America is not the Heart
"Your word for love is survival. Everything else is a story that isn't about you."
Today is about the novel America is not the Heart. This book is really good, and it has made me think a lot. I've even staved off reading my next book (Nora Ephron's Heartburn) so that I can think about America is not the Heart some more. I hadn't finished it in time for book group, and no one else wants to talk to me about it (yet), so this morning I decided I could articulate my thoughts on my little, old, mostly neglected blog. At least the thoughts could take solid form instead of swirling in my head.
I found a review for America is not the Heart when I was looking on the Guardian for something new to read. It's a great place for new inspiration for me - it's where I found Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent, Tobias Hill's What was Promised and Selina Todd's The People. The New York Times review for America is not the Heart was similarly promising.
I mention the reviews because I went back to them after reading as well as before purchase, perhaps to see if what I was led to expect related to my own experiences reading the novel. And yes they did. But I was still thinking. I looked at the book in some wonder from the West Coast of New Zealand, where Filpino men and women have emigrated here to work long hours on our dairy farms but I know very very little about the world they came from.
Three things about America is not the Heart: the Philippines, sex and family.
The parts of the story which centre on the Philippines (predominantly the early parts of the book) revealed the extent of my ignorance (very extensive) on the history of the Philippines. How could a history geek like me know so very little? I'd heard the name Tagalog, but had no idea of the multiple other languages such as Pangasinan and Ilocano. I had no idea about the New People's Army. I had not, in short, much at all about the Philippines until now. America is not the Heart echoes the brilliance of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, which explores life as a Nigerian immigrant in the UK and the US. But when I read (and adored) Americanah, I didn't have the same sense of guilty, shocked ignorance of Nigerian history that I had in reading America is not the Heart. I'd never once associated the Philippines with communist or socialist uprising, and now I want to learn more about the Philippines and about the New People's Army.
Sex. The scene where Rosalyn and Hero first have sex is described in detail, both in physical description and in Hero's live-time thoughts on the experience. I wasn't sure about this. Until I finished the whole book and could see how Hero's approach to sex in the novel is illustrative of how she deals with her world(s). Then I could see that what Castillo has done works really well. And it does matter that the relationship is a lesbian relationship (I asked myself that at the same time as asking myself if I was being discriminatory or ignorant at the same time as asking myself lots of circular questions). Hero has to find herself through worlds that have been ripped apart multiple times, and eventually in the world of Milpitas which is tight and largely kind and conservative. That she has to find her way (salvation, place) there without a standard boy-meets-girl narrative works. The moments in the book relating to Rosalyn and Hero's relationship that are the most tender are not the sex. I've never seen a book make the act of someone holding someone else's hand (much later in the book than the first Rosalyn-Hero sex scene) so tender and significant.
Family. This one was the wave of reflection on the book which hit me last. The book is ostensibly a migration story and a love story, but it is the love of Hero for her seven year old niece, and the final scene where a simple, random and yet first shared meal says so much that ended up being the biggest story in the book for me.
In America is not the Heart, Castillo tells a story that brings big sweeps of ambitious history (changing the Philippines to make a better life for workers via the New People's Army) together with the minutiae of working a small suburban hair salon in another country. It's really good, and worth reading and sharing.