It’s been awhile since I reviewed Filipino adult literary fiction here at GatheringBooks, the last one being Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan, which also won a number of awards. I immediately picked up this book from the library as soon as I saw that it was available. Having won the PEN/Bingham Prize for Debut Story Collection this year (with 25,000 USD cash prize), this book has earned a great deal of much-deserved attention.
In The Country: Stories
Written by: Mia Alvar
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015 ISBN: 0385352816 (ISBN13: 9780385352819). Book borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.
There are nine stories in this collection – and just like all anthologies, some are hit or miss for me. It was also a heavy-going read, it took me two weeks to finish it – not because it wasn’t riveting, but because I had to take a pause in between reading because I felt a sense of suffocation – the stories are too intimate, familiar, and perhaps hit too close to home.
I believe though that all the stories fit our restlessness and refuge reading theme. Most of the protagonists are seeking refuge, either within themselves or places they call ‘home.’ Quite a number of the characters are also Filipinos based overseas: from Steve, the Nurse based in New York in Kontrabida, who smuggled cancer medication for his abusive father (whom he detests) when he visited his family in Manila – as his father gradually fades away in his bed, practically immobile; or Sally Riva, a Filipina special education teacher based in Bahrain in The Miracle Worker; or even the American model who stayed in Manila for awhile to get a modeling stint whose best friend was a Filipina American model who died of an aneurysm; or the expatriates in Bahrain in Shadow Families; the story of Esmeralda, the maid in New York, also held my attention.
I was surprised to find out that Mia Alvar grew up in Bahrain and New York City (as evidenced in the jacketflap of her debut novel) because she has perfectly captured the gritty aspects of what it means to be Filipino – from the constant parties to the karaoke to the kuracha in the province. There are glaring truths here that are often unarticulated because they are too embarrassing – or because they are realities meant to be discussed only among Filipinos living overseas – having it written for all to read seems almost like an invasion of privacy or kind of like having your dirty laundry bared for everyone to smell and see.
The story that made me sit up and take notice though was Old Girl – a restorying of Cory Aquino’s life in Boston with Benigno Aquino before he was assassinated. That one, I thought, was especially brilliant, as Alvar inhabits the skin, the mind, the voice of Cory – although, of course, it is still a fictionalized version of what her story with her family could have been while overseas – which makes it even more effective and quite tragic and oh-so-human and all-too-real.
While most of the protagonists in these stories are Filipinos from the US, the Middle East, and remote provinces from the Philippines – there is a universality to the narratives that cuts across cultural boundaries, while at the same time remaining so peculiarly distinct, you could almost taste dinuguan with your tongue. There is an unapologetic dissection here of the Filipino psyche that is almost clinical in its precision. This is a book that you should find, read, savour – and I assure you it would make you look at your domestic helpers, your nurses, your teachers, your world, the stories in your country, a little bit differently.