by Twila Bergania
I have to admit that it took me a while to finish this book. I was convinced, after meeting Elaine at her book launch presented by National Bookstore, that I will be able to finish the book in two weeks, that I would not be able to put it down, and that I would be spending sleepless nights poring through the pages. But surprisingly, this book took longer for me to finish—not just because I’m a busy person (I write for a living too) but also because it was just so good. I would liken Elaine Castillo’s debut novel to adobo. Read on to find out why.
Three generations of women from one immigrant family trying to reconcile the home they left behind with the life they’re building in America.
How many lives can one person lead in a single lifetime? When Hero de Vera arrives in America, disowned by her parents in the Philippines, she’s already on her third. Her uncle, Pol, who has offered her a fresh start and a place to stay in the Bay Area, knows not to ask about her past. And his younger wife, Paz, has learned enough about the might and secrecy of the De Vera family to keep her head down. Only their daughter Roni asks Hero why her hands seem to constantly ache.
Illuminating the violent political history of the Philippines in the 1980s and 1990s and the insular immigrant communities that spring up in the suburban United States with an uncanny ear for the unspoken intimacies and pain that get buried by the duties of everyday life and family ritual, Castillo delivers a powerful, increasingly relevant novel about the promise of the American dream and the unshakable power of the past. In a voice as immediate and startling as those of Junot Diaz and NoViolet Bulawayo, America Is Not the Heart is a sprawling, soulful telenovela of a debut novel. With exuberance, muscularity, and tenderness, here is a family saga; an origin story; a romance; a narrative of two nations and the people who leave home to grasp at another, sometimes turning back. Get a copy: Penguin Random House, National Bookstore / Read reviews: Goodreads
WHAT I LIKED
Elaine Castillo is one bold storyteller. Before meeting her, I’ve read dozens of reviews lamenting her writing technique and her decision to forego quotation marks, italicized Filipino words, and English translations. But as a Filipino reader, these literary decisions were highly appreciated. It validated me as a reader, as a writer and as a person. I’ve read a lot of articles and book reviews that hyped Elaine’s writing prowess and I would have to say that the high praises were well-deserved. She has a way with lyrical words, sentences and phrases that sing rather than talk.
She’s not afraid to make up words, like when she twisted the colloquial slang “babaero” into “babaera,” bearing in mind that the word doesn’t technically exist in the Filipino dictionary. It made me think. Is it really that unthinkable in our society for a woman to be a playgirl for girls? Come to think of it, is there a direct translation for the word “lesbian” or “homosexual” in our country? I’m a Bulakenya and I can’t remember any Tagalog word used in our daily lives besides “tibo” which came from “tomboy,” which is an American term. We have “bakla” for the gays and nothing for everyone else. For this reason I had this notion (even while I was interviewing her or listening to her talk during her book signing) that Elaine is not only, in her own words, “matigas ang ulo,” but also a wordsmith.
“What Hero loved most wasn’t the cadre names people chose, but the word kasama itself: kasama, pakikisama. In Ilocano, the closest word was kadwa. Kadwa, makikadwa. Companion, but that English word didn’t quite capture its force. Kasama was more like the glowing, capacious form of the word with: with as verb, noun, adjective and adverb, with as a way of life. A world of with-ing.”
Another thing I absolutely loved is that the book itself is a rebel. It unabashedly used language, religion, tradition and myths to open the wounds and layers of our culture. It framed our history in a way that made me question years worth of apathy. I guess it was why it took me awhile to finish reading it. There were many times when I had to close the book to lay down and think and just imagine what it would have been like if I was alive during Martial Law era. It made me wonder what my parents and grandparents must have seen in Mangaldan, Pangasinan, one of the settings of the book which also happens to be my birth town.
The novel was also sprinkled with increasingly relevant social issues. Things like bullying, migrant issues in America, and gender prejudices were depicted in such a way that did not alienate Filipino audience, but instead brought people of all races together. Reading through it almost felt like I was marinating my brain with these immersive, progressive thoughts and it felt important—to me, at least—to let the thoughts sit overnight in order to fully grasp the novel’s undertones.
As such, the book felt all the more familiar and truthful. It took me away from the Philippines and transported me to the Bay Area, where the minority is the majority. But at the same time, it gave me a chance to just think about the many friends and families abroad who packed their sense of home with them to foreign lands—just like what Paz and Pol and Hero and Rosalyn did. Speaking of Rosalyn, I also loved the character development throughout the novel. I loved how all the characters (like Rosalyn and Roni) and relationships progressed so naturally. It’s as if you’re a part of their big family, or of their great Pinoy celebrations that are teeming with love and patriotism and pancit… loads and loads of pancit.
It’s a pretty long read and it can get boring for people like me who are so drawn to YA and thriller novels. It’s also sometimes too raw and realistic so if you like reading books to escape your daily struggles, you might wanna take this with a grain of salt. The flashbacks were clearly delineated throughout the novel, and were well-researched and vital to the story. But it also somehow takes you away from the current plot line that when you dive back into it after not reading for a while, you have to go back and try to remember where you left off.
Another thing I think the book can improve on is the Tagalog editing. Maybe it’s because the characters grew up in the Bay Area and spoke other languages besides Tagalog but some of the lines were phrased wrong. Sentences like “May nangyari sa Roni” could’ve been a character nuance. But it was Hero who said that, and she supposedly lived in Manila long enough to know it should’ve been said as: “May nangyari kay Roni.” (Perhaps having a Filipino editor would help? I volunteer as tribute!)
America Is Not The Heart by Elaine Castillo is a heartwarming, raw and passionate read that celebrates Filipinos, both here and abroad. It’s a lot like adobo because it’s intrinsically Pinoy. It packs a punch with the right amount of alat and asim. And trust me, the longer you let the thoughts marinate, the more you spend time going through the words, the better it gets. And yeah, I’m totally re-reading this, just like how adobo is best reheated and eaten the next day. ☁️
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