Elaine Castillo’s debut novel is a sprawling, big-hearted love letter to Filipino people, culture, and history. It comes in at around 400 pages and is what would typically be described as a “family saga”.
This one takes on themes of queer love and desire, toxic dynamics in upper-class families, and presents the possibility of salvation within the extended lines of those families.
The novel begins with a stunning prologue, fiery and alive, about a woman named Paz. It is a small masterpiece on the politics of class, education, and immigration. While Malaysia is haunted by the legacy of British colonialism, the Philippines was subject to Spanish colonisation and is still reckoning with the ever-present spectre of American imperialism.
But as the novel begins, the reader realises that it is one Hero De Vera and not Paz who is the novel’s focal point. Hero is the niece of Pol, Paz’s husband, who arrives in Milpitas, California, in the early 1990s. She shows up at the couple’s home after being disowned by her parents in the Philippines because of her involvement in the New People’s Army.
Hero was a surgeon like her uncle Pol, and the De Veras are from old money and power, descended from Spanish landowners and Chinese merchants. Hero joining the people’s army under the Communist Party of the Philippines has thus made her cease to exist in the eyes of wealthy parents, whose adherence to the family name proves to be more substantial than the love they have for their own daughter.
Something happened to Hero while she was with the NPA, something that lead to the loss of the use of her hands and the loss of her work as a surgeon. When Hero arrives in America, she is withdrawn, suffering from PTSD, and feeling alone.
In Milpitas, Hero takes care of her young cousin Roni, ferrying her to and from school; she also finds herself falling for a younger Filipina-American woman named Rosalyn, who works as a makeup artist in a salon. In the orbit of Rosalyn’s family and friends, within the tightly-knit Filipino-American community in Milpitas, Hero begins to live again.
Castillo spends a lot of time showing how Filipinos, like many Asians, show their love and care for each other through food. The book is rich with descriptions of dishes like pancit, pinakbet, longanisa, and lechon, and multiple references to delicious-sounding barbecued pork and rice served up at Rosalyn’s grandparents’ restaurant.
The dialogue is left unemphasised without quotation marks, and words in Tagalog, Ilocano or Pangasinan are not italicised or explained. Sometimes Castillo weaves in the English meaning of those words and terms; sometimes she does not. This feels organic and honest; it’s the way Filipinos speak among themselves, and Castillo isn’t writing to gain approval from a non-Filipino audience approaching this book from the outside.
Part of the contract of reading between the reader and the writer is the reader’s willingness to enter into the world of the text and make the requisite effort to meet the writer halfway.
If children in postcolonial countries muddled along in Enid Blyton books without understanding what “Blimey” meant, or what on earth were tongue sandwiches or what clotted cream could be, then the adult reader in the age of the Internet has no excuse in finding America Is Not The Heart unapproachable because of these stylistic choices.
While Hero is the focus of the story, the cast of characters surrounding her is rich and lovingly- drawn. Roni as the eczema-riddled, spunky tomboy preteen in particular is especially memorable and loveable, and Hero’s lover Rosalyn and her friend Jaime both leap off the page in their finely- etched complexities.
The novel has its flaws in terms of structure: The prologue is a one-off, the story sprawls and digresses between timelines and places, and the final event, as it were, turns out to be non-event. Like life, it’s just one of the tangled things that happen in families that people try to work around in order to continue to live with the people that they love.
Like life, then, the novel shows that there are no clean cuts when it comes to the people around you who are woven into the fabric of your being.
Some readers might find this unsatisfactory. To me, however, Castillo’s style is uniquely hers and thus the novel comes off as a story only she could tell: A poignant, absorbing narrative steeped in Filipino culture and history, messy, heartbreaking, life-affirming, and emotionally true.
America Is Not The Heart
Author: Elaine Castillo
Publisher: Atlantic Books, contemporary fiction