Three Questions for Elaine Castillo

The California Book Club’s January 2021 author reveals her pick for the great work of literature whose backstory deserves its own book.

elaine castillo
Mondadori Portfolio

What are three favorite books of 2020 from California and the West?
K-Ming Chang’s Bestiary, Lysley Tenorio’s The Son of Good Fortune, and I can’t wait to read Laurel Flores Fantauzzo’s YA novel My Heart Underwater.

What’s a California story that deserves its own book?
I’ve always thought the story behind John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath should be told: that he stole the ideas and research from Sanora Babb, whose own novel was shelved when The Grapes of Wrath was published. Babb also married the Chinese American cinematographer James Wong Howe, but anti-miscegenation laws meant the marriage was not legally recognized until more than a decade later, when the California Supreme Court decriminalized interracial marriage. Steinbeck is a totemic California writer—that reputation deserves to be reexamined, to say the least.

The title of America Is Not the Heart echoes that of Carlos Bulosan’s semiautobiographical novel of the Filipino migrant experience, America Is in the Heart. What’s behind the “Not”?
It came about as a kind of pun, for people familiar with the idiosyncrasies of a Filipino accent; “America is in the heart” can sound a lot like “America isn’t the heart.” But it’s also a pushback against the romantic idea of America vis-à-vis its immigrants. We tend to frame immigrant stories in terms of their relation to America (their love of, their gratitude toward, their misery in), which means they all become a referendum on America. I wanted to write an American story that didn’t have to assure itself that it was an American story. 

John McMurtrie edits for McSweeney’s Publishing and the literary travel magazine Stranger’s Guide.
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