Cancel Western Literature

Table of Contents

The Book

The Writer

None of the essays in the 2022 book How to Read Now, by the acclaimed millennial novelist Elaine Castillo, appear to have been previously published in print elsewhere. The book is a collection of essays. The essays are mainly literary criticism, with some discussion of classical literature condemning the white privilege of white Americans.

Elaine Castillo is acclaimed as the author of the novel, published in 2018, America is Not the Heart 1No Wikipedia entry as of September 2022; plot summary in 2018 review in the Guardian.. She was born in 1984 and finished high school at the end of the millennium. She is a child of parents who emigrated to the USA and settled in California in Milpitas, an suburb of San José, in the San Francisco Bay area. She identifies as a member or descendent of the diaspora of inhabitants of the Philippine archipelago. She describes herself as a bisexual cis woman. She does not state her preferred pronouns; she refers to women individually as she or her.

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 several 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, who she says are:

… 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 note 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, and
  • its storyline of vigilantes aiding the police against a white supremacist “7th Kavalry” waging war on the police to challenge US reparation grants to Black persons

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

Representation

(Wikipedia use the term Representative and several related terms in the titles of entries referring to Representative Democracy. Wikipedia uses the term “Representation” mainy in entry titles about philosophy, linguistics and semiotics such as representation in Art. Wikipedia uses Representation in its more current vernacular sense of visibility in the mediain entries including Representation of African-Americans in media.)

Ms. Castillo’s 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 write about negative representation of Filipinx and Asian people in Western media, and the lack of roles for people like her in visual media.

The 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).

Castillo supports “liberation politics” but criticizes what she calls “Representation Matters Art”. 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. It begins with the 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 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 calls “a tragedy fluff-porn piece” by British journalist James Fenton. Castillo criticizes the students, the curriculum and the faculty 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.

Reading Greek Epic Poems by Homer as 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 one eyed giant 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 Polyphems, 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

Woke

Social/Demographic

Woke is not a demographic term. Woke is used, loosely, to describe the social, ethical and political values of a millennial or Gen Z person – in the early 2020s, a member of a younger social generation (birth cohort), or generational cohort. Sociologists have theorized that a social generation may tend to be against the values of older cohorts, or transgressive since the 19th century. Sociology is one of the “social sciences” studied and taught in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies (WEIRD).

There are geographical and cultural similiarities between milllenials and older generations of Americans. For generations. Americans:

  • are acquisitive;
  • have been oriented to individual choices and preferences;
  • asserted individual morality and authenticity;
  • can be mean and selfish;
  • are dedicated and partisan fans of themselves and people like them; and
  • maintain that they are growing better and better while forgetting what they did to get what they have.

Several generations of Americans have been fascinated by personal growth and psychological language.

There are differences within social generations. Some American boomers, during the ’60s, were conservative, career-oriented, patriotic, and in favour of US involvement in the Vietnam War. Some were hippies. Some blended liberal attitudes to some issues with conservative or neo-liberal views on personal freedoms to take drugs or possess firearms.

Woke – Political Meaning and Usage

In the Oxford English Dictionary “woke” is defined as: “Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. … Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.”

The Urban Dictionary adds: “Being woke means being aware… knowing what’s going on in the community (related to racism and social injustice).” Or:

Woke is an English adjective meaning “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination” that originated in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). Beginning in the 2010s, it came to encompass a broader awareness of social inequalities such as sexism, and has also been used as shorthand for American Left ideas involving identity politics and social justice, such as the notion of white privilege and slavery reparations for African Americans.

Wikipedia, September 2022, Woke

Wikipedia, in September 2022 refers Identity politics as “… a political approach wherein people of a particular race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, social background, social class, or other identifying factors develop political agendas that are based upon these identities. Identity politics is deeply connected with the idea that some groups in society are oppressed and begins with analysis of that oppression. The term is used primarily to describe political movements in western societies, covering nationalist, multicultural, women’s rights, civil rights, and LGBT movements. Identity politics is intersectional:

[A] person’s social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. Intersectionality identifies multiple factors of advantage and disadvantage. Examples of these factors include gender, caste, sex, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, disability, weight, and physical appearance. These intersecting and overlapping social identities may be both empowering and oppressing. Intersectionality broadens the scope of the first and second waves of feminism, which largely focused on the experiences of women who were white, middle-class and cisgender, to include the different experiences of women of color, women who are poor, immigrant women, and other groups. Intersectional feminism aims to separate itself from white feminism by acknowledging women’s different experiences and identities.

Wikipedia, September 2022, Intersectionality

The essay What the woke revolution is — and isn’t discussed the ideological connection of woke attitudes to critical race theory.

Woke is used, in an approving way, to describe the political, social and ethical postions of people who hold left-wing 2 American “progessives” during the Progressive Era at the end of the 19th century wanted a society that rewarded farmers and an efficient political system. The term means something else in 21st century language. views, and more critically by people who hold right-wing views or who not agree with left-wing views. Woke WEIRD millennials are woke to white privilege, calls for inclusive rights by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons and other left-wing concerns. Modern left-wing woke persons may be social justice warriors.

Modern (as of 2022) millenials, woke or note, are indifferent to the anti-globalization movement that mobilized people on the left, at the time, who protested against global capitalist values as recently as the Occupy Wall Street protests. Woke millenials do not make consensus-based decisions in general assemblies.

Asian millenials may be more woke to colonialism and imperialism than to white privilege than white WEIRD millennials, but seem to be as focussed on career and accumulating wealth. Any millennial may be versed in the language of popular psychology and may be a sensitive snowflake in a social way. More conservative WEIRD millennials may assert an individual sense of justice, morality and authenticity as being “based”.

The faltering Humanities

University education in the humanities is faltering. Students (in American Universities) take courses in business, professional education, science, and engineering according to the reports of the US National Center for Education Statistics. Some of the social sciences are popular. Explanations:

For many decades, there has been a growing public perception that a humanities education inadequately prepares graduates for employment. The common belief is that graduates from such programs face underemployment and incomes too low for a humanities education to be worth the investment.

Wikipedia, The Humanities #Education & Employment, September, 2022

The usual suspects—student debt, postmodern relativism, vanishing jobs—are once again being trotted out. But the data suggest something far more interesting may be at work. The plunge seems not to reflect a sudden decline of interest in the humanities, or any sharp drop in the actual career prospects of humanities majors. Instead, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, students seem to have shifted their view of what they should be studying—in a largely misguided effort to enhance their chances on the job market. …

The Atlantic, Benjamin Schmidt. August 23, 2018, The Humanities are in Crisis

Work in many of the humanities is largely based on recorded text. Academic articles, and essays often include references to cultural, literary, imaginative and and fictious texts and other artistic material. Works of literary criticism commonly discuss history, psychology, sociology and politics. as well as taste and aesthetics.

Woke Posing & Woke Publishing

Some business enterprises have adopted woke capitalism, in the form of Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) training, and marketing messages supporting left-wing values or causes of otherwise portraying organizations as woke to exploit the supposed values of a demographic generation to advance business interests.

Some conservative critics have said that publishing industry is hiring woke (i.e. young progressive) employees who want to publish progressive books, and letting the woke silence conservative voices:

Impressions

Worth Reading

Elaine Castillo is widely read, confident, and uses language well. She uses some literary jargon and some language that is probably quite familiar to digital natives and users of social media.

Elaine Castillo is woke to the historical oppression of indigenous and colonized people, women, and children, particularly the indigenous inhabitants of islands occupied and governed by Europeans or America. The question of her attitude is almost beyond discussion, and it distracts from her merits of the story.

Why is the Book Here?

Text to come

Blame

She largely blames white “supremacy” for things that affect her, including inter-Asian injustice. She blames European or American colonialism (but not Chinese influences in South-East Asia) for inter-Filipinx injustice. 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,. America It developed cultural practices according status to the settlers and their descendants, and such immigrants as were accepted in white society. Many people of conscience, who are not woke, would agree that Americans were aggressive, used force to support American economic and business elite interests, and harmed other nations. Her views of American history and the American tendency to avoid criticizing American history are sound.

Her discussion of representation in the media fails to explain what she want to see in movie characters. Less sinister Asian dragon ladies? More empowered Oriental and Filipinx women? Her argument comes down to wanting to see more actors in better roles to representing people who look like her positively on screen. The pies of opportunity, visibility and reward cannot be big enough to keep every identity faction happily represented under modern capitalism or any other human economic system.

White Supremacy & White Privilege

She seems to say that all white people have white privilege and therefore are white supremacists

More text to come

Conclusion

Her main point seems to be that western literature is unfair to indigenous people and their descendants. She wants a different literature. How to Read Now will appeal to progressive readers, readers who are woke, readers who “dare to dream”, and readers who want to be seen to be being woke or to being open to new ideas.

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