Elaine Castillo’s debut novel America Is Not the Heart has been taking the world by storm — and we’re glad to be swept up in it all. Since we can’t get enough of Elaine and her multi-generational family saga, we, along with some members of the First Look Club, had a chat with her and dug deeper into her book, her trip to the Philippines, and herself as writer and a Filipina.
FULLY BOOKED: America Is Not the Heart spans three generations, two countries, and one giant family that keeps expanding as we read on. It’s a lot for one story, but you still managed to tie everything together. How was the idea for America Is Not the Heart born? When did you start writing it, and how long did it take for you to complete?
ELAINE: I first started writing the part of the book that eventually became its prologue, told from Paz’s perspective, in summer of 2013. Prior to that I’d been working on another novel, something like 600 pages long by that point, that was a kind of queer Greek myth fanfiction—its main character was the poet Sappho, it touched on the European migrant crisis—and I shelved it for the good of all humanity, because it was terrible! But sometimes you have to write a book out of you in order to get yourself to the place where you can write the book that’s going to have a life in the world; you have to get yourself to the place where you’ve become the writer capable of writing that book.
So from summer 2013, I started writing Paz’s prologue, though at that point I thought I was either going to continue writing the book from Paz’s perspective, or from her daughter Roni’s—purely because I share the most autobiographical details with Roni, our parents do the same things, we grew up in the same town, we come from a similar class background, we both had eczema, etc. And I wrote about 200 pages from Roni’s perspective that were just absolutely dead on arrival, no oxygen on the page, no life there at all; anyone who tells you writing from an autobiographical is in any way the easier route, just bring them to me—I’m happy to disprove that theory. Paradoxically, I had no idea how Roni sounded like, what her voice was—and to top it off, I think my intimacy with characters like her, like Paz, like Rosalyn (who also has a brief chapter told from her perspective in the book, similar to Paz’s) eventually made for really defensive writing; I was protective of those characters, which meant I didn’t open up the page, there wasn’t any vulnerability in the writing.
Hero, on the other hand, was a character that had been floating around in my head for a while—I knew I wanted at some point to write about a former NPA rebel living in exile, I thought it might just be a short story. There was a family member of mine who’d been in the NPA, whom I’ve never met to this day, and have only ever heard about through stories, family members hiding her from the army, etc. I always had the impression she was a higher-up in the larger structure of the NPA/CCP, and I was always certain that I didn’t want to write about a character like that; I was pretty determined to write about a loser, someone utterly insignificant. That was Hero, although she wasn’t called that all those years ago. So the minute it clicked in my head—this woman is Roni’s cousin, they’ll live together in California—the world of the book just opened up.
This despite the fact that I was and still am profoundly uncomfortable with writing from the perspective of someone who had Hero’s kind of class privilege; not only was it an echelon I was personally unfamiliar with, but I also just hated the idea of writing from the perspective of, basically, a rich girl, especially when I’d chafed at how often representation of Filipinx and Filipinx American characters in fiction centered on wealthy Manila-based characters. But I think ultimately it was that discomfort that allowed me to be free in the writing—I wasn’t protective of her, so I was able to be critical of her, her station, her way of being. I was able to yank the rug out from under her; and I was also able to be vulnerable, even intimate. And from that point on, it took about three and a half, four years to finish the novel.
It’s incredibly refreshing to read Filipino languages untranslated or not italicized. Can you expound more on this particular creative decision?
I honestly never had to think about it—I never imagined writing this book otherwise, because I can’t imagine the lives in it, let alone the American realities they come out of, otherwise. I grew up in a house where my mother had her own language (Pangasinan), my father had his own language (Ilocano), and they spoke to each other in a mix of Tagalog and English. Because I grew up with more of my mother’s family around us, my first language was Pangasinan—my mother has always referred to the language as Pangasinan, not Pangasinense; and in fact there are all sorts of technical grammatical errors I make and preserve in my speech and in my writing that are hallmarks of a certain class and education level’s provenance—though of course I lost it the minute I entered school. It just seemed unthinkable to me to write a book that was about a community much like the one I’d grown up in, without being faithful to the material realities of that community, like the language we spoke.
I didn’t include Filipino languages in the book to “add local color” which is the way non-English words are sometimes framed in our literary discourse. They’re there in the book because that’s how the characters talk, that’s how the people in my family, community, and town talked. Sentences that began in English and ended in Tagalog, sentences that were in Tagalog but were sprinkled with Pangasinan words. My town of Milpitas, where much of the book takes place, has been a majority-minority for as long as I can remember, and something like over sixty percent of its residents speak a language other than English. I see no need to overtranslate that reality unnecessarily, to deform the work in order to make it more palatable for the comfort of an outsider reader who’s usually assumed to be white. I don’t know anything about white middle-class intellectual life in Brooklyn or London or wherever such books set place, and nobody gives me any glossaries about them. If we’re going to have American fiction that’s at all worthy of the name, then we need that fiction to be commensurate to the material facts of our actual American lives.
Not having lived in the Philippines and during the era when Hero lived, how was your research for the novel to make sure it would read as something real?
I think like most writers, I did my due diligence when it came to historical research; if you’re depicting specific time periods and places, there’s an aesthetic as well as an ethical obligation to be attentive to historical detail, because historical detail is the stuff of people’s lives. So sure, I read books, I asked people who were alive during that period—not just about the politics, but about the granular stuff, what music people listened to, what foods they ate on the street.
But at the same time, I’m also aware that historical research can be a seductive space for a writer, especially one like me—the first draft of the book was something around 1000 pages! I’m the kind of writer who doesn’t really believe in side characters; if someone showed up in the book, I had to write about the whole history of their mother, their town, what their car looked like in 1992, et cetera et cetera. There’s a quote by Richard Brody, the film critic at The New Yorker, that goes: “Backstory is democracy in drama—it turns types into individuals.” And I for sure felt a particularly democratic impulse as a writer, an impulse that historical research can feed ad infinitum.
The problem with that is when historical research becomes a way to avoid delving into the vulnerability of the characters themselves, or a way for the author to prove to the reader that they’ve done their homework, so to speak—that kind of thing is about writerly ego, not about serving the book. Ultimately you also have to be ready to be wrong. And I would much rather be wrong about a grammatical construct or a place-name or a date, than fail to write multidimensional, complex, genuinely vulnerable characters. To make sure something reads as real is less the purview of historical research than the task of a writer to be unafraid of vulnerability, of intimacy, of letting characters be seen. That’s what makes books real.
What made you so interested in Martial Law and the NPA?
I wouldn’t say I really am, in the historical buff school of thinking. The legacies of martial law affected my family deeply in multiple ways, and those traumas are ones they are reluctant to speak about to this day. As for the NPA, as I said, I knew there was a cousin of mine who was in the NPA—I’d never met her, only heard about her through stories my father or older brothers told, about hiding her before she went underground into the mountains—and that gave me the kernel of the character that became Hero, even though the actual facts of their lives had nothing else in common.
What made you decide to make Hero and Rosalyn fall in love with each other? Did you explicitly set out to write a (wonderfully done) queer relationship, or did writing Hero and Rosalyn develop naturally?
I always knew that those characters were queer women, specifically bi women. Both characters had existed in my head long before they found their way into the pages of the book; like I said before, the kernel of the character who became Hero was a story I wanted to write about a former NPA rebel now living in exile (although in my original story idea, she was living in Europe).
The kernel of the characters who became Rosalyn and Jaime came out of a story idea about two exes living in the Bay Area, one of whom was a bi woman. Neither character was named Hero or Rosalyn at the time, and it was really only when they entered the world of this particular story that it became clear that Hero was Roni’s cousin, and that Roni’s faith healing visits would lead Hero to meet Rosalyn. So really from the moment that I knew those characters were part of the same story, I knew what the nature of their relationship would be, that I was writing a love story.
It’s funny, I often think the parts of the book that are most politicized by critics tend to be the instances of what we might call legible historical significance, things like Martial Law or a Communist insurgency or even immigration and diaspora, but I also think of love stories as the site for some of our most urgent political dramas. We often confer that kind of critical legitimacy on other types of mainstream genres, such as science fiction and fantasy (there are scores of essays and books about how franchises like X-Men function as a larger metaphor for the marginalized people everywhere, etc.), and yet that lens is rarely turned on the romance or romantic comedy—probably because these latter genres are usually gendered as feminine, and thus less likely to be treated with the kind of critical analysis and respect that other genres enjoy. But why shouldn’t we also think about the political content of a queer woman’s relationship to romance manga, or the ways in which queer working-class women find intimacy with each other, learn each other’s bodies?
As for whether or not I set out to write a queer relationship, I think probably it’s a mix of the explicit and natural, when it comes to writing queer and particularly bi characters in fiction; it’s personally important for me to see bi women of color in fiction, and so I do consciously write about them and will continue to in my future work, in a way that I find utterly natural. Yet people don’t usually ask hetero writers, for example, whether they set out to write hetero characters, or why they continually write about hetero characters. It’s important also to claim the space for your own banality; the dailiness, fullness, complexity of all kinds of queer lives.
There have been several writers of Filipino descent like Miguel Syjuco and Mia Alvar who have written about the Filipino immigrant experience and diaspora in general. Do you think this will continue being the topic of future books? What do you see on the horizon for written works by Filipinos or people of Filipino ethnicity?
It’s my great joy to be able to say that I don’t know what’s on the horizon for the future of Filipino literature, only that it should be as wide-ranging, as varied, as textured, as the people who are writing it—whether that means continuing to write about immigration, as I’m sure will continue to be an ongoing concern for many of us in the diaspora, or whether that means reading and support voices that don’t just come from English-speaking writers like myself, or even Tagalog-speaking/Manila-based writers, but also writers from the many regions in the Philippines, who write in a diversity of languages, about lives we might not see as much as we should.
While in Manila for the Philippine International Literary Festival, I was lucky enough to hear from writers and readers from all over the country, about the exciting, transgressive, ground-breaking literary scene in Soccskargen, where Kristine Ong Muslim, a writer whose work I’ve admired for years, hails from. I was heartened and inspired to hear about the resurgence of writing and producing art in regional languages, as the brilliant and hilarious writer and filmmaker Kristian Sendon Cordero is doing with Bikol and Rinconada—I’m dying to see Hinulid. The future looks like more voices, more stories, more elsewheres.
You’ve said in previous interviews that the first thing you started writing when you got older was X-Men fanfiction, and you’ve also compared America Is Not the Heart to fanfiction “of a much more action-packed thriller – it’s about war and politics, but it’s also about what happens after the burst of action, when people just have to live.” What do you love about fanfiction? How has it influenced how and what you write?
Haha, I think I love about it what any fan loves: the chance to both love and talk back to your canon. That’s a readerly impulse as much as it’s a writerly impulse, and for me fanfiction is the genre in which the reading self and the writing self are most inextricable, most politically and emotionally alive. You’re working with an existing canon, an existing set of characters and histories, an existing narrative logic, and your work is always in conversation with that canon—it’s always a readerly work, in a way that I cherish. Even when you hate that canon—and a lot of the X-Men fanfiction I wrote was for the movieverse, which I hated with a passion; that’s what got me to write—even when that conversation is in actual fact an argument, that relationship is still at the crux of the work.
If we’re just talking about the practical, formal logistics of writing fanfiction, there is for sure a training-wheels element to writing fanfiction; you don’t necessarily have to build the entire world from scratch, because so much of the world already exists, and you know your readership will already be familiar with it. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t epic works of fanfiction that are feats of world-building in and of themselves—there definitely are. But it’s a space that allows for play in a way that I think is vital for writers, not least of all because it’s literally a free space, in which writers are producing often book-length works for free to readers who respond with comments and community, readers who are uniquely equipped to engage critically and emotionally with the work, who have the the education only passionate fandom provides. There aren’t many spaces like that, and they should be cherished and respected.
You’ve mentioned that this is your first time back in the Philippines unaccompanied by any family member. How was your experience?
Nothing short of life-altering, I think. Yes, it was only my third time back in the Philippines, my first time unaccompanied by at least one of my parents. The first time I ever went to the Philippines was because I was actually, like one of the characters in the book, kidnapped by a parent who was unhappy with his life in America, and wanted to go back home. He and I eventually returned a few months later, but you can imagine that after that, the prospect of going to the Philippines wasn’t without some tension in my family—not to mention the fact that the only people I knew who could afford to go back to the Philippines regularly were middle-class. I can’t even remember a single vacation my family and I ever went on together; my parents worked far too much, and most holidays from Christmas to Memorial Day found them clocking overtime hours at their respective jobs.
That’s another aspect that’s important to point out, when we hang cultural authenticity and patriotic loyalty on a person’s ability to return often to the “home” country; often people simply can’t, not only because the home itself may pose a source of significant trauma for the person abroad, but also because it just isn’t economically feasible. So there’s no way I would have been able to go to the Philippines on my own had I not been invited to take part in events at the Philippine International Literary Festival, for which I remain profoundly grateful, because it gave me nothing less than an entirely new relationship not just to the Philippines, but to Manila, a city I didn’t know all that well and had always harbored a kind of inherited provincial suspicion or resentment about, largely because my parents were both from the provinces and most of the Filipino or Fil-Am literature I read was based out of Manila.
But I fell totally in love with Manila on this trip, and most of all with the other truly brilliant, generous writers and readers I met there. I think the warmth, the critical engagement, and the real incisiveness of the readership that I encountered in the Philippines completely spoiled me for all my future events with the book—all of you in Manila set the standard very, very high. It will forever mean the absolute world to me that I got to kick off this whole book tour in the Philippines, and I hope it won’t be too long until I get to come back.
Will we see or read more from you in the future? Any projects down the pipeline that you can share with us?
Haha, I hope so, yes. I’m happily deep in a writing hole at the moment, a couple of projects in the works, one of which is maybe a kind of spiritual sequel to this book, which bizarrely is turning out to be sci-fi; maybe it’s that anime/X-Men/Star Trek fanfiction side coming through. A book of essays, mainly about women of color in art and film. And possibly a novel that will be an expansion of an old short-story, about the biracial genderqueer girlhood of the hero Achilles. We’ll see!
Thank you, Elaine! But before we let you go, we need to prove that you are indeed human, and not a robot-writer who has taken over your life. Would you mind taking a photo right now for your fans?
America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo is available at Fully Booked stores and Fully Booked Online.
Special thanks to Chris and Katya of the First Look Club for contributing to this feature. Read their reviews of America Is Not the Heart here.