The first thing I told Elaine Castillo when I met her for an interview in a cozy corner of Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel was that I haven’t read her novel yet. As a journalist, it’s standard protocol to research and read before going out for an interview so I felt a little bad but she was very understanding, nodding with a smile that seemed to glow because of the tiny candlelight flickering in between us. Perhaps it wasn’t so surprising given that we were there to witness her book launch.
The event was presented by National Bookstore last April 21 and earlier that day she was also swamped with work, meeting several fans at the Dia del Libro 2018 event. Needless to say, I felt very lucky to be able to spend a few minutes with her before the launch of America Is Not The Heart. Despite the fact that I’ve only read reviews—all of which provided rich insight on what the novel is about, as well as the nuances of the story and the author’s writing—I told her that everyone at Bookbed is excited to delve into her highly-lauded debut novel. It’s not every day that we get to see a Filipino-American author coming out with a book that unabashedly talks about our country and our culture, published no less by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House. At Bookbed, we’ve always made it a point to champion Filipino authors and as such, we were all looking forward to what she has to say about her book and her heritage. Check out the interview below!
Hi Elaine! First question: why is the book titled America Is Not The Heart?
In a basic way, it stems from the title of a foundational text for a lot of Filipino-American writers, Carlos Bulosan’s America Is In The Heart. It’s a text that if you’re Filipino-American, sometimes it’s an assigned reading in high school, a mainstay of, like, ethnic studies. I personally think it should be a mainstay of American history, [that] it should be a required reading. And it came out of that. It’s a book about migrant struggles that are very similar to what Bulosan himself experienced in the West Coast in the ’30s and ’40s. But for me, the reason I chose the titles was not out of some sort of aspiration, really. It came out of a private joke that I used to say to myself because I’m Filipino, I like puns. So whenever I’d see the title America Is In The Heart, I would sort of chuckle to myself and go “America isn’t the heart.” It was just something I would say to myself, just like a little joke. But maybe sometimes I thought, “Oh maybe I’ll make that a title one day,” so that’s why the title of the last chapter of the book is actually “America Isn’t The Heart” with a conjunction. But for multiple reasons, we changed it to America Is Not The Heart. (Read our review of the book here.)
We read that your parents were from Pangasinan and Ilocos, and we’ve heard that the book is filled with a lot of Filipino dialects like Tagalog and Pangasinense. What made you decide to use dialects in your novel and why did you choose to keep it untranslated?
I, for example, am someone who grew up with these kinds of four sort of languages floating around in fragments and that was just my reality, it’s the reality of a lot of kids like me. The town that I grew up in was majority minority town, something like over 60 percent of the inhabitants spoke a language other than English. So for me, that was just kind of the basic reality that is worthy of being depicted in fiction. For me, the idea that it had to be translated or italicized to call attention to its otherness is completely outrageous because it assumes then that the audience for that book is then, what, like, white audience? English-speaking audience? It telegraphs a certain way that that book is facing because it’s saying, “Oh well, all of these words are foreign.” But I don’t experience that, that’s not how I experienced it growing up and I don’t prioritize that type of reader. For me, what’s more important is to depict something in fiction that is commensurate to the realities that we actually live and that means, yes, sentences that are in mixed languages, in which English is not prioritized over Tagalog or Filipino or Pangasinense or Ilocano. And that just being sort of understood as unapologetic and mundane and a reality that is worthy of being depicted.
We also read that before the debut of your novel you were writing X-Men fan fiction and a lot of other literary pieces online. How did this help you in your debut and in your novel writing?
To be honest, the reason I was writing all of that stuff was, in 2006 my father passed away, and I was grieving fairly heavily and I was also very sick at that time. So I basically stopped reading and writing. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t really writing but I also wasn’t really reading. If you know me, there’s never been a point where I haven’t read.
I think it was sometime in 2009 that I slowly started in a way of teaching myself how to write again, and it was [in the form of] X-Men fan fiction and also online blogs. I was writing a blog for a literary journal called Pank where I was just writing these very weird, digressive kind of essays that were also autobiographical and also kind of a form of fiction. In a way, I was just teaching myself how to write again and that I wanted to write again. I [was] also probably mourning through writing in a way I didn’t allow myself to do right in the aftermath. Without that, I would not have been able to write this novel.
What motivated you to write about Filipino culture? What kind of response were you hoping to get when you first released the book?
I am Filipino. It is the community that I come out of. It’s who I am, so for me it’s quite a no-brainer to write about Filipinos. Personally, growing up, I would have loved to see more Filipinos in literature—I mean, I’ve read a fair amount of Filipino-American literature growing up but at the same time a lot of the literature that I read was also about Manileños, about sort of wealthier, middle class, urban centers. Actually, Carlos Bulosan was one of those, the first book I ever saw someone from Pangasinan. Because the beginning of the book has passengers in Binalonan, Pangasinan. So I think it was not just important to write about Filipinos but to write in a particular way about Filipinos, to write about provincial Filipinos, to write about class, to write about inter-class dynamics within Filipino communities, to write about gender as it’s applicable within Filipino communities because I think we all understand that we live at these vectors. There’s a black feminist idea of intersectionality—you know, the black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, she gave us that term—and it’s so vital for understanding that we live at these crossroads. I’m writing about Filipinos, I’m writing also mainly about women, I’m also writing about queer women. It’s about what kind of lives do I want to depict and naturally then I do end up coming back to Filipino lives.
If you could take Hero with you anywhere in the Philippines right now, where would it be and why?
Oh, wow. I would probably take her to Isabela. At first, I thought I would take her to Vigan, which is of course where she’s from but she has a very fraught relationship with her parents and with her family, and the idea of home is not always a healthy or romantic place for us. Sometimes, you never wanna see home again. And that’s also okay. So I would take her back to Isabela in the hopes of finding the people that she left and never saw again because I think that’s probably the only place in the Philippines that she’d want to be in.
What’s your favorite book?
You can’t! There is no way! See, this is a human rights issue.
We kind of expected this *laughs* okay, how about book genres?
Well, you can probably tell from the book, I love manga. I really love manga. I think I can say my favorite book of the moment is actually a manga it’s a sort of gay yakuza manga by the artist Yoneda Kou and the title is called Saezuru Tori ha Habatakanai, which basically means something like “Song Birds Don’t (Can’t) Fly.” And for me, I think it is the most staggering work on trauma and sexuality and intimacy and love. And it’s still ongoing so I’m still, like, every chapter I’m like waiting for the next one that’s probably—I can’t say favorite, but it’s the one that I’m most kilig [about].
Who’s your favorite author?
Oh, you can’t ask me that! *Laughs* But probably I would say, right now, it’s her. Yoneda Kou.
Is there a quote from the books you’ve read before that you tend to live by or remember?
Oh wow, that’s a good question I’m sure there are tons. I can’t think of a quote off the top of my head. The only quote I can remember is the quote that is the epigraph of the book. It’s from Carlos Bulosan and it’s
“I knew I could trust a gambler because I had been one.”
Do you have any writing rituals?
Not so much. I think I have a standard structure of a day. I treat it like a work day so I just, I don’t write every day if I feel a sort of writer’s block then I won’t write. But if I’m not in a hardcore deadline mode I will try to stop at six to have a kind of a decent life.
What’s next on your list?
Probably another novel. I’m a long-form person so I do consider myself a novelist. And also a book of essays. I’m a non-fiction writer so I like to toggle between the two. ☁️