On the Meaning of 'America Is Not the Heart'

This week’s California Book Club newsletter: How Elaine Castillo is in conversation with a great Filipino American writer.

Most book titles are no more than three words, stunningly poetic or adeptly straightforward; yet, the title of Elaine Castillo’s 2018 debut novel, America Is Not the Heart, which Alta’s California Book Club will discuss at its January 21 gathering, is not only five words but also a sentence—and an emphatic one.

Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart is a sweeping tale that spans several generations but focuses closely on Hero de Vera, who escapes the poverty, political unrest, and martial law of the late-20th-century Philippines for the Bay Area. She makes a fresh start with her uncle’s family in Milpitas, which is also Castillo’s hometown, and we learn slowly the reason for Hero’s departure. Along the way, we encounter an array of characters: nurses, Communist activists, guerrilla fighters, and grouchy children.

The book is many things—a saga, a bisexual romance, an origin story, a historical narrative, an immigrant’s tale—but, as Castillo herself has said, it is also intensely American.

“That’s an American city. Those are American realities,” wrote Castillo of Milpitas in an essay for Freeman’s. “To suggest that the depiction of a life like mine, a city like mine, a linguistic context like that one, is somehow incompatible with the demands of American literature is to gravely underestimate and impoverish American literature. And that would be a shame. Because it also means we’ll never know who we are.”

That there is untranslated Tagalog, Ilocano, and Pangasinan alongside English in the text and that the protagonist’s name is Hero are not mistakes. Castillo asks us to reconsider how we think of character, history, and the force of language. Hero is a woman who has defied many expectations within a patriarchal society and is still forging and crafting an identity, well into her 30s, though not without difficulties.

But Castillo doesn’t stop here. Indeed, the title of the novel is itself a delightful spin on the title of Carlos Bulosan’s semiautobiographical novel America Is in the Heart, which was published in 1943. In the book, Bulosan, who was a poet and a labor organizer, charts a journey from his childhood in the Philippines to his life as a migrant farmer in California during the Great Depression. Through his tales of prejudice, injustice, and perpetual struggle as a Filipino, in what has been heralded as the premier text of the Filipino American experience, Bulosan ultimately suggests that the potential of America has not yet been realized and that America is an unfinished project that everyone must invest in.

Yet, as Castillo’s title suggests, America (both as a place and as an ideal) is not an almighty force with the potential to forge community and national unity. Castillo’s unflinchingly honest and beautiful prose suggests that this country’s heart is something that actually circulates within the lives of the very people of her novel: it is not simply an abstraction but a shared experience, one that comes in different shades and gradations.

The beauty of America Is Not the Heart rests not only in the cumulative power of its themes but also in its refreshing and electric depiction of the Filipino American diaspora.

To join Castillo in conversation with Alta’s California Book Club, click here.

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Rasheeda Saka is a graduate student in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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