Novelist Elaine Castillo’s brilliant and passionate new essay collection, How to Read Now, argues that the publishing industry is designed to suit white readers and that changing the way one reads can change the way one sees the world. Among other insights, Castillo warns against seeing stories by writers of color as a “kind of ethical protein shake” to teach white readers how to be better people and critiques white authors’ appropriation of narratives about oppression, including Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which was partly “inspired” by dissidents in the Philippines during the regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Castillo’s knowledge, along with her firebrand style and generous humor, result in a dynamic and necessary look at the state of storytelling.
“Overlooked” is a category as imprecise as “invisible,” in the spirit of Toni Morrison’s deft analysis of the Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man: “Invisible to whom?” Overlooked by whom? Most of these writers aren’t overlooked at all, not to the readers who love them or the contexts they both spring from and resist. So, for the purposes of this piece, when I say overlooked, I mean it in the narrowest, and most American sense: books that are perhaps less glimpsed here on our mainstream syllabi and reading lists, yet whose force reverberates across all sorts of borders, in ways indelible, unforgettable, and yes, essential.
1. L'homme qui rit/The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo? Overlooked? Surely not. And you’re right. He’s not remotely overlooked, except in the way that sometimes monuments loom so large that you forget what they actually look like. Most of us know of Hugo via the adaptions of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, but my personal fave is L’homme qui rit, or The Man Who Laughs, which I went on a long digression about in the Works Cited of How to Read Now. It’s about cruelty, aristocracy (it contains one of my all-time favorite excoriating takes on the English aristocracy), childhood, poverty, inequity, torture, chance, desire, lust, bad choices, and long consequences. And as a helicopter dog mom, I’m constitutionally required to say that it features one of my favorite dog characters, a wolf dog hybrid named Homo.
In How to Read Now, I talk about some of my experiences in a pretty terrible writing program I attended while living in London. But I regretted that I wasn’t able to fit in a section about one of the few true joys of my time at that institution, which was the Caribbean Women’s Writing class I audited, along with two other women of color. Taught by Prof. Joan Anim-Addo, it’s where I first read and loved the work of writers like Maryse Condé, Velma Pollard, Olive Senior, and Beryl Gilroy. Of course, writers like Césaire, Senghor, Glissant, and Walcott are some of the best-known luminaries of Caribbean literature. Condé, a writer from Guadeloupe, is perhaps lesser known in the States than her male peers, a point she doesn’t shy away from discussing in her interviews. Windward Heights is a bravura reimagining of Wuthering Heights, written in a blend of French and Guadeloup creole; in an interview, Condé said: "There is no French. There is the French of Proust, of Chateaubriand, of Maryse Condé… I write neither in French nor in Creole, I write in Maryse Condé.”
I first read an excerpt of this in Terrestrial Intelligence, a New Directions anthology of writing in translation that I bought in San Francisco’s City Lights when I was still in college. I remember being utterly struck by the translation of Timm’s prose, the terse clarity and historicity of it, yet also its material aliveness, how its attention to the concrete felt so intense as to be transformative. It’s also one of the few German novels I know of (also of note to me because my partner is French German and grew up mainly in Germany, so I’ve spent a lot of time in France and Germany, and read a lot of literature in French and German, which comes up in How to Read Now) that speaks about the German colonial project in South West Africa, now Namibia, and particularly the Herero and Namaqua genocide. Timm’s book soberly draws parallels between the German colonial enterprise in South West Africa and the dehumanizing ideologies around racial superiority and ethnic cleansing—its concentration camps, its forms of torture—that anticipated the rise of Nazism.
4. Sisters of No Mercy by Vincent Silk
I first met the brilliant trans Australian writer Vincent Silk at the Sydney Writers Festival, for what I think was the festival’s Queer Night—I still remember how struck and moved I was by the luminous, devastating piece he shared that evening, which I won’t do him the disservice of clumsily summarizing. Not long after the festival ended I read his gorgeous novel Sisters of No Mercy, and it remains one of my favorite books on the joys and discontents of organizing (anyone who has been in any type of leftist or anarchist household/squat/organizing project will recognize so much in this book; there were moments I had to put it down for a minute, either because I was laughing too hard, or because it was getting Too Real, or both), on gentrification, on the dystopian urban residues of settler colonialism, on grief and family, and most of all on the tenuous tenderness of solidarity and community.
Manuel Puig, like Victor Hugo, obviously isn’t an overlooked writer, either, what with being a titan of Latin American literature (though still, probably, overshadowed by his Argentinian compatriot Borges). Puig’s best known novel is Kiss of the Spider Woman (another fave)—but I have a soft spot for this one, his first novel, which treads much of the same ground as Kiss (queerness, femininity, the utopian dream presented by the cinema, the reality of heteropatriarchal machismo, leftist militancy and resistance and its fraught relationship to the queer), but sets it all in a small town in the Pampas of Argentina, a place the young protagonist Toto both grows up in and tries to escape, through the magic portal of cinema. Puig’s work is often described as camp; I also love his nimble skewering of class norms (as well as gender norms), aspiration, and self-delusion. The book veers from the comic to the harrowing on the same page, sometimes the same breath.
I think I read Abdellah Taïa—who has been described as the first openly gay Moroccan writer—first in French, but some of his books have been translated into English and are available in the States: namely Une mélancholie arabe (An Arab Melancholia) and L’armée du salut (Salvation Army). An Arab Melancholia is a short, devastating work, partially an epistolary novel about a passionate and doomed romance (in my personal canon, it rivals one of my favorite films and another essay subject in How to Read Now, Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together)—while also being a rumination on the narrator’s childhood in Salé, Morocco and his adulthood in France, with paeans to the actress Isabelle Adjani and descriptions of perfume so evocative they made me start collecting Serge Lutens fragrances. The way Taïa writes in French—the way he writes himself into French, both invites and invents himself into French—never ceases to thrill and inspire me. And for some reason, his writing also started to make me reflect on the way Samuel Beckett chose to write in French: “In French, it’s easier to write with no style,” Beckett once said, and thereafter it seemed like most critics framed his adoption of French as a kind of aesthetic purification—a stripping-away of things. Taïa’s writing in French is full of style (so, in truth, is Beckett’s), not at all a stripping-away; his prose is by turns breathless, romantic, effusive, dramatic, harsh, melodramatic, recriminating, self-recriminating, honest, evasive—a writing that shuns some of the more boring Académie Française-esque elitism around what constitutes good bourgeois French literature. It’s also a writing that confronts head-on the inevitable colonial echoes of a North African writer choosing to write in French. It’s in this oblique way, in the end, that Taïa’s writing illuminated Beckett for me; it made me realize that for Beckett, as an Irish writer, the refusal of English would have been both a fraught aesthetic choice and a fraught, colonially inflected one—not unlike Taïa’s.
This isn’t a novel, exactly, but it’s one of my longtime favorite books of experimental literary and cultural criticism, and much of it is written in prose so lively, characterful, and embodied it often feels novelistic. Bryant’s project is extending and expanding on the work of Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, by locating the “unexpected presences” of Blackness in works of art, film, and literature. “It prowls the background of classic films, rustles at the margins of novels, peers into the storage room of museums, cataloguing the ways blackness persists in culture: as curio, as enabler, as counter-example, as temptation, as nightmare.” The virtuosic final essay on Regency House Party, a British Regency-themed reality show, has been one of my favorite essays for years, and I’ve thought about it often since the rise of Bridgerton (we won’t even talk about the most recent Persuasion adaptation except to say it is Earth sign erasure.)
8. The Drone Outside by Kristine Ong Muslim
I’d been a fan of Kristine’s science fiction and fantasy short stories for a long time before I met her at the Philippine International Literary Festival in 2018; I remember her joking/not joking about Manila being an imperial city (she’s from Mindanao, in the South; my family is from the provinces in the North, Ilocos Sur and Pangasinan). She is a prolific writer, and The Drone Outside is just one of her many masterpieces, a collection of spare dystopian stories that terrify, clarify, and renew all at once. Her prose is crisp and lucid yet shot through with wonder and dread in equal measure, and like the best science fiction and fantasy, the politics of her fiction feels inextricable from its ethics and aesthetics; she has a gift for showing us unreal worlds and alien situations that nevertheless begin to ring intimately, hauntingly, familiar.
9. Hawai‘i’s Story by Hawai‘i’s Queen by Queen Lili‘uokalani
One of the essays in How to Read Now is called “Main Character Syndrome,” a critique of the cult of Joan Didion, and in particular the settler colonial politics of her writing, especially about the West. One of the Didion pieces I talk about is an essay she wrote about her wealthy family connections to Hawai‘i, and in the course of writing and researching that essay, I came across this book, Queen Lili‘uokalani’s memoir/record of history that preceded the U.S. overthrow of the sovereign kingdom of Hawai‘i. In school, I don’t think we read any novels by Hawaiian or Pacific Islander authors (I’ve recently been reading Kiana Davenport’s 1994 novel Shark Dialogues and Craig Santos Perez’s Navigating CHamoru Poetry, and am excited to start Kristiana Kahakauwila’s This is Paradise); at least in my education there was no substantial reckoning with the colonial annexing of Hawai‘i and how it came to be part of America (it’s also been an ongoing frustration of mine that often lists dedicated to “AAPI Authors You Should Read Now” often seem to feature only Asian American authors, no Pacific Islander authors). This book in particular feels like a time capsule, containing an essential American origin story—the one not told by its victors.
In the last essay of How to Read Now, “The Children of Polyphemus,” I go on a bit of a deep dive into my past life as a would-be classicist, the colonial history of folklores and fairytales like Cinderella, and the colonial nature of 19th-century translations of Homer. All this to say: I’m a longtime classics nerd, but I’m also interested in how questions of race, selfhood, and foreignness inhere in what we in the West call the classics. Evaristo is of course now best known for her Booker-prize winning Girl, Woman, Other (the title echoing another longtime favorite classic of mine, Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Woman, Native, Other), but the first book of hers I read was The Emperor’s Babe, not long after I moved to London in 2009. It’s a novel-in-verse that follows Zuleika, a Nubian teenager, as she comes of age in ancient Roman London. For all the talk nowadays of casting actors of color in period movies, The Emperor’s Babe is a delightful example of a book that does this very move effortlessly, precisely because characters like Zuleika—their material reality, their liveliness and ordinariness—have always existed in places like London. More than that, it’s also a fizzy, sparkling, sexy, romantic book—“like an episode of Sex and the City written by Ovid,” says Kirkus—that often made me laugh out loud and text my girlfriends. Zuleika’s torrid affair with Septimus Severus (often called Rome’s first African Emperor) is the stuff of the greatest group chats, and great books, too.