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We Need to Reckon with the Rot at the Core of Publishing

Elaine Castillo on How White Supremacy Makes for Terrible Readers, and the Value of Reading Like a Free, Mysterious Person

When I say that white supremacy makes for terrible readers, I mean that white supremacy is, among its myriad ills, a formative collection of fundamentally shitty reading techniques that impoverishes you as a reader, a thinker, and a feeling person; it’s an education that promises that whole swaths of the world and their liveliness will be diminished in meaning to you. Illegible, intangible, forever unreal as cardboard figures in a diorama.

They don’t know how to read us, I’ve heard fellow writer friends of color complain, usually after a particularly frustrating Q&A in which a white person has either taken offense to something in our books or in the discussion (usually the mention of whiteness at all will be enough to offend these particularly thin-skinned readers), or said something well-meaning but ultimately self-serving, usually about how their story made them feel terrible about your country.

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. This is even more apparent in the kind of reading most enthusiastically trafficked by the white liberal literary community that has such an outsize influence, intellectually and economically, on the publishing industry today.

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 forgotten history, harrowing tragedy, community-destroying political upheaval, genocide, trauma; that we expect those writers to provide those intellectual commodities the way their ancestors once provided spices, minerals, precious stones, and unprecious bodies.

Writers like me often do carry the weight of forgotten history, harrowing tragedy, community-destroying political upheaval, genocide, and trauma. But how then are we read? And equally as important, how then are we edited? How is our work circulated in a marketplace that struggles not just to see all of its writers as equals, but to pay them as equals?

For if our stories primarily serve to educate, console, and productively scold a comfortable white readership, then those stories will have failed their readers, and those readers will have failed those stories. All the “representation matters” rhetoric in the world means nothing if we do not address the fundamentally fucked-up relationship between writers of color and white audiences that persists in our contemporary reading culture.

At heart, my issue with how we read is as much an existential grievance as it is a labor dispute: the industry is simply not serving its employees equally.

I have no desire to write yet another instruction manual for the sociocultural betterment of white readers. I don’t know any writer who, if asked what they wanted their work to do in the world, would reply: “Make better white people.” Equally, I don’t see a sustainable way to continue in my industry without reckoning with the rot at its core, which is that, by and large, the English-language publishing industry centers the perspective and comfort of its overwhelmingly white employee base and audience, leaving writers of color to be positioned along that firmly established structure: as flavors of the month, as heroic saviors, as direly important educators, as necessary interventions (“classic American story / genre / historical episode, but now populated with brown people!” continues to be one of the most dominant and palatable gateways for white audiences to become accustomed to seeing Black and Brown bodies on their screens and in their pages), as vessels of sensational trauma—but rarely as artists due the same depth and breadth of critical engagement as their white colleagues; rarely as artists whose works are approached not just as sources of history or educational potential but specific and sublime sensual immersion: sites of wonder, laughter, opulence, precision; a place to sink into the particular weather of a particular town; a place to pang at the love of strangers, thwarted or salvaged.

At heart, my issue with how we read is as much an existential grievance as it is a labor dispute: the industry is simply not serving its employees equally. And it asks, repeatedly, for uncompensated overtime from writers of color who, often in lieu of engaging in detail about the actual book they’ve actually written, find themselves instead managing the limited critical capacity of mostly white readers, here offended by the appearance of a non-English word, there alienated by a conversation not translated for their benefit.

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—handy to have on hand for panels or journal issues about race or power or revolution, so the festival or literary journal doesn’t appear totally racist; handy to praise publicly and singularly, so as to draw less attention to the white audience, rapt in the seats too expensive for local readers of color.

Running the gauntlet of book promotion for my first novel, it became patently obvious that much of our literary industry functions as little more than a quaint pastime for its adherents, like Marie-Antoinette in the Petit Trianon’s Hameau de la Reine: a place to merely cosplay diversity, empathy, education. Not a place to truly be diverted from oneself; not a place to be made humble in one’s vulnerability; not a place to be laid bare in one’s unknowing.

It was my father who first introduced me to books. I grew up in what was once a small town—the tech boom of the Bay Area ensures it will never be a small town again—in which I was never a visible, singled-out minority. Instead, I was part of an exceedingly invisible and thus banal majority: what’s often called, usually with a faintly lurid dash of fearmongering, a “majority-minority town.”

I emphasize the demographic makeup of the community I came out of primarily because I’ve found that so much of our contemporary imaginings of minority lives, especially immigrant lives, always seem to posit the idea of the Only One: the only Asian, in the white town. The one minority, beset on all sides by white people. That narrative is often sold as the preeminent narrative of minority experience in America, and the people who sell this story often frame it as a story of typical American hardship: the difficulty of being the only Asian kid in a white class.

That this dominant narrative bears zero resemblance to my own experience doesn’t make it untrue, of course; I know there are plenty of people who grew up as the only kid of color in a white town. But it’s the way that narrative is deployed that matters here. It successfully centers whiteness in a minoritized person’s story—making their narrative about adapting or not adapting to “America,” which is always a code for adapting to whiteness.

It also mistakes difference for oppression, which is not the same thing: to be the only Asian person in an otherwise white town is just as much an indicator of privilege as it is of oppression, because most economically disadvantaged minorities do not live in majority-white towns. In a place like the Bay Area, they more typically live, as I did, in the satellite suburban towns that house a larger urbanized area’s lower-income support workers—my town was made up mostly of Filipinx, Vietnamese, and Mexican working-class immigrant families (with pockets of wealthier immigrant families here and there) whose jobs as security guards, nurses, cooks, domestic workers, and subcontracted landscapers serviced the larger, whiter towns to which we all commuted, for work or school.

I’ve very often seen successful people of color framing their experiences of being the only person of color in their classrooms as narratives about struggle, rather than also being narratives about class and power; I emphasize often, because it seems to me that in fact many successful people of color in our mainstream media happen to be precisely the sort of people who grew up the only person of color in white towns. It is precisely because they grew up adjacent to whiteness and its social and economic privilege, precisely because they were well versed at an early age on how to adapt to and accommodate whiteness that they could thus use those skills as professional adults, living under white supremacy.

Like many other Filipinx people of a similarly working-class, middle-class aspirational background, I grew up surrounded by a wide and diverse (it should not be a revelation that a minority community can itself be diverse) Filipinx community. It meant that I grew up with the assumed sense of my own centeredness, if not necessarily centrality or importance. I was not visibly particularly different, special, or unique from most anyone else I grew up with. And while there were of course conflicts mainly across class and colorist lines, whiteness was not the reference point or framework in my community, and so I did not learn early on to prioritize it in my psychic, intellectual, or sociopolitical life. That includes the way I read—the way, more specifically, my father taught me to read.

My parents had a mixed-class marriage, although on paper, by the time I was born, it wouldn’t have read as such. By then, my father was a security guard at a computer chip company and my mother was a nurse holding down at least two, sometimes three, different jobs at various hospitals and nursing homes. My mother came from abject rural poverty of the kind that has made her literacy shaky, not just in English but in Tagalog, the controversial lingua franca of the Philippines (her first language—and mine, now lost—being Pangasinan). Like many first-generation kids, I spend a lot of my time as my mother’s English safety net, language-checking everything from legal documents to her Facebook statuses.

My father, on the other hand, born in 1930 (and so twenty-two years older than my mother), came from a comfortable upper-middle-class Ilocano background—a dark-skinned boy descended from a mix of the indigenous northerners of Luzon and the merchant Chinese class—in which literacy and literary education were a given. He circulated with people who read widely in English, who discussed the literary and philosophical merits of Philippine national hero José Rizal (the only national hero I can think of who was also a novelist).

It’s because of this that my reading life can never be disentangled from questions of class and power, as readership has always been not just a gift but a privilege: Would I have become the reader I became if I’d had a different father? He was making me read Plato’s Symposium when I was in middle school, a fact that none of my white teachers believed, and in fact actively and aggressively tried to disprove—another lesson familiar to many kids of color I know.

We read a lot of white people. But we didn’t read them with a white-centering view; we didn’t read them like those books and the worlds in them were the only ones that existed, or mattered.

One of the first places I ever learned about bad readers was from white teachers in the Catholic schools I attended. (Catholic schools are the nearest thing to affordable private schools for working-class immigrant parents—not to mention the fact that my mother was and remains a devout if irreverent and syncretic Catholic, and wanted her children educated in the faith. In my case, my parents only had enough gas in them to send one kid to such a school—which means my younger brother had a largely public education.

That, among other things, has created a palpable class difference that still affects us today.) Some people have great teachers growing up, and I truly envy them, but my great ones were very, very rare; for the most part, my memories of education are of sneering, condescension, and neglect. Teachers in the Mountain View / Los Altos region of the Bay Area where I attended junior high and high school—significantly whiter and wealthier than the Milpitas schools I attended throughout elementary school—often seemed threatened, occasionally enraged, by the idea of a smart, bookish, and vocally irreverent Filipinx kid. It was understood that if kids who looked like me were ever to succeed, we were meant to do so docilely, gratefully, quietly. Not confidently. Not proudly. And when I look back now, despite the casual cruelty of those days, that educational neglect also meant I never really got a successful education in the profoundly incurious way those teachers read books, the world, and me.

Instead, I got my father’s kind of reading. In the world of books that I lived in with him, I was in Plato’s world, playing in the cave; there was no difference between me and James Joyce, and darling, I should really read Finnegans Wake to experience what some people called modernism; ditto Rizal, and Bertrand Russell, and Kant, and Virginia Woolf, and buckets and buckets of Greek mythology, which I fell in love with and nearly became a classicist for in college, during my I-want-to-be-the-Pinay-Anne-Carson stage.

We read a lot of white people. But we didn’t read them with a white-centering view; we didn’t read them like those books and the worlds in them were the only ones that existed, or mattered. We read them like they were just books, and they had things to say, and they were sometimes very powerful and fragile and beautiful; just like I was a person, and I had things to say, and I was sometimes very powerful and fragile and beautiful. It was, I realize now, a deeply weird, genreless, freewheeling way of reading. It wasn’t decolonial exactly—I mean, we were still reading the jerks, and Kant obviously didn’t think we were human beings—but the motley, secular, antihierarchical, unacademic way we read this wide swath of books bore the seeds of the decolonial.

Reading with my father taught me to read across borders, and to read in translation (he loved Thomas Mann and Goethe, and he loved that I loved Japanese and Latin American writers like Banana Yoshimoto or Manuel Puig). Our practice taught me most of all to read like a free, mysterious person who was encountering free, mysterious things; to value the profound privacy and irregularity of my own thinking; to spend time in my head and the heads of others, and to see myself shimmer in many worlds—to let many worlds shimmer, lively, in me.

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From HOW TO READ NOW by ELAINE CASTILLO, published by VIKING, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Elaine Castillo

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Elaine Castillo
Elaine Castillo
Elaine Castillo, named one of “30 of the Planet’s Most Exciting Young People” by the Financial Times, was born and raised in the Bay Area. Her debut novel, America Is Not the Heart, was a finalist for numerous prizes including the Elle Big Book Award, the Center for Fiction Prize, and the Aspen Words Literary Prize and was named a best book of 2018 by NPR, Real Simple, Lit Hub, The Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Post, Kirkus Reviews, and the New York Public Library.





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