America Is Not the Heart: Elaine Castillo explores the immigrant experienceby Maggie Trapp
Elaine Castillo's sharp and insightful novel about the Asian-American immigrant experience takes up the torch left by a pioneer of the genre.
Castillo’s novel is a searing account of Hero De Vera’s life in Milpitas, California, where she has gone to live with her uncle, Pol, his wife, Paz, and their young daughter, Roni. We learn that Hero left the Philippines after spending time in a prison camp, and she now finds herself in a sunny, placid Californian suburb trying to forget all that has happened to her.
Once in California, Hero is made responsible for Roni. She takes care of Roni after school every day since both parents work long hours to be able to afford their spot in a housing subdivision south of San Francisco. The cousins, though born in different countries and separated in age by decades, come to recognise the suffering they have each experienced, and, gradually, they learn to see each other in unexpected ways.
Hero’s past in the Philippines has clearly been brutal. The novel dances around descriptions of life during a dictatorship: martial law, prison camps, bribes and a fraught resistance. But the De Vera family’s life in America is also complex and confusing – and this is as true for immigrant Hero as it is for native-born Roni.
Castillo’s prose is sly and sharp. Her wit glitters in sentences that startle with their humour and intimacy. We read in Castillo’s lyric voice of Hero’s unease with, as well as fascination for, the new place she now calls home: “She liked the loping, crooked hill she passed after North Milpitas Boulevard, a hill that brought the car closer to the thing she liked most of all: the strange new sky, low-hanging and close, deep and limpid, a body of water rather than a sky, so that she felt she was submerged in it rather than standing under it.”
In revisiting and reimagining Bulosan’s seminal America Is in the Heart, Castillo shows us that when it comes to the immigrant experience, there are no easy interpretations.
AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART, by Elaine Castillo (Atlantic Books, $22.99)
Elaine Castillo will be appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival in May.
This article was first published in the March 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
Psychologists are getting a picture of people who are big on social media. It's not always pretty.Read more
Greg McGee always knew his great-grandfather had kidnapped his father and uncles as infants, but now for the first time he’s revealing that...Read more
When it comes to video streaming, the hearing- and visually impaired can only dream about the technology that’s passing them by.Read more
Belgian film Girl follows the anxious life of a transgender ballerina as she transitions.Read more
A readers asks, "I’ve experienced mouth ulcers in the past and found they came when I hadn’t been eating much red meat. Why is that?"Read more
Many people will have forgotten Sir Bob Jones once put himself at risk of becoming the Prime Minister of New Zealand.Read more