About 20 pages in I realized that I know barely anything about the Philippines apart from some random dishes, and some political crises over the years!! I worked for a translation company for years and assumed that Tagalog was the main language and never looked further than that. I feel pretty ashamed about it to be honest - but I’ve really enjoyed reading America is Not the Heart and researching so much about the Philippines at the same time. One thing that I love about reading eBooks is that you can easily switch to google and research things while you are reading. I know some people find that annoying but I actually enjoy it.
Ahhhh this book is beautifully written. The narrative is sprinkled with words in Tagalog, Ilocano, and Panganisan, but it doesn’t distract from the story, on the contrary it enriches it, plunges you into Filipino life, in the Philippines and in the US. I did end up googling quite a few words, mainly food because I love to envision what certain dishes look like in my mind, but it didn’t bother me at all. The languages flows beautifully, it creates a rich, vibrant environment, and Elaine Castillo has a great knack for character development.
America is Not the Heart is the story of immigration, of hardship, of relearning trust, of family, and ultimately of love. Hero arrives in the US to live with her uncle and auntie, bringing along a ton of baggage from her childhood, her life in the New People’s Army, and then in prison. We discover Hero’s story as the narrative unfolds.
One thing that surprised me a little, was that the first few chapters introduce us to Paz, and then BAM the story turns to Hero’s. I felt slightly miffed, I was beginning to develop Paz in my mind and then she was relegated to the background. It threw me off and I found it a little harder to get back into the narrative of Hero’s story. If you also find that this throws you off, don’t put the book down, because Hero is actually amazing and her story is so poignant and beautifully written.
Another thing: there are so many names in the book, and each name has another name, usually a diminutive of the original name (which I assume is pretty common in Filipino families). I found that I couldn’t read this novel with any distractions at first (children, background TV or music noise), or I would just get confused. But it got easier after a while. Just don’t give up, understanding all of the background is important and makes sense as the story unfolds.
There is a LOT of history of the Philippines nestled in the story, while reading it I really started to wonder how long it took the author to write this book. There are so many characters, so much research, so many layers... It’s an amazing book and an amazing feat. Also a million thumbs up for the developing a realistic love story between two women, and exploring the themes of acceptance in tight-knitted traditional family settings.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the copy, America is Not the Heart is just sublime AND such an amazing first novel for Elaine Castillo!!