Mia Alvar was born in the Philippines, spent her early childhood in Bahrain and grew up in New York where she lives now. Yet after reading In the Country, her evocative debut story collection, one could argue she has never actually left the Philippines or, put another way, that the country has never left her.
Details from Philippine life infuse these nine stories, adding authenticity and a memoir-like quality, as does Alvar’s frequent use of the first person point of view. There’s the “sari-sari” or variety store, “which smells like a heady mix of bubble gum and vinegar.” Sodas are sold from plastic sleeves. Statues are taken from the churches, and the girls “dolled up in their little white dresses to watch” festivals of the Virgin Mary.
Alvar’s characters walk in religious processions, go to Mass and say the rosary, but they never quite get the meaning of their Roman Catholicism. They view their beliefs through a kind of superstitious irony. A Philippine politician, for example, believes he owes Jesus for helping him to pass a rural redistricting bill. So when Jesus “visits his dreams and scolds him for running too hard after power and away from faith,” he (in a Flannery O’Connor-like twist) decides to run in the Boston marathon.
The stories are set roughly during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. There’s conflict—lots of it. One does not have to know Philippine history to savor the ironies in Alvar’s work, but two of the stories, “Old Girl” and the title novella, “In the Country,” depend on some knowledge of the political climate during the Ferdinand Marcos era.
“Old Girl” alludes to the perspective of Benigno and Cory Aquino during their three-year exile in the United States. A professor and his wife live in Massachusetts, where he teaches in Cambridge. Having escaped from Manila, he wants to go home now that martial law has ended, even if there is a good chance that he will be assassinated as he gets off the plane—which, as many readers will remember, is what happened to Benigno Aquino.
“In the Country” focuses on a journalist who secretly works for the political opposition and is imprisoned. As he waits out the eight or so years of martial law, he develops a code that he shares with his wife, who types her husband’s stories and sends them out to various overseas newspapers. Later, when he is freed, his 13-year-old son mysteriously disappears. (Events like these were common during the Marcos dictatorship.)
Alvar sprinkles red herrings through a story until, at the end, she reveals a truth that has been present but not apparent. A pharmacist, for example, lives in the United States and returns home (“The Kontrabida”). His father is dying in a poor Philippine neighborhood. His mother—sales clerk, cook, cleaner and nurse—has run out of pain medicine. So the dutiful son steals pain pills and brings them home only to learn that his mother isn’t the suffering servant woman he thought she was.
A cleaning lady from the Philippines lives in New York City during the time of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001 (“Esmeralda”). Her job is to clean one of the towers; and she’ll get there, even if she has to pose as a hospital worker and hitch a ride in an ambulance. She does not give up, even as she sees black smoke billowing from one of the towers. She isn’t sure which one but knows she has to get there. Only she’s not planning to clean.
Danny (“The Virgin of Monte Ramon”) is the least realized character in the collection. His story is not quite about a boy born with nubs where his legs and feet should be. Neither is it about the lies his mother told him. Nor is it about the evils of drug companies who dump bad drugs on third world countries. The story is about all of those and none of them exactly.
Alvar’s families usually have a son or daughter who has to work abroad and send money home. An older brother, for example, in “A Contract Abroad,” chauffeurs for rich Arabs in order to provide for his mother, sister and girlfriend. He sends his sister to college where she takes up writing and creates stories about her brother’s life abroad. She spends so much time writing “inside a story,” as she says, that it “felt real.”
Like most of the families here, hers lives in a slum where the houses are made of cardboard and tin. But when the First Lady (Isabella Marcos or a variation) initiated beautification efforts, the houses were rebuilt from cinder blocks with one room on top of another. A creek with a “fish-bone smell” flows down the middle of the development. After heavy rain, tainted syringes, beer-can tabs, bottle shards and eggshells cling to the banks. The sight and stench seem to stay with Alvar and her characters no matter whether they’re at home in Manila or in New York, Boston or Bahrain—places where these stories are set and from which the best ones resonate.