If the Great American Novel must capture an era in the US experience through portrayals of language and culture, then Elaine Castillo’s debut novel America Is Not the Heart is surely a candidate. Set in the Californian city of Milpitas, the book is a dedicated evocation of a specific milieu—the suburbs and strip malls of early 90s Bay Area San Francisco before Silicon Valley dragged itself in. Castillo presents a detailed slice of this period, complete with the nuanced layering of age and class and culture.
The multi-generational narrative focuses on the De Vera family, who are introduced through Paz. Rising from abject poverty in rural Philippines, she becomes a nurse and falls in love with Dr Apolonio ‘Pol’ De Vera, the heartthrob surgeon whose family background is starkly more privileged than her own. Paz takes the leap and moves to the US, and when Pol follows they have a daughter, Roni. Eventually, joined by Pol’s niece, Hero, the true protagonist of the novel. Living in California undocumented, Hero is a former doctor fleeing both her hostile parents and her past with revolutionary guerillas of the National People’s Army, seeking to make a new home in America, or else forgot her old one in the Philippines.
The world in which Hero finds herself is brought to life in painstaking detail through all five senses, from the gamut of musical tastes and a veritable banquet of regional cuisine to the infamous Milpitas smell from the nearby landfill site. Language too plays an important role, with English, Tagalog, Pangasinan and Ilocano all used and often interchangeably, in doing so mapping the lines of class and culture that permeate the society. Language is determined by context—the who, what, where, when, why of the conversation—and itself forms a kind of secondary communication, a mode of interaction beyond words that speaks of history and social standing whether intended or otherwise.
This is complicated by the fact that every person has an unique relationship with each language. Hero cannot speak Pangasinan but is fluent in the others, while her friend Rosalyn grew up with Tagalog but lost it somewhere in her teens. Eight year-old Roni, having grown up in the US, seems unaware of any distinction, switching between English and Tagalog and Pangasinan within the same sentence, speaking in her own hybrid super-language that, to her at least, is as organic as any other. The phenomenon is indicative of the nuanced hand Castillo lends to her characters, each unique and self-standing, tied to their community yet distinct too, kinship never eradicating the distances created by individual circumstances.
In this way, Castillo refuses to flatten the intricacies of the immigrant experience into a neat trope, her characters not some collective sliver on the pie chart of human possibility but a cross section of the whole thing. There are doctors and nurses and faith healers, security guards and restaurateurs, make-up artists and DJs and pop stars. There are chaste prudes and promiscuous progressives, not to mention rich, haughty Catholics and superstitious mystics and people who practice both with equal fervour or disinterest.
So, Hero’s bisexuality and romance with another woman is not Castillo’s version of the rebellious-outlier-takes-on-cloistered-society. Some people react badly to the idea, some happily, some barely react at all. To a certain degree, this can be mapped over the social lines mentioned previously, though the alignment is not perfect. Because, ultimately, how each character acts and reacts transcends their history.
Elaine Castillo’s true triumph is that America Is Not the Heart cannot be faithfully categorized purely as an immigrant saga or LGBT romance. This, aside from being a testament to her writing, serves as a scathing critique of just what those labels entail, and what it says about the white gatekeepers who control them. Hero’s story does not conform to the ideal Western immigrant story of foreigner done well. She is not a plucky underdog making a home against homesickness and long odds, her history not present only to be beaten smooth of its sharp edges. Ultimately, she does not exist to follow the fanciful arc us straight white people like to imagine an immigrant or queer person traversing—the palatable, enriching passage from alienation to total acceptance, and thus, of course, a more realised state of being.
Because America Is Not the Heart is a novel about human experience, about loving and being loved, where every detail—the Filipinx-American setting, historical context, bisexual relationships, class hierarchies, family dramas—is used not to build the characters but the world around them, Great American conditions that must be navigated in order to live.
America Is Not the Heart is out now via Atlantic Books (UK) and Viking (US).