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In the Country by Mia Alvar
Mia Alvar's In the Country is one of the more compelling story collections I've read in years. While it's very specific in its depictions of Filipinos of all ages, classes, genders, it also speaks to a more general human condition that involves family, gender, class, and other minor things...Debut author Alvar talked to us about one of our favorite books of fiction so far this year.
Let's start with the inevitable question, the one you've probably been asked 400 times already: of all the Filipina characters in these stories, which ones are the closest to your and your family's experience?
I borrowed a lot from personal experience but also changed a lot on the page, so there isn't one character that feels most true to life. But of all the real people I know, my mother is probably the one I borrowed from the most. Aspects of her personality and life experience appear in "The Miracle Worker," "Shadow Families," and "In the Country""”in the form of these brisk, educated, upwardly mobile immigrant women who appear to have it all together, in some cases to the point of carrying less fortunate relatives on their backs, but always with the past"”girlhoods in poverty, ghosts of personal tragedy"”nipping at their heels. And I think of the narrator in "A Contract Overseas" as a younger avatar of these same women.
Can you tell us a bit about your background, and your experience of being Filipina in America?
I was born in Manila, moved to Bahrain with my family at the age of six, and then to New York City at ten. My parents belonged to a generation of Filipinos who grew up under a strong American presence in the Philippines and revered American culture, so that even while still living there we spoke English almost exclusively at home. By the time we settled in the United States, my crappy Tagalog-speaking skills were a family joke. Outside the family, though, Filipinos were not exactly a prominent cultural presence in Manhattan. I remember feeling "category-less" in the sense that I looked different from many of the kids I was growing up with, without necessarily sounding different. And I never felt like I could do an adequate job of explaining my background to others, in casual conversation: I was always oversimplifying, always leaving things out. Fiction attracted me in part for that reason: both reading and writing it promised time and space to dig through these nuanced realities that don't necessarily fit into tidy boxes. Of course real life will always remain bigger and messier than anything a writer can capture, so things get lost anyway. But over the years, writing has also woken me up to the joys and riches of being a "world citizen": it's not all confusion and displacement and longing and loneliness, all the time.
Your stories have been compared (by me, for one) to those of Jhumpa Lahiri, most of whose work chronicles the Indian diaspora. Who are the writers who have influenced you?
Four writers who really shaped my sensibility when I was young and starting out are Sandra Cisneros, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Junot DÃaz. Tolstoy and Chekhov and many of their Russian compatriots, of course. Carlos Bulosan and Nick Joaquin are two Filipino writers who worked on opposite shores and from completely different class perspectives but who both inspire me tremendously. I love Jhumpa Lahiri and sometimes like to read her alongside Mavis Gallant, also a favorite: they tell such perfect stories of characters in transit or otherwise far from where they expected to be. I read George Saunders and Steven Millhauser obsessively and"”like many short-story hopefuls"”worship Alice Munro.
Class and money, at least as much as ethnicity, are at the center of many of these stories. (The rich Filipinas entertaining the poorer ones; the cleaning lady in the offices on 9/11.) How are class differences the same and how are they different in the "old country" vs. "the new"?
I've definitely seen how the foreignness of a new country can shrink gaps between people who might not have socialized together in the old. As you mentioned, the maids and nannies in "Shadow Families" would perhaps work for the engineers' wives in Manila, but in Bahrain they bond as friends over shared customs, nostalgia, and a mutual awe and fear of the Bahrainis whom they regard as the true upper class. But even in the Philippines, there's a certain intimacy and interdependence that happens between amo and katulong that I didn't want to gloss over. It's a dynamic that fascinates me in any boss/"help" relationship: the way the power structure blurs and flips all the time, the creative rebellions and aggressions that a servant might craft within his or her circumstances, simply because humans tend to be more complex than a job title or class category.
I'm also interested in the ways migration between old and new countries can create class distinctions within the same family. In "A Contract Overseas," a girl depends on her older brother financially to fund an education that's intended, in many ways, to transform her into his social superior. There's just so much there that fascinates me.
These stories are not officially "linked" but they have a certain kind of cohesiveness: they're like vignettes of a group of characters you might meet in one gathering. Did you write them sequentially, over a long or short period of time? Do you think of them as "related"?
I love that idea of implied connections between these characters, who don't appear in each other's stories but could potentially cross paths elsewhere. It reminds me of the name game I'd hear adults playing throughout my childhood at parties and gatherings, the six-degrees conversations between Filipinos convinced that so-and-so's uncle was her student or that he knew so-and-so's cousin in college. In a newly adopted country, there's this understandable grasping for old connections.
I adore linked collections"”seeing a character at different stages in her life, as in Alice Munro's work; or getting to know a character you dismissed as a minor player in an earlier story, as in Joan Silber's. I chose not to link these stories explicitly, but now and then I couldn't resist making a small gesture"”dropping the name Minnie from "The Miracle Worker" into the story "Shadow Families," for instance. And very recently, long after final edits were in, I realized that Esteban Sandoval, in the collection's very first story, shares a last name with Milagros, in the last story (at least before she marries Jim and becomes a Reyes). I'd forgotten that they were once siblings in old, very early drafts of both stories, and perhaps they still are. So in this tiny, vestigial way, the final story in the collection does loop back to the first.
I wrote the stories over a decade, more or less, and not in exactly the order they appear in the book now. But I did focus on one at a time, finishing each story before I could move on to the next.
And the other inevitable: when do we get to see a novel? And will it be about the Philippines and the diaspora again?
I'm working on a novel now, due out in 2017 (though obviously I just jinxed it). It will follow Milagros (from the title story) and her life after the events of In the Country. So, yes: more Philippines, more diaspora.