There are many descriptors one could use for this expansive novel; not all of them would entice a reader, but Castillo's debut was so blindingly beautiful and dauntless, that I would encourage you to read it even though it may at times seem slow, use sporadic second person, or be structurally uneven. I loved all these qualities about it, especially in tandem with the elements of its character depth, subtly interwoven historical commentary, discerning cultural perspective, and all-encompassing humanity.
Castillo is an immersive storyteller. She's not going to lay everything out for you about Filipinx culture in both the Philippines or Milpitas, California (her two settings); she's going to drop you right in there, have her characters talking to each other in Ilocano or Tagalog (which makes you realize, oh, there are MANY regional languages in the Philippines, and also me realizing, due to the Spanish colonization of the country, that I recognized some of the latin-rooted words #learningthrufiction). She's not going to translate for you, but you'll get it. Or you won't—that's okay!
She's going to mention former Philippine president slash dictator Ferdinand Marcos, but only with the word Marcos. She's not going to give you a history lesson, she's going to show you how dictatorship and martial law affected her characters and their decisions. You'll come to understand how the opposing party operated, the underground rebellion in the mountains, called the New People's Army.
She's not going to have her bisexual protagonist grapple in first-person with her sexuality; she's just going to show you what it is to be Hero: a woman who's lived three lives by age 35 and feels attracted to people regardless of how they identify. She's not grappling with who she's attracted to, she's grappling with her very identity formed and affected by how she grew up, what she decided to do in retaliation to that, and where her rebelliousness landed her: living, post-trauma, with extended family in the Bay Area.
And the majority of the novel takes place in 1991, so you'll also read a little about Terminator 2.
The storytelling is bold and brash, but I would be remiss not to mention the compassion. I came to love these characters—the complicated thoughts of Hero, the stoic, hardworking Paz, and Hero's namesake and eight-year-old cousin Rino. Hero and Rino (both named Geronima) form the most tender relationship over the course of this book, and Rino may be one of the best depictions of a kid I've encountered in literature.
I read all 408 pages of this book, learned so much, and I know there is still much to be gleaned that I probably missed. And I still want to know more.
Castillo is doing what Junot Diaz's writing did with Yunior (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her) for the Dominican diaspora. I'd argue she does it better than the Pulitzer winner, though (lo siento, pero), Castillo manages to soak you in the lives of more than one protagonist—render fully a community of Filipinx characters, and takes particular care with the women. She tackles so much in one book, and I applaud her for it, though others may feel it's too much. Castillo: take up your space, say your piece, I am HERE for it.
America is Not the Heart charts a complex journey for the reader, one that is particularly rewarding. I encourage the curious reader, the one who remembers to laugh amid tragedy, the reader who is open to the grand and minutiae, a reader who doesn't prize sentimentality, the reader who would like perspectives of those we rarely see in fiction. The immense talent and unique voice of Elaine Castillo's debut novel awaits you.
America is Not the Heart
By Elaine Castillo
408 pages. 2018.
Buy it here.