Ask a Bookseller: ‘America Is Not the Heart’

City Lights’ Paul Yamazaki explains why readers love Elaine Castillo’s writing.

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Nobody knows what readers want more than our local booksellers. They are the often overlooked arbiters of taste: We turn to them for advice on what to read next, for gift suggestions, and to opine on that title we just finished—and loved. Their recommendations can spark word-of-mouth sales and help a first-time author garner prizes and much-needed attention.

In anticipation of Alta’s California Book Club’s January 21 gathering with Elaine Castillo, we checked in with selection panel member Paul Yamazaki, who has been the principal buyer at City Lights Booksellers since 1984, to better understand the success of her 2018 debut novel, America Is Not the Heart.

America Is Not the Heart has been a City Lights staff pick in the hardcover and paperback editions. Both editions of the novel have enjoyed substantial sales at City Lights,” says Yamazaki. “Early readers of Castillo’s novel were drawn to the direct reference to Carlos Bulosan’s 1946 foundational novel America Is in the Heart. We have found younger readers of Castillo’s novel have been compelled to seek out Bulosan’s novel.” (For more on Castillo’s connection to Bulosan, see “On the Meaning of ‘America Is Not the Heart.’ ”)

America Is Not the Heart was widely reviewed and received acclaim as a best book of the year from the Boston Globe, the New York Public Library, and NPR. Furthermore, Castillo has continued to burnish her Golden State bona fides, providing new readers with ways to experience her writing.

“Elaine Castillo is one of the most striking voices in contemporary literature that has emerged recently from California,” continues Yamazaki. “Her recent contribution to Freeman’s California issue makes it clear that we—readers—are only at the very beginning of a circumnavigation of a very substantial literary talent. ‘Facts from the Story I’ll Never Tell You,’ the story that appeared in Freeman’s, is radically different in its formal guise than her novel, America Is Not the Heart, but both are penetrating and totally absorbing.”

America Is Not the Heart is a welcome introduction to understanding a slice of contemporary Filipino culture, diaspora, and history, along with the finer contours of American life and identity.

“As a reader and bookseller, I find Elaine Castillo is one of the most compelling young writers in today’s literary world,” Yamazaki says. “I eagerly await her next book.”

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

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