There have been many excellent novels about the immigrant experience in America. But I feel like the richly detailed and engrossing story of “America Is Not the Heart” by Elaine Castillo shows a really unique point of view I've not read about before. The story primarily revolves around Geronima De Vera who is nicknamed Hero when she arrives in America from the Philippines. She goes to live with her aunt, uncle and feisty young cousin Roni in Milpitas (a suburb outside San Jose, California) where she primarily helps looks after the 7 year old girl. As an illegal immigrant she’s not able to seek out work despite being a trained doctor back in the Philippines. Even if she had papers to find employment she’d have to retrain in medicine as her uncle has painfully discovered. Though he was a highly respected surgeon in the Philippines he can only find low-paid manual work in America. Hero has gone through many difficult experiences to arrive here and the novel slowly discloses the complexity of her life over the course of the novel, but it integrates this so gracefully into accounts of Hero’s day-to-day life in this Filipino-American community and her relationship with a woman she meets there named Rosalyn. Of course Hero’s life has been shaped by her heritage, but the story doesn’t hang on the question of national identity as much as how she’s constantly evolving as an individual.
It’s especially striking to read a novel that centres around a bisexual female protagonist and the story powerfully captures the development of Hero’s sexuality – alongside Rosalyn’s who is refreshingly blunt in her forthright desire to be with Hero. Not since reading Amy Bloom’s novel “White Houses” have I read a novel that considers so meaningfully the dynamics of physical intimacy. This novel deals with that so honestly without feeling the need to mask the act using lyrical language or overwrought prose. It straightforwardly lays out how desire, pleasure and emotion mingle in sex. But it also shows the challenges of building a same-sex relationship with the influence of family and a tight-knit community around them.
Surrounding Hero’s very personal story Castillo powerfully describes the way economics shape people’s lives more than questions of nationality or politics. She includes how corporate enterprise manipulates the living standards and health of whole communities. The story also shows how poverty makes people aliens within their own society: “You already know that the first thing that makes you foreign to a place is being born poor in it.” The novel is filled with people trying to belong by buying the right perfume or correcting their skin, but no matter how much they try to change there are elemental parts of their being which stick: “your accent still hasn't left, and you're starting to understand what it means to have baggage. Baggage means no matter how far you go, no matter how many times you immigrate, there are countries in you you'll never leave.” What I loved most about this novel is how it demonstrates that Hero is like a country unto herself changing in time and led only be an instinctual feeling for what she wants her future to be.