The Politics of Language in ‘America Is Not the Heart’

This week’s California Book Club newsletter: Elaine Castillo’s refusal to translate words and phrases reflects the quotidian life of many Filipino immigrants.

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There are many questions writers of color must grapple with before they pen words to paper, but none more important than the question of their intended audience. To whom am I writing? And why? The answers to these questions are not typically stated explicitly but emerge from the very style and structure of a book. And this holds true for Elaine Castillo’s 2018 debut novel, America Is Not the Heart, which Alta’s California Book Club will discuss at its January 21 gathering.

America Is Not the Heart—which follows Hero De Vera, a thirtysomething Filipina who arrives at her uncle’s home in Milpitas, California, in the 1990s—is, among many things, a narrative about immigration and difference, which have been prominent concerns in some of the best novels of the past decade. (Consider, for example, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, which all wrestle with dislocation, in-betweenness, the politics of language, and identity with similar yet crucially different orientations.)

Castillo, too, is deeply invested in mapping the cultural and political contours of immigrant life as a deeply American experience. Her resistance to the presumed essence of “American-ness” is apparent in the language she uses in America Is Not the Heart—which is to really say, the different languages she uses, namely Tagalog, Ilocano, and Pangasinan, in addition to English. A bit of dialogue: “Kumusta po kayo, ako si Geronima, ito si Roni, we’re here waiting to see Lola Adela. Rosalyn told us to come here.”

In an essay for Freeman’s, Castillo reminds us that there is a difference between what is legible and what is understandable. “There are lacunae in every art work, gaps that we fill or don’t fill, and it’s not by understanding everything perfectly that we are enriched—not in art, not in life,” Castillo writes.

Her decision to leave words untranslated was a decision to maintain the integrity of her novel, both for her audience and for herself. “I never thought about it as anything other than perfectly banal and ordinary. It’s important for writers, especially writers of colour, to ultimately claim the space for their own banality,” says Castillo of straddling many languages, in an interview with Oh Comely. “It never occurred to me that to write a largely English-language book that was inclusive of large portions of untranslated non-English language was in any way remarkable.”

America Is Not the Heart is not a novel that will be entirely understood by all readers and that is precisely the point. We are guests and witnesses to the lives of people who are not entirely familiar to us but who, like us, contend with the common and everyday issues of belonging, love, and security. America Is Not the Heart shows that “foreign” words are, in fact, not so foreign and that difference isn’t what sets us apart but what brings us together.

To join Castillo in conversation with Alta’s California Book Club:

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