Dec. 28th, 2018

[personal profile] nancyhcarranza
A Review of Elaine Castillo's America is Not the Heart (Viking, 2018)
By Nancy H. Carranza

Cover photo of America is Not the Heart

My parents grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, roaming the streets unsupervised when schools were shut down and their parents sent to labor camps. My in-laws fled the Salvadoran Civil War, with family members fighting on both sides. Now both my parents and my in-laws shop at Costco, watch Star Wars movies, and enjoy In-and-Out Burgers. For many immigrants, the question in the cover jacket of Elaine Castillo’s debut novel, America is Not the Heart (2018), touches upon a shared truth that unites their disparate and diverse histories and experiences: “How many lives fit in a lifetime?”

The publisher’s summary of the novel answers this question as such:

“When Hero De Vera arrives in America--haunted by the political upheaval in the Philippines and disowned by her parents--she's already on her third. Her uncle gives her a fresh start in the Bay Area, and he doesn't ask about her past. His younger wife knows enough about the might and secrecy of the De Vera family to keep her head down. But their daughter--the first American-born daughter in the family--can't resist asking Hero about her damaged hands.”

Part of the extraordinary poignancy of this novel is the way in which it weaves together the personal and the political, the multiple worlds inhabited by immigrants and their families. In doing so, the novel combines two popular subgenres of so-called “immigrant fiction”—the domestic narrative and the political epic, without lapsing into the clichés of either. For example, the misunderstandings and tension between Hero and Paz, her aunt-in-law, are not so much generational or even cultural, but resulting from class differences and linguistic barriers between Filipino dialects. And even though Hero spent a decade of her life as part of the New People’s Army, an actual Communist guerrilla force that has operated in the Philippines for the past 50 years, very little narration is devoted to justifying her beliefs and actions; rather than Marxist lectures, we get memories of genuine comradery and secret sexual escapades. Only near the end of the novel does Hero reveal (in fact, allow herself to remember) the very real violence and danger that engulfed her and many of her comrades.

Just as the novel transcends generic conventions of family and politics, it also complicates one of the most common premises of “immigrant fiction”—the transformation of its immigrant protagonist as she/he assimilates into or rebels against dominant (read: White) American society. America is Not the Heart breaks this mold in two ways: 1) Hero is not necessarily the “hero” of the story, and 2) the America that Hero discovers is a mostly lower middle-class, immigrant society.

Even though the majority of the novel’s third-person narration is told from the point-of-view of Hero, the novel’s prologue tells the story of Paz through a second-person “you” narration that immediately forms a connection between the reader and Paz. Later in the novel, the third-person narration is again interrupted through a “you” narration, this time from the point-of-view of Rosalyn, Hero’s friend-turned-lover. These narrative false starts and disruptions challenge the model of the singular immigrant protagonist and gesture towards the novel’s ambition to tell a more collective story. Furthermore, one of the main plot developments surrounds Paz and Uncle Pol’s marriage and their daughter, Roni, a domestic drama that relegates Hero to somewhere between sidekick and spectator.

I also found the novel’s bold disregard of dominant American society both surprising and refreshing. With a title that seems to explicitly counter Carlos Bulosan’s classic semi-autobiographical novel, America is in the Heart (1946), Castillo’s novel doesn’t so much refute Bulosan’s America as redefine it. Bulosan’s novel is primarily concerned with Filipino migrant workers’ struggles against racism and oppression, arguing that the ideals of America—freedom, democracy, upward mobility—should not be the exclusive property of Whites, but rather belonging to all its inhabitants. Racism, systemic oppression, and the aftermath of American overseas imperialism still lurk in the background of Castillo’s 1990s Bay Area, but intra-ethnic colorism and classism more obviously impact the everyday relations between characters. In the lower-middle class neighborhood of Milpitas, as Rosalyn observes, there are virtually no white people, mostly Asians and Latinos who tend to stay in their respective ethnic communities (with the exception a mixed-race character like Jaime, a “Mexipino”).

Though the novel doesn’t claim to represent a singular “Filipino American experience,” its expansive cast of characters seem to purposefully represent a diversity of dialects, socio-economic classes, sexualities, religious beliefs, and political backgrounds. Occasionally the novel lapses into an almost “ethnic tour guide” mode, as it describes various Filipino foods, music, and traditions in extreme detail. Though I found Castillo’s high realism overbearing at times (do I really need to know that Hero, upon returning home, carefully put the plate of leftovers onto the floor by the door, took off her shoes, picked up the plate, and then placed it on the kitchen table, all before having a conversation with another character?), what this fixation with the small, ostensibly mundane details of everyday life does is ground Castillo’s “America” in the concrete people and places of everyday life. Castillo does not stop at telling us that America is not “the heart,” but goes on to paint a vivid portrait of what America is: the urban strip mall with its family-owned ethnic restaurants, beauty shops, and video rental stores; house parties and car rides around the Bay; microwavable frozen pizzas, queer romances, and women who work themselves to the bone. Castillo’s America is not an elusive ideal that seems ever out of grasp, but the lived reality of its immigrant communities, an America that can be experienced, inhabited, and claimed, regardless of one’s country of origin or legal status.

Buy the book here


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