By Anya Shukla
I’m too lazy to make a full “BIPOC Book Connections” section in this review, but I did see a lot of similarities between “Behold the Dreamers” and “America Is Not the Heart.” Gender expectations, who has “ownership” over the family and its decisions, hard work to support your relatives… these topics come into play in both novels. Even though the books explore such different cultures within the American immigrant experience, they have very similar themes.
Review: Elaine Castillo’s “America Is Not the Heart” centers on Hero, a 34-year-old Filipino* woman. Hero’s family has strong ties to Ferdinand Marcos, former kleptocratic president of the Philippines, but Hero chooses to support the New People’s Army, a communist rebel group fighting against his regime. After ten years in the New People’s Army and two years in a Filipino prison camp, Hero comes to stay in California with her uncle Pol; his wife, Paz; and six-year-old cousin, Roni. When she does, she ends up growing closer to Rosalyn, a Filipino makeup artist who introduces Hero and Roni to her friends and community.
An expansive look at a Filipino family, “America Is Not the Heart” explores historical, sexual, and individual identity. Alternately poignant and sprawling, the book paints a vivid and intimate picture of its characters and the Filipino American cultural experience. My Rating: 4.25/5.
What I Loved: Castillo does a great job of mixing history with her storyline. Intertwined with the plot are palatable facts about the American-backed Marcos dictatorship, the communist New People’s Army, and the impacts of colonization. For example, Roni explains that her mother raised her on Nestlé’s baby formula for four years because of the Nestlé campaign to get Filipino women to use their product (despite the fact that many Filipinos lacked access to clean water for the formula and so fed their babies contaminated milk). Moments like these allowed me to learn more about the Philippines without slogging through a history book.
And the romance! (I wasn’t even expecting romance in this book, so that was a welcome surprise.) A queer woman of color herself, Castillo builds a sweet and compelling connection between Hero and Rosalyn. The two orbit around each other for months before finally making a move, creating a slow burn of a buildup. At first, Hero sees Rosalyn’s crush on her as fleeting, “teasing, puppy-like interest” (pg. 404). Yet Rosalyn proves that their relationship is not an experiment; it’s a promise. When news of her sexuality reaches her conservative Filipino friends, causing several of them to cut her out of their lives, Rosalyn doesn’t falter. When she learns that her mom might kick her out of the house because of her girlfriend, she makes plans to move out herself. At no point does she consider leaving Hero because of her social circle.
Through these events, Castillo shows the impact of coming out in a conservative BIPOC culture: “my intention isn’t to blot over the harsher realities of a queer woman of color’s life,” she writes (pg. 822). Yet she still gives these characters the happy ending that they deserve. Even though they lose some relationships, they never doubt their love for each other. That's a powerful message.
What I Didn’t Love: The switches in perspective, especially the sections in second person. (The book jolts from the perspective of Paz [second person] to Hero [third person] to Rosalyn [second person] back to Hero [third person].)
Second person is known as a tricky point of view to adopt for long stretches of narrative. Unfortunately, I feel that Paz’s 54-page section drags. The chapter does tease out fragments of information that provide context for her character and later events—little details about the end of her marriage; her daughter’s name; how her niece, Hero, came to America—yet a large portion of her sprawling, stream-of-consciousness-style prologue just didn’t keep my attention.
In the middle of the book, Castillo also injects another chapter in second person, this time told from Rosalyn’s perspective. Not only is the placement of this chapter awkward—we’ve been bobbing along in third person for so long that a switch in POV causes whiplash—the author uses this section to directly tell the reader about Rosalyn’s true feelings towards Hero rather than show us through dialogue. It feels like a cop-out.
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads: “You already know that the first thing that makes you foreign to a place is to be born poor in it” (pg. 59).
Up next: “Flame in the Mist" by Renée Ahdieh.
*In accordance with this article, I’m using the word “Filipino” as a gender-neutral term.
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