“America Is Not the Heart” by Elaine Castillo


There is much more than the average “Asian expatriate in the US” story to be found in the debut novel by Elaine Castillo. America Is Not the Heart offers some genuine insights into love, life and what constitutes a home as well as an absorbing family saga set between the Philippines and the Bay area of San Francisco.

The action begins in the 1960s where Paz, a young Filipina, is growing up in a poverty-stricken village in Pangasinan. She gains a place at university to study nursing which, along with some family connections, allows her to find work in California. Here she sets up house in Milpitas along with her surgeon husband, Pol. They both work long hours in low-ranking jobs for which they are overqualified. Nonetheless, they manage to support a modest lifestyle and a troublemaking seven-year old daughter, Geronima, nicknamed Roni.

Parachuted into this suburban drudgery is another Geronima, Pol’s niece Nimag. She is quickly dubbed “Hero” by Roni and has a fitting history for the name. Hero too studied medicine but dropped out to join the New People’s Army in its fight against the Marcos administration. After a decade as a cadre doctor for the guerrillas, she is captured and tortured until her jailors realise her family is connected to the regime. Released, she cannot return to her parents due to their political differences. She has nowhere to turn apart from the extended family in Milpitas.

Fortunately for Hero, the environment is welcoming. She begins to rebuild her life, helped by a love affair with a make-up artist, Rosalyn. The final drama occurs when Pol decides he wants to practice medicine again. He can only do this in the Philippines, whither he absconds, taking Roni with him. Telling him that America is “Roni’s home”, Hero persuades him to return and the equilibrium is re-established.

After exploring the former worlds of Paz and Hero, the pace slows in Milpitas as exterior adventures make way for interior examination. Positing Hero as a new arrival, Castillo can filter the environment through her eyes. This allows her an opportunity to mock the class and caste differences which the Filipinos have imported from home as well as to censure those Filipinos who exploit or abuse their compatriots. Other than this—and long sequences concerning food and sex—nothing much happens apart from self-analysis and the novel seems overlong at times.

However, it is interesting that, despite setting the novel mainly in the 1980s, Castillo has chosen to write it in an casual style (no speech marks and so on) which seems more reminiscent of today’s blogs than the more formal structures of the past. This can jar, especially when combined with the appearance of certain phrases which, although they may well have been used in former decades, give a strong impression of more contemporary parlance. These include finishing a sentence with the word “whatever” and inserting the word “even” in a phrase when it isn’t required (“Do you even know what the NPA is?”). While it  might seem anachronistic to present the past through a such a modern lens, it also shows that the issues of today are clearly similar to those of the past. The search for self, a home and a purpose in life are not the preserve of any one generation but in fact part of the human experience.

America Is Not the Heart, Elaine Castillo (Atlantic Book, May 2018; Viking, April 2018)
America Is Not the Heart, Elaine Castillo (Atlantic Books, May 2018; Viking, April 2018)

All of which brings us to the insights which Castillo delivers. She can explain a sentiment so simply and accurately that it resonates. For example, she describes the disappointment on Jesus Christ’s face in a painting as:


It just looked like an adult. Someone who’d once been a kid, and wasn’t one any more.

Another standout is her skewering of “romantics” who remain self-obsessed while espousing lofty sentiments for another. She writes:

Those people were often the least suited to sexual or romantic relationships, were staggeringly selfish and borderline abusive both in bed and in life, and treated their partners and friends more like … props in the love story they were constructing, in which they played the starring role, full of grand gestures and pronouncements.

Cast out from the Philippines, Hero needs to create a new home and her travails provide a framework for Castillo to explore exactly what “home” means. Romantic love is dismissed as a factor since Hero leaves a love interest in the jungle and seems blasé about Rosalyn. Nor do career ambitions bring domestic happiness, as Pol finds out.

The solution appears to be the finale of the book which leaves Paz, Pol, Roni and Hero contentedly sitting around a table eating noodles. Hero has found a place with people she cares for who care about her in return. Home really is where the heart is, Castillo says. The nationality of that home is irrelevant.

Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London.