Reviewed by Chris Loza
AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART
By Elaine Castillo
416 pp. Viking.
America Is Not the Heart crackles with life. From the first page until the last, there is a silent fury that sweeps through the novel that details the struggles of a Filipino family living The American Dream. It begins with the story of Paz, a richly summarized chapter of her life from being born poor, to studying in Baguio, working as a nurse, and meeting her future husband, Pol, from the affluent and politically connected De Vera clan. Told in a second-person point of view, it works as an effective immersion into her life.
The story jumps to Hero, Pol’s niece, when she arrives in America to live with Paz and Pol and their daughter Roni, who was named after Hero’s real name Geronima. The narrative shifts from past to present, weaving Hero’s life in Milpitas, California to her previous life in the Philippines when she joined the New People’s Army. She bears witness to Paz’s hard but mostly muted life in the US, while she tries to understand the new world she’s thrust in. From picking up Roni in school to their weekly trips to faith healers for Roni’s eczema, an uneasy bond between namesakes forms and becomes threatened when Pol goes back to the Philippines. Hero’s story is that of sudden detachment and forced assimilation. Finding herself in a foreign country, she must learn to find her footing and build her life.
Elaine Castillo’s debut novel is a stirring Filipino immigrant story. The details possess an intense accuracy of what it’s like to live far from your home country out of necessity, supporting not only your immediate family but also everyone else left behind. The story of Paz is too common—holding two jobs, supporting her family, her parents, sisters, and relatives both in the US and in the Philippines, bone-tired and ill from Bell’s Palsy; a dollar-earner with nothing to show for herself because everything earned is never enough for everyone. Her green card a powerful magnet for a once-powerful clan wanting to escape the political strife in the Philippines. She becomes the savior of everyone attached to her.
Beneath the silent fury, the rage against poverty, there lies hope. And this is what makes this novel a uniquely Filipino story, aside from its delightful shifts in language from English to Filipino to Ilocano to Pangasinan. Despite the odds and the hardships, the Filipino resiliency and sense of humor shines through. When Paz files for bankruptcy, she says rich people do it all the time. As long as there’s roof on their head and pancit on the table, seven years of bad credit score will pass soon enough.
America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo will soon be available at Fully Booked. Reserve a copy in advance here.
Chris has written on Wattpad, yellowpads, and notepads. A few of his articles are in the dusty archives of Inquirer’s Youngblood and Philippine Star’s My Favorite Book, while one story got lost among the Kindles on Amazon. He works as a Systems Administrator by day and a recluse at night. You can reach him on Twitter and Instagram @cd_loza.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]