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_