Review | America is Not the Heart, Elaine Castillo

34939312Elaine Castillo is a fresh and welcome new voice to Filipino immigrant fiction. I loved the Filipino touches throughout America is Not the Heart — the sprinkling of Tagalog and Ilocano, the obsession with pancit and Pinoy-style BBQ, and all the talk about faith healing and the power of brujas to heal things like eczema. There are some great passages about Filipino folklore — the white lady of Balete drive, the consequences of a supernatural being (I can’t remember which one Castillo referenced) falling in love with you and not wanting to let you go. There are also all-too-real depictions of Filipino gatherings, and the oddly instantaneous sense of closeness when Filipinos encounter each other abroad — from a grandmother figure tactlessly discussing Roni’s eczema in front of everyone to a complete stranger asking Hero about the condition of her hand.

Major kudos as well to the audiobook narrator (Donabella Martel), who really brought the story to life. From other Goodreads reviews, I learned the text version of the book doesn’t use quotation marks, which often pulls me from the story and particularly when the story is this long. So I was glad to have her voice clearly distinguishing between characters for me. I’m also often wary of how non-native Filipino speakers pronounce Tagalog words, so I’m really happy that Martel did a good job overall with the accents.

Like many other Goodreads reviewers, I had been captivated by Paz’s story in the beginning, so it was a bit of a disappointment to realize she’s not the actual protagonist of the book. I was glad to see her play a prominent role again near the end, and wish I’d seen more of her throughout. She was probably the most compelling character to me, and so often, like Hero, I wanted so badly for her to fight Pol and win. (No spoilers, but basically he does something I find unforgiveable later in the book, and due to the power of his family, Paz is relatively helpless to fight back.)

Even while I wanted more of Paz, I also found Hero to be a compelling heroine. I loved her love story with Rosalyn, and I also enjoyed reading about her experiences as a doctor with the New People’s Army (NPA), a militant Filipino communist group. I rarely see the NPA featured in Filipino fiction, much less in such a sympathetic light, so it was interesting to read.

Roni, as the American-born daughter of Paz and Pol and cousin of Hero, is fascinating to me mostly because of what she represents. There’s a great line about Roni early in the book (Paz’s section, as she looks at her baby girl) that reads:

She doesn’t have to love America; she’s of it. (7%)

And it’s so incredibly true. For immigrants like Paz, Pol and Hero, who struggle between their longing for home in the Philippines and their desire to make a home in America, there’s almost a requirement to become super-American. To love America so much that no one can question your right to be here. It’s a very familiar feeling to me as an immigrant — much as I sincerely love Canada, there was also a touch of the performative in my love for the country at the beginning, almost like I felt I needed to prove my worth to become Canadian. So that line about Roni being of America and therefore not being required to love it really resonated with me, and so much kudos to Elaine Castillo for capturing this complex feeling so succinctly.

There are so many similarly brilliant gems throughout the book — Hero’s observation that Rosalyn’s world in Milpitas is primarily Asian people and places, Roni’s story of her classmates calling Filipinos “more Mexican than Asian” — that beautifully capture various aspects of Filipino immigrant experiences.

It’s a wonderful book, and I highly recommend it, ideally with a bowl of pancit and a stick of Pinoy BBQ by your side

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Thank you to the Toronto Public Library for taking my recommendation and acquiring the audiobook of this title. Libraries are amazing, and the Toronto Public Library is (in my admittedly biased opinion) simply the best.

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