In the Country: Stories

In the Country: Stories

by Mia Alvar


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385352819
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/16/2015
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Mia Alvar was born in Manila and grew up in Bahrain and New York City. Her work has appeared in One Story, The Missouri Review, FiveChapters, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Yaddo, and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. A graduate of Harvard College and Columbia University, she lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Shadow Families

Every weekend, in Bahrain in the 1980s, we took turns throwing a party. Luz Salonga hosted the first one that September of ‘86, and as always, we crowded into her kitchen to help. Rowena Cruz soaked rice noodles at the sink. Dulce deLumen made spring rollskins from scratch, painting batter onto the pan with a brush. Rosario Ledesma threaded sweet pork onto thin bamboo sticks. Over the clatter of dishes and the crackle of oil and the smells of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic andfermented fish sauce settling on our clothes and skin, we laughed about children and gossiped about marriage, the noise as much a comfort to us as the food itself.

Soon our teenagers would come downstairs, whining of boredom. We lent them the car keys and sent them off to the shopping mall for an hour or two. They’d return with rented Betamax tapes and watch them upstairs: episodes of Top of the Pops, movies that the Ministry of Culture had cleaned up beforehand. (There was no lobster dinner in Flashdance, so far as our teens knew; no montage of oily limbs in leotards.) Flor Bautista’s son Joseph had hair on his chin already; Fe Zaldivar’s daughter Mary was starting to fill out her blouses. We felt we could do worse than raise them on this small Islamic desert island, where some women veiled from head to toe, where cleavage and crotches were blurry bands onscreen.

Meanwhile the babies, as we’d forever call our younger children, tore through the house with their dolls and robots, trucks and ponies. Our “Catholic accidents,” Rita Espiritu liked to say—she was the vulgar one. We’d given birth to them here on the island, in our late thirties and early forties. The teens, who acted more like junior aunts and uncles to them than older siblings, had helped us name them: Jason and Vanessa, Stephanie and Bruce, names they’d accuse us of mispronouncing almost as soon as they could speak. Our babies learned math from Irish nuns and played soccer with Bahraini children and changed their accents at will. “Watch her bob that head from side to side like a Bumbai,” said Paz Evora of her daughter Ashley, whose best friends at school were Indians. At noon and sundown, when the muezzin’s voice piped from the mosques, our babies ran to the windows. Allahu akbar! they sang, as if they knew what it meant.

As for our husbands, they retreated to a room where smoking was allowed and, implicitly, women and children were not. They turned on the television and spread the Sports pages of the Manama Times between them. A horse track in Riffa held races every week, but gambling there was haraam, of course. And so our husbands made their secret bets indoors, on the same notepads where we wrote the grocery lists. Now and then a great male chorus erupted from the den, hooting at wins, groaning at losses, ribbing one another for bad calls. They waxed authoritative about odds and breeds, trifectas and photo finishes. For speed and grace, said Domingo Cruz, no horse could match the white Arabian stallion whose genetics had not changed in 4,000 years. Efren Espiritu talked up the sleeper potential of mixed breeds, which combined their parents’ best traits and evolved out of their worst. This was our husbands’ surging, primal release from the neckties and briefcases and paper-stacked desks that bound them through the week. The wagers, the beer and the sizzling pork bits they ate with their fingers broke just about every law sacred to their Arab superiors. Men who’d seemed pummeled into defeat by the office, us wives, “bills to pay and mouths to feed,” relatives back home in the Philippines who took them for millionaires; men from whom we looked away in embarrassment on weeknights, when they sat on the sofa picking trouser-sock lint from between their toes; these same men became brash and young again, every Thursday afternoon in their improvised gambling dens.

In the evening we came together to eat and to sing into the Minus One, a double-cassette stereo system that let us dial down a song’s vocal track and step in for Tony Bennett or Stevie Wonder. Holding printed lyric booklets (this was before karaoke gave us words on a screen), we crooned into the microphone: “Feelings,” “My Way,” “Three Times a Lady.” Sometimes Vilma Bustamante’s husband changed the lyrics to suit the occasion and Xeroxed them for all to follow. “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” became “Manama (Is Good Enough for Me),” to welcome a family who’d just arrived on the island. “I Made It Through the Rain” became “I Made It Through Bahrain,” for a family on its way elsewhere.

Outside the walls of Luz Salonga’s house, beyond the fence around her yard, past her street and the gate to our compound, lay the oil fields and refinery that employed most of our husbands. We lived and worked in Bahrain at the pleasure of a people who mystified us. Everything we knew about the Arabs one day could be voided by what we learned the next. Luz Salonga, the most religious one of us, admired their devotion. “I see them kneeling by the highway at all times of day,” she said, “while I can barely sell the kids on bedtime prayers.” But the Arabs that Fe Zaldivar knew only worshipped sports cars and gold jewelry, mansions and shopping trips to London. To Dulce deLumen, who worked in an emergency room, Arab meant incompetent and backward. “The best of their doctors couldn’t heal a paper cut,” she said. But Rosario Ledesma didn’t think a country could get this rich, and have all of Asia at its feet, without some special brand of intelligence. Every morning Vilma Bustamante passed their marble palaces in Saar. Every afternoon Paz Evora drove by crumbling concrete villages in A’ali. It didn’t matter that our own community had its kings and hobos, geniuses and fools, heathens and believers; this didn’t keep us from wanting a more perfect knowledge of our hosts, a clearer definition. We’d arrived on their island like the itinerant father in the fairy tale about a beauty and a beast, our houses fully furnished by some unseen master. Would he reveal himself to be a prince or monster? We decided early to behave ourselves rather than find out. In their shops and on their streets, we wore hems no higher than the knee, sleeves no shorter than the elbow, necklines that would please a nun. We lived like villagers at the foot of a volcano, hoping never to offend the gods who governed our harvest and our wealth.


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Copyright © 2016 Mia Alvar.
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Reading Group Guide

The questions, suggested readings, and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Mia Alvar’s In the Country, a layered and intimate examination of a diverse set of Filipino characters as they stay in and venture far from their home country.

1. What does the title of the collection, In the Country, and the individual experiences the book comprises, suggest about ways one can identify with one’s country even if not geographically? Do you or anyone you know have similar experiences of cultural diaspora, and if so, how does displacement affect your/their sense of cultural identity?

2. In “The Kontrabida,” what does the narrator’s impression of returning home as an adult illustrate about the nature of memory and how travel can change us? Have you ever experienced a similar disconnect between a place and your memory of it?

3. What are the moral implications of Loretta’s treatment of her husband as he lay dying, in her son’s opinion and in yours?

4. How are various individuals, adults and children, who look on the surface “different”—whether it is due to illness/handicaps, ethnicity/race, or cultural elements such as clothing and makeup choices—treated throughout these stories? What is universal about the judgments the characters pass on people unlike themselves, and what is particular to these Filipino communities?

5. Discuss how Sally views her influence in the child Aroush’s life in “The Miracle Worker.” What do you think she’s implying when she says a teacher is “not necessarily heroic, but useful” (49)?

6. How do characters cope with the various trials that are put in front of them, such as Aroush’s special needs in “The Miracle Worker” or the losses of Milagros and Jim in “In the Country”? What does it mean for them to see these challenges as “little miracle[s]” as well as tests of endurance from God?

7. By the time Alice, a model from America, leaves Manila in “Legends of the White Lady,” what has she learned about her own self-worth, including in the sense of feeling that her “beauty’s an accomplishment” (85)? What are the gains and losses that come from her slavishly attending to her appearance and perception of being exotic?

8. How do Alice and other women in the collection exemplify the strictness of gender roles in the Philippines, i.e., the idea that “a wife and mother’s not a woman anymore” (113)? Who among them successfully works around those expectations, and how does that affect their belonging to their home country, community, and culture?

9. What effect does the “we” voice that narrates “Shadow Families” have on your reading experience? How does it reinforce the communal experience of these women in Bahrain? To what degree are women like Baby—or in the previous story, Alice—seen as a threat to these groups of women who are on the “inside”?

10. Mia Alvar uses a variety of narrative points of view to tell these stories. How did meeting the characters in these different degrees of closeness impact your reading of their stories and lives and your identification with them? What did that variety lend to the overall portrait of Filipino culture in the collection?

11. Annelise calls herself “bunot”—an empty husk—in “The Virgin of Monte Ramon”: how much of this comes from her handicap or because she cannot meet the cultural expectations of women as a result?

12. What are some of the ways that the generational gap between parents and children causes tension in the stories, particularly between generations of women? When are women valued more for being young and attractive, and when is it more beneficial for women to be “heroes” in old age (199)?

13. What is the role of religion in Filipino culture, including how it reinforces individual and collective shame as well as fosters a kind of wisdom and reassurance in the face of difficulties?

14. In “Old Girl,” we see a full portrait of marriage in all of its various stages. How does this reinforce the metaphor of marriage as a marathon?

15. What do you think of the distinction between the possibilities for pretty girls vs. smart girls, as made in “A Contract Overseas”? Is it really true that “college-speak could elevate [one] from the muck” (240), or are there further impediments, such as class, ethnicity, and even looks, to nontraditional futures for women in the Philippines?

16. How are Filipino politics woven throughout the stories to provide context, and also as dramatic events in and of themselves? Did you sense throughout that the characters felt dominated by other countries and were suffering from their country’s “history of fragments and confusion” (244)?

17. The novella “In the Country” moves back and forth in time to show the evolution of a marriage juxtaposed with its most devastating crisis: the loss of the couple’s son. How does the shifting chronology enhance the urgency of what happened in February 1986 vs. all that led up to it?

18. To what degree is this marriage founded on ideals, political and emotional? In the end, how do those ideals hold up against the forces of reality, and do the characters understand their mistakes in hindsight?

19. How are politics entangled with emotions and romance in the novella? Is this intersection more prominent for Milagros as opposed to Jim, by virtue of her being a woman? Consider the feelings that Milagros has toward her children, especially her daughter, and what changes after Jaime dies as a result of politics.

20. How is Milagros similar to other women in the collection, and how is she different? What does her fate suggest about the choices women must make in the Philippines between family and personal ambition?

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In the Country: Stories 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An emotionally complex exploration of the lives of Filipinos and Fil-Ams. I even cried a few times reading the book. Highly recommended for fans of literary short stories.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago