On Being "In The Country": Meet Filipina-American Author Mia Alvar
Manila-born, Manhattan-bred Mia Alvar claims she's a "fraudulent Filipina." But her debut collection of short stories, In the Country, proves she's nothing if not of the country.
Mia Alvar is a fraudulent Filipina. At least, according to her.
We’ve just sat down for dinner at Jeepney, the Filipino gastropub in New York's East Village. In a few weeks, Mia’s first book, In the Country, will hit the shelves. It’s a collection of nine short stories featuring the Filipino diaspora that draws on Manila-born, Manhattan-bred Mia’s own experiences and the characters she’s met in her transnational life. So her claim to Filipino “fraudulence” is not unusual, that anxiety with which any immigrant Filipino — myself included — can easily identify.
But Mia blames her fraudulence on her pescatarianism. She waves around a dinner menu, referring to its list of savory Pinoy plates, and laughs. “I’m fraudulent because I actually don’t eat everything,” she says. Her eyes skip over the pork dinuguan and the lamb menudo and the infamous balut. Mia spots something delicious for a moment, chuckles, and has to pick something else — it has Spam in it.
“My aunt makes this amazing pancit,” Mia says, scoping the menu for something like it. “But I always get confused. You know how there’s different kinds of pancit and there are two that are really similar, with the glassy noodles...”
Sotanghon, I provide. And bihon, she adds. We oooh and aaah like this through most of dinner, recognizing accoutrements of Filipino-ness we can’t help but bring up. “I’m sure my aunt adds some sort of magic ingredient to her bihon recipe,” Mia says. A tita’s love, I suggest, and she agrees.
Soon, the bihon will make an appearance at the In the Country book party. The pancit bihon won’t be made by any one of her titas, though many of them will be present to toast Mia, they’ll tell me in Tagalog, the pride and joy of their Filipino family.
It’s here they’ll see the finished book for the first time, in Mia’s arms. In a black-and-white dress with a print evoking palm leaves, she’ll sign each copy, her coal-black hair framing her round, smiling face. She’ll ask to whom should she dedicate 300-and-some beautiful jasmine-colored pages reflecting images of transnational, albeit fictional, Filipinos who we’ll swear we’ve seen before in our own mothers and fathers and siblings and cousins.
But they will not have read all that yet. Instead, everyone at the party will have read the excited blurbs and previews, be anticipating the raves that are sure to come. NPR will adore the book and call it “fresh subject matter” and “literary novelty.” The Huffington Post will praise her sketches of the Filipino’s “unique identity and the universal wisdom of human experience.” The New York Times will laud Mia’s “exacting prose” and her “enchanting powers” of storytelling.
All this praise will be well-deserved, but at Jeepney, Mia’s not thinking about the critics or her audience. Over our dinner of pancit malabon (hers; no bihon available) and lumpia with rice (mine; I gave up on my no-carb week), we toast to good company and good food. As her book’s characters do with each other, as her family at the book party will with me, as she and I do right now, we eat and celebrate, our eternal Filipino refrain.
“I actually struggled with how much food comes up in the collection,” Mia says in between bites, when I ask her about how her own Filipino experience influenced the book. “It’s such a staple, sometimes pushed to stereotype, of immigrant fiction, particularly Asian immigrant fiction.”
She laughs off the all-too-familiar themes of fragrant spices and mysterious herbs and soups resembling potions. We dream up a stilted scene where someone gets shamed because they can’t make a treasured family recipe, only to discover the fictional secret to a hypothetical pancit dish is indeed a tita’s love.
“Ultimately, it felt disingenuous to avoid food in the narratives,” she says. “The book deals so much with Filipino family life and immigrant life, and food is central to those experiences, particularly in countries that are not the Philippines. Food has an added responsibility of bringing people together. It gets people reminiscing about what they love about the country.”
When I ask her what she remembers most about Manila, Mia can’t quite articulate specific anecdotes. “Because I was so young when I lived there, a lot of my Manila memories were so impressionistic,” she says. Favorite foods, naturally, she recalls, and a lot of family gatherings. But her brother’s death — he was 6, she was 3 — was a tough one. “It felt like that was the mood in the house for a long time,” Mia says, “especially at an age where you pick up more on moods than actual facts.”
Then, three years later, when Mia was 6, her family sought a change of scenery. She had an uncle who was working in Bahrain, a small island country in the Middle East, and the rest of Mia’s family followed suit. “There were a lot of expats from all over. Brits, Indians, lots of Filipinos,” Mia says of the cosmopolitanism thrusted upon her at an early age. “I have really idyllic memories of it. The one regret for me is that I never learned Arabic. When you’re a kid, you never seek anything beyond what’s required of you.”
Such is the blessing and the curse of the third-culture kid. You have the joy of building a relationship with many different cultures, but you wager the feeling of not having full ownership of any, risk drowning in a melting pot. At least Mia and her family had the luxury to visit the Philippines often. “It’s what expats do,” she says. “Moving to America is different; it’s like, ‘Now you’re American.’ But expats in Bahrain think of being there as very temporary. You go back to the Philippines for holidays, every summer.”
In Bahrain, Mia explains, expatriate Filipinos believe they’ll chauffeur oil magnates or clean oasis-like mansions or engineer pipelines across deserts for only a little while. The ubiquity of the acronym OFW — overseas Filipino worker — in the vernacular at home in the Philippines and abroad speaks to the specificity of the experience. “There’s always an eye toward saving up money or sending money back [to the Philippines] to put relatives through school,” she says. “It’s not about building a life where you are, but about building lives for your family back home.”
Her time in the Middle East and exposure to the lives of OFWs yielded stories in the collection like “Shadow Families,” where the wives of doctors of engineers in Bahrain welcome and confront a new Filipina arrival on the island; and “A Contract Overseas,” where the narrator’s brother becomes a chauffeur in Riyadh to provide for his sister, mother, wife, and twin daughters in the Philippines.
In these stories, and certainly in the rest of the collection, each word — English or Tagalog or otherwise — has purpose. By mentioning generous amos, gossipy katulongs, and local barangays, Mia uses bits of local vernacular as impressionistic strokes of paint that conjure too-familiar images of transnational Filipinos. Her prose is gorgeous and propulsive, always in forward motion as if the story cannot be rooted too long in a single place. In Mia’s work, as in her life, it seems, movement is only natural.
After four years in Bahrain, Mia’s family settled in New York. Her mother began a graduate program at Columbia for her masters in special education. For a while, her family lived in the married international graduate students' dorm in upper Manhattan. It was similar to her time in Bahrain, Mia says, befriending other third-culture kids like her, whose passports bore myriad stamps from faraway lands today’s wanderlusty twentysomethings could only dream of.
Today, with her husband Glenn, Mia still lives in New York. Her parents and other relatives do as well. Even after all this time in the city, part of being a New Yorker, she says, is the anxiety of whether or not you’re able to say you’re a New Yorker. Of the Philippines, it’s different. This will be evident at Mia’s book party, when her family will see my brown face, will hear me say “Salamat po” in thanks, and will welcome me as one of their own. Whether you’ve only a drop of Pinoy blood in your veins or lived there only a year — Mia until 6, I until 11 — “Filipino” is a deserved moniker, a title that sticks, pescatarian or otherwise.
But to write In the Country, something so distinctly of the country, when you’re not literally in the country is a feat on Mia’s part. “Both memory and researched helped in the beginning,” she says. “But then after that, when you’re writing fiction, it almost has to become this other thing, even though the stories are inspired by people I knew growing up, or obsessions I had, or questions I wanted to answer.”
One of those obsessions in the book is the authenticity of the happy Filipino family — a system most nuclear with the saintly children, their diligent father, and his selfless pious wife, all echoed in extended sibling families, all connected, by blood or by bayan, to comprise a country. Mia challenges and destabilizes these tropes with her unsettlingly familiar characters.
In “The Kontrabida,” Steve, a pharmacist based in New York, visits his home in the Manila suburbs only to discover that his parents and his home life aren’t what they used to be — or were never exactly how he remembered them. And in “Old Girl,” Mia deftly examines the life and times of a senator’s wife, who has always let her husband dream enough dreams for both of them, only to end up running in his stead.
The titular “old girl” is based on Corazon “Cory” Aquino herself, the wife of senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. who was assassinated by political rivals upon his return to the Philippines after a some years spent in Newton, Massachusetts. Cory would go on to become the first female president of the Philippines, but often publicly referred to her family’s time in Newton, one of reprieve from politics, as the most peaceful in their lives. Mia imagined an inner life for the Aquinos during that time in “Old Girl,” painting an intimate still-life of the political and celebrity family. (One of their daughters is now dubbed “queen of Philippine media” and their only son is currently the president of the Philippines.)
Though she’s gathered seeds from the Filipino cultural imaginary and cultivated them into stories that look something more like cultural portraiture, Mia insists that her works are just that: imaginary. “The Manila and the Bahrain and the New York that are in the book feel as foreign to me as any science-fiction world you’re trying to build,” she says. “When you’re writing fiction, it has to become an imaginary place. It took me a while to realize that.”
Many of Mia’s stories are so plausible, it’s easy to forget her book is a work of fiction. She says her family needs to be reminded as well. One of her aunts is already talking film adaptations. “She wanted Diane Keaton to play her at first,” Mia says. “Then she changed her mind. Now she wants Diane Lane.”
Not that Mia wasn’t inspired in part by her family — but she insisted on getting to the more callous aspects of her book’s cast. Rather than bolster the generous stereotypes of overseas Filipino workers being the most hardworking, diligent, and compassionate immigrants of the first world, she wanted to explore how her characters’ circumstances lead them to make more morally gray actions.
“You’re attempting to make these people be a certain type of open-minded or culturally all-embracing, but some of the characters in the book are uptight and judemental and don’t behave well at all,” Mia says. “I felt more of a responsibility to show a diversity of people within the nation rather than talk about these national tropes.”
Surely, many Filipinos will still be proud to be represented in her book, I tell her, particularly because it’s a work of literary merit in the United States. If In the Country were published online, there’d be countless comments from excited Filipinos declaring, “Proud to be Pinoy!”
Mia is flattered, though skeptical. “If someone comments on my book like that,” she says, “I’d have to ask if they actually read the book.” Still, she sips her sauvignon blanc through a smile.
Then there’s the literati reaction to consider. After the New York Times published a reading list made entirely of white authors, then came the articles published considering the lack of diversity in literature. So an audience exhausted with white noise might be zealous to applaud the striking debut of a writer of color like Mia. But Mia says she thought about the hurdles a writer of color must face “only when it was too late to do something else.”
Since the Alvars were and always have been a literary family, Mia never placed the writer’s life on an ivory pedestal. “It was just something you did if you wanted to,” she says. Then she found professors in college and grad school who valued a diverse syllabus populated by prolific writers of color. “I was actually in a little bubble for a while,” Mia says. Through her MFA years, she read works by the likes of Sandra Cisneros, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Junot Diaz, not particularly intimidated by the white literary canon they — and she hoped to — crack into.
“In a way, I’m glad about that,” Mia says. “It would’ve been stifling while I was writing, thinking about the difficulty of finding an audience. I’ve certainly experienced bias and prejudice in my daily life, but it wasn’t until later that I realized it could be an uphill climb to publish a book about brown people in a brown country and living in between brown countries.”
The climb might feel Sisyphean at times, to constantly edit and rewrite a book about brown people and brown countries while making sure everything makes sense to every nonbrown person who picks it up. Whenever Mia’s agent or editor had a question about a particular Filipino practice or place, she saw it as an opportunity to improve rather than a time to self-censor.
“I never thought of it as dumbing down the work,” Mia says. “I never wanted readers to get stuck on a certain something because I wanted the cultural references to serve the story. So it had to be a personal and specific solution each time.” In title story “In the Country,” for example, Mia covers plenty of political and historical ground in '70s and '80s Manila by playing with form and tense, as well as balancing description with potent dialogue. She succeeds in presenting a narrative so thorough that she’s already working on a novel-length version of the story.
To a Filipino reader, the explanations are more like reminders. With every mention of a sari-sari store or an aircon, jueteng or a carabao, Aquino or Marcos comes a moment of recognition. Through these stories run threads and threads of a distinct cultural fabric that is shared amongst a nation, a diaspora, a proud people. Mia's hand-holding isn’t so much guidance, but rather an assurance, a presence saying, "I am here with you."
Still, Mia maintains the value of confusion and cognitive friction as something productive. “Growing up and reading Chekov, I had to look up what a samovar was because he didn’t explain it to me and that’s OK,” she says. “It’s OK for me to have to look up the name of a dish or something. People hate alienating a reader, but it’s OK to feel a little alienated when you’re reading. When you’re alienated or uncomfortable, to overcome that, you have to learn something.”
As she chews on the thought, and on a bite of her pancit, the waiters at Jeepney begin to hoot and holler. “Balut!” they cry, announcing that someone ordered the infamous Filipino delicacy — boiled fertilized duck egg. In case you ever dare: You crack it open, slurp the amniotic soup, and bite through the tender flesh and paper bones of an unborn duckling for a taste not unlike, well, duck. It’s not for the squeamish, but, as it is with most things Filipino, it’s all about the experience.
Mia and I opted out of the balut this time, but we both enjoy our dinner. I’m on my last roll of pork and vegetable lumpia when she invites me to have some of her pancit. Despite the chicharon in the recipe, she still goes for the dish, noodles and fried pork skin and all, with gusto.
“As you can see I’m not that strict a pescatarian,” Mia says. “I’m pretty Filipino.”