America Is Not the Heart

America Is Not the Heart

by Elaine Castillo


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Named one of the best books of 2018 by NPR, Real Simple, Lit Hub, The Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Post, Kirkus Reviews, and The New York Public Library 

"A saga rich with origin myths, national and personal . . . Castillo is part of a younger generation of American writers instilling literature with a layered sense of identity." —Vogue

How many lives fit in a lifetime?

When Hero De Vera arrives in America—haunted by the political upheaval in the Philippines and disowned by her parents—she's already on her third. Her uncle gives her a fresh start in the Bay Area, and he doesn't ask about her past. His younger wife knows enough about the might and secrecy of the De Vera family to keep her head down. But their daughter—the first American-born daughter in the family—can't resist asking Hero about her damaged hands.

An increasingly relevant story told with startling lucidity, humor, and an uncanny ear for the intimacies and shorthand of family ritual, America Is Not the Heart is a sprawling, soulful debut about three generations of women in one family struggling to balance the promise of the American dream and the unshakeable grip of history. With exuberance, grit, and sly tenderness, here is a family saga; an origin story; a romance; a narrative of two nations and the people who leave one home to grasp at another.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735222427
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/02/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 139,683
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Elaine Castillo was born in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. America Is Not the Heart is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

After the cake, after the singing, after the offering of presents that would only be opened at home, they kept with tradition for the first dance: Roni and Pol took the floor. The live band was made up of four Filipino men, bakla, all dressed in barong tagalogs. They were jokingly calling themselves Mabuhok Singers. The song they started playing was one Hero recognized from some of the karaoke nights at the restaurant, Jose Mari Chan’s Beautiful Girl.

Coooooorrrny, Rosalyn said, seated across from Hero at a table near the back, but the smile on her face was real.

It’d been so long since her seventh birthday; Hero couldn’t remember if she, like Roni, had danced with her father alone on some dance floor, or one of the inner courtyards of the De Vera house, to some terrible love song, popular at the time, forgettable forever if not for having been chosen for this moment. Pol had one hand on Roni’s shoulder, one hand tucking stray hairs behind her ear, even though earlier in the evening Janelle and Rochelle had made a point of shellacking her ponytail with hairspray, Rochelle covering her eyes to shield her from the mist.

Hero watched Roni throw her arms around her father’s waist, settling her face snug against his belly, blissful, not even bothering to do anything more than hug him and sway. She had a thought, then, sudden as a knife between the ribs: for all she knew, Teresa, Eddie and Amihan were dead, while she was still alive. Sitting in a community center hall in Milpitas, watching her cousin turn eight years old. That this could be the actual condition of the world—a world in which there was still corny music, lechon kawali, heavy but passing rain, televised sports, yearly holidays, caring families, requited love—seemed to Hero a joke of such surreal proportions the only conclusion she could make of it in the end was that it wasn’t a joke at all; and if it wasn’t a joke, and it wasn’t a dream, that meant it was just. Real life. Ordinary life.

There was a feeling in Hero’s chest she’d felt vaguely before, but had never thought to poke at, knowing instinctively that to let it lie would be better. Now she knew what the feeling was—hate. Just a tiny, tiny hate, humble and missable, heavy as lead, nothing in comparison to the affection she knew she felt for the girl, the everyday devotion she’d been consecrating to her since the moment they met. Just a tiny, tiny hate, circulating through her blood, occasionally reaching the heart, then passing out again. It was that tiny hate that spoke in her when Hero thought to herself what a formidable thing it was, what a terror, really—a girl who was loved from the very beginning.

Then she heard it back, the sound of her own thought, like someone was replaying it through a loudspeaker, lingering on each word, making the playback count. Disgust surged up within her so fast she felt herself dry-heaving, her hand closed in a limp fist on her lap, and when a voice in her head spoke up to admonish her, the voice wasn’t her own. Jealous of a kid, donya, really?

The lead singer was crooning, I just knew that I’d love again after a long, long while—

Reading Group Guide

1. The epigraph of the book is the quote from Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart: “I knew I could trust a gambler because I had been one of them.” Why do you think the author chose this particular quote as the epigraph?

2. Though most of the novel is narrated in third person, it begins in the second person “you” perspective. Discuss why the novel begins this way.

3. How does the novel’s prologue shape your reading of the rest of the novel?

4. The author incorporates dialogue in Tagalog, Ilocano, and Pangasinan throughout the novel, often without translation. What effect does this have? Why do you think the author chooses not to translate some of this dialogue?

5. On pages 363–64, Adela gently chastises Hero for not fully understanding what it means to heal. She asks Hero to think about whether Roni is “sira”—broken, damaged. What is Adela trying to tell Hero? What does it mean to be healed?

6. In the last scene of the novel, Paz, Pol, Hero, and Roni are all together, eating pancit. Discuss the role of food in the book.

7. Language has historically been a tool of colonization. Refusing to follow the “correct” usage of a colonizer’s language can, in many ways, be interpreted as a form of resistance. How does the author challenge or subvert the traditional rules of the English language in the novel?

8. In an interview, the author has said: “There are two stories you need to know about your characters: the one they tell themselves, and the one they actually inhabit.” What stories do you think Paz, Hero, Rosalyn, and the other characters in this novel tell about themselves? What stories do they actually inhabit? Is there a difference?

9. Would you consider this a political novel? Discuss why or why not.

10. The title of this book is inspired by Carlos Bulosan’s semi-autobiographical novel America Is in the Heart. Why do you think the author named her book America Is Not the Heart? How does this title fit the novel as a whole?

11. What do you think America means to the different characters in the novel—to Hero, Paz, Rosalyn, Roni, Pol?

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