Contemporary Literature

America Is Not the Heart

I have had this one on my TBR, and on my shelves, for months now. One of my favorite bookstagrammers, Christine (@readingismagical), has recommended this one over and over as a favorite of hers, so I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that this was going to be my pick for the May prompt of the Just One More Pa(i)ge Reading Challenge (Asian Pacific Islander author). However, this month was crazy busy and time really got away from me so I’m super pushing the envelope with getting this book finished and the review posted. In fact, to be honest, the review will be a day late. But I finished the book on the 31st and that’s what counts (or at least that’s what I’m telling myself)!

America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo


Although there are two short sections from other points of view, this book is primarily told by and about Hero, a nickname for Geronima. She was born and raised to a wealthy family in the Philippines, but was basically disowned by all but her older cousin, Pol, when she chose to leave medical school and join the New People’s Army. After spending 10 years as a camp doctor, then 2 years in a camp after being arrested, Hero heads to America to live with Pol…suffering from difficult memories, loss of self and serious injuries to her hands. In California, Hero sort of settles in with Pol’s family, forming a particularly special bond with his daughter Roni (also a nickname for Geronima…she was named after Hero), but still struggling emotionally. Over time, she forms some relationships with others in the Bay Area’s Filipino community and maybe, just maybe, starts to find reasons to enjoy life again.

To start, this was written in a very distinctive way. There was something very lifelike in the writing, with purposeful imperfections scattered throughout that truly made the story feel real. Similarly, the flow was very unique. It started with a section written from the second person POV (which is already very unique) and then switches to third person (from a totally different person’s perspective). Most of the story continues in that third person narration, with the exception of one more second person section, this time from another totally different character’s point of view. It was a gamble, on the author’s part, I think, to make such bold leaps and changes, but it worked. The two choices for the second person narrations (Pol’s wife, Paz, and Hero’s friend and lover, Rosalyn) really added some extra insight into two of the main female presences’ in Hero’s life in America and helped paint a more detailed background for the reader, as far as their interactions in the way the lived in and around Hero. Like I said, a gamble that I felt paid off. One other thing about the stylistic choices that I as really into was the smooth way that Hero’s current day life, her memories from childhood, her time with the NPA and her time in the camp, were all intertwined during her narration. The way that these flashbacks were fluidly interspersed with the present-day plot, as musings/memories that Hero flowed in and out of (in some cases, even recognized and commented on by present-day characters) was such a natural and authentic way to tell her whole story. And I loved that.

As far as the rest of the novel, I have to say, I learned so much. I think this might be the only book (well, let’s say first book) that I’ve ever read by a Filipina author and/or about Filipino life/culture. I was constantly looking up the meanings of phrases/words, what food dishes were and looked like, what the referenced cultural celebrations meant/entailed, and general history of the Philippines. I’ve noticed that many Latinx authors are now throwing in full, untranslated, phrases/conversations into their English-language novels, and I’ve always been into that (see in my review for I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter), but this is the first time I’ve experienced it in a language that I don’t speak. It added a gorgeous layer of authenticity, but definitely required work on my part to use context clues (and the internet) to figure out meaning. This, along with basically everything else I had to look up and learn about, is exactly why I read. Exposure to anything outside of what we know is beyond important, especially in our global society today, and I appreciate the push to research that books like this give me. Relatedly, I loved how central food was to this story. As we all know, food is so important to all cultures and traditions, but this novel took things even a step further. There were full, deep, important moments that happened not just over/around food, but through it. These moments actually happened mostly without words or any other interaction, other than food being used as an offering/symbol/understanding for the peace, forgiveness, togetherness, that was being shared. It was fantastically portrayed and so very genuine.

Last, I just want to acknowledge the vast humanity that is this book. The relationships within these pages are both profound and simple, in the way that real life relationships often are. I particularly loved reading about Hero and Rosalyn, not just because of the candidness of their relationship (for both good and bad), but also because it felt so real. The challenges they faced both internally and externally (from each other and form community/family) were spot on, but not overdone. And, truly, it’s not often that I encounter really great bisexual characters (protagonists, even!), which is particularly of value to me, as I also (as announced in my previous review for Queens of Geek), identify as bisexual. So, thank you, to the author, for this much needed and appreciated representation. It is easy to tell that this storyline in particular is one that comes from your heart. In addition, the idea of what makes a family, those you are stuck with, those you choose, and those who have chosen to leave you behind, is an important theme here. Hero and Roni’s relationship development is sweet and comforting to read, along with many of the relationships Hero forms with Rosalyn’s family and friends. And in general, I thought Roni was perfectly written for her age, experiences, etc. (and it’s hard to write believable children).

Last, and honestly, at least for me, least, in this novel, is the topic of immigration. Obviously, Hero’s immigration to the United States, and the way the Filipino community there has created their cultural and traditional home together, is a central theme. Yet, at the same time, the adjustments of immigrant life in the US was not, for me, as central as the relationships were. That’s not to take anything away from the novel, and the affects of immigration are clear throughout, at times playing a very important role in characters’ decisions, etc. but while it gave structure and foundation to the whole, it was more from a backseat position. I liked it that way here – acknowledged but not center stage. Similarly, I liked the way Hero’s past, her time with NPA and in the camp, which could easily have become a gratuitous focal point, was handled. Important, never-forgotten, fundamental to Hero’s person/personality, but again, never seeming to take over. Both topics were impressive in their ever-present subtlety.

Overall, this was a spectacular novel. I honestly cannot believe that it was a debut. There was so much truth and life in these pages and though it wasn’t a fast read for me (what with all the stopping to look things up online) it was more meaningful because of that. I absolutely agree with Christine’s recommendation on this one (and from her perspective, can totally see how it would resonate even more with someone of Filipino ancestry/descent) and add my voice of support to hers!

“You already know that the first thing that makes you feel foreign in a place is to be born poor in it […] You’ve been foreign all your life.”

“There was a difference between having friends, and having a friend.”

“Tragedy could be unsensational.”

“The gift of the small world was that it was small. The curse of the small world was that it was small.”

“Hero had known for years what it was like to want something that nobody in the living world could ever give you, and she wouldn’t have wished that feeling on anyone – especially not on the woman in front of her now, face shucked bare, luminous, and so crushingly lovely that Hero’s whole body ached to be far from her, starting deep in her chest and radiating out into her arms, circuiting through all the long ago shorted-out nerves and the staggery veins, lighting up the thin webbing between her fingers, sinking into all the hurt-hard places where for years only pain had come to settle, and gather, and home. Hero ached to be far from her, knowing that nearness would present a yet more grievous and enduring ache. She stepped forward.”

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