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A Little Bit Like Worship: An Interview with Elaine Castillo

The author of America is Not the Heart talks commemorating the mundane in fiction, writing about working class queer women, and re-claiming the Bay Area in her novel.

By Yasmin Adele Majeed

In her debut novel America is Not the Heart, Elaine Castillo writes about a Bay Area that is rarely represented in our culture: a home of working class immigrants. It’s a Bay populated with rundown malls and Filipino restaurants that hold karaoke parties after closing time, of young second-gen immigrants who spend Saturday night playing cards in garages, and who take long drives every weekend in their hand-me-down Honda Civics to see friends spin the Pharcyde and Afrika Bambaataa records in Daly City.

The novel is as sprawling as the Bay itself, moving between Marcos-era Philippines to Milpitas in the 90s, but is centered around the story of the De Veras. There’s Pol, the former favored son of a wealthy family who sacrificed his medical career to move to California; his wife Paz, who grew up with nothing and tirelessly supports her family by working 16-hour nursing shifts at the hospital; and their charmingly truculent daughter Roni, who won’t stop getting into fights at school. But the hero is Hero: Pol’s favorite cousin who fled the Philippines after spending years in a prison camp for her stint in the New Peoples Army, the militant communist faction that combated the Marcos regime. When she draws the interest of the earnest and romantic Rosalyn, Hero gets introduced to the vibrant world of Castillo’s lovingly rendered Bay Area.

America is Not the Heart is influenced by Junot Díaz, Jamaica Kincaid, and Jessica Hagedorn, especially her novel The Gangster of Love, a book that opens with a definition of the yo-yo—the Filipino invention whose defining traits are its fluctuating movement and its built-in destiny of returning to where it came from.

Born in Milpitas, where she’s recently returned to after spending the better part of a decade abroad in the UK, Elaine spoke with me over the phone about the relationship between immigrant narratives and formal experimentation, writing about working class queer women, and commemorating the mundane in fiction.

You can see Elaine read at our space tonight at 7 pm with Joseph O. Legaspi, Luis H. Francia, and Gina Apostol.

—Yasmin Adele Majeed


I wanted to start with Carlos Bulosan and ask why you named the book America is Not the Heart, and how the book is in conversation with Bulosan’s America is in the Heart.

Not to jump into cultural stereotypes but as a Filipina, I like puns and so whenever I heard America is in the Heart I had a private joke that I would always mumble to myself: America isn’t the heart. That was actually the original title of the book. For a lot of reasons we changed it to “is not” but one of the main reasons is that my mom and my older half-brother were like, “Please don’t make it “isn’t the heart” because that doesn’t sound like good English.” It was full-on immigrant grammar shame. But the actual secret title in my head comes from that inside joke with myself.

I think any Filipino American writer who’s read Bulosan is a daughter of that book. I’m definitely a daughter of that book. Kids tussle with their forebears so there’s parts of that book that I have issues with—the representation of women for one—but it was also one of the first books that captured the rural Filipino poverty that, for example, my mom grew up in, in a way that I didn’t really see [elsewhere].

When did you first read it?

I think I was around 14. I didn’t read it in a classroom. I read it because I found it in a library, so I read it quite young.

Had you encountered other Filipino American writers before that or was it a revelatory experience?

I had. I think at that point I had read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. But also I’d read quite a lot of books by Asian authors in translation. Growing up, I never really realized that the impulse for what I was doing was probably proto-political. I read a lot in translation because I was avoiding what we would call “mainstream” American books. But for sure I read Maxine Hong Kingston and Jessica Hagedorn when I was really young.

When I was reading America is Not the Heart I actually felt like Hero could be a Hagedorn heroine. She has that same badass and hard exterior, but this tenderness on the inside that reminded me of Rocky Rivera from The Gangster of Love.

Actually it was only when I was working on the last draft of the novel that I was like, Roni De Vera, that name sounds a lot like Rocky Rivera. I think it’s an unconscious homage to Rocky Rivera. But that’s how deep your formative influences go.

In some of your writing online there’s references to a novel called Postcard. I wanted to know what happened to that novel. Did America is Not the Heart come out of that or is it a different manuscript?

Oh, it’s a different manuscript entirely. Sometimes you have to write a book out of you so that you can actually write the book that gets published. Postcard was basically Greek myth science fiction, but it’s very incoherently also about the European migrant crisis at the time. How those two things relate only that novel would know.

The end of that novel and the beginning of [America is Not the Heart], overlap. I was at the point where I was just sort of breaking up with the idea of that novel ever becoming anything more than a file on my computer, and then in the summer of 2013 I wrote the prologue of America is Not the Heart and I knew there was something there.

Were you in London at that time?

Yeah, I was in London throughout the writing. I moved to London with my partner in 2009 and I was just super sick and was grieving. My dad had passed away about three years earlier and I wasn’t reading and I wasn’t writing. I was not in a good place and I would have done anything to get out of the Bay at that point.

Eventually, I got better and I did an MA. It was just before I started the MA actually that I started writing what became this book, although I didn’t really workshop it during the MA. I kept it to myself. This was my private project in a way. I was holding it close.

Who were the writers that influenced you the most when writing the novel?

When I was a teenager I read Junot Díaz’s Drown. Drown and Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy were probably two exceptionally formative books as a kid.

At that point I had read books by Asian writers and Asian American writers and and Filipino American writers and had felt resonances with them, but you know a lot of those books were also mainly about people from Manila or people who were wealthier or people who were urban and not necessarily suburban immigrants.

I loved reading but reading was like this beautiful park that I got to visit, but it wasn’t home. I didn’t live there. But when I read Drown and when I read Lucy it was like someone telling you, No no no. You can live here. The things that you grew up on, the material, the context, the places that made you, the type of immigrant working class life, you also belong to this park.

I think the fact that neither of them were necessarily Filipino or Asian American didn’t matter, because the kind of shock of recognition that I felt with both of them was so acute.

It’s really amazing how Drown has influenced a whole generation of writers of color. I actually have a question drawn from your essay in The Rumpus from a few years ago, where you refer to an interview with Junot Díaz in which he says that when he thinks about writing he thinks about silences. And I wonder if you had silences that compelled you to write America is Not the Heart?

I don’t think there’s any writer who doesn’t, especially if you’re a diasporic writer or if you’re thinking about writing from a decolonial perspective. You’re thinking about how to challenge conventional writing advice like, “Write what you know.” We need different questions. For some much of us, “knowing” is a really fraught category.

My parents told stories about their lives, but what little they did tell was incomplete or revisionist or elaborated to the point of myth making. Trying to put pieces together, especially for decolonial writers, when you’re never really meant to put those pieces together—it’s an ongoing task.

There’s an anthropologist, Veena Das, who writes a lot about post-Partition trauma, especially around women bearing witness to trauma. She talks quite a lot about the ethics of not representing certain forms of trauma. So yes, there are silences that are in our lives. But is it possible to also produce writing writing that leaves gaps, leaves lacunae, and doesn’t try to fill those with narrative?

In that same essay you say the most realist mode for immigrants is science fiction. You described Postcard as a science fiction novel but America is Not the Heart is very much a realist novel, and I wonder why you made that move?

It’s funny because I was having a debate with someone about the avant garde and different modes of writing. We were talking about how the ways that we categorize avant garde writing means it looks a certain way and is therefore radical and progressive, while realist writing has a convention to it.

But if you’re someone who has never been valorized by the modes that we call realist writing, or if you’re someone for whom fragmentation looks like the daily life growing up in a sort of multilingual, but ultimately also traumatically multilingual family, those aren’t necessarily radical or progressive modes for you. I think the thing that I’m always interested in is, how do I make it more banal?

For example, there are things that people think are experimental in the book that I find very banal. Like the way people respond to the second person. I had no idea that the second person was this non-kosher, extra-literary mode, because that seems to be how people take it. But I was always always used to the second person as a conventional mode, typically used by writers of color like Jamaica Kincaid and Junot Díaz.

There’s this Mia Alvar story, “Esmeralda,” which is written in the second person, and she’s talked about writing it in that voice as a dare to a white man in a writing workshop who told her that she can’t write in the second person if at any point he found it to be unrelatable.

The second person is a very racialized mode and people’s responses to it are also racialized. I think it’s revealing—the discomfort that people feel around the second person. Sometimes the discomfort has to do with issues around respectability, like people who think that they’re writing respectable literary fiction [see] second person as a degraded mode. But I just never came to it as that. The fiction that was holy grail fiction for me used the second person very freely. Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” is a masterpiece.

Yeah, and people talk so much about reclaiming the “I” but there’s also an importance to reclaiming the “you.” You said you wrote the prologue first. How did you come to Hero as a character?

Kicking and screaming. I wrote the prologue and from there I thought, I was going to write from either Paz’s perspective or Roni’s perspective. I spent about 200 pages writing from Roni’s perspective because autobiographically Roni and I share the most: we kind of grew up in the same town, our parents do the same things, we both had very severe eczema. But all the pages were just dead. I had no idea what she sounded like. I just couldn’t sustain that voice at all. At the time that I was writing I knew in the back of my head I wanted to write something about a New People’s Army member who was an exile.

I also knew that I wanted to write a story about two exes in the Bay, one of whom was a bi woman. It was only when I realized that the NPA member in exile is Roni’s cousin—the minute that Hero walk through the door in Milpitas—the whole world opened up.

I had huge misgivings writing from the perspective of someone who had the kind of class privilege that Hero had. It wasn’t something that I was familiar with. I didn’t like the idea of writing from the perspective of a rich kid, especially because I had read fiction by Filipino American writers that centered wealthy Manila-based families and I felt disconnected from it. The idea was massively uncomfortable, but I think it was that discomfort that gave me space to move. It gave me space to yank the rug out from her.

I always think like all of your characters will have blind spots. When you’re thinking about whose perspective to write from, for me it’s helpful [to figure out] which character has the blind spot that’s going to be productive for your novel.

What drew you to writing about the New People’s Army and writing about the Marcos era from the lens of this communist militant wing?

I didn’t want to write about the New People’s Army ever. There was a member of the NPA in my family. I had heard stories from my dad or half brothers, but I had never met her. Her life is very different from Hero’s. I think she actually is a much more important member of the NPA, whereas I really wanted to write about someone who’s kind of a loser.

I always think of this book as fan fiction of a much more conventional thriller. So the actual thriller would be about the NPA, Teresa would be the main character, it’s all action and history and compelling set pieces. While Hero’s just this grim doctor on the side that you don’t really take a second look at.

But for me, I’m interested in what happens after what we would call the “legibly political event.” I think there’s there’s an easy recourse to think that the political parts of the book are the NPA or the Marcos stuff, but I’m interested in asking, for example, how is Hero’s reaction to romance manga embedded with what we might call political significance? If you’re writing about people, then you’re writing about them at that vector of being emotional and political and animal and historical. It was important for me that if I was writing about the Marcos dictatorship or the NPA, that I write about it from the sidelines.

I did want to ask about romance. In a lot of queer literature queerness is often posed as a problem to be solved, and people of color and immigrants are placed in this position where they have to go outside of their community to solve that problem and come into their identity as a queer person. But I felt like that wasn’t the case in this novel and I wanted to know if that was intentional.

I’m really glad that you said that and that resonated for you. For me it was very important to write about queer women, bi women in particular, because I’m also bi and I don’t see any representations of bi women anywhere, especially not bi Filipina or Asian Americans.

It was also really important to write about queer suburban women, because it’s exactly as you said. I read a lot of really formative, beautiful queer literature growing up, but a lot of it was urban, a lot of it took place in either San Francisco or New York. The suburban or the rural or the country—that’s always the kind of backwards place that you have to leave behind in order to come into your queerness. And I just don’t think that’s everybody’s story. I don’t think that is the trajectory that every queer person takes.

I’m writing about queer women who are also immigrants, who are also at the crux of their community, who are also working class women, who are a part of families. How do you write about women who are beholden to all of those parts of themselves? Those are the queer lives that I’m interested in showing and exploring. Those are the queer lives that I knew growing up.

This all goes back to “Make it more banal, make it more boring, more ordinary.” I don’t want to shy away from the very real homophobia or structural discrimination that both Hero and Rosalyn would experience. I’m not trying to create this world in which there’s no discrimination. But I think the fact that queer people are read within a heteronormative lens, and always have to position their queerness as something to be deciphered, and to be parsed through, doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s how they have to be portrayed.

I feel like so much of Hero’s initial life in America is dictated by all this shame she’s carried—her family’s abandonment of her, her broken thumbs—and I was curious about your thoughts on shame and its relation to particular immigrant narratives.

I think the way shame functions in the book really varies across the different characters. All the characters, particularly all the immigrants in the book, carry within them a particular shame. For example Paz’s shame around her rural poverty, of being treated like dirt all her life, informs her relationship with her husband, with money, with her own body, with her daughter, with her life. I think that shame is a huge driving force in her life.

You could call Hero’s shame survivor’s guilt. What Hero carries is her acute awareness that her treatment in the prison camp, and the kinds of torture that she did not experience, is entirely dependent upon the fact that her captors had a sense that she might be related to Marcos. It was important for me point out that greater shame that Hero carries with her: an awareness to how class writes itself on different bodies and the kinds of outcomes that are produced from that.

This book is kind of a classic Asian American novel in that it’s filled with a lot of delicious food. I wanted to ask about the way food operates in the novel, and specifically, there’s all these really pivotal scenes involving pancit.

I had no idea that I had written about food so much until people started telling me I did. My sense is that I hadn’t written enough and that there was a bunch of shit I had left out. I think it’s weird when I read books and like nobody talks about food—I’m like when do these people eat?

Pancit is a party food, it’s a daily food, but it’s also often a food that you eat on your birthday for long life. What does it mean to choose a life? To eat food that says, Yes, I choose to be here. Between survival and not survival, I’m choosing pancit. I think that those are the kinds of questions that the scenes of pancit bring up for me.

I wanted to talk about the really rich depiction in the novel of the Bay Area at that time. I also grew up in the Bay and I’m also Filipino and so much of the book was really familiar to me. It’s a Bay Area that I haven’t really seen in literature—

Oh my god! You’re like the most important reader.

I was really thrilled to see Vallco mentioned and—

Oh my god, Vallco.

Which is now a dead mall, sadly! And then at the end there’s a scene where Roni is working on a mission project…

Did you have to do a mission project?

I did have to do a mission project and I didn’t even realize until I was an adult just how… fucked up it is to have children make a little miniature of colonial structures.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly. “This is where we tortured the Native Americans…”

But I felt like the book really commemorates a Bay Area that doesn’t exist anymore. I haven’t been back to the Bay in a long time but I imagine it has changed a lot in recent years, and I wanted to know your thoughts on writing about the Bay and the Filipino immigrant community there.

Thank you. It’s kind of you to say that it does commemorate it. I hope it does. I grew up in the Bay and I deeply love it. I also have problems with it because that is what it is to deeply love something.

A lot of our depictions of the Bay Area are really depictions of Silicon Valley, or San Francisco—wealthier urban centers, people who went to Stanford. I don’t know anybody in my life who went Stanford. It’s a different Bay Area.

Like lots of people in the Bay Area, I grew up in a majority minority town. In Milpitas in a classroom there was one white kid. That was Milpitas. That was the Bay Area. And so, when I would see depictions of California that didn’t look like us, it was like watching a transmission from Mars. It still all goes back to “make it more banal.” Claiming the cities I grew up in are not only the Bay Area, but are America, is the kind of mundane work that I wanted to commit to in my writing.

Writing about the Bay and writing about the granular detail of the things that make up the lives that I grew out of, of the cities that made me—for me, that was a little bit like worship.