In the current political climate, the need for novels that cast light on the immigrant experience is greater than ever. Contemporary literature has had its share of such works in recent years, from Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers to Lesley Nneka Arimah’s magnificent story collection, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky. The latest is Elaine Castillo’s debut novel, America Is Not the Heart, a timely book about a prominent family from the Philippines and the circumstances that lead them to America.
The novel—its title a play on America Is in the Heart, a 1946 semi-autobiographical novel by Filipino-American author Carlos Bulosan—begins with Paz, who is studying to become a nurse. While still in the Philippines, she meets her future husband, Pol De Vera, a talented orthopedic surgeon and “the Don Juan of the hospital.” Once they move to California, their roles reverse: Paz becomes the family breadwinner, while Pol works as a security guard. Their lives change further when, in 1990, they invite Hero, their niece thought to have died years earlier, to stay with them on a tourist visa.
Hero’s story is the focus of the novel, as she develops a close friendship with Roni, the couple’s 7-year-old daughter, and accompanies Roni on visits to faith healers who seek to cure the child’s eczema. Hero begins a relationship with Rosalyn, the daughter of one of the healers.
Castillo incorporates snippets of the Tagalog, Ilocano and Pangasinan languages throughout her tale, and some of the novel’s most memorable scenes depict the decade Hero spends with an armed resistance group that fights against dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ government. If Castillo overdoes some details—she references food too often—America Is Not the Heart is still an earnest contribution to the ongoing discussion of immigrant life in America.