The debut collection of short stories by New York-based Filipina writer Mia Alvar is a thing of quiet wonder. While other first collections might attempt to grandstand, or buttonhole the reader with noisy, sensationalist tales full of purple prose and ultra-violence (often in the fashionable second person, told from the POV of inanimate objects), Alvar throws unobtrusive light on a series of marginalised lives in nine superbly polished stories. Her characters, almost without exception, are members of the Philippine diaspora – economic migrants who have travelled to the Middle East or the United States to work as maids, chauffeurs or nurses. One of the world’s largest ex-pat communities (12 million Filipinos live and work abroad) it’s a sub-culture that provides rich fictional rewards. Alvar is a perceptive, moral, confident storyteller, and In the Country shows her to be the diaspora’s perfect chronicler.
In the first story, ‘The Kontrabida’, a son returns home from the US after ten years away to visit his ailing parents in a Manila suburb. There’s a Chekhovian simplicity and humanity in the description of his mother: “Every feature I remembered had settled in her and been more deeply confirmed”. Meditating on his alcoholic brute of a father who is dying of liver cancer, he realises he has trained himself to be “his opposite: competent, restrained”; though he fears he will die like him, with his “worst impulses petrified on my face”. By the end of the story the son realises that it is fact his mother who held the balance of power between his parents. It’s a sensitive, mature piece of writing worthy of William Trevor or Alice Munro.
From this point onwards in the collection, the female perspective takes over. In ‘The Miracle Worker’, a Filipina special-needs teacher in Bahrain looks after a severely disabled little girl, although it’s the child’s feckless mother who fascinates the protagonist. “What kind of mother thinks her daughter is punishment?” A poignant and politically engaged tale, the narrator is forced to revaluate her own liberalism, while throwing light on the diaspora’s lack of social mobility. The teacher’s friend comments mournfully: “I’m forty now. I’ve never done much besides clean rich Arabs’ houses […] I’ll probably die in uniform”.
Indeed, servitude is a theme of many of Alvar’s stories. ‘Shadow Families’ focuses on the social division between the rich Filipina wives and the katulong, or ‘helpers’, who come “to clean floors or mind rich people’s children […] often younger than we were but always ageing faster […] their spines hunching over brooms and basins, their lungs fried by bleach and petroleum vapours”.
Alvar is a perceptive, moral, confident storyteller
Throughout the collection, the cruel contrast between rich and poor, and between the fortunate and the forsaken, is explored in depth. ‘Old Girl’ is set among the ex-pat political community in Boston – the ‘Manilachussets’ wives. In ‘Legends of the White Lady’, an affluent American model is shocked by a “sad-looking tub of pale shredded lettuce” in a Manila restaurant. In another story, narrated by a severely disabled boy, the class distinctions in the squatters’ shacks of Manila are shown to be based on gradations of colour and perceived respectability. Here, the retreat of myth and suspicion is examined in the Philippines’ predominantly Catholic society. The boy comes to see “defects of our bodies were caused and cured by science, nothing more […] everyone was struggling in the body he or she’d been given”.
Throughout the collection, Alvar’s finely wrought, considered images echo and repeat or contradict each other. A praying figure is mirrored by the whore who “earns her living on her knees”, suggesting a touching parity. Equally impressive elsewhere are the experiments in form. ‘Esmeralda’ is written in the first-person plural, with ‘we’ reinforcing the diaspora’s sense of solidarity.
But it is the title story, the longest in the collection – almost a novella at 80 pages – which impresses the most. It is a tour de force of sophisticated storytelling. ‘In the Country’ is an exploration of class, family, and the colonial legacy. The narrative spans fifteen years, the action switching between the Marcos government’s slide into corruption and martial law in 1971, and the fixed election of 1986 in which the Philippines’ dictator lost power in a velvet revolution. It tells the story of Milagros and her husband Jim, a former anarchist and journalist, a wrenching tale of love against a backdrop of political corruption and civil unrest. Along the way, the reader learns much about the country’s history. But it’s the visceral details that linger. After marital law is imposed, the radio news ominously “turns to static”, while “Congress closed […] phones were dead”. When Jim is imprisoned, Milagros secretly transcribes her husband’s articles by sign language, meanwhile bringing up their children single-handed. Eventually, the state exacts its terrible revenge. It is a fine, if sombre, finish to a dazzling collection, and one that confirms “you can leave a place, but places have a way of not leaving you”.
Jude Cook lives in London and studied English literature at UCL. His first novel, BYRON EASY, was published by William Heinemann of Random House in February of 2013. He has written for the Guardian, the Spectator, Literary Review, New Statesman, TLS, Review 31 and 3AM Magazine.His essays and short fiction have appeared in Litro, Structo, Storgy, Long Story Short and Staple magazine. Jude can be found at www.judecook.com and on Twitter @judecook_
Choosing the poems we nominate for the annual Forward Prize for Poetry is tricky. The poems that make it into the magazine are already the cream of the crop, and we have come to know them very well over the course of the submission call discussions, as well as though editing and typesetting. We understand the way they ebb and flow. It’s hard to be objective, and we’re really not.
This year’s nominations all come from Issue 17. In no particular order, they are:
- ‘Kindnesses’ by Daniel Bennett
- ‘Black Sears’ by Christine Nguyen
- ‘Burning the Clocks’ by Robert Selby
Those who made it out to the Issue 17 launch were lucky enough to hear ‘Kindnesses’ and ‘Burning the Clocks’ in person.
Good luck to each!
Lent is here and Structo is holding its fourth Lenten psalms translation contest. We’re looking for free translations from the biblical psalms.
Lent. Translations. Biblical. Psalms. These words might bring up some questions.
What’s Lent got to do with poetry in translation?
Nothing and lots. Lent is traditionally a time set aside for reflection. We think poetry is a great way to reflect. Delving into the psalms is one way to reflect on the self and on the world.
Do I have to be religious?
No. And half of the team running this aren’t. But we view this as a chance to interact with, and create poetry in conjunction with, some great ancient texts. We’ve had a variety of submissions over the years from people with creeds from Catholic to agnostic, atheist to Hmong traditionalist, and all sorts in-between.
What if I don’t know Hebrew?
Free translation means what you want it to mean. None of the past winners have had an ancient languages background. Instead, they riffed off the original, turned it on its head, reversed it, used key phrases, sussed out a single idea, or wrote in a psalm mode and mood.
You can read last year’s winning psalm ‘Kestrels’ by Cristina Baptista and psalms by Christine Darragh and Abigail Carroll online in Issue 16.
How do I enter?
Head over here. Submissions are open until Easter Sunday (that’s Sunday 16th of April, at midnight UK time). All entries will be considered for publication in the magazine. The winning psalmist will receive $150 and a two-year subscription to Structo. Entries will be judged by panel on originality, musicality, accuracy (to the psalm’s spirit), and aesthetic.
As you will know if you have picked up a copy of the magazine over the last few years, we’re big fans of works in translation. And so we were delighted when the Austrian Cultural Forum in London got in touch to ask whether we’d like to help judge their new writing prizes: the ACF Writing Prize and the ACF Translation Prize. Here’s the spiel:
The Austrian Cultural Forum London is thrilled to invite submissions of translations into English of Austrian poetry, short fiction and book extracts, and original short fiction and poetry in English inspired by Austrian arts and culture, up to 2000 words in length. This is the first time these prizes have been offered, and have been organised by the ACF Translator in Residence.
A winner and two commended runners-up will be selected for each prize. The winning translator and winning writer will have their pieces published in the print issue of literary journal Structo, and the winning and commended translators will also be invited to attend a translation workshop with the Translator in Residence. Both winning and selected commended translators and writers will be invited to read their work at an evening reception at the Austrian Cultural Forum on Wednesday 29th March.
Submissions to the Writing Prize should take “Austrian art, literature, culture and/or history, or Austria itself, as their starting point or subject”, while the Translation Prize covers not only poetry and short fiction, but also book extracts. The deadline is
Monday the 13th of March [Edit: Deadline extended until Mach 20th!], and it’s free to submit work. Head over here for full details.
Melanie Whipman’s story ‘After Ever After’ appeared in Structo 11. We talked to her about her new story collection, Llama Sutra.
Is there a common thread linking the stories in Llama Sutra?
Yes, the title of the book was chosen for a reason. It’s not just the title of the story that was broadcast on Radio 4, ‘Sutra’ literally means a thread or line that holds things together, and more metaphorically refers to an aphorism or a collection of such aphorisms in the form of a manual. I thought it was apt for a collection of short stories. There are threads – themes that run through the collection – the ‘the outsider’, acts of transgression, the natural world, liminality and borderlands. Landscape’s important to me – how it impacts on my characters. It works to reflect or represent them. Metaphorically. Water is present in most of the stories. Whether in the form of rivers or seas, to me water suggests borderlands. The space and light on the coast has an impact on the tone of the stories. I’m from Brighton, and I love the way the sea creates a perpetual sense of movement and change. It’s the opposite of stasis. There’s a sense of freedom and possibilities. And there are the animals, of course: lions, llamas, storks, parrots, birds, elephants, a deer, a singing fish, and a bull. And sexuality – hence the play on Karma Sutra.
Your Issue 11 story ‘After Ever After’, included in Llama Sutra, is a nice example of some of those threads. Have you always been interested in the fairy tale form?
Yes, I’m fascinated by the fairy tale or magic realism form. We’re exposed to different kinds of magic realism almost from the moment we’re born. Nursery rhymes, fairy tales, legends, bible stories. These are stories that are part of our collective heritage. I love tapping into these communal narratives, taking myths and fairy tales and giving them a contemporary twist. I think that yoking a modern woman’s views with ancient myths creates a sense of universality and emphasizes our narrative heritage. There are several of these stories in my collection. The idea of the surreal erupting into everyday life works well with my themes of transgression and borderlands. It seems to enhance that sense of dislocation that I’m intrigued by. I want the reader to be as unsettled as my protagonists; magic realism can facilitate this.
You teach creative writing. Do you find it useful for your own work?
Teaching is really important to me. It’s amazing how much you learn through examining other writers’ work. It helps me to gain an objective perspective on my own writing. I did an English degree a long time ago, and then more recently a Masters in Creative Writing at Chichester University. Exposure to different authors and different styles and genres really help you hone and edit your own work.
Llama Sutra is available now from Ink Tears.
We talk to Structo alum Cristina Baptista about her new full-length collection, which opens with the poem ‘Trouble Woman’ from Issue 14.
I don’t know if The Drowning Book would have been possible without Gertrude Stein and William James. I began the project in early 2015, when I was teaching five sections of American Literature at a private high school in Connecticut and was introducing my students to Modernism, particularly the various poetic styles of the era. One of the exercises I had students tackle was taking headlines from the newspaper that week and, without reading the articles, start writing a poem sparked by the keywords in the headline. They had five minutes to write as much as possible without over-thinking. It was a very stream-of-consciousness assignment. After that, they had another five minutes to write a poem based upon an image that had to do with the year they were born. Then they had to fuse these poems together in some way that made sense to them (not via logic but rather intuition or gut feeling).
Not one to waste any time to write creatively, I did the assignment myself—and wound up with the drafts of five new poems by the end of the week. The students begged me to share my work in class—and as apprehensive as I was to read such hasty poetry aloud, I was encouraged by their enthusiasm and their questions about why I connected, for instance, a personal memory about reading Nancy Drew books as a child to a poetic line from Langston Hughes to a newspaper headline about women at the Met Gala dressed in costumes that made them look like flowers. I didn’t always have answers for my students because I just didn’t know. But I began to realize that a lot of my poetry is about women—their perceptions and how they are perceived; how they literally drown (the collection’s eponymous poem is dedicated to the 20-year-old woman in Dubai who, in 2015, was left to drown by her father, in order to preserve her honor) or how their voices are drowned-out by some other noise. I also felt like I was beginning to sink a bit beneath the weight of repressed memories bubbling to the surface now that the “Stein exercise” had catalyzed something. But I embraced it. I slowly began to surface, taking in new air.
It wasn’t long before I kept returning to these poems not because I thought they were necessarily strong but, rather, I felt rather haunted by how glimpses of my past—my childhood, random memories I had not considered for years, old adages or expressions my parents would say, or Portuguese superstitions from my ancestral heritage—kept resurrecting. As aforementioned, I felt like I was drowning in a nostalgia I barely recognized as my own. And, rather surprisingly, my personal feelings dovetailed with contemporary newspaper headlines. A literal drowning of a young girl made me think of Portugal and its history of whalemen and fishermen, as well as the irony that many Portuguese people in those careers never learned how to swim (in my own family, swimming lessons were not considered essential). A lot of ekphrastic poetry has worked its way into The Drowning Book, too. I’m particularly haunted by old buildings or cryptic-looking photographs—black-and-white prints, daguerreotypes, collodion-process prints, and the like. Old places awaken nostalgia in me even further. And for some reason, the personal memories, newspaper headlines, and a growing awareness of striking images friends kept sharing on social media began to coalesce. I think it was a fortuitous, happy moment of a lot of ideas merging. But if it hadn’t been for my lesson on Gertrude Stein, I perhaps would not have been in the proper mental state to be making the connections I did. My students, too, gave me that extra energy to keep working on these pieces: they inspired me with their own poems.
If I had to summarize The Drowning Book in a single blurb, it would be as follows: Anchored in contemporary issues that could be anywhere, any time, The Drowning Book examines the dissociation between action and feeling (particularly as it pertains to women) and how we can reclaim human dignity both for ourselves and others.
It was surprisingly easy to select poems for this book. I say that feeling guilty and I hope I don’t sound flippant, but while it took some months to write the poem, assembling them wasn’t as challenging as I anticipated. I think I had half-consciously been organizing the poems for a while, not sure when or how they’d fully come together. This is the fifth poetry manuscript I’ve written and the first to be officially published (or selected for publication). It’s also the fastest I’ve ever put a book collection. I actually spent one weekend selecting poems, organizing them based upon instinct (I read my work aloud and simply trust my intuition), and then submitted it to an open-reading Finishing Line Press does every November. There is no fee to enter and I figured I had nothing to lose. What was more difficult was trying to get myself to stop writing poems that I thought could fit the overall premise of The Drowning Book. You reach this point where you know you need to move on to other projects but it takes a while to get your head out of the space. I began writing the poems in early 2015 and about seven months later, I was putting them together as a manuscript. These poems were reworked piecemeal—I certainly did not leave them as raw as, say, Stein would have. I tried not to force anything, though. A few poems actually haven’t changed at all since their first drafts. I do believe it’s possible to overwork a poem, and if I felt like something was getting too far from my original sentiment, I left the piece alone. A few older poems—including ‘Trouble Woman,’ which is one of the Psalm Contest poems I submitted to Structo and that was published in Issue 14—also made it in because I felt they fit the main themes of femininity, personal reflection, and how it feels to be drowning in a chaotic world. But even now, with 2017 nearly at the doorstep, I keep thinking about how other poems I’ve written since would have been a good fit. All in all, the poems themselves took some time to evolve in as natural a way as possible—but once they felt right to me, assembling them into The Drowning Book wasn’t as much as an effort as I anticipated.
There is a lot of mourning in The Drowning Book—unintentional but I think my subconscious was telling me something, or at least noticing that the media seems to be a deluge of horror stories and I was desperate to start making sense of it all. I’m still trying to make sense of it all.
The Drowning Book is published by Finishing Line Press in February 2017 and can be pre-ordered here.
To many, pigeons are indisputably the basest birds in the book. Our connotations of the pigeon don’t usually stray far from Woody Allen’s “rats of the sky” or Tom Lehrer’s Poisoning Pigeons in the Park. A positive literary allusion to the pigeon is included in Vladimir Nabokov’s Despair, which is bespeckled with mentions of a “dove grey” suit. However, as Simon Barnes, quoted in the introduction to Pigeon, points out:
“There seems to be a conspiracy of silence about the pigeon, as if pigeons were an embarrassment to birdwatchers — as if pigeons were an embarrassment to proper birds.”
None of the main characters in Alys Conran’s atmospheric novel are what would be called ‘proper birds’. Set in working class Wales in the early 90s, the eponymous protagonist, Pigeon, lives in a shed at the bottom of his garden. His new stepfather, ominously referred to as ‘Him’, rules over the household with a tyrannical force, frightening Pigeon’s stepsister Cher into familiar submission, and watching as Pigeon’s mother slowly sinks into herself. The novel also centres around Iola, Pigeon’s best friend and accomplice. Iola and her older sister Efa live by themselves in a house on a hill, living their Nain’s mantra, “It’s a world unfair for women, love.”
With its avian title and focus around young narrators, one can’t help but draw connections between Pigeon and another bird, precisely, a Mockingbird. One likeness Pigeon has to Mockingbird is the presence of a mysterious outcast. Gwyn acts as a catalyst to the children’s imaginations because, according to Pigeon, “Gwyn = od”. Another similarity between Pigeon and To Kill a Mockingbird is that the childlike narration lends itself to a lot of irony:
And there’s Gwyn, on the sofa. The murderer. I can see his hairy neck, and the shiny round top of his head, and I can see his stubby hands and they’re…
He’s just doing a crossword.
However, Pigeon and Iola’s made-up mission against Gwyn soon takes flight, growing its own form and growing out of their control. Much of the novel focuses around Pigeon and Iola wrangling with their shared story, trying to tame it and claim it back. Conran’s narrative moves between English and Welsh fluidly and cohesively, and non-Welsh speaking readers should not be at all deterred, as most of the Welsh is contextually discernible without lacking in subtlety.
The novel switches between Iola’s first person narrative and an omniscient narrator that follows Pigeon and Gwyn. At times of hopelessness and containment the narrative seems submerged in grief, but never heavy. An attempt to preserve a consistent tone throughout the novel sometimes made it difficult to distinguish between narrators and I thought that a more unique voice for the omniscient narrator would have quickened the pace of the storytelling, or provided relief from the somewhat self-conscious narrative.
Amid the perceptive sensory details that paint a full portrait of a child’s world, Conran develops a sense of consistent lightness as well as an unchanging colour that adds form to the character’s myopic setting. On the basis of Nabokov’s elegant dove-grey, what colour would we call Pigeon in its entirety? I would say that it is set in a blue haze, full of feeling and confusion about the world that the young protagonists are growing into.
Pigeon offers us stirring meditations on language: that it is laced with history, diegeses are built with words, and that one’s language and one’s story are bound together. Reading Pigeon, one feels the collision of past stories and the attempt to move forward, making peace with the words that created a history. One of the most poignant instances in the novel is Pigeon’s discovery:
Your own language was a part of your body, like a shoulder or a thigh, and when you were hurt there was no defence. When the kids argued in Welsh at home on the hill it was a bare knuckled fight. But English. With English what you had to do was build armour, and stand there behind your shield to shoot people down.
Pigeon is a testament to the visceral nature of one’s own language versus the flexible formality of a presentational language, and how the two function differently in truth telling, tall-tale telling, and comforting others.
Hannah Hayden is a slightly American and slightly English writer studying at Queen Mary University of London.
The idea behind Refugee Tales certainly makes for good advertising. Marketed as a twenty-first century version of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales where refugees replace pilgrims, it sounds like a new entry on an award-studded list of contemporary takes on the canon, including Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation.
Such publicity, however, turns out mostly to be a red herring. The main influence of Chaucer on the project is apparently the formula used to title the individual pieces. Those tantalised by the packaging of Refugee Tales may find something to sate their curiosity if they direct their attention to a different literary conversation altogether, one that circles a familiar question about the treacheries of mediation: how to manage the ethics of speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves, in a way that faithfully conveys their experiences without inflicting further harm?
In a project that asks established writers to tell the stories of migrants, refugees, and detainees who cannot, for various reasons, tell the stories themselves, every piece must engage this question on some level. Their answers take various forms: lyric essays, hybrid poem-essays, dramatic monologues, short stories, and poems (both formal and free). However, even the most sophisticated pieces contain pitfalls.
how to manage the ethics of speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves without inflicting further harm?
Consider ‘The Detainee’s Tale’ by Ali Smith. For the piece, Smith meets a former detainee in an empty college classroom and interviews him about a life story that includes child labour and human trafficking. From the very beginning, she stresses her role as mediator by writing the story as though she is repeating everything the detainee says back to him: “The first thing, you tell me, is that school stops,” she says. She delivers the rest of the detainee’s story—the plantation in Ghana, the illegal sweatshop in the UK, the catch-and-release cycle of detention centres and prisons that follows his application for asylum—in the same manner, her voice directed toward his as though asking him to confirm that she has understood him correctly.
Initially, this seems like a good thing. By deferring to the detainee, she acknowledges that her version of events is only an interpretation and that the detainee is the ultimate authority. As the story progresses, though, her mediation starts to direct attention away from the detainee’s experience and toward the emotional edification of the people who consume it. Anyone who has read a moderate amount of fiction from the past thirty years will recognise a familiar pull when Smith repeats the detainee’s experiences in the second person present tense for extended periods. Such moments feel practically indistinguishable from the perspective that contemporary authors adopt to place their readers in visceral relation to their main characters.
Here is one of the earlier appearances of this second-person point-of-view—the first paragraph of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City: “You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not.” Here is Smith, describing the detainee on the plantation: “You have to climb the tree, cut the pods, break the shell with the seeds inside and pour them into baskets… The sacks of seeds are as big as you are. You drag these sacks back in the heat. The only clothes you’ve got are made from the sacks you drag.”
If the third-world problems of ‘The Detainee’s Tale’ are worlds away from first world problems of McInerney’s novel, is the narrative appeal of the one significantly different from that of the other? Both invite readers to become the protagonists of their respective narratives, a miserable yuppie in the one and a child labourer in the other. As far as Bright Lights, Big City is concerned, this identification is anodyne: the main character is a fiction and his voice is only endangered by his self-destruction. When it comes to ‘The Detainee’s Tale,’ however, such identification becomes questionable. It contains the possibility of turning the detainee’s real suffering into a tourist destination, a dangerous place readers can visit comfortably to perform their empathy.
skillful writing in the service of good intentions can still, without meaning to, contribute to the voicelessness of the voiceless
This is not to single out ‘The Detainee’s Tale’ as especially faulty. If a few pieces navigate the issue of mediation with a bit more care, several do so with a great deal less. Rather, it is to show in detail an unfortunate truth about Refugee Tales as a whole: that skillful writing in the service of good intentions can still, without meaning to, contribute to the voicelessness of the voiceless.
William Braun lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. A graduate of the Master’s program in English at the University of St. Thomas, he is an adjunct literature and writing instructor at several area universities. His translations have appeared in Exchanges Literary Journal and Ezra: An Online Journal of Translation.
This is Structo 16. It features 94 pages of outstanding fiction and and poetry, alongside photography by Minoru Karamatsu and an interview with Minae Mizumura, novelist and author of The Fall of Language in the Age of English. It’s a corker, and it’s out now!