The debut novel and the author behind it, Elaine Castillo. Portrait by Kara Ortiga
Culture Books

Encounter: Acclaimed Fil-Am writer Elaine Castillo on 'white gaze,' and writing to move on

We caught up with the author of America is Not The Heart at a writer’s festival in Sydney to talk about her roots, translating for a white audience—"No one translates white middle-class Brooklyn life to me, and I don't know what that's like“—and how she dealt with her father’s passing.
Kara Ortiga | May 27 2019

It's an overcast Sunday afternoon when I meet Elaine Castillo at the Old Clare Hotel in Sydney, Australia. She greets me with a warm hug and leans over for a beso. The day before, this Fil-Am writer had gathered a full house for her appearance at the Sydney Writer's Festival to talk about her debut novel America is Not the Heart—Sydney is just one of the stops among several writing festival appearances she is making around the world. For a debut, America is Not the Heart has received impressive acclaim, and there’s already an Italian translation: L’America Non E Casa. When I commend her book, she clutches her chest with her hands and bows with gratefulness, her long earrings dancing with her every gesture.

At the Writer's Festival, Elaine commanded the room with an outspoken view on race, being genderqueer, and the life of a writer. She can speak deeply and at great length about them, with that unique mix of passion and a bit of resentment. When Tongan-Australian writer Winnie Dunn, the host of the event, asked her, "How did you write a book set in America without white people?" Elaine simply said that that was the America she grew up in: in Milpitas, at the Bay Area in San Francisco, a majority-minority town with a big Filipino community. "I would watch shows like Baywatch and Beverly Hills and think, ‘I don’t recognize that California. Why does that California get to be our dominating image of California?’" she says

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When someone in the audience asked if she will write her next book conscious about veering away from the white gaze, Elaine replied with a curt and unabashed, "No."

I ask her about this when we meet. She laughs.

“I just don’t think about the white gaze… I never have,” Elaine tells me. “There was like maybe two white people in my class growing up. And when my parents moved me to a Catholic school in a whiter neighborhood, like ‘Please let her try to be middle-class,’ it was such a shock to me. It was in schools like that where I experienced institutional racism because I was a big writer and reader as a kid, and I remember white teachers essentially not believing I read what I read, or I wrote what I wrote.”

The New York Times calls it "hungrily ambitious in sweep and documentary in detail, and reads like a seismograph of the aftershocks from trading one life for another." Photograph from Good Reads

As I sat in the last row at the festival, surrounded by a predominantly white audience, I felt the tension of their discomfort as Winnie and Elaine spoke about the politics of writing about identity, about being a woman of color in publishing, bemoaning when people view their work for its contribution to white literature. In the middle of the talk, Winnie even cautioned the room: "I know we talked a lot about sensitive issues, but I warn you against white fragility."

 America is not the Heart (a nod to Carlos Bulosan's America is in the Heart) transports the reader from the Bay Area in San Francisco to the Philippines, in which Elaine unloads the following: a queer love story, an intergenerational family epic, and a complex profile of migrant life. We are familiar with some of the tropes: hardworking Filipino nurses and snooty highborn women. But there is freshness in having a lead who is bisexual and living in a suburban community—a situation that echoes Elaine’s life.

The protagonist of the novel is Hero De Vera, who is disowned by her wealthy parents in the Philippines after she joins the New People's Army. When she leaves the guerilla group with broken thumbs, she is forced to relocate to Milpitas, and we follow her journey through healing and rebuilding a new life in a foreign land.

Elaine’s portrayal of her characters is textured and distinctive. "I'm very aware that the Filipino-American experience is very different from the Filipino experience," she says. "So I never wanted to feel like I was talking for Filipinos. I was moved that people in the Philippines were seeing that I wasn't just selling out the Filipinos to white readers, which is literally the last thing I want to do."

Elaine's story doesn't subscribe to the sympathy-drawing diasporic narrative that is often used to present this cultural phenomenon. Instead, she invites us to her deeply personal account—and it's this honest and vulnerable writing that makes one feel so connected to the book. "I think I was conscious about writing about a community and a space that was slowly disappearing. I wanted to get the texture [of Milpitas] right, the feel of it right so that it would feel as it did in my memories. Especially because it's a part of the Bay Area, that's disappearing. Those communities are still there, but so many people have left the area because of tech gentrification."

Castillo in Sydney for one of the many writers' festivals she is doing for America is Not The Heart. Photograph by Kara Ortiga

Elaine describes growing up in a suburban community without a bookstore. So she had to read the limited collection of books that were available at the Milpitas library or at thrift shops: Sweet Valley High or thrillers that were too old for her. But she also read a lot of philosophy books, borrowed from her father who was a voracious reader. She says she read a lot of Filipino writing that were from “wealthy, educated, Manila-based, or remotely cosmopolitan” standpoints, and not so many stories from the rural poor--from places like where her mother had grown up. That is until she picked up Bulosan's America is in the Heart.

The text in Elaine's book is mostly written in English with dialogues in Ilocano, Tagalog and Pangasinan—none of which are translated to English. “To translate those kinds of things for an assumed white reader is really an outdated way of thinking about literature,” she says. “It's thinking about literature in a way that impoverishes us as readers because it makes writers of color into essentially, performing exhibitions. Like: here is Filipino identity 101 for the white reader. To do that to an artist is to deform them," she says. "No one translates white middle-class Brooklyn life to me, and I don't know what that's like. We just assume that if it's white canonical writing or if it's white writing, period, then it's universal, so we just have to take it. But if its writers of color, immigrants, or ethnic writers then it's like, oh we need a glossary, we need a map…"

Elaine has been writing for as long as she can remember, spinning her diaries into fictional stories when she was younger. She attended the University of California, Berkeley and took her Master of Arts in Creative & Life Writing from the Goldsmiths, University of London. Just like the protagonist Hero, who had to deal with her life post-trauma, Elaine too has had the same agony. The death of her father in 2006 caused her much distress that she stopped reading and writing entirely for almost four years. "I was very close to my father. I was in a black hole of grief, and I think I was conscious that I didn't want to use writing to get myself out of it,” Elaine says. “I had a real aversion to the idea of writing as therapy for this particular grief—I didn't want to turn it into art." Elaine found emancipation when bad X-Men movies inspired her to write again, to correct them by writing fan fiction. “I realized that the things I was working out and writing about there are still things I write about now: PTSD and trauma, and intimacy and how people’s differences can be formative but not necessarily definitive. And it definitely helped me to write again.”

 

Portraits by Kara Ortiga.