California Book Club: Elaine Castillo Transcript

Read a lightly-edited transcript of author Elaine Castillo's conversation with California Book Club host John Freeman

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David Ulin: Greetings, everyone. Welcome to the first California Book Club meeting of 2021. It’s a new year. It’s a new slate of writers, and we are going to begin this season’s events with John Freeman interviewing Elaine Castillo, the author of America Is Not the Heart. And I am David Ulin. I am the books editor of Alta.

Welcome. I want to tell you a little bit about Alta and a little about the California Book Club, and without much further ado, cut to the chase and introduce John and Elaine. Alta Journal is a quarterly journal published in San Francisco with a focus on California and the West, the culture, the literature, the politics, the landscape of California and the West.

Also doing a lot of online coverage, online book coverage, online conversations and hosting the California Book Club, which is a book club that Alta, along with a number of partners, I’ll talk about them in a moment, has put together featuring one California book a month. We did three last fall. We are now doing the winter series and gearing up to do the spring series.

I’d like to thank our producing partners and just name them for all of you. They are Book Passage, Books Inc., Book Soup, Book Shop, DIESEL, A Bookstore, the Huntington USC Institute on California and the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, Narrative Magazine, Vromans Bookstore, and Zyzzyva.

I’ll be back to talk a little bit more at the end about how to be involved more with Alta and be involved with the California Book Club. But for the moment, let me introduce John Freeman, who is the host of the California Book Club, and tonight’s guest, the writer, Elaine Castillo. Please welcome John and Elaine. Thank you very much.

John Freeman: Thank you so much, David. It’s really a pleasure to be here again with all of you in California and around the world for our fourth installment of the California Book Club. My hope with this club when we began it was that we would talk about great books, beautiful books, but books that were situated within California and had done something new within the literature.

And C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold, the way that that book used history in just a brilliantly-tweaked way to tell the story of a family that was living in the midst of the Gold Rush and trying to survive. The way that Reyna Grande wrote a memoir not about the crossing but the aftermath of a family trying to get from Mexico to California, how Walter Mosley remapped Los Angeles and took into account the migration westward of African-Americans into LA and made in that world a brand new kind of crime fiction.

All these books, I think, did something new to the literature, and I have run out of fingers to tell you the ways that America Is Not the Heart, Elaine Castillo's debut novel, is breaking new ground as a novel. For starters, it's just astonishingly energetic and beautiful. It does so many things that you're not supposed to do and does them brilliantly.

It begins in the second person in the Philippines telling the story of Paz, who is growing up there very poor. When we meet her again, she is in Milpitas, California. She is the married nurse who lives with Hero De Vera's uncle. Hero De Vera is the hero of this story. She has arrived in Milpitas in the late 1980s, early 1990s. Her fingers are busted from things that she suffered as a radical supporter of guerrilla fighters. She is basically trying to make her way in this country.

And we pick up where her story begins, which is that she is now going to be taking care of Paz and her uncle's daughter, Roni, who shares a name with her, who has a terrible case of eczema, so bad that she is going to be going to faith healers. And Hero De Vera basically is lost, in a way, until she starts to realize that all around her are parts of the past that came over with her.

And there are new friends, and she falls in love. And in a way, this brilliant novel, which is probably one of the best South Bay novels, if not the best, I've ever read is also a bisexual, queer, coming-of-age story. And it doesn't go to San Francisco for that to happen. In fact, all the missteps that Hero makes, which I'll talk to Elaine about, happen when she goes to San Francisco. Everything gets better when she stays in Milpitas.

It's a family story. It's a love story. It's a story about the Philippines. I am in awe of what this book has done. But join me in welcoming its author, Elaine Castillo, who joins us from Milpitas itself.

Elaine Castillo: Not quite Milpitas, from San Jose, but yes, very much from the South Bay, where it's been very, very hot recently. Hi, John. You're in London, my old home, which we are going to talk about tonight. And hi, everyone, for coming in. I'm hands-free so I can't be part of the chat, but I did see some people like Paul Yamazaki, I saw you. Thank you guys for joining us.

There was a time when I was promoting the book where I felt like I was talking to John about, it seemed like quarterly. And given the pandemic and everything, I think I haven't seen you now in, it feels like 3,000 years, but it's probably just been one year. So now we get to talk, and we can finally make up and have our quarterly conversation. John, you're frozen, although it's a very good position for you.

And so I'm really looking forward to having another deep dive view. For people who don't know, John read one of the first drafts of this book, which I think, at the time, it was 1,000 pages, which is nightmarish. It's one of the things that I wish I could have invented the Men in Black memory eraser. Now he has to be my friend forever, or I have to dispose of him. But he did read that early book, so he is one of the people best placed to talk about that early work.

And obviously, I'm really looking forward to getting into that discussion about the book, about the genesis of it, about living in London when I wrote it and about the various moral, intellectual, emotional history that went into the making of it.

But I would be remiss also to not talk about why there is an absence here for people who I'm sure are anticipating Rachel Long's presence. Rachel Long, a British poet who does happen to be my best friend and soulmate and love and who has written an incredible collection called My Darling from the Lions, is not here today, which is maybe clear from our introduction.

Okay, so just to briefly explain, essentially what happened today was California Book Club's Instagram account posted a photo of John, myself and the British writer, Aminatta Forna on their Instagram feed, mistakenly identifying Rachel as Aminatta. This is the kind of, frankly, racist microaggression that is all too common for people of color and particularly black people and particularly black women. I think I can probably rattle off a few times just in the past couple of years where I can remember this happening even to other black writers.

I think I remember, now it's coming to me also, I think there was something like this with the Vietnamese-American actress who was in Star Wars. So it's an all-too-common racist and racial microaggression. I was shocked and disappointed. I contacted them to make them aware of their mistake, asked them to replace the photo with a correct one, own up to the mistake publicly and, of course, apologize to Rachel and Aminatta as well, which they did.

And after much discussion and chat and calls with Rachel, Rachel ultimately decided to not take part in the event, which I 1,000 million trillion percent support and have only absolutely all-encompassing love and respect for. I'm still here tonight obviously to talk to you all, but also I think it's useful in some way to use my relative privilege as the guest of honor here and obviously also as a non-black person of color to take up the kind of affective labor that Rachel should not have to do, which is to say to accommodate when she essentially is bearing the brunt of that mistake.

We can go back to why the word microaggression is inadequate in terms of talking about how these things affect us as people of color and how they are an accumulation of small inhumanities that build up to a larger one, but I think it's also a good opportunity for us, in this discussion, to talk about things like what the real meaning of something like graciousness is. There is graciousness in accepting an apology, and there is also graciousness in ultimately not accommodating or censuring the feelings of people who have made the mistake. But of putting into effect consequences.

One of the consequences is that she's not here tonight, so that we learn from this so that people don't make that mistake in the future for another writer. And I am hoping that we can have a larger discussion, that this can tie into some of the discussion that John and I would already have about the book and how it ties into writing unapologetically not for white gays and to also tie into maybe some of the work that I'll read later from a collection of essays that I'd already been writing the racial politics of our reading culture.

Because that's the thing with these sort of events is that they often are part and parcel of a larger fabric of experience. And what's gracious is sort of acknowledging them and acknowledging the consequences of them and not putting on, I think especially post-inauguration, we've got a lot of the discourse and narrative of sort of unity and everything's great now. And I think it's useful to resist a little bit that narrative.

John Freeman: Some of the people who have been commenting in the chat have entered a little late. So I'm just going to repeat a little bit-

... what happened and then ask you a question, Elaine. In the promotion of the event, a picture was used of Elaine, myself and another writer talking. And that writer was identified as Rachel Long and, in fact, was the black British writer, Aminatta Forna, who, by the way, is a wonderful writer herself.

Elaine Castillo: That was a great event in Vancouver. I remember that. A good night.

John Freeman: Yes. And the only good thing about that photo is that we're laughing. But as Elaine is mentioning, this happens all too frequently to writers of color. And in the discussion, she just mentioned that writers of color are often meant to accommodate the feelings of the people who have made the mistake rather than actually look very clearly at the assumptions upon which the mistake is made, which is that surely there can't be more than two black British writers would be on a panel. In fact, we have many of them who could be part of this.

But I want to move to talking a little bit about your book because what you're just saying right now I think relates to one of the greatest strengths of your book, which is that it's not looking towards a white audience, looking to explain the worlds in which you situate the book. As I read it, I feel the book is a profound meditation on the different ways that we care for each other, given our often broken capacities to care.

This is a novel in which all the characters, many of them, are medical professionals, nurses, doctors whose training has been interrupted, doctors whose practice has been interrupted by the migration that takes place from the Philippines to America. And Elaine, what I really love is the way that you show people trying to care for each other in this broken but perfect capacity, which is that they sometimes don't give the care to the person right next them. They give it to the other person who is next to the other person.

And I guess what I want to ask you is right now we're in the middle of this horrific pandemic, which has claimed closing on half a million lives, and a lot of the characters in your book would right now be frontline workers and would be caring for people. And in moments of extremeness like that, we suddenly heroize these workers, make of them saints, make of them magicians. And your book celebrates the non-magical aspects of this. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how you create spaces of realism for something as monumental as caregiving, both between people and as a profession.

Elaine Castillo: That's such a good question. It is something that I've been thinking about recently. Just on a personal note, my mom literally just got her second dose of the vaccine as a frontline worker. Many of my cousins are frontline workers, so I am getting the constant emails and texts and the photos and the news from the front, as you might say, and it is horrifying. I have just endless amount of respect and love for them and for all frontline workers.

As someone who grew up really in a family of medical professionals and grew up with people whose job, not just job but especially for medical professionals, there's so much that's beyond a job. It's a vocation and an identity, and you grew up with people whose identity was caregiving and identity was exactly what we were talking about earlier, was this very specific type of affective labor. And I remember how much it struck me how much that affective labor that they had to perform in the workplace then made them, in a sense, unable to perform that same type of affective labor at home.

Maybe it's just me joking about how everyone in my family is just emotionally stoned in the language of Stone Butch. But everyone in my family is ... I think at some point I was telling someone that I was going to turn this book into a trilogy, and the trilogy would be called The Hard Asses With No Feelings trilogy because there is something about that that I think I've always found extremely touching, moving in particular. People who have a really difficult time with expressing their emotions, with expressing their feelings, who feel more comfortable in silence.

Especially in writing the kind of scenes and dialogues with people who cannot say what they mean. And when you add the extra layer that they also can't say it because most of the time they're not trafficking in their primary language, which is also the truth, for example, of someone like Paz, who has the kind of emotional clammed-up-ness of someone who's gone through first rural poverty and then life under martial law and then immigration that she's gone through with a sort of essentially class discrimination that she's experienced in the Philippines.

And how all of that combined with the fact that she feels othered speaking, not only in English, but in Tagalo, which is supposedly the lingua franca of the Philippines. But as Filipinos know, that is an imposed lingua franca, that there are many, many, many languages in the Philippines that are very distinct from Tagalo. They are not dialects in the kind of Chomsky and only thing that separates a language from a dialect is an army. They are not dialects. They are separate languages.

And so that added aspect of the language also making someone feel as though they can't express themselves, I think I found was a narratively-rich place to explore. How do we come to terms with our feelings in the most basic sense? It's very hard to feel things. And certainly, that has been my experience.

John Freeman: What I love is that you find other ways for the characters to communicate. Sometimes it's just touch. So Hero, our heroine or however you want to say, our protagonist, is charged with taking care of Roni, Paz and Pol's daughter, picking her up from school. Roni often is getting in fights. They go to a strip mall, and she meets Rosalyn, who has come to Milpitas, I think when she was about five years old. And Rosalyn's a makeup artist, and one of the first things that happens between them which starts their friendship is Rosa lyn washes Hero's hair. And it's the first time that she's been touched tenderly in a long time. And that's when they really start communicating. They've communicated through eye contact.

And this book is a celebration of all the different ways that people who cannot totally communicate figure out ways to care for each other, feeding each other, gentle touching, going to dance parties. There's a block party that takes up about 20 pages of this book, which is just fantastic, which I really wish I could one day be invited to.

And I wonder if you can talk about the challenges of creating non-spoken spaces like that. Because this is a big, rich eventful novel, but it's also a novel in which, for long periods, there's not something technically happening except for people in shifting states of emotion.

Elaine Castillo: Yeah, yeah, yeah. My agent would tell you that I have to be wrestled to write dialogue. 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 and TV shows and books and in movies has always been the gestural. Always, always, always. I think probably even the kind of kernels that probably started the book were in gestures and things like I knew that hair washing was going to happen, or I know about hands, or I know about Paz and her teeth.

For me, not images, but specifically gestures, specifically these non-verbal movements from one person to another that are rich with their own language. I think that's been so important to me, but I think that much be important to a lot of diasporic kids who grew up living in mixed language households and who grew up knowing that my primary language is different from mom's. And you grow up in an environment where you have to, in a sense, be able to avail yourself of multiple types of language and communicating and also be able to have other types of language legible to you. Because your mom might not know exactly how in English to tell you that you've been shitty, but you can tell from the look of her face or the way that she closes that particular car door. Certainly, I was able to start reading those minute gestures, and they were imminently legible to me. So I think that's also a huge part of what it is to grow up in a diasporic household as well is that attention to gestures and that love of the non-narrative narrative.

John Freeman: I wonder if you could read a little bit from the novel, maybe from the opening, because as we're talking, I realize that one of the best things, if you haven't yet read the book, is it's an earthquake. Elaine writes with an intense amount of momentum and musicality, and it just bursts from the page. And after you read, I would love to ask you just how you get from your head to that kind of sound.

Elaine Castillo: Well, thank you. That's kind. So I haven't read from the book in what feels, again, like 3,000 years because in 2020 every month feels like 100 years. So I'll read a little bit from the prologue because it's one of the earlier parts of the book that I'd written. I wrote the prologue first, so you read it in the 1,000-page draft, and Rachel read it when we were in our writing workshop in Goldsmiths where we met. So I'll just read a little bit from that just to start us off.

So this is being told from the perspective not of Hero, who is the main protagonist of the novel, but Paz, her aunt. "So you're a girl and you're poor, but at least you're light-skinned. That'll save you. You're the second eldest child and the second eldest daughter of a family of six children, and your parents are subsistence farmers. Your mom sells vegetable at the local market. And when that doesn't make enough to put food on the table, you sell fruit and beans by the side of the road. That is, until your father manages to get a job working as a clerk for the American military in Guam where he acquires a mistress and regularly sends money back to the family, the latter gesture absolving the first.

"He returns every three years for a visit, which is why you and nearly all of your siblings are three, six or nine years apart in age. On those rare visits, you treat him with rudeness out of loyalty to your mother, who neither thanks nor acknowledges your efforts or, for that matter, your existence. Eczema-ridden you at eight. Hungry adolescent you at 12. All your early, ragged versions.

"When you're old enough to know better but not old enough to actually stop talking back to him, your father will remind you, usually by throwing a chair at your head, that the only reason you're able to attend nursing school is because of his Army dollars. It's your first introduction to debt, [foreign language 00:28:01], the long, drawn-out torch song of filial loyalty. But when it comes to genres, you prefer a heist. Take the money and run.

"Growing up, everyone says you're stupid, you're clumsy. You get into at least one fight a week, and even your light skin, while universally covetable, is suspicious. Your father often accuses your mother of having taken up with a Chinese merchant or Japanese soldier or [inaudible 00:28:26] businessman while he was away. Did that happen? You don't know. Is that unknown man your father? You don't know. If it happened, was it your mother's choice? Was it an affair? Or was it a case of a word you won't say, can't think, a word that grips like smock through your life and the lives of all the women around you? You don't know. Looking at your own face doesn't tell you. There isn't anyone you can ask.

"When you're hungry, sometimes you go out into the field and stick your stumpy arm down the pockmarks in the earth where tiny [Dakamo 00:29:05] crabs like to scurry away and hide, your fingers grasping for the serrated edge of the shell. Some days you collect enough to carry home for your mother to steam, using the lower half of your shirt as a basket. But sometimes you can't wait, yanking one out by the leg and dashing it on the ground to stun it, then eating the whole thing right there, live and raw, spitting out bits of calcium.

"Sometimes instead of a crab you pull out a wiggling frog, but most of the time you throw those away and watch them hop to safety. People warn you those holes are also the favored hiding places of some semi-poisonous snakes, but when you weigh the danger against the hunger, the hunger always wins. On the days when there are no crabs, no frogs, not even a weak snake, you go around picking [Dika 00:29:47] grass, the kind that the farmers usually feed their horses.

"You sell makeshift bundles of them by the side of the road alongside the mangoes and the chico. On good days, the Dika grass sells so well you produce a little side economy, and it gives you enough money to buy some Choc-nut, maybe the latest issue of [Hiwogah 00:30:04] so you can catch up on your comics, even though at the end of every one you have to read the most hateful words you'll ever encounter in any language, [foreign language 00:30:14], look out for the next chapter." Thank you.

John Freeman: One of the things I love about this book is how, over time as you get to know these characters, you see patterns recur and alter within them. And I wonder if, as you were making it, if you were conscious of that, of showing ripples of, I guess to some degree, the trauma that Paz has grown up with, passed down either through gesture or behavior to Roni, who is constantly eating and being fed in ways that must be hearkening back to this experience that you write on page three.

Elaine Castillo: Yeah. I think 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. I think there is that fundamental mystery there. But for sure, the book is so much about inter-generational trauma. There was a point I was joking with some friends where we just wanted to get that on a sweatshirt with a rainbow, just like a public service is, inter-generational trauma. I think there's a market for that.

I think so much of that is passed down, even going back to what we were saying, in gestures, in the silent, even unspoken things that parents pass down to their kids. Certainly, in the book itself, Paz has never talked to her daughter about what she's gone through and would never and certainly would not for years and years and years.

So I think so much of what we experience as adults, I'm certainly finding this now, is that I grew up working-class when we were younger and then fragily middle-class via my own mother's working two jobs or 16 hours a week. And certainly I didn't grow up anywhere near the kind of rural poverty that my mom grew up out of, and yet I feel myself that I have these impulses around scarcity trauma, around not being able to have an empty cupboard, an empty fridge, without feeling that type of panic. That's definitely inherited from someone who did have formative experiences of going hungry, of going hungry for so much of her early life.

And I think that just how our history comes out in us is so evident, not just in the stories we tell each other or don't tell each other, which I think is more the experience for a lot of diasporic kids, but in our bodies, in our food certainly, in the way we speak to each other, the way we go silent around certain things. Kids are certainly very much aware of that. Kids know when you're avoiding a subject, even if for years they don't know why. Certainly I did. So I think that understanding that inter-generational inheritance comes down to things in this molecular and sort of soul-bearing shape.

John Freeman: This section that you just read is obviously written in the second person, which writing instructors are always telling their students, "Don't do it. Don't do it in a big novel." And you start off a 180,000-word novel in the second person. And then you go back to it in the voice of a different character 225 pages later.

Elaine Castillo: That's right.

John Freeman: At one point we leave Paz. We go to Milpitas. We're now in the head of Hero Da Vera as she is getting acclimatized to this new household and getting to know her uncle in this new capacity where he used to be this big doctor. Now he's a security guard. Paz is never there because she's working two to three jobs as a nurse. Hero is driving Roni to school, and then she meets Rosa lyn. And then at some point, you jump into the second person again, and you're writing from the perspective of Rosa lyn. And I wondered why you did that at that point in the novel, because immediately it made a connection to me in an unexplained but very vivid way between Rosa lyn and Paz. And I wondered if you'd thought about why they needed to be connected [crosstalk 00:35:27].

Elaine Castillo: Yeah. No, absolutely. Well, to your first point about the second person, what's the deal? Why is everyone hating all the second person? I'm joking. I know why people hate on the second person. It's because it's this reviled, non-literary mode, this embarrassing mode that asks this very embarrassing, squeaky intimacy with the reader. It's a confrontational mode that asks for a complicity in a sense.

So I think I get why it's so reviled. I know the context, at least the literary context, for why it's so reviled. But I would say, from my own history growing up, 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 non-literary and why.

I remember one of the best stories of all the time and one of the best pieces of writing of all time is Jamaica Kincaid's Girl, which is in this incredible second person, but which is also in this voice of a mother, but also a village. It immediately throws you into the experience of someone having to weather the judgment of both a mother and a community.

So certainly, my experience growing up was not that the second person was this forbidden, amateurish mode that one had to write in when you were a young terrible writer but then do away with once you were an adult, real, professional writer. But that it was a mode that was used by some of my favorite writers and particularly my favorite writers of color. And I think there is something to be disentangled there about why we think certain modes are more literary than others.

But for the reason why Rosalyn's section appears in the later half of the book and the connection between Rosalyn and Paz, I'm really glad that you've made ... I think you may be the first person to have made that connection between the two of them. 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."

So I felt very, very strongly about keeping that section in and do feel strongly about making writerly choices that don't necessarily serve, what should we say, what we might think of as the conventional narrative flow of a book, but serve the writer's idea of the work that they are trying to put out into the world.

And I think I remember the Rosalyn section probably also came about because I was just incredibly uncomfortable with writing from Hero's perspective pretty much throughout, I think. When I first wrote the book, I thought I would write it from Roni's perspective. I share the most autobiographical details with Roni. I think I saw someone in the chat just saying that I sit like Roni in real life, which is true, but I think that is also true of many Philippinx people. So I'm not copying that as an autobiographical out.

But I wanted to write from Roni's perspective or maybe Rosalyn's perspective, but found that I was having a lot of trouble with it. I think I wrote something like 200 pages, and they were all sort of dead in the water, which if anyone tells you that autobiographical writing is easy, just send them to me because I'm living proof that it's very difficult and, in my case, could not be done.

And when I started writing from Hero's perspective, because I was so, in a sense, distant from her and suspicious of her, particularly suspicious of her because I did not want to write a book from the perspective of a rich kid. I didn't want to write the book from the perspective of someone who belonged to the class strata that had made the lives of people like, for example, my mother miserable.

My parents came from a mixed-class marriage, so I was very aware of the privilege and the power that the upper-class in the Philippines wielded, both in the Philippines and in the diaspora. And I just did not want to write from that perspective, but I think it was because I was so uncomfortable about it that, in a sense, I was free. Because I didn't feel protective of her, I was able to write, in a sense, honestly.

But I think I needed that reprieve of Rosalyn's voice in order to just keep going with the book, to feel as though I wasn't writing from this rich kid's perspective forever, however much nuance and affection and tenderness I ended up having for that character, I think it was important to me. And I think you're absolutely right that there is a huge moral, emotional class connection obviously between Rosalyn and Paz because they are both working-class. They both come from much poorer backgrounds in the Philippines. They both come from backgrounds that I'm more familiar with and probably have more of a personal bias towards.

So it was important for me to have that voice in the book and particularly the voice of someone who had grown up in the Bay Area, was not born there, grew up in the Bay Area, but had the voice, also the cool, older cousins that I knew growing up that I thought were very cool back then. And I wanted to hear that voice again and see it on the page. It can be something as selfish as that.

John Freeman: Yeah. This is a novel in which you realize that you can have a love affair and pagers in the same book. It's a novel in which there are DJs and house parties. If you are a kid that grew up in the 1990s in California in the suburbs-

Elaine Castillo: Yeah. Pagers.

John Freeman: ... there's a lot of this book that's going to ring familiar. Just to clarify, I'm a big fan of the second person. I think it's discouraged from students because it's often a way to get momentum. But if you're not asking of the reader a challenging act of collusion, it's a fast emptiness, if you will. Mohsin Hamid I think used it brilliantly in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, which is based on self-help books, and each chapter begins in the second person and then gradually folds itself out into third.

Junot Diaz has used it before. Someone in the comments reminds that Tsitsi Dangarembga has used it in her recent book of finalists. It's a brilliant device. It's not typically used in a novel this long. Actually it's one of the reasons why I think it's so ingenious. And I think it adds to the choral aspect of this novel, which brings me to something I want to ask you about.

And we can come back to your friend, Rachel Long, because on top of all this, the form that you're breaking the book, the way that it's moving in and out of the past, the way that it's yoking forward the history of the Philippines and America's imperial relationship there and genocidal acts that were committed by the American military in the early part of the 20th century.

You were writing this from England where you moved in 2009. And can you just describe a little bit, if you will, if you can, what brought you to England and just describe even meeting Rachel, because it sounds like your relationship was important to the conception of or the making of this book.

Elaine Castillo: Yeah. Absolutely. I definitely would love to. Yeah. I moved to London in 2009, which seems like an alternate universe now. And the reason I moved, the practical reason I moved was that my partner got into a master's program and is an EEA national, so we just moved there. But the real reason I moved was grief. My father had passed away three years prior, and I was living in the Bay Area, and it was just a mess. The entire Bay Area was a graveyard for me. Every corner that I went to, every donut shop, every place was just memory, memory, memory, memory, memory.

So I would have gone anywhere. If a job had shown up literally anywhere, I probably would have taken it. And it did. London was literally anywhere. London wasn't one of the places that was on my radar as growing up, the way you sometimes sort of imagine oh, maybe one day I'll live there. Although I don't think it was in London that I realized that Radiohead was British. I think it was before that. But I did realize, oh wait, no, I did like Radiohead in high school. So there was some British stuff that was involved in my formative years, my formative teen years.

But yeah, so I would have jumped at any chance. And definitely had a hard time at the beginning adjusting, not least of all we were penniless students at that point, having sold everything to get the UK equivalent of the green card, and was doing a lot of soul-searching about my work and was freelancing and writing. And that point I was writing this terrible 600-page novel. Have we talked about this? We must have talked about this. Or maybe we didn't in the hopes of trying to keep one friend in my life.

But it was this terrible 600-page novel about Sappho, the Greek poet Sappho, and Aphrodite but also about the European migrant crisis.

John Freeman: Yes, you did.

Elaine Castillo: Oh god. Yeah. It's all coming back to you. If you want to leave the chat now, John, you can. And I was working on that. And that's also a lesson in terms of thinking about what's really someone's first novel is that usually your first novel is built on the graveyard of novels that they've had to let go of, shelved for the greater good of humanity basically. But at the time I was working on that. And then eventually I did a lot of things. At some point I was getting into filmmaking for a while, and then eventually I did apply for and got into this writers workshop, not a workshop, writers program at Goldsmiths College at the University of London in South London. South London.

And yeah, I think the summer before I was supposed to get into that program or the summer before I was supposed to start that program, I essentially wrote in what felt a little bit like a fugue state, the prologue of the book. And I didn't know what it was going to be. At that point I didn't know who was going to be the main character or how that novel would end up. I just wrote the prologue. It felt like it just came out of me.

And then at that point, I was sort of conflicted about whether or not that was the work that I should discuss at the workshop or at the program. I don't know why I keep calling it a workshop. It's a sort of instinctive diminishing based on personal feelings. That that was what I should work on in the writing program

So I think I started the writing program and immediately, in the tradition of great love stories, locked eyes with Rachel across a conference table and fell in love with her work really, first and foremost. The poetry collection that she has just published in Picador in the UK and that will be published by Tin House in 2021, I remember reading some of those early poems in that workshop. And to fall in love with someone's mind, their heart, their moral and emotional universe was immediate.

But I think we really bonded after ... I hope it's okay if I tell this story, but I think it must be because I'm also going to write about it. After a particularly contentious session in which I basically had to be the angry brown woman and call another writer out on their terrible racism in their short story, just to be like, "Mexicans are also human beings, not sure if you've known."

So I think we struck up a conversation after that and basically haven't stopped talking since. I always say if you were patient 0.5 of reading this book since you read that 1,000-page draft, I think Rachel was really patient zero because I did end up ... I went last or something in our writing, some prose, our writing workshop and ended up workshopping what has become part of the prologue. Even though I didn't work on it really during the MA, and it wasn't my final project, I protected a little bit due to some lingering feelings about the project.

But yeah, Rachel was very much there at the inception of the book. And yes, I wrote it in London, and London was a huge part of, not just ... London is and will always be a huge part of my life, but it was a huge part of what gave me the space and the freedom to write about it. I think there is some cliché about writers being able to write about a certain place because they've left it. You get the critical distance, and you get the emotional distance, and the community that you may be writing about is not literally breathing down your neck asking you what you want from Costco.

So there is a modicum of freedom in that. Now that I'm back in the Bay Area, I think I'm writing about the Bay Area again, but maybe now I'll be able to write about London.

John Freeman: Did you find, in befriending Rachel, when you really fall in love with a friend or a lover, you kind of have to explain where you're from to a little degree. You tell stories. And did you find that by becoming close you were able to write towards her rather than towards a different perhaps white audience?

Elaine Castillo: That's such an interesting question. I don't know if I've ever thought about it that way. But I think you're right. I think there was something in ... Well, for one thing, I think there is something in the freedom. I always talk about this. I talk about it a lot with Rachel, but I talk about it with anyone, how much I think childhood friendships, not are overrated. Let me chill. Not are overrated, but that I do have an enormous love for friendships made in adulthood because, in a sense, you don't bring to each other the same baggage of trying to keep someone the same person that they've been when they were five. In the ways that a community absolutely can form you and lift you up, it can also deform you.

And I won't speak for Rachel, of course, but I know that I felt an incredible sense of being seen and loved in a way that I think was very unique to the time and the place that we met in our lives. But absolutely, I think the fact that she was an early reader. But not only that, the agent that I met, my agent whom I met via the writing program, which is the only good thing I think I will say about the writing program, which otherwise was quite institutionally racist and in many ways very difficult to live through. But the one thing I will say about it is that I don't have any publishing people in my family. I grew up, as is clear, in Milpitas, and so I don't anyone in publishing, and I don't really write short stories so can't really get my work out there that way.

So I don't have any institutional access in that way, and that is what that master's program provided. I met my agent through there, who I don't know how I would have met her otherwise, who is also a woman of color, who is also a black British woman. And I felt so much that, especially when I was writing the novel, I was writing a lot of it in installments to her, sorry, to Emma Patterson. I'm just talking because you know her, and I'm just talking, but for the audience. And I think so much of that was that I feel enormously grateful that I was quite literally writing for another woman of color.

This is true of my life anyways, and I very much take to heart what Toni Morrison has taught us all about not writing for the white gays. But the literal fact of not doing that and of writing for and of being partnered with other women of color, not just in the creative sense, but in the practical, gate-keeping agenting, editing, all of that process was enormously importance to the inception and to the creation of the book.

John Freeman: One of the people in the audience was just asking right now, because you and Rachel were born in the 1980s and the novel is set in the 1990s primarily or largely, which makes it a historical novel, which is-

Elaine Castillo: Historical novel.

John Freeman: ... bonkers to consider. But why did you set the novel in that period in particular? And is there something that was happening in the crux of your characters' lives that made sense to put it then? Or was it just early enough in your life where you felt, "I could touch that period without having to research it?"

Elaine Castillo: I think both. I think absolutely both. I think, probably like a lot of kids who were born in the '80s, the '90s certainly in my mind has crystallized in a way that no other era has. I do have a nostalgia for it that is compounded by the fact that that Bay Area in may ways does not exist anymore. It just doesn't. When I moved back to the South Bay and I saw my family's house in Milpitas, now there's a red line painted all across the curb which disallows parking, which is to say which disallows the ruckus, 10 cars down the street parked house parties.

I remember I saw that, and was I like, "This is gentrification. It's reached Milpitas," which I'm joking, but it is also very true. Gentrification has changed Milpitas. There is a lot of quite noticeable class and population change in Milpitas. Huge parts of my family have left the Bay Area, like many people, because they can't afford it.

So absolutely, I think there was something in me that wanted to revisit but also pay homage to this particular era. And not just this particular era. I think a lot of people have nostalgia for the '90s in general. There is this analog romanticism that people of all communities have for the '90s. It's the last pre-internet era. I still remember having to just call people with your little springy cord telephone, just be on the phone forever with people.

That era of experiences and that era of non-internet or non-socially-mediated experiences, I think, is something that is important to many of us. But I do also think it was probably particularly important for the Philippinx diaspora that I came out of, just because it felt like so much of what still is romanticized about that era, the Philippinx B-Boys and B-Girls and break dancing and house parties and Philippinx boy bands and the music that remains totemic and iconic for that community I think came out of that era.

So I do think certainly people of my generation were still very formed then and have a romantic view of it. I will say now though that I think the stuff that I am writing now, maybe this is just me, is now, I think, trying to puncture a little bit that romanticism. And I hope that, however obvious my affection for that area is, I do hope that there was also a critical lens for what in that era was also very difficult to live through.

John Freeman: Yeah. I see it in some of the details. At one point, Hero comes across a DJ group called Knuckles of the South Star, and she says it makes her think of fisting. There's an implied critique of masculine culture around the DJ circuit. I want to go to some of the questions here because they're really brilliant questions. And one is coming from a queer Filipino ex-poet who said, "I would love to hear any advice you could share with queer women of color who also happen to write." She relates deeply to America Is Not the Heart, and I would love to hear what you say to that.

Elaine Castillo: Oh well, first of all, thank you. [foreign language 00:59:08] Thank you for coming through. Thank you for spending the time this evening. I do think about this a lot, the kinds of advice that I would want to give or the kinds of space that I would like to make that maybe I didn't necessarily feel or have growing up. I think the first thing I always harp on is being unapologetic about your work. Going back to the things that John and I have been talking about throughout, that the only person that can write your work ... This is going to sound very obvious, but you are the only person who can write that specific work and not deforming it to sound like what you think a literary audience or a presumed white literary audience wants to hear or sound like.

I think that is paramount to, not just to our survival as writers, but being able to write the work that will really linger, that will really resonate for ourselves as writers, not just for the readers that we encounter now, but for the readers in the future and also, in a sense, for the readers, the young readers, that we also were.

I think there is some part of me that also sometimes keeps in the back of my head the reader that I was when I was younger and wants to also write into a future for her. But I will also say, because I think that advice is general, but speaking specifically to a queer Philippinx experience, I think it was very important to me to write a book about bisexual Filipinos, being a bisexual Filipino, and to write about it within a suburban context, being someone who was a suburban kid.

And I think maybe rather than advice, I just want to share also some of the struggles or the things that I've been thinking about a lot lately because I have been thinking a lot about the kinds of inherited pressures and wisdoms, or wisdoms and pressures rather to reverse it, that growing up in a diasporic community can impart or inflict on its more vulnerable members or the more marginalized members of its community, in particular, your queer kids in the community and queer kids in a diaspora.

And I've been thinking a lot. I feel like recently I've been thinking that it's sort of an Asian-American cliché, things like ancestor worship or things like elder respect. I think a lot of us inherit it and live with it. And more recently, I've been starting to formulate it or imagine it as also a kind of generational curse that I think what I would like to hear and what I would like to help make especially younger readers understand is that you don't always have to respect your elders, one.

Certainly this is true of the critical lens I put on Bulosan when I was critiquing, well, in the title which is critical of Bulosan. But when I lovingly critiqued his America Is in the Heart and the new Penguin Classics version of it. But also I think so much of what I'm writing now in the novel I'm thinking of now and the fiction I'm writing now is also thinking about how difficult it is for people who are writing and working within a community that's already marginalized to then speak out about that community.

If you already feel like, "Well, we're already suffering under white supremacy, so we all have to stick together," the result of that usually being that queer kids, trans kids, women are then being made to keep silent. Because if you're already suffering from white supremacy, then don't talk about rapists within your community. Don't talk about homophobes within your community. Don't call out because it's bad enough. Don't let them hear that, what, are we homophobic as well?

So I think a lot of what I've been considering or reflecting on recently have been those kinds of, in a sense, double silences or those added pressures that are particularly laid on the shoulders of people who are marginalized within their diaspora. So I would say yeah, go out fighting. I would.

John Freeman: Elaine, since we're talking about the way that we read reading, which I think is something you've been under an intense amount of awareness of because you've just published a book that's been inside of you for a while in some form or other. I wonder if you could take us out by reading a tiny bit of this essay that you've been working on because I feel like it's a way to think about some of the assumptions that are often brought to books like yours and that you're absolutely, definitely writing against.

Elaine Castillo: Yeah. Well, thank you. Yeah. Just to give some context, so I've been working on since the spring of 2019, whenever you say these dates it sounds like you're literally talking about a different climate, but the spring of 2019, that climate, I had started working on a book about the politics of our reading culture and particularly the racial politics of our reading culture. And it had come really out of some of my experiences with being on tour when touring this book, but also some of the experiences that I was seeing and were coalescing into an understanding about how we read writers of color in particular and how we essentially misread writers of color.

So I usually read another section from this. In the past events that I've done in the past few weeks, I usually read another section. But given some of the things we've been talking about and given some of the things we've gone over, I think I might read from another section, which I actually have never read before. So California Book Club gets an exclusive there. So this is from an essay called "Reading Teaches Us Empathy and Other Fictions."

"Recently I've been thinking of someone I've been calling the unexpected reader. Sometimes it's the unexpected listener, the unexpected audience member. The unexpected part remains the same. I've been thinking of it whenever there is yet another scandal with some Hollywood type whose misogynist abuse has been discovered, some comedian whose homophobic tweets have been unearthed, some writer whose racist depictions have been condemned. 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. When artists like these bemoan the rise of what's called 'political correctness' in our cultural discourse, for example, white artists who complain about the use of the 'race card' to critique their inadequate character building or sis head comedians who have been long used to targeting trans and queer people in their woodenly unfunny acts. What they're really bemoaning is the appearance of this unexpected reader.

"They're used to using transphobic slurs because the trans person isn't in their imagined audience, which is to say their imagined humanity. They're bemoaning the arrival of someone who does not read them the way they expect, often demand, to be read, often someone who has been framed in their work and in their lives as an object, not as a subject.

"I've been an unexpected reader all my life. From the very first biblical children's story or watered-down Greek myth picture book my father handed me from the local Goodwill or Milpitas library. By unexpected reader, I mean someone who is not remotely imagined, maybe not even imaginable, by the creator of that artwork or anyone in its scope. I'm always reminded of it when I read or watch a television show and someone in passing mentions Filipinos.

"Inevitably, there is always the sense that those people and their expected reader or viewer are talking amongst each other, that I'm walking in on a conversation I wasn't meant to witness that they never really expected an actual Filipino person to hear them, like the time I was watching the British comedy show Absolutely Fabulous, and one of the drunk white women on there mentioned something offhand about Filipino houseboys. Cue the laugh track. But I wasn't in on the joke.

"But I realize now that being an unexpected reader has turned out to be the most valuable gift of my intellectual life. The fact that I was an unexpected reader, an interloper in so many words, meant that I was very rarely in any assumed complicity with the writer or the world she created. It meant that I was almost always lost and always foreign and always had to make my way through with the only tool I had, continuing to read. It meant growing up, I never felt targeted by a book, comforted, addressed, like I was the one that the book was speaking to.

It meant I rarely felt comfortable in anyone's dialogue or descriptions. No one ever wrote about the California I lived in, even or especially the supposedly great California chroniclers like Steinbeck and Didion. It meant no one ever held my hand or spoon-fed me a book's morals or handed me a map to Argentina. I just had to keep reading Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman.

"It meant I was exposed early to the moments in books where I would glimpse women like me, Filipino women who appeared as characters, barely, by authors who very clearly had never really imagined them as readers. Books like Nobel Prize winner James Maxwell Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year or Philip Lopate's The Stoic's Marriage, both curiously about older self-important white men getting scammed by thinly-written younger Filipino seductresses, like are you okay, boomer?

"It meant I was inured to uncomfortable moments in storytelling, moments that were plainly not written for me, for my comfort or my understanding. That was true of nearly everything I read, so I had to get used to it. It meant, moreover, that I took books fucking seriously because I loved them and because the stakes in them were often high, knowing every book meant I had no guaranty of explanation or safe passage. I had no light to guide me but the light that books themselves throw off with every page.

"So when white readers claim to be made uncomfortable, as many I heard from claimed, by the present of, for example, untranslated words in fiction, what they're really saying is, I have always been the expected reader. What they're really saying is that they're used to the practice of reading being one that, even while supposedly challenging them the way a safari guides you through the wilderness, that reading is one that ultimately prioritizes their comfort and understanding. So that even when writers of color are depicting stories about their communities, these stories must be told according to the needs and wishes of that expected and expectant reader.

"When intellectuals bristle at their white liberal politics being parsed and critiqued by BIPOC readers when they get touchy at their white feminism be exposed for its transphobia, what they're really saying is, I'm the only reader I've ever been expected. What they're really saying is, I've always been the center, the target of the address, the main character, the leading voice in the debate.

"Committing to being an unexpected reader means committing to the knowledge that what bonds us together is neither the sham empathy that comes from predigested ethnographic sound bites passing off as art in late capitalism, nor the vague gestures at free speech that flatter the powerful and scold their critics, but the visceral shock and ultimately relief of our own interwoven togetherness and connection.

"Readers do have the work of a book's life. That means we must do half the heavy lifting of its project. I don't write books about Filipinos to change white people to Filipino identity 101 for white readers too lazy to Google. I write books about Filipinos because that's part of my work, and there is no part of my work that is not intertwined with yours. And until these expected readers learn, teach themselves and not expect writers of colors to teach them, learn to be unexpected readers, any empathy they build or buy off a shelf will be a self-serving lie.

"An expected reader always expects to be led by the hand. The unexpected reader knows we get lost in each other. 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."


John Freeman: Wow. That is such an amazing essay. Thank you so much, Elaine, for sharing parts of it with us. You can read other essays by Elaine on Literary Hub, where she wrote a brilliant essay about writing across several languages and how that's responded to frequently. There is a very beautiful essay in this issue of Freeman's, which I think is one of the most amazing uses of lacunae within the essay as a form. So I, for one, can't wait to see what this book of nonfictional pieces becomes because I bet it's going to be just as profound and beautiful as this book, which it's been so great to talk to you about.

My Darling from the Lions is coming from Tin House, I think this year. Is that correct?

Elaine Castillo: I think it's the fall of this year. Yes, I think it's September, pandemic willing.

John Freeman: Oh yeah. Would that we all can develop friendships like this as readers and writers. She's a wonderful curator herself. She's a translator for Brazilian poetry.

Elaine Castillo: Amazing.

John Freeman: She's led a collective of black British poets.

Elaine Castillo: Octavia, yes.

John Freeman: Yeah. She's a wonderful person. Thank you, Elaine, for being with us tonight. I'm going to bring back David Ulin, who's going to walk us out and tell us, I guess, what's to come and maybe some other details about Alta.

Elaine Castillo: Well, thank you, John. Thank you, everyone. Thank you, everyone, for coming. It's always fun to talk to John. I would talk to you in a phone booth in the rain. But thank you again for making the time. Thank you to everyone for coming through and for making this happen. It was a real pleasure.

David Ulin: Thank you. Thanks, John. Thanks, Elaine. That was a remarkable conversation, and I'll just second that about that essay was stunning. I was delighted to be able to hear it. I am David Ulin, Alta's books editor. Again, I want to thank Elaine for being here. I want to thank John for the interview. I want to remind all of you that this interview will be up at if you want to revisit it or if you missed part of it. Please be with us next month on February 18th when the California Book Club will be visiting with Paul Beatty to discuss his novel, The Sellout.

And I want to thank our partners again, Book Passage, Books Inc., Book Soup, Book Shop, DIESEL, A Bookstore, the Huntington USC Institute on California and the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, Narrative Magazine, Vromans Book Store, and Zyzzyva.

And I want to remind you all that there is a sale on Alta membership for CBC members. You get 25% off the Alta annual membership. That's usually $50 a year for four issues plus various other benefits, web access, the clubhouse, et cetera. But with this special link, it's only 37.50, and the special link is

Happy New Year. Welcome back. Thanks for being here. I hope you have a good night, and we will see you all hopefully next month. Good night.

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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