Days after I delved deep into Mia Alvar’s debut collection of short stories, In the Country, I thought of hiraeth. Roughly translated, this Welsh word describes a homesickness, a longing for a place to which you cannot return perhaps because it no longer exists. Displacement, nostalgia, and loss exist for the characters in Alvar’s book, whether they have moved to the oil-pumping shores of Bahrain or remained in the Philippines their entire lives.
A bullied, disfigured boy befriends another outcast and learns a terrible truth. A community of Filipino families in Bahrain band together until a newcomer threatens their bond. A student struggles to find her far-flung brother by writing fiction. Alvar pulls apart the traditional narratives of Filipino immigrants, exposing the emotional intricacies that lie beneath. The homes they left behind may still be there, but their changed perspectives reveal what time has made irretrievable. In these nine poignant stories, Alvar explores the many voices of the Filipino diaspora, including the ones at home who must cope with hiraeth in their own way.
Alvar’s work has been published in The Missouri Review, One Story, FiveChapters, The Cincinnati Review, and more. She received an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2007 and has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. From her current home, New York City, Alvar talked to The Rumpus about growing up in many places, the tensions of Filipino immigrants’ inner lives, and the influence of oral history.
The Rumpus: First off, I’m curious about your choice of form. What draws you to the short story?
Mia Alvar: I wasn’t always a fiction writer. I wrote mostly poetry in high school and college and then dabbled a little bit in fiction. There was this important year for me as a writer towards the end of my junior year in college. I visited the Philippines for the first time in about a decade to see a grandmother who was ill and probably about to pass away. A lot of my experiences from that visit were the inspiration behind what ended up being the first story in the collection, “The Kontrabida.” But at that time it was notes, scribbled in little blank books. I didn’t know necessarily that they were going to be a short story, but I did go back to my regular college life and took my first fiction workshop.
As is typical in most fiction workshops, most of the reading you get assigned is short stories and most of the things that are easy to submit are short stories, so I was learning a lot about that form in a very short period of time. This was also the late nineties when a bunch of short story collections came out and woke me up to what a short story collection could do. Drown by Junot Diaz and Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, as well as the Nathan Englander debut collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. They’re three very different books but I was pulled by this idea of painting a portrait of a community, not through one kind of unbroken long epic but through these individual vignettes. The more I explored my own material, a lot of which came out of family anecdotes and childhood memories, the more the form seemed to suit itself to the kind of storytelling I was around my whole life.
Rumpus: As I was reading In the Country I felt like each story was so contained, but in reading them back to back you start to see connections between the struggles, the conflicts of each character contextualizing each other, strengthening each one individually but also forming this whole. When you were writing these stories, did you see them informing each other, or did they just come together that way?
Alvar: I definitely had the hope that they would both stand alone and feel like a collection. As I sat down to write each story, I wasn’t so conscious of making it connect with the others. There was someone who said to me the other day that they felt like maybe these characters don’t appear in each other’s stories as I’ve written them, but they could see them knowing each other, you know, in some other social context or crossing paths at another point in their life. I really like that idea, that implied possibility of connection.
I couldn’t resist making little gestures here and there, but they’re tiny. I think at one point in the story “Shadow Families” I mention the name of a housemaid named Minnie who’s a much bigger character in the story “The Miracle Worker.” I wasn’t definitive about the fact, even in my own mind, that this is definitely the same person. But I felt like that could be the case and I liked that.
More recently I realized that Milagros, in the very last story of the collection, her maiden name before she marries Jim Reyes is Sandoval, which is also Esteban’s last name in the very first story, “The Kontrabida.” And I realized that there had been very old drafts of these stories where I was more explicit about them being brother and sister. That just fell by the wayside, like many of the things that get edited out. But I liked that even unconsciously that connection remained in a subtle way, whether it means anything to any reader or not.
Rumpus: One of my favorites in the collection was “Shadow Families,” and I’m incredibly interested in this plural first person narrative that you use. It presents this unification of voices and a consensus of thought even as discord and distance start to affect the community. Could you tell me about that use of perspective?
Alvar: One of the attractions for me was the idea of being able to vary the voices, especially in a collection that rehashes some of the same themes and looks at a lot of similar communities. In that way, both “Shadow Families” and “Esmeralda” were important to me because they break that pattern. In “Shadow Families” it felt like a choice that made sense because I was talking about a community whose members have shared experiences but are thrown together in this place that’s very alien and new to them. Certain class divisions also get elided and shrunk because there’s this sense of feeling responsible to each other and having so many of the same shared nostalgias despite the fact that back in Manila some of these women would be working for the others. Only when I got deeper into writing this story and figuring out what the plot was, it became very interesting to me to explore how to tell the story of that communal identity being shaken up a little bit and splintered.
Rumpus: That story definitely felt like an oral history in a sense.
Alvar: Early versions of that story were more purely oral history. I didn’t start out writing it from the point of view of the wives and mothers. Originally it was from the point of view of the teenagers. It was very impressionistic, like this is what our parents used to do and this is what we would do for fun on the weekends. It was boring for me to write and probably would’ve ended up being boring to read as well. Once I realized it was more a story of the mothers in particular the plot ended up suggesting itself more strongly.
Rumpus: Especially with that story you’re getting that collective female perspective and I’ve noticed throughout that the stories deal heavily with expectations placed on women and about the roles they’re supposed to play as mother, as wife, as a certain type of worker. And then there’s the tension of their inner lives, who they are in actuality.
Alvar: It definitely wasn’t an explicit motivation for me starting out. I very much thought of it as a look at communities and immigrant groups more than specifically on women and mothers. But female experience and particularly motherhood ended up coming up a lot more than I expected. Obviously I am who I am and that perspective colored the writing of the book, but the motherhood thing was curious to me because I am not a mother.
I think it goes back to this obsession that I have, which I think is present throughout the stories, this sort of tension or gap between the sentimental or pretty public official narrative and people’s private, messy, more complicated experiences. For women and mothers there are so many expectations and sentimental glosses sewn up with those identities. That ended up being really fertile ground for me, no pun intended. To explore where they live up to the saintly devoted mother roles and where that starts to fall apart in private.
Rumpus: I know you spent various amounts of time growing up in the places where your stories take place, from the Philippines to Bahrain to New York. How did these major moves affect your sense of belonging to a place?
Alvar: I became an observer and someone who tries to get a sense of the behavior of a group or a community in order to either adopt those behaviors and fit in or just observe them at a distance. There was an awareness of the limits of belonging, coming into a culture or neighborhood that you weren’t born into and whose customs and habits you needed to learn as opposed to them being in your DNA or in the air that you breathe. That definitely contributed to that sense of being a watcher and a young anthropologist as opposed to a natural at home member of these communities.
It created complications as far as self-identification goes. From very early on, from the time anyone had occasion to ask where are you from or where did you grow up or what culture or language do you identify with, there was never a straight, short answer for me. That inability to answer the question simply was part of the attraction of books and literature and fiction, both reading and writing, because they offered more space to look at nuances and complexities and stories and realities that don’t fit into small boxes.
Rumpus: You mentioned learning the limits of belonging and obviously there’s this theme of displacement in your stories with narrators who either deal with or feel like outsiders. Even with characters who, returning home, feel like they’re on the outside looking in. I’m thinking specifically of “The Kontrabida.” It was so striking to me since it’s the first in the book, and as a reader you’re trying to orient yourself in the story’s place and time, yet immediately the narrator feels foreign and awkward in his former home. He’s struggling with this notion of losing that sense of home and trying to grasp it in other ways.
Alvar: What’s always felt rich and interesting to me about “immigrant” fiction is that there was an expected trajectory. You were at home in one place and you knew where you belonged and the migration is the jarring thing that takes you out of that. It throws you in a new place and that’s when all the displacement and the loneliness and the alienation happens. It’s certainly not an untrue narrative but, with all of these characters, I’m interested in the way that they also did not feel at home in their supposedly original, natural homes.
With a lot of these characters, it’s tempting to think of their choices as purely forced economic choices. But I don’t think it’s always as simple as that. I’m interested in the ways that these characters are not pure victims of political or economic circumstance. There are all sorts of other motivations as well that lead to them leaving home. On the flipside of that, there are all sorts of unexpected connections and intimacies that happen for them once they have migrated. It’s not all happiness in the old place and loneliness in the new place.
Rumpus: I think that’s why your final story struck me as well since it’s one of the more political stories. The narrator, Milagros, and her husband Jim are so dead-set on staying in the Philippines through all the political conflict in the 1970s and 1980s, but it still manages to wreak havoc on their lives and take its toll.
Alvar: I was really interested in how to write a story of how someone’s mind can change about something that they feel is so fundamental to who they are. Other writers have certainly done it much more masterfully than I have, but I love stories particularly of fiction about activists or one-time activists or people who really took strong and sometimes risky positions, whether it was against a political regime or another kind of repressive force. Activism or prolonged political choices go back to that idea of who you are on paper and what you officially stand for. But that gets really dicey when you think about how that might affect your family or your marriage. I think the big tension for Jim and Milagros as a couple is where he continues to remain pretty comfortable living very closely to the ideals he’s espoused publicly, whereas that gets increasingly fuzzy for her when it comes to how it affects her children.
Rumpus: In terms of the social and political issues, in “A Contract Overseas” there’s this brief moment where the narrator, a college student, overhears a discussion between her peers. They’re arguing if literature has social duties or whether it only has an obligation to art itself. I was wondering if you struggle with this idea. Is it a compelling argument to you?
Alvar: I definitely struggle with the idea and that was part of the fun of writing that story. I got to ask all these questions about why I was writing about Filipino immigrants and the Filipino diaspora. I have the sort of cheating answer, which is that I think all of the things that she contemplates are at least part of the motivation for me. She writes, to my mind, in a “tributey” sort of way, for lack of a better word. But yeah, this idea of people like her brother who she has not seen in fiction or hasn’t seen much of and that she now feels are worth depicting if not celebrating in stories, that feeds into my own motivation for sure. But I don’t think these stories are purely tributes to overseas contract workers or people who have left their families to provide for them. For the narrator of that story, there’s an aspect of wish fulfillment as well, which is probably a smaller motivation for me but it’s not completely absent.
One of the thoughts I had while writing and researching the book is that I would sometimes get stuck on these little facts, which usually ended up not being consequential to the story at all. I’d be like, oh I don’t actually know what Filipino contract workers in Riyad do on their day off for fun or how much this item cost in Bahrain in dinars in the 1980s. I would have my dad around to ask or I’d ask my uncles who’d worked in Saudi Arabia and it did occur to me that they wouldn’t always be around. In that way writing about these characters, I could relate to the narrator of “A Contract Overseas,” fiction being a way of keeping people around who won’t always be around. But again, that motivation by itself wouldn’t have been enough.
There are a number of political actions and forms of activism one could take that have more impact and do more to address ills and inequities in the world than writing a story. I don’t have a pronouncement of what fiction should do and I’m certainly not angry at art that seems to exist for its own sake. I don’t think it’s foremost in my mind when I sit down at the computer and write a story just because I’m a very anxious writer and get spooked really easily. If I had a very social, political mission in mind I don’t think I would get a sentence down. But zooming out, those values and motivations are there.