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:
GENUINE DUDE RANCH
Have you ever read a literary comedy-western? No? Well, you’re in luck. Annabelle Gurwitch reviews Julia Claiborne Johnson’s Better Luck Next Time, about a make-believe cowboy on a divorce ranch. Alta
HOUSE OF HORRORS
Join author Julia Flynn Siler for our latest episode of Alta Asks Live on Wednesday, January 13, at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time. She’ll be in conversation with journalist Grace Hwang Lynch. Siler will discuss how her book The White Devil’s Daughters led to a feature story for Alta Journal about clergy sexual abuse in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Alta Asks Live
POINT OF VIEW
You’re a reader. You’ve been thinking about America Is Not the Heart. So let’s explore Elaine Castillo’s use of the second person and why it is so significant. Alta
In preparation for our January 21 gathering, we asked Elaine Castillo to name her favorite books, share a California story that needs to be told, and reveal the meaning behind her novel’s title. Alta
THE BEATS GO ON
Neal Cassady’s “Joan Anderson Letter,” which Jack Kerouac said was “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw,” was missing for decades. The legendary missive was found in an Oakland attic a few years ago and was recently published in the book Joan Anderson Letter: The Holy Grail of the Beat Generation. San Francisco Chronicle
BOOKS TO READ THIS YEAR
There are many unknowns for 2021, but we do know this: the books will be great. Here are Literary Hub’s 228 highly anticipated books of the year, featuring titles from Joan Didion, Walter Mosley, and more. Literary Hub
It’s no secret that conspiracy theories and internet culture thrive off one another. But why? The late Charles Portis’s Masters of Atlantis offers us the context to understand our age of misinformation. Slate
Eric Jerome Dickey, one of the most successful Black authors of the past quarter century, has died at the age of 59. Dickey’s contribution to American letters includes works of “romance, erotica, and suspense from the Black perspective,” with Milk in My Coffee, Sleeping with Strangers, and Friends and Lovers among his most well-known titles. NPR
SCIENCE AND ART
Writer Joshua Roebke considers Wes Anderson, American cinema, oceanography, hipster culture, and science fiction. Yes, they all intersect. Los Angeles Review of Books
On January 7, Simon & Schuster announced that it would cancel the publication of Senator Josh Hawley’s The Tyranny of Big Tech, following his disgraceful participation in the pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Read why this decision is not a violation of Hawley’s First Amendment rights. Vulture
Want to know the hottest titles at Southern California’s independent bookstores? Look no further. Spoiler alert: many of them are by writers from California and the West. Los Angeles Daily News
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