The immigrant. The stranger in a strange land, leaving one home to create another somewhere else. Typically, when we read stories of the immigrant, those stories are viewed with a certain mysticism, an idealism that frames the world as a free and open place where we can all roam freely. This isn’t wholly problematic. What it takes to emigrate is no small thing. However, we do the immigrant’s story a disservice when we treat those stories narrowly, when we assume that upon emigration, the immigrant arrives in a land of milk and honey and is in turn warmly embraced.
In Mia Alvar’s smart and compelling debut collection, In the Country, we are offered several unique interpretations of the immigrant’s story. These renditions recognize how beyond the patina of idealism, the immigrant story is varied, complex, and rarely ideal. Alvar is peripatetic in her storytelling, taking her characters not only to the Philippines, but also to the Middle East, and the United States. Wherever her characters are, they tend to find others who look like them; they forge communities and try to recreate a sense of home in the strange lands where they find themselves.
The opening story, “The Kontrabida,” is one of a son coming home. Steve, who has emigrated to the United States, has returned to Manila to visit his mother and dying father. He harbors a great deal of animosity toward his father because of how his father domineered the family, how his mother bent to her husband’s will, and how over the years, little has seemed to change. “Even bedridden and in pain, my father had managed to preserve their old arrangement: when he called, she was there to wait on him.” But does a child really know what happens in their parents’ marriage? By the end of the story, when pharmacist Steve has given his mother drugs to ease his father’s pain, he realizes that his mother may not be the bent woman he always thought her to be. He realizes that, when she needed it, his mother possessed a strong will of her own. As with many of the stories in this collection, “The Kontrabida” reveals how truth is rarely simple or singular.
In “The Miracle Worker,” Sally Riva, the wife of an oil worker in Bahrain, takes on teaching a special needs child named Aroush, whose mother Mrs. Mansour is unrealistic about what her daughter might someday achieve. This is also the story of an unfulfilled marriage, and Sally’s friendship with Minnie, a maid to Mrs. Mansour and a fellow Filipina in the desert. These three women all inhabit very different lives, but have one thing in common: young Aroush, who seemingly lives in her own little world. As she grows closer to her young student, Sally is forced to confront many uncomfortable truths. In the face of these truths, she must rethink what she knows about the woman she calls a friend, the woman she works for, and herself.
We also see the bonds of community in “Shadow Families,” which centers on a group of Filipino families in Bahrain during the 1980s, who gather for weekly parties and think they know everything about themselves and each other. Over the course of months, the group becomes preoccupied with a newcomer, Baby, who refuses to play by their rules. “Shadow Families,” is perhaps the most engaging and inventive story in the collection, told from the collective first person point of view and full of cleverness. It is the one story I found myself truly immersed in, hoping it would never end.
Another sort of community is created in “A Contract Overseas,” as network of sons who have left the Philippines for Saudi Arabia return home every few months as carabaos, or messengers, with money and news of the loved ones still working abroad. The narrator, her mother, and her brother’s girlfriend go about their lives, waiting for visits from these carabaos, waiting on news from Andoy, the brother, who lives in Riyadh and works as a chauffeur.
Across these stories, Alvar also delves into the politics of the Philippines and the tensions of a postcolonial nation learning to rule itself. There are references to unrest and resistance and the eventual downfall of Marcos. In “Old Girl,” we get an unexpected look at Cory Aquino before she rose to power in the Philippines. She is living in “Manilachusetts,” where she tries to support her husband, who – despite not being much of an athlete – decides he wants to run a marathon. We soon see that her husband is always taking on grand ideas for which he is not fully prepared and that the “old girl” does her part in supporting him, making his dreams her own.
Class is never forgotten either. In the stories of In the Country, there are the incredibly wealthy, the members of the political class, the middle class, and the working class, all trying to negotiate sharing a world where there never seems to be enough for everyone.
One of Alvar’s greatest strengths as a writer is the sense of completeness she brings to her short fiction. We know everything we need to know about the world she creates in each story. Because these are long stories, Alvar never minimizes her characters or their experiences. The writing throughout the collection is meticulous and beautiful. Without a doubt, these are excellent stories.
The book, however, is not as affecting emotionally as it is intellectually. We are presented with a range of characters who are displaced and disconnected, who have unfulfilled yearnings, who have suffered immeasurable loss, and yet, I did not feel for most of these characters as deeply as I wanted. At times, the stories felt too long, like we were being told things we did not need to know. When the stories meandered, their impact diminished greatly.
This muted emotional power is most apparent in the title story, “In the Country.” The narrative moves back and forth between past and present, beginning in 1971. Milagros, a fiery nurse leads a strike so Filipino nurses can earn the same wages as American nurses. She meets Jaime “Jim” Reyes, a passionate journalist, the man who will become her husband. Over the years they fall in love, marry and have a family. In the course of their marriage, Jim is imprisoned for years for vague reasons, but he persists in his radical work. Years later, their beloved son Jaime is kidnapped, and the marriage crumbles when matters spiral out of control. Milagros’s rage and grief are beautifully written, but by the time we understand the scope of how this tragedy has come to pass, the climax has an almost numbing effect. It doesn’t stand out in any way from the rest of the story. It feels as if we are offered information in passing, rather than information meant to serve as the crux of the story.
Despite the muted emotional power of these stories, In the Country is a strong debut collection well worth reading. Alvar has a keen eye for writing the immigrant experience, and for tackling issues of socioeconomic difference with grace and nuance.