Event Recap: Why Elaine Castillo Writes Unapologetically

The author of America Is Not the Heart urges writers to embrace their “unexpected” readers.

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There is something that I’ve always found extremely touching—moving, in particular—about people who have a really difficult time with expressing their emotions, with expressing their feelings, who feel more comfortable in silence. Especially in writing scenes and dialogue of people who cannot say what they mean most of the time because they’re not trafficking in their primary language,” said Elaine Castillo, of creating the space for realism in her debut novel, at the fourth installment of Alta Journal’s California Book Club.

Hosted by John Freeman, book club members gathered virtually last night to discuss Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart, a sweeping novel that tells a story of the Filipino American diaspora in Milpitas, California—just a few miles away from Castillo’s hometown, San Jose. “As someone who really grew up in a family of medical professionals…whose job was caregiving and identity was this very specific type of affective labor, it struck me how much of that type of affective labor that they had to perform in the workplace then made them, in a sense, unable to perform that affective labor at home,” Castillo noted.

After responding to Freeman about her interest in following her characters during moments of intense stillness, Castillo went on to mention her interest in a different kind of language and style of communication. “My agent will tell you that I have to be wrestled to write dialogue,” Castillo joked. “I think so much of my work and my writing practice [and] also just what I fall in love with in other forms of art…has always been the gestural. Always, always, always. I think probably even the kind of kernels that probably started this book were in gestures and things like hair washing.”

Castillo read the first few pages of the prologue of America Is Not the Heart, and we were able to hear, as Freeman put it, “the intense amount of momentum and musicality” in her prose. When asked how she was able to pen such words to paper, Castillo said, “For any writer, there’s got to be some sort of mysterious alchemy between the stuff that you know or, at least, think you know and the patterns that you are aware of laying out and then the ones that reoccur sometimes in spite of you.”

The prologue, which, along with a later section in the novel, is written in the second person, had been subject to criticism because, for some, it made the book feel uneven. During the event, Castillo offered us some insight: “Growing up, so much of the work—I remember reading so many texts by writers of color that were in the second person. So I also think that there is something there about the politics of the second person and what modes are considered nonliterary.”

She continued: “I remember, there was a debate at some point when the book was still in edits about whether or not the Rosalyn section should stay in. And I think I said something to the effect of ‘It might be a better book if that section is not in, but it’s not going to be my book.’ ”

Castillo remarked that she had written the prologue while living in London, during the summer before she matriculated into the writing program at Goldsmiths, which is where she met London-based poet Rachel Long, whose first collection, My Darling from the Lions, will be released in the United States later this year.

It was in London that Castillo felt she had gathered the emotional, physical, and critical distance from her hometown to write about her community with honesty, care, and freedom. Long was an early reader of Castillo’s manuscript and supported her vision of writing about her community away from the white gaze. “I mean, I think the first thing I always sort of harp on is being unapologetic about your work,” Castillo said. “You know, the only person that can write your work—I mean, this is going to sound very obvious, but you are the only person who can write that specific work.”

The event concluded with Castillo reading from an essay she is working on, tentatively titled “Reading Teaches Us Empathy and Other Fictions,” which she hopes will be part of a larger project about the racial politics of our reading culture: “Every reader in principle should be unexpected. It’s a minor miracle to create a work of art that reaches another person—to write something that then finds someone willing enough to take it on, engage with it—read it. But the older I get, the more I realize that certain artists don’t actually have any relationship to their unexpected reader.”

“An expected reader always expects to be led by the hand; the unexpected reader knows we get lost in each other,” Castillo continued. “And some might call it a privilege, the power some writers have to write and be read apolitically, universally, expectantly. But increasingly, I think that privilege is, in fact, a curse—a curse to never know yourself as an author or be truly known by your reader.”

Castillo’s call to writers extends to readers, asking us to reach for a more rigorous practice, one that urges us to find joy in the unfamiliar that, with patience, can become the familiar.

Editor's Note: We would like to acknowledge that we made a photo-captioning error on the CBC’s Instagram page. As a consequence, special guest Rachel Long was unable to attend our January 21 gathering. We regret the mistake and recognize its implications. Please find our apology here.

Rasheeda Saka is a graduate student in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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