This is Personal – A Review of America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo

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It’s not often that I write a review this early, in the first raw, blistering moments immediately after a really, really good book. That’s not how I was taught to do it. My professors always taught that these kinds of things require separation. I’ve been told that it’s always best to put some gap between the self and the experience, some breathing room, the better to see things clearly.

Except I cannot do that right now. I feel it would be almost a disservice to put that distance, to let these new-formed wounds scab over for later contemplation.

So I shall let it be. I shall write while the wounds are still open, and see what to make of it.

***

A lot of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had start with friends shoving books into my hands. That was the case with America Is Not the Heart, which I purchased while on a weekend out meeting with one of my oldest and closest friends. She’d been insisting I read it for a while now, making promises of how much I would relate, and how “We could have written this book, Ate Kam!” That latter, she clarified, was not necessarily that we could have told the exact same story, but in terms of themes, of ideas, of imagery.

“I felt seen,” she told me. Perhaps I would, too.

***

So you’re a girl and you’re poor, but at least you’re light-skinned—that’ll save you.

I was never poor. I never grew up knowing the hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth life that so many other Filipinos live, though it would take me a while to realise that. In that, I know I’m lucky.

But I remember one time, sitting across from my lola who said: “Maganda ka na sana, maitim at pango ka lang.”

I was ten, on the verge of puberty and already uncomfortable in my own skin, long aware that yes, I was maitim and pango and nothing like my mestiza cousins, nothing like my own mestiza sister, pale and curly-haired like a Raphael cherub. Thanks to TV and movies I’d known that only the mestizas were saved, were deserving of rescue, because to be mestiza is to be beautiful, and to be beautiful is to be good, and to be good is to be worthy of the world, of salvation. I did not need anyone else telling me that.

Sayang. That word was never uttered, but it hung there, unspoken. Sayang, because even though I had a bedimpled smile that trounced the smiles of a hundred pa-cute child actors and could speak English as though I had been raised in the United States, I was too dark and lacked a more prominent nose bridge. Sayang: a waste.

I remember the cold that swept down my spine then, that my grandmother did not think me beautiful. That though she spoke proudly of my dimples, told stories of how she’d taken care to deepen them when I was a baby by anointing them with a cotton swab dipped in coconut oil, she did not think me beautiful, and so did not think me good, and so did not think me worthy.

It would be years until those words stopped haunting me so much, until I could actually be proud of my skin and almost content with my nose. Years, to stand next to my lola, look at her, and not really remember her saying them. Years, not to think about how deeply she wounded me.

So when a book opens with a line that cuts all the way down through the facades and shields and scars, through the words I repeated to myself until I believed them – “I am beautiful, of course I am, of course” – down, down to the ten-year-old child inside me that has never really grown up, only convinced herself that she is grown-up because she has to be, because she wants to be—

When a line does that, and it’s the one that opens the book I’m reading, I know, then, that I am seen.

***

The act of seeing is a trope that’s common in a lot of stories – especially in fantasy, which is my primary wheelhouse. There’s plenty of kinds of sight in fantasy stories. True-sight, that lets one see things for what they are. Far-sight, that lets one see things going on elsewhere, both in terms of space and time. All-sight, that lets one see anything and everything happening anywhere, anywhen. But what all these types of seeing have in common is that the act of seeing is to know: to have knowledge of someone or something, perhaps of the kind that they themselves do not quite know, or that no one else knows.

So if to see is to know, then to be seen is to be known, to be recognised. To be seen is to meet eyes with someone in the midst of a crowd, and for a brief moment, feel the thrill of recognition. “Uy, sino yun? Bakit parang kilala ko siya?”

To be seen is to be someone, and not just another anonymous face in the crowd, another itemised statistic in a list. To be seen is to be given a face, an identity, a personality, a story.

My friend was right: this book sees me – and in seeing me, it makes me vulnerable, leaves me wide-open. But that is a good thing. Not many stories can do that. That is why I write this review the way I do: because now that my outer husk has been shucked off and the inner shell cracked, I can’t bear to close it all up again until what I’ve been keeping inside has been poured out and replaced with something else.

That’s what seeing – truly seeing – and being seen does: the need to pour out what I’ve kept inside, and fill myself back up with something new. I did not expect this book to do that – not so early in the reading. And yet it did. And here I am.

***

… Tita Ticay kept her distance but looked Paz up and down, the white skin of her face making her raised plucked eyebrow look even more dour. Did you family’s driver bring you here, Pacing? she asked. Hero hadn’t ever heard anyone call Paz anything other than Paz or Pacita.

Paz smiled… Of course not, she said, her voice sweet and direct. We’re too poor to have anything like a car.

She made it sound like it was desirable not to have a car, ridiculous to even want one. Hero had been impressed not least of all because even she’d gotten in the habit of slipping out of a room whenever Tita Ticay entered it, terrified of her venomous tongue, her keen eyes, the ease with which she spotted weakness, and the pleasure with which she toyed with it.

We all know a Tita Ticay. Some of us are lucky enough to know her at a distance: as a distant relation, perhaps, someone whose space in one’s life is limited to brief interactions at all the traditional Filipino family gatherings, plus the occasional run-in at the mall.

But some of us are not so lucky. Some of us are related to a Tita Ticay – some of us to more than one. Sometimes she’s not even a Tita, but a Lola or a Mama. And sometimes it’s possible to be related to all three at once: a Mama Ticay, a Tita Ticay, a Lola Ticay.

It did not take me long to realise that I was related to a Tita Ticay, and to a Lola Ticay, even. I grew up watching my grandmother and one particular aunt of mine interact with the household help and knowing that they treated these people very differently from how they treated me. When they gave me an utos, there was always a “Please” or “Paki” somewhere in the statement, words garnished with sweet smiles and dusted with a little lambing because it doesn’t do to order one’s own granddaughter or niece about like the household help. Even if said granddaughter or niece is willing to help, especially in the aftermath of Christmas lunch when used plates and cutlery need to be brought to the kitchen and placed in the sink, that is still not done. Nieces are kin, granddaughters are kin, and in certain households, in certain families, kin does not lift a finger to serve kin. That’s what other people are paid to do.

I still see the way my grandmother purses her lips when she talks to waitstaff at restaurants, see the way my aunt’s eyebrows twitch when a salesclerk does not immediately jump to do her bidding. I hear the way they talk to those they think are less than they, the way they talk about other people behind their backs.

I know that type of person, known people like them all my life, watched them cast their aspersions on others, and sometimes on me, too. They are a prominent motif in my life, and in the lives of many others. Now, I have a name for them, too.

***

The act of seeing, and therefore of being seen, also involves recognition – both of aspects of the self, and of others. In some cases, that act of recognition is fun, hilarious even: a positive experience, something to laugh over.

But the most powerful moments of recognition, of seeing, are the ones that can only be followed by a heartfelt utterance of “Fuck!”, because the recognition hits so very close to home. I do not recognise myself, not straightforwardly, in Paz, or in Hero, or in any of the numerous characters who walk onto and off this story’s stage. I recognise parts of myself in them, but mostly other people: people I’ve known all my life, or in passing; some whom I still hold dear, and some whom I don’t.

It is that recognition that draws this story so close to me, makes it so I cannot talk about it without talking about myself, too. Having cracked me open with the first line it has become a part of me, so that when I think of Tita Ticay I think of my own tita, and when I think of Concepcion de Vera I think of my own lola, and when I think of the fight that shattered Rosalyn’s barkada I think of the fight that shattered my own college barkada years and years ago.

Those are not the same things, of course: certainly not. But they’re close – close enough that this book speaks to me in a voice I could almost swear is my own, or at least an echo of my own: a doppelgänger of sorts, me but not me. Either way, close enough.

And sometimes, when it speaks, it tells me things I know of only because I looked too hard and thought too much – things I know my family would much rather not speak of.

***

… No one knew all that much about Vigan except that it was a no-go zone, a kingdom of terror, along with the rest of Ilocos Sur and Ilocos Norte. … When she figured it out, she felt stupid. Of course she’d never had cause to feel afraid. The warlords people were talking about were her neighbors and godparents, the longtime friends and business partners and sometimes spouses of the De Veras. It was the first time she’d really had to think about where she’d come from, what it meant.

Walang kamuwang-muwang: a phrase used to describe the truly innocent, or the criminally unaware. Also a good phrase to describe how, for a majority of my childhood, I did not quite notice just what kind of family I came from.

It started with how my cousins and I were treated when we went up to north to my grandmother’s province, where my grandparents had rice farms and a mango orchard and a piggery. During my first visits there I didn’t notice it, carefully insulated as we children had been and surrounded constantly by adults, but in later years, as a teenager, I saw it: how attitudes would change when we said whose grandchildren we were, who our parents were, what street we lived on while we were there. At first I thought it was just that we were from Manila, but later on I learned that while it was partially that, yes, it was more because of which family we belonged to, whose scions we were. They would say my lolo’s surname and my lola’s maiden name in knowing tones, and we would get treated differently. At the time, I took it for simple politeness, even kindness. Now, I am not so sure.

It was only later, after all, when we had stopped venturing up to the province every summer that I learned a darker truth. That maybe the kindness wasn’t kindness, that maybe the politeness wasn’t politeness, but fear. That maybe, just maybe, the respect my cousins and I were accorded was not because my family was old money, but because my lolo had once been a close crony of Marcos.

There is a moment in one’s life, when one comes to realise that one’s family is not what one always thought it to be. A moment when, for the first time, one stands on the outside and looks in. Almost inevitably, what one sees is not pretty.

***

The recognition that happens when one is seen works two ways: inwards on the self, and outwards upon the world. Those two are connected: what we know to be true is shaped by what we know of the world around us, and those truths in turn shape how we interact with and move in the world.

So when a truth is revealed to be untrue, the tectonic plates of reality shift: mountains ranges go up and rift valleys go down as the self and the world realign and rub against each other until they settle, finally, into a configuration that doesn’t hurt as much or as frequently.

But sometimes, something happens, and the edges between the self and the world start to chafe, aftershocks rippling through reality. Learning who my lolo really was, in the context of history. My professors, telling me about the horrors of martial law. The realisation, after I put those two things together, that my family was not what I’d thought it was.

This book is about many things, but to me, it is about truth: seeing it, accepting it, and then living with it. As the narrative unspools Paz and Hero’s stories, they learn things about the world, and about themselves, they did not know, or thought they knew, and have to live with that new reality. What they have in common, though, is that no matter what they learn, no matter how drastically the landscape of their reality is altered, they do not give up. They forge on – perhaps not with their heads held high, or always for the right reasons, but they forge on regardless. They adjust, they settle the edges of themselves against the world, and they go on. It’s like the people who have since moved back to live in Pinatubo’s shadow, despite the ever-present danger of eruption. The world changes, sometimes drastically, but life goes on.

Of course, this novel is about many other things: the immigrant experience, queer romance, and so on. It is many things for many different people – the sign, so I’ve been taught, of a truly good book. But for me, it is a novel about seeing things for what they are, about knowing things for what they are – and learning to live with them. It is not an easy truth, to be sure, but then the strongest, most powerful truths are never easy.

And that’s what makes this book more than just good – it makes it so wonderfully, painfully personal.

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