Cancel Western Literature

Table of Contents

The Book

None of the essays in the 2022 book How to Read Now, by the millennial novelist Elaine Castillo, appear to have been previously published in print elsewhere.

Elaine Castillo is the author of the novel, published in 2018, America is Not the Heart 1No Wikipedia entry as of September 2022; for plot summary see 2018 review in the Guardian.. Her parents settled in Milpitas, a suburb of San José, in the San Francisco Bay area of California. She is a member of the Creative class who is not a tenured academic or a member of a profession. She has achieved some esteem and some financial benefit with her writing.

She identifies as a member or descendent of the diaspora of inhabitants of the Philippine archipelago. She was born in 1984 and finished high school at the end of the millennium. She describes herself as a bisexual cis (i.e. cisgender) woman.

The Essays

White Readers

In the essay, “How to Write Now”, Ms. Castillo writes:

Bad reading isn’t a question of people undereducated in a more equitable and progressive understanding of what it means to be a person among other people. Most people are vastly overeducated: overeducated in white supremacy, in patriarchy, in heternormativity. Most people are in fact highly advanced in these economies, economies that say, very plainly, that cis straight white lives are inherently more valuable, interesting and noble than the lives of everyone else … It’s not a question of bring people out of their ignorance – if only someone had told me Filipinos were human, I wouldn’t have massacred all of them!

White supremacy is a comprehensive cultural education whose primary function is to prevent people from reading – engaging with, understanding – the lives of people outside its scope. … The unfortunate influence of this style of reading has dictated that we go to writers of color for the gooey heart-porn of the ethnographic: to learn about the forgotten history, harrowing tragedy, community-destroying political upheaval, genocide, trauma; that we expect those writers to provide these intellectual commodities …

….

I have no desire to write yet another instruction manual for the sociocultural betterment of white readers. … Equally, I don’t see a sustainable way to continue in my industry without reckoning with the rot at is core, which is that, by and large, the English language publishing industry centers the perspective and comfort of its overwhelminly white employee base and audience, leaving writers of color to be positioned along that … structure: as flavors of the month …

… Writers of color often find themselves doing the second, unspoken and unsalaried job of not just being a professional writer but a Professional Person of Color, in the most performative sense …

….

Pride is not always one of the best qualities to be abundant in … ; if you’re proud but treated a little or lot like shit by … boys … , or lighter skinned wealthier Filipinx friends, or white teachers, you have a tendency to … start rumbling the first person who blinks at you funny.

How to Read Now

Instruction manual refers to some of the books used in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training, which gained in popularity in 2020-2021 as the George Floyd protests rolled across America and the popularity of the Black Lives matter movement increased, including White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.

In the essay “Reading Teaches Us Empathy, and Other Fictions”, Ms. Castillo suggests that most writers do not write for unexpected readers:

… someone who not remotely imagined … by the creator of that artwork or anyone in its scope; someone who was not included as the people of a certain book or certain author. … I’m always reminded of it when I read a book or watch a television program and someone … mentions “Filipino houseboys”; … there’s always the sense that those people and their expected reader or viewer are talking among themselves, that I am walking in on a conversation that I wasn’t meant to witness …

… The fact that I am an unexpected reader … meant that I was very rarely in any assumed complicity with a writer or the world she created. … It meant I never felt comfortable in anyone’s dialogue or descriptions; no one ever wrote about the California I lived in, even … the … California chroniclers like Steinbeck and Didion.

….

… a white supremacist reading culture means that we are conditioned to accept that some of our work is … expected to comfort; that the work of writers of color must often in some ways console, educate, provide new definitions … Whereas white writers must be free to offend, transgress, be exempt, be beyond politics …

How to Read Now

Art is Political

The essay, “Reading Teaches Us Empathy, and Other Fictions” is largely about whether the Austrian writer Peter Handke (awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature) should be respected as a writer. Ms. Castillo writes:

… The idea that fiction build empathy is one of incomplete politics, left hanging by probably good intentions. … usually readers are encouraged … to read writers of a demographic minority in order to learn things …

… empathy is not a one-stop destination; it … it requires work. … Not just when a … gifted author has managed to make a community’s story come alive for a quick zoo visit …

Ms. Castillo does not discuss the reaction of other critics who said Handke was a fascist defender of the white racist Serbians who committed war crimes against Albanians during the Kosovo War. Her judgment on Handke is that his “art” is based on his empathy for white male Europeans. A protagonist in a Handke novel witnesses an act of vandalism by a neo-Nazi, becomes angry, murders the vandal and dumps the body. Castillo says this is part of:

… [the character’s ]easily trackable pattern of impulsive self-justified acts of violence …

How to Read Now

Ms. Castillo goes on:

For [the character], violence is a quasi-metaphysical force of nature … – not something that he commits …

….

Foreigners [in white Austria] … appear as symbolic figures … without any real agency or sustance of their own.

….

[The character] thinks of himself as the lone man against the world, the vigilante meting out justice on impulse … [The character is] the white suburban Austrian, who despairs of his country, its noisy foreigners …

….

… he’s angered by what the swastika signifies to him about Austria … He’s … ashamed by what … it digs up in him, what it doesn’t let him forget.

….

Handke writes … the white man blues with a goose-step beat.

How to Read Now

Ms. Castillo writes, in an aside in “Reading Teaches Us Empathy, and Other Fictions”, that Jane Austen could be read, in spite of her silence on race and on the reliance of the English upper and middle classes on the slave trade in the 18th century, because there is a way to read Austen as one of a number of white middle class women who probably were against slavery.

Ms. Castillo criticized several modern English-speaking female writers. She wrote about Joan Didion in the essay “Main Character Syndrome”, mainly that Ms. Didion had not written as if she had expected to address readers like Ms. Castillo, and Ms. Didion’s approves of the “crackpot realism” of Americans turned loose on on other parts of the world. Ms. Castillo’s main criticism of J.K. Rowling in “The Limits of White Fantasy” is that Ms. Rowling is a transphobe. Ms. Castillo criticizes Rowling, and Margaret Atwood in “The Limits of White Fantasy” as writers whose “narrative universes overwhelmingly center[s] white protagonists”. Also, Castillo says that Atwood employs flagrant Orientalism and dodgy portrayal of Asian women.

American Myths

In the essay “Reading Teaches Us Empathy, and Other Fictions”, Ms. Castillo says:

… the fantasy of American freedom has always been … a dream of … pioneer individualism. built on the back of slave labor and the theft in indigenous land …

How to Read Now

She maintains that the USA in its wars with Spain, and in defense of business interests, occupied and colonized territory in the Caribbean, Central America and the South Pacific including the Philippine archipelago.

She notes the tendency of Americans, in telling their own history, to say that America is an experiment in freedom and an exception in world history, and to gloss over American actions in other essays, including “Honor the Treaty”, which is based on her visit to Australia and New Zealand to attend the Sydney and Auckland writers’ event in 2019, and in her discussion of the HBO series broadcast version of the graphic SF novel The Watchmen. The HBO version, with

  • its telling of the story of the 1921 Tulsa riot,
  • its storyline of vigilantes aiding the police against a white supremacist “7th Kavalry” – run by a Klan-like organization called the Cyclops – waging war on the police to challenge US reparation grants to Black persons and other govenment efforts to combat white privilege;
  • its storyline of white supremacists blaming Blacks and liberals for eroding white settler privileges;

The 2019 HBO Watchmen series is almost political enough for Ms. Castillo, but she finds it weak in episodes with Asian characters or referring to Vietnam.

Representation

Ms. Castillo uses “representation” in its current vernacular sense of visibility in the media.

Her essay “The Children of Polyphemus” has a passage about her childhood fascination with the 1997 television production of Cinderella. That show, with Brandy, Whitney Houston, Whoopi Goldberg was Disney’s first live action movie version of Disney’s 1950 animated version of the French folk tale, and had a racially diverse cast. Ms. Castillo notes the role played by Paolo Montalban in that production. Castillo discusses to the original Cinderella story written in French in 1697, and the history of pumpkins (and other squashes) as North American plants cultivated by indigenous people, including Caribbean islanders. Castillo writes about negative representation or lack of representation of Filipinx, Asian, and gay and bisexual people in Western media, and the lack of roles for Filipinx people in visual media.

Her essay “Autobiography in Asian Film; or What we Talk about When When We Talk About Representation” discusses movies with Filipinx characters and movies made by Asian filmmakers. Ms. Castillo is critical of the 2004 movie The Life Aquatic, written, directed and produced by Wes Anderson. She is concerned about the role of Filipinx characters as “pirates”. Ms. Castillo has a fond recollection of the 2001 movie Monsoon Wedding. Ms. Castillo praises movies directed by Wong Kar-Wai (Kong Kong), Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Taiwan), and Park Chan-Wook (Korea).

Ms. Castillo says she supports “liberation politics” but criticizes what she calls “Representation Matters Art”. She says the latter “relies us mistaking visibility for things it is not – liberation, privilege, justice” and “loves for all of us to be uniformly and heroically oppressed …”. She says that Liberation Matters Art does not parse out “how intra-Asian racism and the desperate income inequality between Asian ethnic groups that make up the chimera …’the Asian American community’ “. She argues that Representation Matters Art is a “wing of the attritive arts of white supremacy: it’s the kind of art you make when someone has told you to prove you’re a human …”.

Having The Last Word

The title of the essay “Reality is All We Have to Love” is explained in a quote from the English art critic John Berger’s essay on the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Chorus in our Heads” in the 2007 collection Hold Everything Dear. In this essay she discusses, first, her disagreement with an unnamed literary magazine that asked her to write an introduction to a collection of photographs, rejected her work and “killed” the project. She included her draft article in the essay. The draft essay begins with her history of the American military installation Clark field near Angeles City northwest of Manila, and the children of Filipina women, who were abandoned by Americans who worked at the base. Her draft said:

… the object of Dad is Gone’s melancholy gaze is named in the title. The two Bangkok-based white Swiss photographers have come to Angeles City to document and mourn .. where dad went … Angeles City’s residents are decentered, reduced to tragic ellipsis, or obscured from view altogether.

How to Read Now

The essay suggests that the American military is still operating bases in the Republic of the Philippines. The USA recognized Philippine independence in 1946. Ther USA operated Clark Field and Subic Bay until 1991. Clark Air Base has been a Philippine Air Force facility since November 1991.

The essay also relates stories from her time as a student in a graduate writing program at Goldsmiths College, University of London about her views of Henry James’s works Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw, and her response to an assignment involving what she dismissively calls “a tragedy fluff-porn piece” by British journalist James Fenton. Castillo criticizes the students, the curriculum and the faculty of Goldsmiths for “the intellectual inattention that permeated the writing program … especially when it came to stories about marginalized people, and in particular victims of sexual assault”. She says that “any pointed discussion of politics interwoven with aesthetics [got her] branded as the Angry Brown Girl … “. She says she spent an unhappy, unremarkable year “… in an institutionally racist and intellectually incurious program” and “I am not the only student of color to have been underserved …”.

She discusses Berger’s writing, mainly a short story “Woven, Sir”, which she reads as a story told elliptically by an adult survivor of sexual abuse. She discusses some comments by male writers who did not think the story was a story to by an adult survivor of sexual abuse.

White supremacist folklore

She begins the essay “The Children of Polyphemus” with a quote from Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, the 1992 work by Toni Morrison in which Ms. Morrison said that as a writer she trusted her ability “to imagine others and [her] willingness to project consciously into the danger zones such others may represent for me” and was drawn to the ways all writers do this: the way Homer renders a heart eating cyclops so that our hearts are wrenching with pity”.

In Greek mythology the Cyclopes are giant one-eyed creatures who live on Sicily and islands north of Sicily. Three Cyclopes, each a descendent of a Greek god, are mentioned in Greek literature. The Cyclopes had not invented ships and were not said to have been sea trravellers.

The Odyssey is ” … is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is one of the oldest extant works of literature still widely read by modern audiences. As with the Iliad, the poem is divided into 24 books. It follows the Greek hero Odysseus, king of Ithaca, and his journey home after the Trojan War. After the war, which lasted ten years, his journey lasted for ten additional years, during which time he encountered many perils and all his crew mates were killed.” In Book 9 of the Odyssey, the Cyclopes are described as:

… an overweening and lawless folk, who, trusting in the immortal gods, plant nothing with their hands nor plough; but all these things spring up for them without sowing or ploughing, wheat, and barley, and vines, which bear the rich clusters of wine, and the rain of Zeus gives them increase. Neither assemblies or council have they, nor appointed laws, but they dwell on the peaks of lofty mountains in hollow caves, and each one is lawgiver to his children and his wives, and they reck nothing one of another.

Wikipedia, The Odyssey

Odysseus and his men landed on an island near the land of the Cyclopes. . The island did not appear to be be occupied by civilized Greeks. “Godlike” Polyphemus, the “greatest among all the Cyclopes” lived as a shepherd on the island. The Greeks slaughtered wild goats on the island. The men entered the cave of Polyphemus, where they found all the cheeses he had made and stored there. Polyphemus sealed the entrance of the cave with a massive boulder killed and ate two of Odysseus’s men. Odysseus devised an escape plan in which he, identifying himself as “Nobody,” plied Polyphemus with wine and blinded him with a wooden stake. When Polyphemus cried out, his neighbors left after Polyphemus claimed that “Nobody” had attacked him. Odysseus and his men escaped the cave by hiding on the underbellies of the sheep as they were let out of the cave and sailed off.

Some mythology claimed that Polyphemus had a female lover and 3 children, who are the ancesters of the Celts, Illyrians and Gauls. None of any children of Polyphemus are mentioned in the Odyssey.

She refers with approval to Sadhana Naithani’s work The Story-Time of the British Empire: Colonial and Postcolonial Folkloristics. Castillo says:

… Our mainstream literary discourse continues to read writers of color ethnographically … and white writers universally … Not least of all because the primary literary gaze in American literature is still presumed to be white. … even the … idea that fiction build empathy is an inheritor of this colonial practice …

….

We know that the stories we inherit and erase … are never neutral of ahistorical …

How to Read Now

She also discusses the 1849 Spanish colonial Claveria decree that required that all Filipinx families adopt Spanish surnames.

She sees Odysseus and the Greeks as the invaders of the island occupied by an indigenous person who justifiably captured the invaders and killed some of them. She compares Odysseus to Christopher Columbus, who wrote to the monarchs of Spain, of the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands:

… the people are ingenious, and would become good servants and I am of opinion that they would readily become Christians … I intend at return to carry home six of them … that they may learn our language.

How to Read Now

Impressions

Millennial, Woke

Elaine Castillo uses language familiar to digital natives and users of social media, and perhaps the idiomatic language of the social media sites she uses. She uses jargon familiar to persons educated in the language of literary criticism. Her analysis and critical methods are postmodern, informed by critical theory, feminist theory, and queer studies (not by the historical, Modernist, and New Criticism schools of literary theory).

Woke refers to an ideology (a set of beliefs or philosophies attributed to a person or group of persons, especially those held for reasons that are not purely epistemic, in which “practical elements are as prominent as theoretical ones.” Formerly applied primarily to economic, political, or religious theories and policies, in more recent use the term as mainly condemnatory.

Woke also refers to beliefs ascribed to younger people- millennials, Gen Z and students. Millennials and Gen Z. are different from previous generations; the young generations are versed in social media as a way of communication, among other experience in life in society. Not all millennials, members of Gen Z and university students are woke. Not all boomers were New Left or members of the ’60s counterculture.

Woke refers to a younger person who may be called Left on the left-right ideological spectrum who also believes the ideas of identity politics.

Millennials, GenZ members and students share some beliefs, values, assumptions and language about psychology and sociology, and generational attitudes about ambition, age, even while they so not share ideologies. Left “western” boomers have the same views as older generations and modern woke persons :

  • progess is a historical movement from older values to their values,
  • their values will liberate them and would liberate oppressed groups – racial groups, gender groups, etc.,
  • a sense that their historical time has come, and
  • a sense that if they did no acquire power and resources fast enough, the young, the woke (and other opppressed groups) can force the issue.

Many people use business jargon, and hold beliefs that markets, individualism and consumerism are unchangeable and irresistable forces of nature. Many American millenials accept that markets can resolve all social, political and economic issues and that is possible to do well (succeed financially) by being good (acting ethically.). Some millenials are pro-business, individualist, neo-liberal and right-wing and only woke to extent that woke capitalism tries to avoid alienating any market segment. All millenials have dealt with woke capitalism and cancel culture as existential facts. Right-wing commentators happily accuse leftists of being members of a condescending elite which embodies the progressive tendency towards depoliticisation: contests over material conditions give way to therapeutic journeys for those at the top, with working-class people cast as the oafs and bigots in need of being coerced into enlightenment.

Her writing is full of signals that she identifies as part of intersecting oppressed groups, and as woke:

  • Her enthusiasm for left-wing socially liberal “progressive” political discussion is ideologically woke.
  • She asserts the right of persons who recall abuse or assert a history of trauma to identify their harms and blame their oppressors.
  • She implies that she is specially talented and sensitive, and maintains she has been oppressed by men, heterosexuals and white people.

Historical Harm

Ms. Castillo blames European or American imperialism and colonialism for the last few centuries of the history of South-East Asia and the island archipelogoes, and for injustice against Filipinx people including inter-Asian injustice and inter-Filipinx injustice. She has nothing to say about the 20th century activities of Japanese imperialism, or cenrturies of Chinese influence in South-East Asia.

Her essays explain how white people caused harm to colonized people, for centuries. Many, perhaps most, modern historians would agree that she has summarized the facts of history correctly. The history of the United States of America was dominated by English settlers, and latter by white immigrants from Europe who managed to assimilate and were eventually recognized. American cultural practices accorded status, until the early 20th century, to English and a few other West European settlers (Dutch, German, Scots?, Irish?) and their descendants. Some later immigrants as were accepted in white American society. Many people of conscience, who are not woke, agree that Americans were aggressive, used force to support American economic and business elite interests, and harmed other nations, as national policy, in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The policy was implemented by elites but was popular and was democratically supported. Her views of American history are sound. The Europeans who settled in America displaced indigenous people, imported labour and extracted or exploited the resources of North, Central and South America, South Asia, South-East Asia, East Asia and the island archipelagoes of the southern oceans. Her view that America does not understand its history of oppression of enslaved, indigenous and colonized people, is correct. Americans have maintained, for the centuries of American history, optimistic ideas that America:

  • has an exceptional morality and system of government,
  • is making progress towards becoming a perfect society, and
  • at any given time in history, provided opportunities for everyone to live the American dream.

Representation & White Privilege

Ms. Castillo says that western literature is unfair to indigenous people and their descendants. Her position on the race of characters in literature is similiar to the positions of many BIPOC writers in the late 20th century.

Rosalie Harrison, in an interview of the SF write Octavia E. Butler, noted:

White writers, Butler has pointed out, have tended to include black characters in science fiction only to illustrate a problem or to advertise the writer’s distaste for racism; black people in much science fiction are represented as “other”.

Rosalie Harrison, 8 Equal Opportunity Forum Magazine 30 (1980) “Sci-Fi Visions: An Interview with Octavia Butler”, reproduced in Conversations with Octavia Butler, University of Mississippi Press (2010)

Her discussion of “Representation Matters Art” does not add to discussions of Tokenism, Queerbaiting and complaints about authenticity, cultural appropriation, woke capitalism and posing in the production of books, the performance arts, business and popular culture in the U.S.A, in late 20th century.

She also says that western literature is unfair to

  1. women,
  2. to persons who are not heterosexual and
  3. persons who are not white.

She maintains all white people have white privilege, and that while people who do not acknowledge it are systemic racists, fragile, and defensive. Essentially, she argues that white privilege is white supremacy. This was a theme in the 2019 television version of the SF graphic novel, The Watchmen.

She knew that her publisher could sell a diversity training book by presenting her as as an angry, proud young BIPOC woman fighting racism and the patriarchy.

She tries to distinguish her views from those of the popular diversity training books and criticizes the lip service the media pays to diversity and inclusion.

An artist cannot be recognized unless someone is able to buy the work and sell reproductions to a paying audience. Publishers, collectively, have a monopsomy. They can buy what she creates because they have the money (capital to invest) and a business of selling published works to a market of booksellers. They get a retum by selling copies of published works to paying buyers. She had some choice among publishers but no choice about having to sell to a publisher. Are the pies of opportunity, visibility, and reward big enough to keep every member of every identified group visible in a positive way under any economic system? It is unfair to talented but somebody has to pay for creative work.

She appears to want to see more diverse actors in better roles to representing diverse people positively on screen. She does not say what she want to see in movie characters. Less sinister Asian dragon ladies? More empowered bisexual Oriental and Filipinx women?

Conclusion

How to Read Now will appeal mainly to readers who are woke, readers who “dare to dream”, and readers who want to be seen to be being open to new ideas. Her expressed sense of victimhood and grievance will please readers who share her views.


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