“There are two stories you need to know about your characters: the one they tell themselves, and the one they actually inhabit,” says Elaine Castillo, via Skype from London. The 33-year-old’s magnificent full-color debut novel, America Is Not the Heart (Viking), moves from the Philippines to Northern California in what could accurately be described as a love story, a multi-generational family epic, and a deeply personal, lavishly painted portrait of lives in revision.
At the center of the novel is Hero (short for Gerónima), a daughter of privilege who was once destined for a high-status life as a doctor, but who ran away instead to become a medic for the New People’s Army, an insurgent Communist guerrilla group. A decade later, with a pair of broken thumbs (as well as less visible torments, like her rejection by her upper-class parents), she arrives in Milpitas, California, a San Francisco suburb where her favorite uncle, Pol, lives with his wife and 8-year-old daughter, Roni, a pugnacious playground feminist with a ravaging case of eczema. It’s the early 1990s, and as Hero comes slowly back to life with the help of Roni and her family (and eventually, a pretty makeup artist named Rosalyn), we see a larger community’s way of life, conveyed in the kind of sharp-edged noticing—“bruja” faith healers, Nestlé formula as breakfast staple, a clay model of a Spanish mission built on a pizza box—that’s second nature for those well-accustomed to code-switching between class and culture.
While the novel is essentially Hero’s, the question as to what extent any of its characters are truly able to feel at ease in their own lives (and in their own skins) is at the crux of the matter. Trauma is so often written with a peculiar narrative solipsism, with less prominent characters serving as mere sidekicks to the protagonist’s suffering and recovery, but with a sophistication rare in a first novel, Castillo recognizes a larger network of suffering—an understanding that trauma is, along with our mutual need for love, food, sex, and a coherent sense of self, one of humanity’s least exclusive clubs. As such, the book has a deliberately sprawling, off-center quality, but its digressions all echo back in the closely twined themes of emotional pain and the vulnerabilities of the body, in the awareness that there are all too many things about us that can be broken beyond repair. At one point, Pol, a former doctor himself, dubiously observes, “Hands were more complicated than the people attached to them . . . Hearts heal. They even improve. Hands are never the same.” Later, when Pol “kidnaps” Roni, taking her on a summer vacation to the Philippines from which he fails to return, it’s Hero who grasps what’s happening, and intervenes.
Like Roni, Castillo grew up in the Bay Area in an extended family of skilled storytellers. “My mother’s always had ghosts in them,” she says. It was her father, a voracious reader, who introduced her to a multinational canon of writers, including Kenzaburo Oe, Manuel Puig, and Zadie Smith. “I think I was always being pulled to lives in translation, landscapes that aren’t mainstream America,” she recalls. While studying classics at UC Berkeley, she began a novel she later discarded; following her father’s death in 2006, she stopped writing entirely while she recovered from a host of debilitating health issues she attributes both to grief and to the immunosuppressive drugs she was withdrawing from (like Roni, Castillo suffered from eczema for her most of her childhood). After moving to London in 2009 to pursue an M.A. at Goldsmiths, she made tentative forays on the page again, starting with X-Men fan fiction—“post-traumatic mutant life felt apt for where I was where I was at”—followed by a weekly blog at Pank, the online literary magazine cofounded by Roxane Gay, before returning to those stories and characters closest to home. “I realized that they were all in the same universe, that they knew each other.?Writing from Roni’s perspective, the prose was so closed, so airless on the page.?But from the minute Hero walked through the door in Milpitas, the world of the book just opened up.”
Sprinkled with untranslated phrases in Castillo’s parents’ native languages—her mother’s Pangasinan and her father’s Ilocano, as well as Tagalog, the language they spoke to each another—a technique that has become so commonplace, it’s hard to remember that sad, pre–Junot Díaz age when it wasn’t—the novel has an offhand vitality that startles on every page with its compassion and humor. As part of a younger generation of writers supercharging American literature with a more layered sense of identity, Castillo reminds us of the vast distances our origin myths often bridge—and the empathy that they can inspire. “I initially thought that by writing fiction I was imagining my way into all of these stories and experiences,” she said. “But the more I wrote, I began to realize: The truth is probably even wilder.”