On Tuesday, Knopf released In the Country, the much-anticipated first book by Mia Alvar. The story collection follows characters uprooted by the Filipino diaspora trying to find homes elsewhere or trying to come home again. Born in the Philippines and raised in New York City and Bahrain, Alvar is familiar with that search. As Alvar told One Story in an April interview, “It almost feels easier to define what home isn’t. At least in my experience, it’s hardly ever the place we’re physically and geographically born into.”
Alvar’s stories aren’t only about geographical exile. They’re about cultural exile, familial exile, social exile, and so much more. The two main characters in “The Virgin of Monte Ramon,” originally published in Euphony in 2008, are ostracized in their communities for their physical disabilities. Annelise has an unnamed disorder that causes her severe pain and hemorrhaging when she’s on her period, while Danny has “only the beginnings of legs; below that, a semblance of ankles, and finally two misshapen knobs, smooth as stones worked over by water.” These two are, above all else, trying to find homes in their own bodies.
Annelise is the daughter of a laundress and lives in the squatter’s colony, while Danny’s mother keeps them in the wealthy section of town by giving “company and comfort” to the town’s rich and powerful men. Both Danny and Annelise are misfits, mercilessly mocked and ridiculed by their peers. Alvar delivers these scenes in a way that is somehow simultaneously unflinching and compassionate:
“You stink, Negrita,” they said. “Stinks to be poor, eh?” Annelise turned away. She faced me and held the handles of my chair, her knees touching my trousers, so that we made a nearly self-enclosed unit on the grass. Her movement made a rustling sound like plastic bags.
“What’s in your diaper?” they asked. “We think Negrita needs a diaper change.”
My mother once fired a maid who, she said, filled the house with a wretched odor. “The poor live in a Dark Age of superstition,” said my mother at the time. “I won’t have her trailing her beastly smells into my house.”
“In one ear and out the other,” said Annelise, looking down at me. “You don’t let the things they say affect you, do you?”
“No,” I lied.
“The Virgin” can sometimes be hard to read because of its emotional punch, but it’s the friendship between Annelise and Danny that pulls you through. Alvar pulls back the curtain on a world of rotting slums and desperate mothers, of racism and ableism, of cruel schoolchildren and desperate fantasies. The compassion Annelise and Danny give to each other in the midst of this relentless and harsh world is the beating heart of this story. Perhaps the home they find is in each other.
On Monday, “Canticle for Gigi Sauvegeau” by Jennifer Sears went up at Guernica. “Canticle” is about an artist’s model, Gigi, who has “enormous breasts bolstered by the rolls of her generous abdomen,” and “pillow-sized pink thighs,” and is absolutely confident in her body. She walks around the studio during breaks with her kimono open and doles out praise and criticism to the artists. She also has a gift for magically “seeing” which artists will succeed.
Many of the art students like Gigi, even admire her, and some don’t. You can probably guess why:
Floyd Swesson, the only native New Yorker in our group, openly despised Gigi. Where we saw shape, line, and shadow—a nude—he saw a naked overweight woman who spoke of herself in terms that violated what he knew.
Without spoiling it, an event happens that enables us to glimpse the life Gigi has outside the studio, and it’s surprising. A canticle is a hymn of praise, and that’s exactly what this story is: a hymn of praise for a confident, eccentric, insightful woman who is more than just a body reclining on a platform. But it’s also a kind of elegy, an elegy for a woman who saw through so many people who couldn’t—or wouldn’t—see her back, an elegy for a woman who was looked at constantly but never seen.