You’ve just turned twenty-nine years old, your accent still hasn’t left, and you’re starting to understand what it means to have baggage. Baggage means no matter how far you go, no matter how far you immigrate, there are countries in you you’ll never leave.
America Is Not the Heart begins with a thirty-page, second person prologue which tells the story of Paz from her early childhood in the Philippines to the moment she gives birth to her daughter in a hospital in America. While Paz recedes into the background for most of the book, she remains at the core of the story. It is Paz who works two jobs, sending money to a variety of relatives and it is Paz who Hero, the protagonist of the novel, upsets on her arrival to America.
First impressions didn’t have to be everything, but she didn’t yet know that Paz was the kind of person who made judgements about people based on whether or not they treated her like she was beneath them, that she was a sensitive scanner of gaze-overs and under-words, that those judgements helped move Paz through the world, told her whom she could laugh with her mouth wide open in front of, and who she had to wear perfume next to. There were a thousand ways Hero could have walked into the house in Milpitas that day to begin things, but Paz lifted the suitcase again, straightened her back, and closed off her heart.
Hero is the niece of Pol, Paz’s middle class husband. She arrives at their house as an illegal immigrant, a member of the New People’s Army, a captive of war who’s been tortured and has two broken thumbs which have healed badly. Unable to work, she spends her time cleaning the house and looking after Paz and Pol’s daughter, Roni. It’s her care of Roni which will introduce Hero to a new group of friends and a relationship with Rosalyn.
Castillo explores ideas of home – what does it mean and where do we find it – through family, friends, food, music, politics and love. She considers how someone rebuilds their life after trauma and how that differs for people belonging to different classes.
Although Hero is the protagonist of the novel, Castillo moves between viewpoints. Two-thirds of the way into the book, there is a second chapter written in second person. This time from the perspective of Hero’s lover Rosalyn.
The first time you ate a girl out was in 1985, somewhere south of Echo Park, your first time out of the Bay since you’d arrived from Manila when you were five.
Castillo’s writing is fierce and absorbing. She builds a portrait of a community through a web of relationships, a lot of food and the integration of the languages spoken into the text of the novel. Her characters are complex – intriguing and infuriating in equal measure – and it is this which renders them as human. America Is Not the Heart is a bold, compelling debut novel.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Elaine Castillo on the date of the UK publication of the book. We discussed bi-visibility, writing in second person and telling stories of immigrant communities.
Thanks to Atlantic for the review copy and to Elaine Castillo and Kirsty Doole for the interview.