Millennial Fil-am writer Elaine Castillo releases debut novel

Blooey Singson

Posted at Apr 23 2018 01:51 PM | Updated as of Apr 23 2018 04:59 PM

Elaine Castillo poses with her debut novel 'America is Not the Heart.' Photo by author

MANILA, Philippines – Writer Elaine Castillo headlined literary festivities in the metro over the weekend -- namely the Philippine International Literary Festival and World Book Day celebrations -- to promote her newly released debut novel, “America is Not the Heart” published by Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

“America is Not the Heart” is a powerful novel that centers on Hero de Vera, a woman who comes to the Bay Area for a fresh start, shunned by her parents and haunted by her political past in the Philippines. The novel spans three generations of women in one family, struggling to establish identity in between two cultures, stretched from the dirt roads of Northern Luzon and the bright lights of the American dream.

Castillo, 33, was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley and received an MA in Creative Life and Writing from Goldsmiths College, University of London, where she was shortlisted for the Pat Kavanagh Award. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, a Gatewood Prize semi-finalist, three-time winner of the Roselyn Schneider Eisner Prize for prose, and one of the 29 writers in "Freeman’s Issue Four: The Future of New Writing." “America Is Not The Heart” is her first novel, and is set to be released in the UK under Atlantic Books this May.

Asked where she drew inspiration for her novel, Castillo notes that it’s mostly family history and the community she grew up in.

“I grew up in the ‘90s Bay Area scene so I’m familiar with the grain of it, the texture of it. Martial Law is a big part of my family history, so some of it was taken from stories that I’ve heard. My parents weren’t hugely talkative about Martial Law, in the kind of way immigrants live in the post-traumatic silence. So a mixture of what I could eke out from what people would say and not say, and a bit of research also,” Castillo says.

The title is a riff on Carlos Bulosan’s 1946 memoir “America is In the Heart,” which presents the experiences of the immigrant working class and their search for a better life in the US.

“Being Filipina, I like a pun. Essentially, growing up, ‘America Is In The Heart’ by Carlos Bulosan was the kind of foundational text for a Filipino-American. It’s read in ethnic studies, it’s required reading in American history. It was meaningful for me -- it was the first book I saw anyone from Pangasinan depicted. But whenever I saw the title, ‘America Is In The Heart,’ I would always have that little joke to myself that ‘America is NOT the heart,’ so eventually I went there, I knew I would write something with that title,” explains Castillo.

Photo by author

What is striking about “America Is Not the Heart” is how it’s unapologetically Filipino, peppered with expressions in Ilocano, Pangasinan, and Tagalog and nuances like wearing tsinelas, calling everyone Ate, faith healing -- with no italics, no footnotes, no glossary of terms, something Castillo is adamant about.

“I’m not writing ethnography. There’s plenty of books on middle class white life in Brooklyn – I don’t know what that’s like – and they don’t provide glossaries for me. I don’t really see why I should provide glossaries, and in doing so otherize my stake in American reality, which should be taken as such,” Castillo emphasizes.

Food is unintentionally central to this novel, with a host of Filipino dishes like dinuguan, pinakbet, daing na bangus, and the ubiquitous celebration staples: pancit and lumpia, Pinoy barbecue, and lechon.

“I had no idea I wrote about food this much, until afterwards. People come up to me, and say, ‘There’s food on every page, I was starving reading this book!’ I was like, ‘Oh, is it not normal to talk about food that much?’ I think this must be so saturated in my pores, like subconscious Filipino-ness, I had no idea that was not normal for everyone else,” Castillo laughs.

Tagged by Publishers Weekly as an “a brilliant and intensely moving immigrant tale,” Vogue as “a deeply personal, lavishly painted portrait of lives in revision,” and Kirkus Reviews as “beautifully written, emotionally complex, and deeply moving,” the reception to “America is in the Heart” is what Castillo describes as completely surreal.

“When I can manage to think about it, it’s just shattering. The kindness has been out of this world. I’ve had the luck of having really generous, incisive readers, and not every writer gets that, not every book that deserves it gets that, and I’m really grateful that there’s people who are willing to enter the world of the book and be receptive to the kind of space that it’s taking up,” she intones.

In Manila, Castillo has been busy in dialogue with other players in the literary scene, as well as meeting her readers.

“In a sense, I’m in the Philippines for the first time as an adult, and seeing Manila in my own terms is I think in a way life-altering. It gave me something that I really didn’t have before, and I got to meet amazing writers, thinkers, artists. Just the depth and the breadth of critical discourse here, the creative practice here is so diverse that it puts the literary discourses I’ve stemmed from to shame. I’m really just very, very grateful to be here. “

Castillo’s advice to Filipino writers is to celebrate identity. “If you’re a Filipino writer, or a writer of color within the larger mainstream American context, there’s that feeling of, ‘Oh do I have to deform myself to appeal to the mainstream public,’ and I would say reject that entirely. That is a poisonous idea, and it will poison your work. And ultimately that kind of idea says that the daily texture, the granular realities of your life and the lives you are drawing from are somehow not worthy of art, and I don’t think true. Don’t use italics, write in the vernacular. Stake the claim to your own particularness – writers have the right to that. There’s this idea that literature only sounds a certain way, and this is utter bullsh*t that needs to be pushed back against.”