Elaine Castillo’s debut novel, America Is Not the Heart, spans a century in the lives of two families from the Philippines—one rich, one poor—who wind up entwined in Milpitas, California, at the turn of the millennium. If you’ve been sipping frustratedly from the tepid bubbler of literature thirsty for a big drink of a tale, look no further. This is a hilarious, bawdy, bear hug of a novel. Drawing from the Philippines’ colonial history, its mythology, and several of its languages, Castillo charges with breathtaking confidence into the multilingual future of her form. If this novel doesn’t wind up on the curriculum of every American high school student in the future, God help us.
At the heart of this book is Hero de Vera, a former medical student turned radical who arrives from the Philippines at her uncle Pol’s house in California scarred from torture she suffered in guerrilla fighting back home. In his old life, Pol was an orthopedic surgeon from a landed family; he could have stitched up his niece and given her a wallet thick with cash. Now he’s a security guard at night, and what he can offer is a bed and an important job: looking after his amusing, fisticuffing daughter, Roni, who has a case of eczema so terrible that one of Hero’s first jobs is driving the girl to visit a faith healer.
Early in the novel, Roni tells Hero her skin is a sign that an engkanto—meaning a mystical spirit that has come in human form—likes her. Roni’s grandmother said it was a kapre, a tree god of sorts. One of the great metaphorical questions Castillo poses throughout this book is, How do we know where love will come from? Also: Where will it take us and what will it ask of us? Take Paz, for instance. Raised so poor in the Philippines that she chased crabs as a child for food, she collides with Pol when he is the babaero—the ladies’ man—of the local hospital where she works as a nurse. She can’t stand his smug confidence, his ease, yet she falls hard for him anyway.
Years later, in America, Pol’s cologne mostly worn off, his prestige too, Paz will pay for most of their living together, much of her extended family’s education, and some of his family’s also as these relatives make their way to the United States over decades—all on her nursing salary. Or salaries. After all, she works not one but two and a half full-time jobs for years. The awesome dignity of that labor and its effort is paid tribute in this book in all the subtle, elegant ways Castillo describes how Paz survives it. How she bears down on providing, what she allows herself, and what she keeps private.
In America, it becomes clear that what Paz knew back in the Philippines has come true: Hero likes girls. Slowly, gently, and then with fabulous erotic power, Castillo also rewrites the queer coming-of-age story in this novel. Instead of hustling into San Francisco for nights out, America Is Not the Heart lands in Milpitas and stays there. Like so many people who live in the suburbs, Hero falls in love with someone she encounters at the mall. She doesn’t have to go anywhere to become herself: she simply has to meet the right woman.
Meantime, caring for Roni goes a lot further toward healing Hero’s war wounds than any orthopedic surgery.
The humble, the real, the mundane, the lived-in: Castillo sings the praises of life as it is lived, narrating with such warmth and linguistic brio that it reminds you that sometimes the most fundamental escape hatch a novel can provide is back into the everyday. The language used to order soup at the grocery store, the words one offers a sister when it’s her turn to grieve.
Castillo has made a beautiful weave from the many languages her characters speak. Each one of them is simultaneously reinventing themselves and keeping a language back for the heart. Pol speaks only Ilocano to Hero, whereas he’ll use English on the phone, Tagalog at home, and somehow Roni sees them all as one superlanguage. Happily, beautifully, Castillo doesn’t pause to translate these shifts so much as note them, showing that every character in this incredibly memorable family is translating at all times. Even when speaking to any of the others.
Long before Elaine Castillo began work on this book, she studied Greek classics at UC Berkeley. Reading America Is Not the Heart, you feel she has made the most of their influence as a writer. This is a grand book full of epic battles, long journeys into the unknown. Family schisms. A Dolby surround sound conception of love and its place in life. No young writer in America understands quite so well the anguish of wanting to give and receive love in language that’s taxed at the border. No debut in recent years holds you aloft with such mighty tenderness and sings its song with such beauty.
John Freeman will lead a free hour-long conversation with Elaine Castillo for Alta’s California Book Club on Thursday, January 21, at 5 p.m. Pacific time.