Elaine Castillo, HOW TO READ NOW: Essays

Elaine Castillo, HOW TO READ NOW: Essays

Elaine Castillo, one of Financial Times’ “30 of the Planet’s Most Exciting Young People,” joins Zibby to discuss her latest book of essays, How to Read Now. The two talk about the circumstances and events that inspired Elaine to begin writing these essays, as well as the significance literature holds in her and her parents’ lives. Elaine also tells Zibby about her newfound love for astrology, why she included painful stories about the trauma and discrimination her family has faced, and what she’s learning from reading books at a slower pace.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Elaine. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss How to Read Now: Essays.

Elaine Castillo: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a real joy to be here.

Zibby: It’s so fun. This is so interesting. There’s so much here that I responded to. I have a million dogeared pages. Why don’t you tell listeners a little about what this essay collection is about?

Elaine: At some point, I was joking to someone — they were like, “Why did you write this book?” I think I said something along the lines of, “It was either write this book or just leave literary entirely.” I talk about it a little bit, especially in the author’s note and in the intro, about the kind of events that led up it. I wrote this mainly on book tour when I was on book tour for my first novel. It came out in 2018. I started writing this — it was a period of time where I was at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and then the Auckland Writers Festival in May, spring 2019. By that point, I was already a year into tour. You run the gauntlet of all of the tour experiences. Things that I was seeing, the ways that writers of color were being framed in the contemporary literary discourse, it increasingly started to seem impossible to ignore, impossible to just absorb. Then I was in New Zealand. I talk about it a lot in the book. New Zealand, or Aotearoa, takes up a lot of space of the book because I had a kind of altering or transformative experience there in a way that I don’t think I’ve really had before. It was that somewhat epiphanic experience of being in a new place. Just started writing in a fugue state there, and here we are.

Zibby: What about that experience made you want to take pen to paper?

Elaine: I think it’s probably a combination of, you’re so far from home. You’re already losing it. The writers’ festival circuit, it’s such a wild thing anyway because it takes people who are very used to just being alone writing in rooms and then suddenly is like, here, have sociality. That’s going to go well. Actually, it did really go well. The writers and the friends now that I met there, we still are all in touch. We jokingly call it this class of spring 2019 because that experience was special for all of us. Recently, I’ve been thinking a little bit about travel writing. Travel writing, it’s such a fraught genre nowadays. I think I was saying this in another interview where I was talking about travel writing. Obviously, the grand majority of travel writing and the history of travel writing is ultimately one that’s told by a white perspective about the exotic land that now I’m writing back to my colleagues about, Our Man in Havana or fetishistic descriptions of the Philippines and all the mangos. All the people are so lovely, that kind of writing. I think like anyone, I have a trepidation around travel writing.

I was aware myself that the experiences that I was having — I was like, oh, god, is this going to be just like Eat Pray Love questioning myself about? There’s also the subset of travel writing, like James Baldwin writing about Paris or writing about France or writing about Switzerland in ways that both write about the actual place, illuminate the place in, maybe, ways that I hadn’t read before, but also illuminate his own relationship to home. I think that’s really what captured me. I was taken with the specificity of Aotearoa, with its materiality, with learning about its colonial history, and with seeing resonances between its history and the colonial history of the Philippines or the colonial history of the West, especially because in New Zealand, I was hiking. I don’t hike. I’m not a hiker. Then of course, started to do that, doing something that you would never do at home, it started getting me thinking about things like climate justice and nature and not just history, but the present of wildfires in California and how all of those — you start to make unexpected connections when you’re taken out of your comfort zone, ultimately.

Zibby: Wow. One thing you did a lot in the book is talk about the zodiac signs and everything.


Zibby: Don’t spit your coffee out. That was a near miss. The computer was about to get wet there. Tell me about that. I loved that.

Elaine: I only very recently got into zodiac signs. A friend of mine told me to download an astrology app. Prior to that, I was a skeptical person. I was like, stop trying to analyze your entire life through this framework. I must have downloaded it at the perfect time in my life because I’ve only been into it for the last two years, but now I realize, very typical Virgo. I’ve done, now, enough research that I could probably do a PhD about it. One thing I was joking to a friend of mine, a fellow queer friend of mine, I was like, “There’s a lot of zodiac signs in here because it’s really just important for us to represent queer culture.” He was laughing about that. It’s also true. For one thing, it’s fun to me. It’s delightful to me. I also have recently realized, especially as someone who can be — my love language, as this book, I’m sure, will indicate, is nonstop criticism. That’s how I tell you that I love you. Zodiac stuff or astrology offers you a really useful language because instead of just being like, you’re wrong about everything, it softens the blow to be like, oh, you’re such an earth sign. It gave me this dialect to be able to critique my friends or the people in my life without being like, you’re doing everything wrong. They’re like, yeah, we’ve heard that before. What sign are you?

Zibby: Why don’t you try to guess? Do you have any idea? I’ve known you for three minutes.

Elaine: Three minutes. Earth sign? I’m going to go with earth sign.

Zibby: How do I know if it’s an earth sign? I know what it is.

Elaine: Earth sign is Virgo, Taurus, or Capricorn. I think I should only get one guess.

Zibby: I’m a Leo.

Elaine: Ooh! It’s Leo season. Congratulations on Leo season.

Zibby: Thank you. What does that mean? Should I be leaping around in excitement?

Elaine: Isn’t it a thing that almost all Hollywood stars are Leos? It’s a very gregarious — this book is a Leo because it came out yesterday.

Zibby: That’s right. Congratulations.

Elaine: I was just telling someone, I was like, “This book is a Leo.”

Zibby: That’s so funny. That’s really funny to give every book its own zodiac sign and all that. My kids and I are kind of obsessed with this right now. I think that’s why I was drawn to this small element of the whole bigger-picture story. Literally, on the way to camp this morning — you can go onto some zodiac app. It can tell you based on your sign and maybe one other thing, how old you’ll be when you meet your soulmate.

Elaine: No!

Zibby: Yeah.

Elaine: Wait, I want to do this.

Zibby: One of my younger kids, they said fifteen. Another kid, they said twenty-eight. I’m like, all right, this is good to know. We can prepare ourselves.

Elaine: I love that. Someone should do a listicle of books by their zodiac signs.

Zibby: Oh, my god, I love that.

Elaine: Wouldn’t that be funny? For example, I found out recently that Wong Kar-wai, the Hong Kong director that I talk about in the book, he’s a Cancer. I was like, all of his movies are Cancer movies. Now it’s my grand unified theory.

Zibby: I love that. You post about it. I’ll share the reel and be like, see, this is what I’m talking about. You can do all the research, and I’ll benefit from it, because you have so much time too. I know we’re joking around a lot, but there was a sad element with your dad and his health and his passing away and how that factored into reading and how reading got you through that. I completely relate to how reading can get us through different situations. Tell me a little more about that time of your life and even the ectopic pregnancy or something. I’m so sorry that happened. How have books been the through line for you?

Elaine: It would’ve been impossible for me to write about reading or my reading life without talking about the person who introduced me to books, and that was my father. He was such a huge reader himself even though in his life he didn’t do anything that was related to reading or literature or even the humanities, really, humanities in terms of arts. By the time that I knew him, in his California life, he was a security guard. In his life in the Philippines long before I was born — he was fifty-four when I was born — he was an orthopedic surgeon. His love of books was this totally personal, idiosyncratic, not at all academic relationship to it. Because of that, he passed that down to me. We were reading across genres. He was never like, you should read this because it’s eighteenth-century literature. It was like, “You should read this because it’s Thomas Mann.” He’s not eighteen century. “You should read James Joyce. You should read Virginia Woolf.” Because of that, it didn’t come with normal preconceptions that I think come with it if you read all of those books in an English class and someone’s telling you, this is great literature. This is part of what’s known as the canon. With us, because everything was so mixed, it really was a kind of reading where we created our own canon. Obviously, English was not his first language. English is, frankly, his third language. There was that also, that we were able to come to it in these really diffuse, freewheeling ways.

Then I also was always aware, because of my dad’s class background, his literacy was also really tied to his class background. Obviously, by the time my parents were married — we grew up in a working-class family. How he grew up was as an upper-middle-class kid in the Philippines, which was such a contrast to my mom, who grew up very much not that, very much rural, poor. Her relationship to literacy, her relationship to books is a lot more — she wouldn’t read books. She has a much more contentious or intimidated relationship with books and reading, not just in English, which is also her third, I would even say fourth, language, but even in Tagalog, which is considered to be the lingua franca of the Philippines, but it’s not her first language. I think that also complicated or inflected my relationship to books. I was aware that it was also, as much as it was not just a joy, but the thing that very literally saved me at countless moments in my life, it was also something that was political, that was not divorced from questions of class or privilege. Would I have become that kind of reader if my father hadn’t grown up the way he’d grown up, hadn’t had the kind of facility with reading Plato or reading all of those things? For sure, because so much of the book is really about understanding how my reading life was this inheritance and really this labor of love that came from him, it would’ve been impossible to talk about reading without talking about love and without talking about my love for him.

Zibby: That’s beautiful. I’m sorry for your loss. Let’s see. There was something else I wanted to read. You have a whole section on all the anti-Asian violence going on. You gave a bunch of examples. You said, “In 1984 when my mom was heavily pregnant, she was standing in line at a department store when an older woman violently shoved her to the ground. No one around helped. In Montréal in 2004, my aunt was once pushed by a young man into the way of a coming subway car, miraculously surviving by huddling between the rails just beneath the train rushing above her. When at nineteen I lived on my own in Paris, I became afraid to leave my apartment because an older man who had seen me at a neighborhood café had begun stalking me, not to mention the nearly endless stream of ‘wo ai ni’ and ‘ni hao ma’ from men that would greet me whenever I stepped foot outside.” You go on and on. You say, “There are major issues around how we critically analyze anti-Asian racism in both an American and a global context. It’s clear that this kind of scapegoating is not new, even in its latest Trumpian iteration. There are also a vast community of –” Anyway, you go on and on and on. Not like that. Not on and on.

Elaine: No, I got you.

Zibby: You go on to write about this topic more. I just wanted to highlight all those experiences in your own personal life of people that you love and yourself and how that affects the whole culture of your family. How do you internalize that and be like, okay, now I’m just going to pop outside again?

Elaine: To be honest, I don’t think you do, in the sense of, like most people who experience, frankly, just the PTSD of living in America, I think a lot of it is compartmentalizing. My family could win the Olympics for repression. I absolutely would win the gold medal and know that about myself. I was joking to someone about the recent Persuasion adaptation. I won’t get into it because then we’ll be here for three hours. I was like, this is repressed erasure. Anne Elliot is an earth sign and a repressed — we need repressed person representation. All of the episodes that I’m talking, the accumulation of them, the accretion of their force when you write them in the paragraph — in researching all of that, I found the old news clipping about my aunt, the one who had been pushed into the way of the subway car. I was looking at her photo in this Canadian newspaper and the description of it and just going, Jesus. Many of us have family stories that then become legend. Their edges become worn down with time just because you tell the story or survival requires you to wear those edges down. Faced with the material facts of it, it sort of renews its horror for you. Because of that, because of my experience in France, which I talk about, having lived in France and having Asian French friends who also experienced the kind of rampant fetishizing, infantilizing, sexualizing that I think attends Asian women not just in France, obviously, but here in America, that time was a formative time in my life. I happened to be in France. It’s an experience that I know, in all of my group chats and all of my messages, is shared by Asian women, friends that I know. That grief and that rage and that terror, all of that is real here, irrepressible.

At the same time, I think it’s also important for me to talk about all of the places where the Asian American politics and Asian American solidarity also falls short. For example, it’s an ongoing frustration of mine that there’s often these lists of AAPI writers you should read or books you should read. The list, they’re all Asian American. There’s no Pacific Islander authors on that list. There’s no books by Pacific Islanders or writers from Guam or Hawaii or Samoa on anything on those lists. I’m like, okay, this is just false advertising. The ways that the pull towards “representation matters” type of discourse can pull us towards a regime of positive representation or representation where the majority of the stories that we see do focus on, for example, middle-class East Asian and South Asian families — there is an illusion of the experiences of Southeast Asian poor, marginalized Southeast Asian, or marginalized Asians communities like Asian sex workers, Asian domestic labors. It’s an understatement to say that the Asian American community is not a monolith. It’s both — what is it? I’m trying to remember. Numbers are not my strength. The statistic that I talk about in that essay is talking about how Asians rank per capita as the highest-earning racial group in the States. That’s not highest-earning racial group of color. That’s highest-earning racial group, period. At the same time, it’s also the group that has the most disparity in terms of wealth. Even just talking about the class issues that are within Asian American communities and that are so central to when we talk about Asian American politics, even things like that I think need to be discussed more. We need to have a wider and a thorny conversation about the kind of Asian American politics that we’re trying to produce in order to have Asian American solidarity.

Zibby: Amazing. You should teach a class on this. Seriously. I feel like you’re devoid of the podium that should be in front of you. Really. It all comes out in fully formed sentences. You just go. There it is. It’s perfect. It’s a skill. That’s a skill, one I covet. What advice would you have for aspiring authors, especially as such a big reader and somebody who has analyzed reading so much, reading in all its forms, as you carefully lay out in the book?

Elaine: It’s funny. My old advice used to be, read more. Just read all the time. Now I think — it’s going to become clear that I’m also a contrarian. If I say one thing or think I believe one thing, almost immediately, I have to say or think the opposite or challenge myself to think the opposite. Recently, I have been, even just for the aspiring author that I am, I’ve been feeling that it actually behooves me to, not read less exactly but the outcome will be that one reads less, but to read more slowly. I think we all, especially nowadays, have this immense pressure to just keep up. There’s this real, if I’m not reading the things that’s in the zeitgeist — I’m saying this as someone who literally has a book out, so I recognize that. I recognize that there’s a self-defeating aspect to what I’m saying here. Reading can also become this kind of right to not feel FOMO because everyone else is talking about this thing. I’m lucky in that sense because I think a lot of writers, especially if you’re working on a novel — I’m always five years behind just because you read weird stuff to research whatever weird universe you’re writing about anyway.

I do think reading slowly, reading weirdly, reading out of time, not necessarily always reading — this is the nightmare for contemporary publishing houses, to be like, don’t read the latest book. They’re like, no, please read the latest book. For us as citizens, for us as people and readers, I think it really benefits us. I started reading Edith Wharton recently, Age of Innocence. I’m texting people. I’m like, this is the best book that’s ever been. Where have you been? Obviously, it’s the best. Then I think the flip side to that for aspiring authors is — this is kind of a mean advice, but it’s advice I’m turning towards myself, which is that I’m trying to read slower, but I’m trying to write faster. The prevailing wisdom is the opposite, which is, read, read, read more. Then also, write. Take your time. Make everything perfect. Really agonize over it. I’m starting to be like, don’t be afraid of just — it might be mediocre. To have less anxiety about whether or not, is this perfect? I think there’s enough mid stuff out there that, why should you be afraid of not putting out something — god forbid you to put out something that’s not perfect. In a way, having a less-precious relationship to —

Zibby: — Just try to write something bad.

Elaine: Yeah, write something bad. Have fun with that. It could be really fun.

Zibby: You can be pleasantly surprised if it’s anything other than bad.

Elaine: Exactly. If you’re like, I’m going to write something really bad, and then it’s kind of okay —

Zibby: — It’s not that bad.

Elaine: Also, you’re always your own worst critic. You might think it’s bad. People are like, this is better than the majority of stuff out there, my girl.

Zibby: Elaine, thank you so much. This has been really fun.

Elaine: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I will take my Leo-ness and hit the road in this little month I have of, I don’t know.

Elaine: Yes, happy Leo season to both of you, to you and the book.

Zibby: Thank you. Your book and I will have a fabulous month together in the spotlight.

Elaine: It was so, so fun. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thanks, Elaine. Buh-bye.

Elaine: Bye.

HOW TO READ NOW: Essays by Elaine Castillo

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