Ordinary lives in American cities

Filipino-American writer Elaine Castillo began writing her debut novel America Is Not The Heart in 2013.
Filipino-American writer Elaine Castillo began writing her debut novel America Is Not The Heart in 2013.PHOTO: AMAAL SAID

Writer Elaine Castillo is interested in the banal, granular details of the lives of people there

"The way in which I write about trauma is never as a portrait, but as a landscape," says Filipino-American writer Elaine Castillo.

"Often, we get depictions of trauma where only one person has gone through it and everyone is a handmaiden to that trauma. That doesn't at all look like the trauma experienced within the community I grew up in."

In her debut novel America Is Not The Heart, everybody hurts in some way. There is Paz, who pulled herself out of an impoverished childhood in the Philippines to become a nurse in Milpitas, San Francisco, supporting her entire family along the way. There is her husband Pol, qualified as a doctor in the Philippines, now reduced to working as a security guard because of his immigrant status.

And there is his cousin Hero, whose thumbs no longer work because they were fractured through torture in a prison camp. She has been disowned by her wealthy parents and sent to live undocumented in the United States.

The title of the book arose from a private joke that Castillo, 33, had about Carlos Bulosan's seminal 1946 Filipino-American novel America Is In The Heart, which she read when she was 14.

It was the first book she had ever read that talked about people from Pangasinan, the province from which her mother hails, and the kind of abject poverty her mother had grown up in. When pronounced in a Filipino accent, its title sounds like "America isn't the heart".

"I'm interested in characters that don't care about assimilating into America as this monolithic ideal, or proving their worthiness within the American structure," she says. "I'm interested in the banal, granular details of the lives of people in American cities which are not represented as American heartlands."

The world of America Is Not The Heart is the one into which Castillo was born. Like Paz and Pol's young US-born daughter Roni, she had severe eczema as a child and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, in a community where most residents speak a language other than English. "Someone would start a sentence in one language and end in another. That porousness of language - that was our reality."

Much of the novel's material is drawn from her life, although it is not autobiographical. "To write fiction," she says, "is like taking everything you own in your home and putting it out on the street. But is that still your home?"

Hero, from whose perspective most of the novel is told, is partly inspired by a cousin of Castillo's, a high-ranking member of the Maoist rebel group New People's Army. Relatives would tell stories of hiding her from the authorities.

But Hero is no hero. "I was set on writing about a loser," says Castillo, "somebody who wasn't politically significant."

When she began writing the novel in 2013, she started with a second-person prologue from Paz's perspective, but could not continue. Then she tried about 200 pages in the voice of Roni, the character with whom she most identifies, before she realised the narrative was dead on the page.

Castillo, who has a partner, was uncomfortable writing Hero - a daughter of the Manila elite, the kind of perspective she felt was already over-represented in fiction - but soon realised that discomfort should not be underestimated as an engine for writing. "I felt comfortable yanking the rug out from under her."

Growing up, she made it a point to seek out books from non-American writers - the Japanese novels of Kenzaburo Oe and Banana Yoshimoto, or Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy (1990).

She studied ancient Greek in college and tried to write a novel about the Greek poet Sappho and the refugee crisis, which she later "abandoned for the good of all humanity". She is now working on what she deems to be the "spiritual sequel" to America Is Not The Heart. "But it's turning into science fiction."

She is glad of the growing visibility of Asian-American writers, but also wants more nuanced discussion of intra-Asian racism.

In the novel, there is colourism and classism even within the Filipino-American community. Roni is told by her playmate's middle-class mother that she is not a good influence. Hero's girlfriend Rosalyn, a make-up artist, resents having to make her clients' features look more Caucasian.

Castillo has been pigeonholed already due to her ethnicity, but she shrugs it off. "I don't feel that being classified as Filipino-American diminishes me as a writer."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2018, with the headline 'Ordinary lives in American cities'. Print Edition | Subscribe