America Is Not the Heart
February 16, 2019 8:47 AM - by Elaine Castillo - Subscribe

How many lives fit in a lifetime? When Hero De Vera arrives in America–haunted by the political upheaval in the Philippines and disowned by her parents–she’s already on her third. Her uncle gives her a fresh start in the Bay Area, and he doesn’t ask about her past. His younger wife knows enough about the might and secrecy of the De Vera family to keep her head down. But their daughter–the first American-born daughter in the family–can’t resist asking Hero about her damaged hands. (Penguin Random House blurb) Elaine Castillo's debut novel, and well-regarded, from Kirkus Reviews to Bustle.

One Filipino migrant’s struggle to live her American dream after two years in a prison camp makes for a blazingly fearless debut novel (Benjamin Evans review for The Guardian)
While serving as a medic in the revolutionary New People’s Army in the 1980s, Geronima, called Hero for short, is captured by the Filipino military. After two years in a prison camp she weighs less than 90lb and cannot bear to be touched. Hero’s mutilated thumbs and cigarette-burn scars are not easy to hide but she keeps her emotional wounds to herself after joining her uncle’s family in California at the beginning of America Is Not the Heart.

Hero guards another secret too: she prefers girls. In this blazingly fearless debut novel, Elaine Castillo ("Elaine Castillo on Sexuality," 1:25 YT clip) furnishes a queer hero with a history of suffering on a par with tragic Jude from Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (2015) (Guardian review). She also probes the same disconcerting question: can such a profoundly traumatic past ever really be redeemed by love?
Elaine Castillo reads from America Is Not the Heart: Hero (14:18 YouTube clip)
posted by filthy light thief (4 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Really, really good -- I am looking forward to Castillo's next works.

This novel is told from the view of three different women, though Hero is the main focus for the majority of the book. The mix of Filipino history and culture, looking at the people and families who emigrated to the US for jobs, primarily in healthcare in the San Francisco bay area, is really interesting, and the characters are great, and complicated. And real.

The sexuality of Hero, and Rosalyn, comes in late into the stories, after focusing on the ways people find ways to cope and survive. And this isn't a story about the complexity of non-binary sexuality, but that's a part of what makes the characters people.

And the writing is fantastic. There are some phrases I re-read just for the joy of the language.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:33 AM on February 16, 2019

I loved this book. I'd like to find other novels with the same amount of mundane detail.
posted by tofu_crouton at 1:04 PM on February 16, 2019

Gosh, I loved this one so much too. Everything was so tactile and so well-described, from the characters to the places to the food.
posted by ITheCosmos at 12:31 PM on February 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is my favorite book of the six I've read so far (though I'm still working my way through Milkman). I don't feel very articulate about my love for it, and some of it's too personal; I descend from a different branch of the Filipino diaspora, but there was still SO MUCH here I recognized and also felt recognized by.

I really enjoyed how character-driven this was, how much focus and attention and worth was placed on Hero's self-recovery/self-discovery.

I liked the use of multiple languages--though I can understand why other readers were more frustrated than engaged by it, I thought it brought so much to the book and to its realism.

And here's one of my favorite passages, from Rosalyn's second-person section: "Though later, as always, you'd realize that what you knew about the worst of the world, the knowledge about life you'd stored up, tart and proud because of where you'd been born, what you'd run from, what'd made you, all amounted to--mostly nothing, like anyone else's stupid history. It didn't make you any wiser or stronger, the way you hoped, the way you usually played it. It just made you you."
posted by mixedmetaphors at 11:31 AM on March 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

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