The queer book that shaped me: Elaine Castillo’s ‘America is not the Heart’

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Filmmaker Samantha Lee talks about how she found herself in Castillo’s tender novel, turning page by page and seeing parts of herself being unraveled in every sentence.

Editor's note: As part of our Pride Month special, CNN Philippines Life invited people to write about the books that have formed aspects of their identity and shaped how they look at being part of the LGBTQIA+ community.

If there were one book I could make into a film, it would be Elaine Castillo’s “America is not the Heart." It’s been years since I read it for the first time, spending 16 straight hours finishing it because I was unable to put it down. And yet, I still spend the better half of my afternoon walks imagining how I would block a particular scene, or what kind of music would play at a certain part. For the record, Broken Social Scene’s “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old” would make it to the soundtrack.

I think a lot about how I developed my love for reading  because my dad said no to me whenever I asked for a toy, but would always unequivocally say yes to any book that I asked for.

Living in Melbourne for a couple of years was the first time in my life I had easy access to a fully functional library. I took that chance to catch up on all the LGBTQ+ books that weren’t available to me when I was living in Manila. I read a lot of YA while I was there, probably finishing one book every two days, catching up on all the childhood life experiences I missed out on by being in the closet all those years. And yet despite consuming all those books, it still felt like something was missing.

It wasn’t until I read “America” many years later that I recognized what that missing piece was. I once told the author that reading this book felt a lot like finally finding water in the middle of a dry barren desert, quenching a thirst I’ve been carrying around all my life. So this is what it felt like to recognize a part of myself on a page; this is what it felt like to be seen. I spent the better part of my life trying to find myself in cinema when the answer was in literature instead.

I’ve always been a sucker for fish-out-of-water stories, because that’s how I felt most of my life. Much like the book’s protagonist Hero, I was an impostor hiding in plain sight, neither here nor there, always with one foot out the door because I was scared that when people found out about who I really was, they would reject me or leave.

I grew up in a household a lot like the de Veras'; where four different dialects weaved into one, where Vienna sausage was a staple, where I ate with one leg up on a chair, where going to a faith healer seemed like a reasonable choice, and where my queerness and identity were never talked about. I also had a cousin who lived in Milpitas, a place where the landscape of endless suburbia served as a backdrop for the collective trauma of the community that lived there. The summers I spent there were marked by the same things Hero did in the book when she first got there — endless drives and visits to strip malls where the days bled into each other.

In Hero, I saw the parts of myself that were broken, someone who is forced to find the small in the big moments in order to get by. I saw someone who was tired, someone who was determined to coast through the rest of her life, someone who was determined to give up on romance and sentimentality because all of these are parts of a texture of a life that I needed to leave behind. But there was always another small reason to hope, another way that life kept happening. Castillo is able to describe this so well by writing, “that this third or fourth life she was on was long, long, long, not even all the way started up yet, not even close.”

In Hero, I saw the parts of myself that were broken, someone who is forced to find the small in the big moments in order to get by.

They say that great works of literature help transport you to places and situations you would never imagine yourself being in, that this helps you develop empathy. This time around, being able to read about a part of myself, flaws and all, helped me gain more empathy for myself at a time when I needed it the most. Maybe sometimes it’s not about how literature changes you, but it’s about how literature makes you feel more okay with being yourself.

Books have always played a big part in my romantic relationships. I love loving on girls who love to read. I use books to communicate all the things I can’t say out loud, handing them over with underlined pages and Post-it notes, a roadmap, a guide to understanding who I was. And after my last big heartbreak, this book was the first piece of literature that was truly mine —- untainted by memories, places or people. I underlined those lines for myself, a love letter to the self I felt that I had lost and would never find again. The last words of the first chapter of the book echo this so well: “Your word for love is survival. Everything else is a story that isn’t about you.”