What An Author Looks Like: Mia Alvar
In the Country is Mia Alvar’s debut collection of short stories. Alvar, a Filipina writer, grew up in Bahrain and New York City, and her stories explore what it means to be an immigrant in the Middle East and the U.S., what it is like to come back to the Philippines, and what it means to have never left yet still yearn for the concept of home. Her characters are varied: male, female, Saudi, Filipino, American, able-bodied, disabled, wealthy, poor, and all are given rich details and histories, such that we’re able to immerse ourselves in their lives. She places many of the stories in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when the Philippines was in the midst of martial law, and when many Filipinos started leaving home to provide for their families.
One of the things I immediately loved about this collection was the element of the unexpected. Right from the first story, “The Kontrabida,” I was taken with the characters; I could feel the strain of a husband’s illness on his wife. The story is told from their son’s perspective and we feel his conflicting emotions as he returns from America carrying stolen medicine to ease the pain in his father’s last weeks of life—and indeed, provide relief to his mother, the caretaker. We find out that kontrabida means villain and learn more about the relationship between the son’s parents, that his mother has always dealt with her husband’s rage and drinking, and remained dutiful nonetheless. The son sees his mother as frail, but she says to him, “‘You underestimate me,’ pretending to flex her muscles.” By the end, we know just how strong she was, subverting a stereotype even her own son was too blind to recognize and providing a surprising twist to kick off the collection.
Many of Alvar’s stories contain political characters—workers who go on strike, politicians-turned-professors, activist nurses, and journalists risking their lives (and the lives of their families) during the censorship years of martial law. She throws her characters into situations where they come into contact with people who are different from them in some way. She amps up this tension when cultures clash, especially in her stories set in Bahrain. The stakes are higher for characters who aren’t used to customs and expectations in the Middle East, and they are sometimes forced to tread lightly in their new home. Some of her characters push these boundaries more than others.
In “The Miracle Worker,” married couple Ed and Sally move from the Philippines to Bahrain, where Ed has found work at an oil company. Ed is often caught between his Arab superiors and his Indian subordinates, and complains to Sally about both parties. Sally doesn’t need to work; she is a former teacher and activist and she doesn’t speak Arabic. She meets a Filipina maid named Minnie in the market who asks “‘Who is your amo?’ …(Who was my master, she meant, my employer; whose maid was I?)” They become friends and soon Minnie recommends Sally to her Saudi boss, the wealthy Mrs. Mansoor, as a special education teacher for her severely developmentally delayed, deformed five-year-old daughter, Aroush. “‘Often people do not love difference,’ said Mrs. Mansoor,” who keeps her child hidden from view when in public. She believes Sally has the potential to help Aroush, against her better judgment. It’s a complex and beautiful story that explores differences, the effects these differences have on people, and the lengths to which they go to reconcile them.
Alvar uses the second person in her story “Esmeralda” despite knowing how polarizing this point of view can be for readers. We are inside the head of Esmeralda, a Filipina immigrant in the U.S. who cleans homes by day and an iconic office building at night. I think the second person works, not just because Esmeralda is such a brave and complex character, but because the story flashes back and forth around a moment in time many of us remember: September 11, 2001. Many American readers can picture her as she walks futilely toward the destruction of crumbling twin towers, the place where she was given her first job as an official U.S. citizen, because we’ve seen images of this very destruction before in our own lives. But the image of her walking that day from her home near the airport to lower Manhattan—pain shooting through her legs from her years of hard labor—stays with me, not just because I remember that day, but because it’s from the perspective of a character I may not have considered before. Characters like Esmeralda aren’t often depicted in American literature, and aren’t in the forefront of the conversation when events like September 11 are discussed. When she sees the gash in the building we learn that she thinks, “A pipe or boiler must have burst.” It goes on: “You think, A man in coveralls will lose his job today.” American readers are forced to experience this event through new eyes, and Alvar’s writing handles it beautifully. It’s hard to adequately convey the bravery and complexity of Esmeralda before this tragic day—her saving her infant brother from a typhoon when she was young, her deciding to stay in the U.S. after her Filipino family employer sent her home. Her story is one of the most memorable in the collection.
In “The Virgin of Monte Ramon,” we meet students in the midst of puberty—one whose skin is darker than the rest and who suffers a debilitating illness she tries her best to conceal (Annelise), and one in a wheelchair as a result of a birth defect (Manny, the narrator). These two have found each other in the outcast-hood of their early teens, and face several types of discrimination. Many of the scenes are wrenching: the depictions of the ravine shacks where Annelise lives, the illness that keeps her out of school and leaves her in the hospital for weeks, the varied taunts Manny and Annelise receive from their classmates at school. When Annelise tells Manny she is the “scholarship girl” she asks, “’Which ‘boy’ are you?’” Manny thinks about it:
It was not so easy to name my status. How should I explain the fine house, and the servants who were sometimes paid in bowls or jewels to maintain it? What title bridged the space between light skin and no legs, between a white hero for a grandfather and a half-white mother whose doings were whispered of in town? Which “boy” did all these things, combined, make me?
But they’ve found each other, and at the end, they share a moment that could be called redemptive, for Manny, at least: “But for one brief moment, in the rain and mud, I saw a world where everyone was struggling in the body he or she’d been given. That world and struggle seemed bearable to me, and even beautiful.”
In NPR’s interview with Alvar, she stated that with this collection she was interested in telling stories that were not the “sentimental” Filipino versions of stories about immigrants who are “cheerful, hardworking, obedient [workers],” heroically sending money back home to take care of their families. She wanted to dig deeper, to move beyond the stereotypical narrative, to expose the surprising connections Filipinos make with each other and with non-Filipinos while both home and abroad. These nine stories—one of which is novella length—do just that and more. Many of these characters would not have spoken to each other had they still resided in the Philippines, but now they are looking for some semblance of home. The stories do what great writing does: illuminate the people in the margins, doing what they can to find where they belong.
Lauren Rheaume has held various titles since she started at Grub in 2012 (including Registrar, Registration & Operations Coordinator, and Office Manager). As HR & Operations Manager, she handles vendor relations, manages the internship program, and with the support our Finance & Operations Coordinator, oversees operations of the organization. She also handles benefits administration, instructor payroll, and other finance tasks. Lauren is a graduate of Bridgewater State University and hails from the south coast of Massachusetts. When she's not spending hours staring at spreadsheets at her desk, you'll find her writing and reading essays, infusing bourbon and experimenting with cocktails, practicing yoga, and walking near bodies of water. She is a graduate of the inaugural Essay Incubator program and her work is published or forthcoming at Boston Accent, Punctuate., Crack the Spine - Neighbors Anthology, Pidgeonholes, Thimble, and the Boston Globe.See other articles by Lauren Rheaume