The recently awarded short story collection In the Country expertly captures the experience of the Filipino diaspora
Photo by Michael Lionstar.
In the Country was in the making for a long time; its roots in the grandmasters of Filipino literature and its final form shaped by the contemporary Western interest in literature about the immigrant experience. “Carlos Bulosan was very important to me, Nick Joaquin was very important to me,” says Mia Alvar, the book’s author. “I can’t imagine two more disparate writers in terms of class and where they were writing from.” In the season of Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri, Alvar took note of the “really kick-ass short story collections [talking] about communities from very different perspectives. Not that stories about the immigrant experience hadn’t existed before, but an interesting space had opened up around that time.”
Alvar was born in the Philippines, and her family moved to Bahrain for the rest of her childhood. They settled in New York City when she was 10 and, save for a trip back to Manila when she was in college, Alvar has been in the United States for most of her life so far. “All of the migrations in the book are reflective of the course my own life took,” she says. But the book is less about traveling across the earth than it is about exploring the interior. The elegance of an Alvar story lies in being technically neat—themes such as labor, exoticism, the shifts of power within a marriage are painted in broad clear strokes per story—while remaining morally tricky. Alvar, in her intense examination of human nature, is writing not anti-heroes but the opposite of mythologies.
“Clearly a writer with enchanting powers, Alvar wills us to crisscross the globe with them all over again,” writes the New York Times of Alvar’s cast of characters.
“I’m obsessed with the adults of my parents’ generation,” she says, noting that she still called them adults despite being one herself, “who lived through martial law and the revolution that put an end to that—this super momentous time that was romanticized and dramatized even as it was happening.” The eponymous novella that ends In the Country is set in the time of Martial Law, but Alvar devotes her clear-eyed narration to a smaller story—that of a married couple, one of them a journalist jailed by the dictator—rather than to the enormous events of that time that have been told and retold. Milagros and Jim see it via Betamax—the senator gunned down on airport tarmac, as he “steps from the plane that had flown him home,”—while they hold their children, one of them just learning how to walk. The effect is less a zooming-in as it is a turning-inside-out: “I wasn’t interested in writing about saints and heroes; I found human beings just more compelling to tell stories about.”
The cleaning lady who worked in the World Trade Center, the teacher in Bahrain mistaken for a maid, the pharmacist who comes home with a suitcase of smuggled drugs to watch his father die—the Filipino migrant worker has long been hailed as the new saint and hero, but Alvar knows that to define the OFW as bayani is to narrow the space in which he or she can exist. “I think [the emigration] gets boiled down all the time into this economic sacrifice for one’s family. Of course it’s the central thing . . . ” Alvar says, but her own interests are not in building pedestals with her fiction; they lie elsewhere: “How people don’t fit into boxes and how their behavior goes off-script.”