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America Is Not the Heart: Elaine Castillo explores the immigrant experience

Elaine Castillo. Photo/Supplied

Elaine Castillo's sharp and insightful novel about the Asian-American immigrant experience takes up the torch left by a pioneer of the genre.

Writer and activist Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart – a semi-autobiographical novel about the Filipino immigrant experience and the “promise of a better life”, published in 1946 and since assigned in Asian-American literature courses in universities across the US – is clearly a jumping-off point for Elaine Castillo’s multifaceted, moving debut novel, America Is Not the Heart.

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.

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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.