AUGUST 9, 2022
I FIRST VENTURED on Bookstagram during the summer of 2020. I was quarantining in Vermont at the family home of a man I was falling out of love with. Unable to drive and thus effectively homebound except for the maddening two-mile loop I power-walked twice a day, I binge-read every ebook I could download from the public library and obsessively scoured that mesmerizing corner of Instagram where predominantly white and female readers posted artfully curated photographs of books.
And so, instead of preparing for my grad-school exams, I gave myself a crash course in contemporary American reading culture. It was a peculiar summer to take on such a project — the summer, if you recall, that White America rediscovered race. I was attuned to certain trends as I scrolled through little images of hardcovers on tables alongside stylish lattes and waifish girls reading by bay windows. As protests over the murder of George Floyd erupted across the country, tasteful pictures of books by Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Ibram X. Kendi, and Michelle Alexander inundated my feed. When Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half came out in early June, everyone rushed to style its abstract, primary-colored cover against picnic blankets and blue skies. It almost goes without saying that Morrison, Baldwin, Kendi, Alexander, and Bennett are as different writers as they come. But you would not be able to tell that by the way these books were presented on my feed. The Bookstagrammers were grateful for the insights on racial injustice these texts imparted. They were very moved by the plight of their fellow citizens who happened to be Black.
In her new essay collection How to Read Now, Elaine Castillo deftly diagnoses what exactly so discomfited me that summer. In the eponymous first essay, she skewers the way that nonwhite writers are read as chroniclers of nonwhite experiences rather than as artists in their own right. By her lights, the white liberal reading style “has dictated that we go to writers of color for the gooey heart-porn of the ethnographic: to learn about forgotten history, harrowing tragedy, community-destroying political upheaval, genocide, trauma.” Such was the problem with the way I saw these Black writers taken up on Bookstagram. Nestled amidst clouds of baby’s breath and shot from an overhead perspective next to sandwiches, their works indiscriminately became texts of moral instruction as well as objects of consumption.
The platitude that art cultivates empathy often underwrites the Bookstagrammers’ performance of reading Black writers. Castillo sagaciously takes this myth of empathy apart in the collection’s second essay, “Reading Teaches Us Empathy, and Other Fictions.” By treating art “as a kind of ethical protein shake,” she writes, “we largely end up going to writers of color to learn the specific — and go to white writers to feel the universal.” Ironically, by reading white male writers for aesthetics instead of ethnographic insight, she argues, readers implicitly empathize with the white male protagonists in these texts as universal subjects.
As Castillo guides us through each of these arguments, she enacts a form of critique that construes “Asian American” in terms of positionality rather than identity. You won’t find statements like, “As a queer Asian American woman …” in How to Read Now. Such statements inevitably make assumptions about what queerness, Asian American identity, and being a woman entail, and Castillo is too shrewd a critic of identity politics to fall prey to such traps of liberal multiculturalism. In “Autobiography in Asian Film,” Castillo lambasts “Representation Matters Art,” which mistakes “visibility for liberation.” By contrast, Castillo shows us what happens when you read with an eye towards how Asia surfaces in Western literature. For example, in “Reading Teaches Us Empathy,” Castillo reminds us that Peter Handke’s Across (1986) was titled Der Chinese des Schmerzes (The Chinaman of Suffering) in the original German. Proceeding to look for the missing “Chinaman” in the novel, she discovers that this character is — surprise! — the white Austrian narrator of the novel. Chineseness appears as a metaphor for alienation, never mind that Asian immigrants — or, shall we say, actual aliens — are strewn throughout the book as props used to cultivate an atmosphere of “narrative dread.”
Castillo’s essays are whip-smart. They do what good criticism often does: pinpoint something that feels off and explain to us why exactly it so unsettles us. The collection also draws on a remarkable archive, with references ranging from Handke’s novel to the recent HBO show Watchmen, from the films of Wong Kar-wai to Homer’s Odyssey. A masterclass in cultural criticism, How to Read Now feeds my aesthetic proclivity for unusual juxtapositions of the highbrow and the lowbrow. It is profoundly satisfying to watch Castillo dance across these works with such agility (not to mention with such an enviable knowledge of star signs).
And yet, thumbing through How to Read Now, I could not shake a sneaking sense of déjà vu. To be sure, there were nuggets of insight sprinkled throughout, ones I diligently underlined. But there were also long stretches of well-worn arguments. In “Main Character Syndrome,” Castillo takes Joan Didion — that “preeminent chronicler of Californian life” — to task for looking but failing to see. Close-reading Didion’s 1984 novel Democracy, she traces how the story plays white middle-class melancholy against the “Orient” and commits the sin of using “natives” as backdrop. My attention flagged as Castillo flayed Didion across 30 pages. It’s not that I disagree with her; it’s just that I’d heard these arguments before, and in the genre of Didion-critique, I prefer the more ambivalent renderings by Jay Caspian Kang and Hilton Als, who reflect on their debts to Didion without shying away from her dubious politics. Castillo herself is aware that her arguments are at least a little tired. The essay on Didion begins with a confession: “At this point, it’s almost boring to say you hate Joan Didion’s work.” Later in the same essay, she acknowledges, “Of course, the motivational thrust of the critique more commonly known as the ‘why doesn’t this white author ever write about people of color’ argument has been feeble since the aftermath of Girls, if not Austen — no one wants your Shein haul of Diverse Characters.” Nevertheless, she persisted.
Beyond retreaded critiques, versions of the question “Who is this writing for?” recur throughout the book. It’s an important question, to be sure, but also one that has been a mainstay of social justice–inflected rhetoric for a while. And if a faint sense of recognition gnawed at the back of your mind when you read my rendering of Castillo’s argument about reading nonwhite writers as ethnographers, you’re not wrong. Lauren Michele Jackson penned a powerful version of this critique in response to the proliferation of antiracist reading lists in the summer of 2020. In her viral essay, Jackson points out that the indiscriminate listing of novels, poetry, sociological tomes, and self-help books “reinforces an already pernicious literary divide that books written by or about minorities are for educational purposes, racism and homophobia and stuff, wholly segregated from matters of form and grammar, lyric and scene.”
Vulnerability repeatedly surfaces in Castillo’s essays as an object of desire and praise. She lauds Wong Kar-wai’s 1997 film Happy Together for its “determined attention to the peripheral, the minor, and the vulnerable.” She castigates Didion’s characterization of writing as an act of aggression because it makes “no space […] for writing as invitation, or as a place for mutual intimacy or vulnerability.” Elsewhere, she suggests that using writers of color as diversity props to make a majority white middle-class readership feel good is bad practice because it obstructs literature from being “a place to be made humble in one’s vulnerability.” Reading ought to render one vulnerable, and writing should be a vulnerable act.
It’s an ironic truth that those who most extol vulnerability’s virtues often brace themselves most rigidly against it. Castillo applauds vulnerability, but How to Read Now is not a vulnerable book. As stylistically refreshing as it is in its irreverence, it is a work that eschews risk. The collection’s cautiousness about its politics is evidenced by the repetitions I have outlined: it traffics in arguments that have already circulated on the internet, arguments that are thus “safe” insofar as there exists a ready audience for them. To turn Castillo’s question “Who is this writing for?” back on her own text, the obvious answer is that it’s for readers like me, who are broadly “progressive” and amenable to her arguments, or more likely already agree with them. Many of these readers might even be members of the white liberal literary establishment Castillo reprimands. White liberals do have a bottomless appetite for texts that tell them how white and liberal they are, after all.
In these moments, when I found myself reciting the arguments about settler colonialism and whiteness alongside Castillo, I yearned for her fiction. Castillo’s debut novel, America Is Not the Heart (2018), tells the story of Hero, a woman who immigrated to the United States after being persecuted for her involvement in the New People’s Army, a communist rebel group in the Philippines. Hero moves in with her uncle’s family in Milpitas, California, and the novel follows her as she adjusts to the mundanities of American life, shuttling her younger cousin Roni between her middle school and the local healer (to treat the girl’s eczema).
America Is Not the Heart takes a number of risks by defying the conventions of contemporary fiction. At 480 pages, it is longer than many recent novels — especially novels by nonwhite writers — and it doesn’t apologize for its length by compensating with an action-filled plot. In an age of Sally Rooney mania, when all the buzziest novels seem to center hot, disaffected millennials, America Is Not the Heart daringly selects a measured and laconic middle-aged woman with a disfigured hand as its protagonist. Ultimately, the novel’s focus is not even Hero exactly, but the community that surrounds her, a community that thrums with life and drifts between Tagalog, Pangasinan, and Ilocano.
The novel further resists tropes endemic to Asian American literature. Set in the heart of the Filipino American community in the Bay Area, America Is Not the Heart thwarts the “Only One” script, which typically features an Asian American protagonist in a sea of whiteness whose main existential struggle is to become white. Castillo’s fiction likewise has no patience for the “good immigrant” narrative. The characters are brash and loud. They sing karaoke and hang out. Some of them don’t even have jobs.
How to Read Now actually offers astute analyses of both the “Only One” and the “good immigrant” tropes in Asian American literature. As Castillo demonstrates, the former neglects the privilege that accompanies Asian American access to white spaces — the privilege that makes possible in the first place the trope of the “Only One.” The latter constrains the possibilities of art to representation. But I still found Castillo’s fiction much more compelling than her essays. How to Read Now practices a style of reading that is distinctly paranoid and — as queer theorist Eve Sedgwick puts it — “places its faith in exposure.” Castillo literally uses the language of exposure. “It falls on us,” she writes, “to live in that culture [of intellectual and bureaucratic silence] and […] to dismantle it: to take it apart, piece by piece, and expose its carefully curated silences, concealments, and confidentiality clauses to light.” But what happens when the audience has already been enlightened? Exposure assumes a naïve audience who hasn’t heard the story before; the force of exposure comes from the shock of encountering it. Suppose the reader agrees — then what?
America Is Not the Heart, on the other hand, is less pedagogical and more curious. As such, the novel places its faith not in exposure but in its readers. It doesn’t instruct them in how to read; instead, it lays open to the myriad ways that its readers will pick up the book. And what an act of vulnerability that is.