Living Between Countries And Languages: Book Review Of Elaine Castillo’s ‘America Is Not The Heart’

Elaine Castillo’s debut novel is a touching story about a Filipino-American family, and it doesn’t shy away from using the character’s native languages.
America Is Not The Heart By Elaine Castillo

Stories of immigration have been a hot commodity for the past few years. There are many reasons for this popularity, but you can probably guess that politics in the United States have been one of the driving factors. It also helps that recent novels about immigration feature some of the best writing of the last decade, including Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. With America Is Not the Heart, Elaine Castillo joins this group, telling the story of a Filipino-American family with realism and care.

The hero of the story is Geronima, who happens to go by the unlikely nickname Hero. She moves to Milpitas, California, to live with her uncle Pol and his wife Paz, and she becomes a babysitter for their daughter Roni. Hero is closed off from others in the beginning but soon opens up, becoming close with Roni. After visiting a Filipino-American named Adela, who claims to be able to help Roni’s eczema, Hero is introduced to Adela’s whole family. Through befriending Adela and her family, she eventually finds a job outside of babysitting, a loving relationship with Adela’s daughter Rosalyn, and a place of belonging.

While that’s all an accurate summary of what happens in the book, it ignores the constant diversions to the past, which tell a darker story. Hero was born in the Philippines to a wealthy family but was ostracized by her parents when she decided to become a medic for the communist New People’s Army in the midst of an uprising. She was eventually captured and tortured by the Philippine government, and she bears the physical evidence of that: two broken thumbs that have never quite healed. Yet the emotional wounds run far deeper, and her shyness at the beginning of the novel gains a different meaning when the reader finds out what she’s been through.

The interplay of Hero’s domestic present and her political past provide the tension for the book. In one chapter, sections alternate between scenes of Hero taking care of Roni and Hero’s life working for the New People’s Army. In another part of the book, she attends Roni’s birthday party and reflects on the incredible difference between her cozy life in California and the life of her friends and family in the Philippines, some of whom died in the struggle:

That this could be the actual condition of the world … seemed to Hero a joke of such surreal proportions the only conclusion she could make of it in the end was that it wasn’t a joke at all; and if it wasn’t a joke, and it wasn’t a dream, that meant it was just. Real life. Ordinary life.

This juxtaposition of the United States and the Philippines draws a clear line back to the title: America Is Not the Heart. The title points out that the United States is not some magical end goal for people. Hero’s experience may have been ultimately positive, but that doesn’t mean everything is perfect. And while most of the action in this novel takes place in America, the story is incomplete without the Philippines constantly in the background.

The title of this novel is also a reference to America Is In the Heart, a 1946 autobiography by Filipino-American Carlos Bulosan. In that book, Bulosan writes about growing up in the Philippines, moving to the United States as an adult and becoming an itinerant laborer. Bulosan does not glorify the experience — being an immigrant laborer in the United States is certainly not anyone’s ideal — but, like Castillo’s novel, it is ultimately optimistic. It’s worth noting Castillo is not negating Bulosan’s title, she is simply pointing out that America being in someone’s heart does not mean that it is that person’s entire heart.

Castillo’s resistance to the perceived centrality of America touches on another important feature of the book: the use of other languages. Throughout the novel, there is some dialogue in Pangasinan, Ilocano and Tagalog, all of which are languages Castillo’s parents spoke around the house when she was growing up in California. Castillo is not the first person to include other languages, but it is a pretty recent development; Dominican-American novelist Junot Díaz is often credited with popularizing their use in American fiction. But Castillo stands out because she is more willing to leave these non-English words entirely untranslated. She wrote an essay about why, despite being warned by other authors that it would turn off English-speaking readers, she made the decision to include these languages. She says, “To suggest that the depiction of a life like mine, a city like mine, a linguistic context like that one, is somehow incompatible with the demands of American literature is to gravely underestimate and impoverish American literature.” In essence, she believes people do not need to understand every word of a book to understand the book.

America Is Not the Heart expresses the challenges of living in the United States as an immigrant. At times, the multilingual novel and the immigrant won’t be understood by monolingual people. The book and the immigrant are expected to conform to the American way of doing things, living predominantly in English, though they carry with them the countries they come from. Most of all, while the novel and the immigrant try their best to share their stories with everyone, they know they will never be fully understood except by those who have lived similarly. But that is no reason to stop trying.

An immigrant is not a book, and there is no essential “immigrant story” that captures everyone’s experiences coming to a new country. Each story is a piece of a larger mosaic, and that is the real reason we need more books like America Is Not the Heart. They convey the complex truths about living in the United States when you were born somewhere else, and we need those stories to understand what this country really is.

This is the seventh installment of Babbeling BooksWe’re spotlighting books both new and old that interact with language or language-learning in some way. We’ll be changing formats soon, so look forward to an announcement in the coming weeks.

Want to become multilingual?
Try Babbel