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America Is Not the Heart Reader’s Guide

By Elaine Castillo

America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo



“As for loving America or not loving America, those aren’t your problems, either. Your word for love is survival. Everything else is a story that isn’t about you.” (page 30)

How many lives fit in a lifetime? When Hero De Vera arrives in America, haunted by the political upheaval in the Philippines and disowned by her parents, she’s already on her third. Her uncle, Pol, who has offered her a fresh start and a place to stay in the Bay Area, knows not to ask about the past. His younger wife, Paz, has learned enough about the might and secrecy of the De Vera family to keep her head down. Only their daughter Roni—the first American-born daughter in the family—can’t resist asking Hero about her damaged hands.
After all, even at seven years old, Roni is no stranger to pain; she’s on her second spell of pneumonia in one year, not to mention she is afflicted by an eczema so severe that her tiny body is covered in scars. No one seems to know how to cure her.
Hero’s first responsibility in her new American life is to drive Roni to the faith healers in which her mother invests all deteriorating hope. It’s there that Hero meets Rosalyn, the fierce but openhearted beautician whose gentleness, passion, and desire might just bring Hero back from the dead.
Set across the Philippines and the United States in the 1980s and early 1990s, America Is Not the Heart is a sprawling, soulful telenovela of a debut, spanning three generations of women in one family shaped and pulled apart by politics, class, history—and perfume. With exuberance, muscularity, and tenderness, here is a family saga; an origin story; a romance; a narrative of two nations and the people who leave one home to stake a claim on another.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The epigraph of the book is the quote from Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart: “I knew I could trust a gambler because I had been one of them.” Why do you think the author chose this particular quote as the epigraph?

2. Though most of the novel is narrated in third person, it begins in the second person “you” perspective. Discuss why the novel begins this way.

3. How does the novel’s prologue shape your reading of the rest of the novel?

4. The author incorporates dialogue in Tagalog, Ilocano, and Pangasinan throughout the novel, often without translation. What effect does this have? Why do you think the author chooses not to translate some of this dialogue?

5. On pages 363–64, Adela gently chastises Hero for not fully understanding what it means to heal. She asks Hero to think about whether Roni is “sira”—broken, damaged. What is Adela trying to tell Hero? What does it mean to be healed?

6. In the last scene of the novel, Paz, Pol, Hero, and Roni are all together, eating pancit. Discuss the role of food in the book.

7. Language has historically been a tool of colonization. Refusing to follow the “correct” usage of a colonizer’s language can, in many ways, be interpreted as a form of resistance. How does the author challenge or subvert the traditional rules of the English language in the novel?

8. In an interview, the author has said: “There are two stories you need to know about your characters: the one they tell themselves, and the one they actually inhabit.” What stories do you think Paz, Hero, Rosalyn, and the other characters in this novel tell about themselves? What stories do they actually inhabit? Is there a difference?

9. Would you consider this a political novel? Discuss why or why not.

10. The title of this book is inspired by Carlos Bulosan’s semi-autobiographical novel America Is in the Heart. Why do you think the author named her book America Is Not the Heart? How does this title fit the novel as a whole?

11. What do you think America means to the different characters in the novel—to Hero, Paz, Rosalyn, Roni, Pol?

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