it." That's also something that I try to remember, that I want to continue reading across generations to remember that it's not just the literature of the now that has answers for us. Whatever we think that we're looking for, there were already generations before us that were working on that, and that were writing about it.

The language around hope is tricky. I think about it. Obviously, I think about it more specifically when I think about everything that's happening around Roe V Wade. We're often given this fantasy, essentially, that we're all on this ever moving forward, progressive sort of march towards ever more progressive equity, ever more democratic. The fact of the matter is that the trajectory towards justice or the trajectory towards equity is not linear. It's not.

And because it's not linear it can't be taken for granted as well. It's easy to forget that the practice of hope is just constant, small incursions by individuals working together, ultimately. That is how I feel about the state of literature now. That's such a big, capital letters, concept word. The most I can do is to write the kinds of books that I believe in and to practice the kind of reading, and to practice it publicly, that I feel is an antidote to some of the types of reading that are taught to us. Am I a hopeful person generally? I don't know that I can always answer that in the positive. But a determined person, a person with conviction? Then yeah. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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