America is Not the Heart by Elaine CastilloAmerica is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo is an epic work of literary fiction that follows a Filipina as she settles into the California Bay Area. This is an ambitious novel that manages to explore immigration, politics, sexuality, class conflict, trauma, and family.

We meet Geronima “Hero” De Vera as she arrives in California to stay with her uncle and his family. Hero has damaged hands and seems emotionally fragile. As the story progresses we learn about her history. Born to a wealthy family in the Philippines, Hero made her way to medical school in Manila where she was recruited into the New People’s Army (NPA) and their guerrilla war against the Marcos regime. She was eventually captured and tortured in a prison camp. Her well-connected parents disown her and her uncle Pol eventually takes her in. Now in her mid-30s, Hero has to make a new life in a new country.   

Pol was a successful surgeon in the Philippines, but works as a security guard in California where his wife Paz, a nurse, is the primary breadwinner. Paz works incredibly long hours and is the extended family’s “anchor” providing both financial support and a foothold to the United States.

While Pol and Paz are working, Hero forms a bond with their young daughter. Roni is a spunky kid that gets into fights at school, and her toughness impresses Hero. Roni also has terrible excema. While visiting a “faith healer” in search of relief for Roni, Hero meets Rosalyn. Rosalyn is younger than Hero but is obviously interested. Can Rosalyn break through the protective barriers Hero has erected?

The Characters

Pol refers to Hero as a tabungáw – a gourd with a hard outer shell but tender interior. The comparison is fitting. Hero has been through a tremendous amount of trauma and is reluctant to make herself vulnerable. She is surprised to realize she has grown to care about Roni and Rosalyn; perhaps she is surprised that her heart is even capable of love.

Rosalyn gives the impression of naïve youth, but we find out she understands much more than she lets on. She instinctively knows that forming a true relationship with Hero will require patience and prudence. Rosalyn has lived in America since she was very young, and her sense of cultural and family identity forms an interesting contrast with Hero.

From the NPA cadre in the mountains to Rosalyn’s grandparents in their Bay Area restaurant, the supporting characters are almost equally important to the novel. Castillo is somehow able to interweave back-story and motivation for multiple characters while keeping the book moving forward. It’s an impressive bit of juggling.

The Writing Style

Like lived experience, America is Not the Heart references historical events while remaining focused on everyday life. The book is set in the early 1990s but includes memories of earlier decades such as the experience of immigrant farm laborers in California in the 1930s and students experiencing martial law in the 1970s.

Castillo employs a modern style with language that often reads like the spoken word. Her descriptions are wonderfully evocative. I could almost smell Pol’s aftershave as he prepared food for Hero in the kitchen, or see Rosalyn’s grandmother as she smoked her cigarette and talked with Roni. This is a book that will reward multiple readings. In fact, I have already re-read it just to savor the language.

Pros And My Favourite Parts

I had embarrassingly little knowledge of Filipino history or culture prior to reading this book, and it sparked my curiosity to research and learn more. In the end this novel is much more than just a pleasurable story; it immersed me in a specific experience that left me more empathetic and curious. That’s among the best compliments I can give.

Cons And Heads Up

The book includes references to torture and sexual abuse. Both Hero and Rosalyn are bisexual, and there are descriptions of sex acts with men. I didn’t find any of these details to be overly graphic.

TLDR (too long didn’t read)

America is Not the Heart is a sprawling, ambitious, literary novel featuring a Filipina heroine and a romantic subplot.

The Conclusion

You should buy this book if you are looking for Southeast Asian representation in LGBT fiction and enjoy reading literary dramas. While not a light read, it is a novel that rewards your time and attention.

Excerpt from America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo

She made her way over to Rosalyn, who was theatrically tapping the seat in front of one of the sinks. Hero sat down in the chair. Rosalyn whipped out one of the black nylon capes Hero had seen earlier.

So your clothes don’t get wet, she explained, even though Hero could have guessed the reason. The cape held together with Velcro at the back of Hero’s neck; she tried not to shiver as Rosalyn fastened it.

Lean back, Rosalyn said.

Hero complied. She heard a snort from behind her.

I’m not gonna wash your hair in midair. Lean all the way back, like you’re lying down.

Hero did so, slowly, feeling dizzy as she did. There was a hand at the back of her skull; Rosalyn was easing her head down into the basin of the sink. Hero’s breath was coming out shaky. She inhaled, then exhaled. That didn’t help.

The jet of water hit her head suddenly, the pressure direct and warm, the sound of it loud enough to distract her from her thoughts. The growing heaviness of her wet hair was drugging-good, heavy, liquefying. Hero tried to let go into it, couldn’t. The tendons of her neck were strained as she tried to keep her head lifted in the sink, uncertain of how far back she could really lean on it, if the neck rest would really support her skull’s dead weight. She tried to close her eyes, but found they wouldn’t remain shut; they kept fluttering open, twitching and blinking.

Rosalyn’s face appeared above her. She was threading one hand through Hero’s sopping hair, feeling along the scalp. The other hand was controlling the spray. Hero’s breath stuttered.

Relax, ate, Rosalyn said, almost too soft to be heard over the water. I’ll be gentle.

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