A Conversation with Mia Alvar ’00
“Relax! Love’s a miracle, not a disaster,” a man counsels his doubtful younger sister in a short story by Mia Alvar ’00. Soon enough, he learns—as all the characters of her book, In The Country, do—that love costs. Alvar’s collection explores different corners of the Filipino diaspora, stretching from Bahrain to Boston. A pharmacist smuggles painkillers to his dying father in “The Kontrabida”; a broke fashion model books a gig in Manila in “Legends of the White Lady”; a nurse and her journalist husband are caught up in labor strikes in “In the Country.” Alvar enumerates the sacrifices, large and small, that people make in pursuit of some distant, better life.
A former English concentrator and resident of Quincy House, Alvar often spent her earnings from an admissions-office job at the Harvard Bookstore. At a reading there on July 22 (moderated by Celeste Ng ’02, author of Everything I Never Told You and a former intern at this magazine), she told attendees, “Plympton Street might as well be called Memory Lane for me.” She spoke to Harvard Magazine after the event.
Harvard Magazine: You’ve said you feel that migration was one of the themes of your life. Could you talk a little about where you spent your childhood?
Mia Alvar: I was born in Manila and grew up pretty much in the city until I was six years old. At that point we moved to Bahrain—ostensibly this was because an uncle of mine had found work there. A steady job and a stable life in general were looking harder and harder to come by in the Philippines in the mid eighties, and so my parents followed my uncle to the Middle East. They were also looking for a change of scenery. I had a brother who had passed away about two years before, and I think they wanted some distance from the house where they raised him. We were in Bahrain for four years, and then my mother decided to go to graduate school at Columbia, in special education. So we moved to Manhattan and more or less settled there.
One of the undercurrents of your book seems to be about different kinds of work, and about all kinds of people—whether a special education teacher, or a politician’s wife (who becomes president herself)—whose work requires that they conform to the needs of others. The characters are in economic situations that create complex, interdependent relationships. What interests you about labor as a literary theme, or as a personal fascination?
I actually didn’t know I was writing a book about class and labor until almost every review described it that way. Of course now I realize that the class perspective of my parents, who grew up poor, has absolutely shaped my life and outlook, down to the countries I’ve lived in and the schools I’ve attended and the ways I think about work and money. My parents grew up aspiring to middle-class comforts and saw hard work and advanced schooling as means to that end. This ethos obviously has a great deal to do with the American presence in the Philippines, but alongside it I also sensed an older, somewhat more rigid and fatalistic view of life, which feels very Catholic to me and has a great deal to do with the country’s colonial history. So that sense of upward mobility was tempered by a kind of class anxiety all the time, the sense that every achievement was fragile, that a family’s luck could turn at any time and send you back down the rungs of this very slippery ladder.
Since so many of my family members have migrated from the Philippines for work—aunts, uncles, my own father—I’m fascinated by this dynamic of patronage and dependence that forms between the balikbayan, or people who travel back and forth, and the people back home, who receive their money and gifts. Growing up, I’d constantly be introduced to men and women who worked abroad and subsidized their family’s lives in the Philippines. “I have three nurses already” is how one Filipina housecleaner put it to me, meaning that she had put three nieces, and counting, through nursing school. Whenever I hear a story like that, a million questions crop up. How exactly is someone appointed—even self-appointed—as the remote family benefactor? Does the niece even want to go to nursing school? What emotions come into play besides pride and love and gratitude, and what are the forces that push against both the balikbayan’s and the beneficiary’s choices? The questions go on, and it seems to me that certain powers and disadvantages and costs and motives emerge on both sides once you look beyond the simple story of heroic sacrifice.
The Middle East became a really interesting space for me to explore class dynamics even further. In Bahrain I saw many distinctions between white-collar and working-class Filipinos sort of collapse over shared customs, nostalgia, and the anxiety of being far from home. More recently I’ve been curious about the distinction between migrant classes and immigrant classes: the odd, in-between status of many overseas Filipino workers in the Middle East, who don’t become Bahraini or Saudi citizens and who fully intend to retire in the Philippines after years and sometimes decades of living and working abroad, versus that of Filipinos who come to America to settle and naturalize here.
I’m also interested in the ways migration can form class distinctions within a family, within a generation even, and by the family members’ own design. My story “A Contract Overseas” is about a girl who depends on her older brother financially to fund an education that’s meant in some ways to turn her into his social superior. And so many adults I knew growing up were very vocal about wanting their work to create younger relatives who were “better than” they had been.
You mentioned that you came to Harvard thinking that you wanted to be a poet. Do you remember when that changed? Do you still feel any attraction to that form?
I do feel an attraction to it still, but it's theoretical and unrealistic at this point, because it takes me so long to finish a single story. But I definitely miss at least the possibility of perfecting something. As an aspiring poet I could work with a much smaller canvas. The feeling that every word is in place, and perfectly chosen, is more elusive and maybe impossible in a longer story or novel.
And my brain works narratively now, for some reason. It’s funny: I took a poetry workshop with Henri Cole in my freshman year, and there were a lot of upperclassmen saying that they’d written fiction all their lives, but now their thinking had grown less linear. I’ve had the opposite progression.
The acknowledgments section thanks several friends for what you call “domain expertise,” helping you to research—do you have any particular readers before your stories even get to an editor?
I have a small handful of first readers, yes—but I also consult other people early, when I feel like I don't know enough to even begin drafting a story. So on that list that you mentioned, there’s a pharmacist, a doctor, a couple of lawyers, someone who speaks Spanish. In the early stages I just ask people questions, take a lot of notes, read, and think. I call it research, but it might just be fancy procrastination.
Once I’ve written something, I might give early drafts to my husband [ed: Glenn Nano ’98, a product manager at The New York Times] before anyone else sees them. I try to get to the point where I can name the problems in a draft and have tried but failed to solve them. He’s kind of the ideal first reader for me, in that he studied literature and is an avid reader who thinks and cares deeply about storytelling, but is not a fiction-writer himself. He can approach problems both in a technical, literary way and in a down-to-earth, everyreader sort of way.
The collection’s titular story, which you plan to develop into a novel, gave you some trouble. I wondered if this was because you felt that this was a longer story, and you were telling a novella-length portion of it, or perhaps because of the structure, which goes back and forth in time—or was it something to do with the painful subject matter?
One of the central challenges for me in writing about this period—between the declaration of martial law in 1972 and the People Power Revolution in 1986—was that it's very hard to get underneath the vaunted national mythology of that time to the everyday, ground-level experience of the people living it. Even in supposedly neutral sources, the tone and language around who Ninoy Aquino was, his assassination, and the rise of the opposition movement, tend to become very dramatic and almost literary. Of course, that dissonance—between public, official narratives and people’s private day-to-day experience—is in itself an obsession for me. But from a pure research standpoint, when it comes to the Philippines in the seventies and eighties, it's tricky to distinguish between the romance—and many of these events, I think, were being romanticized in real time—and what else was going on, which I suspect was more complex and unwieldy than this morality play told in very bold strokes.
In the Country explores the experiences of people of different classes and ethnicities, in many different countries; there are often phrases in other languages, or references to other cultures. At what point does the thought of an audience—specifically, a white American one—come in for you—if it does at all? Is their frame of reference on your mind?
It’s sort of floating in the background throughout the process. I try not to be too concerned about audience while I’m drafting and revising; I’m much more interested in getting the story to work on a technical level. Even towards the end, I try to approach historical and cultural context the way I would any other choice, which is case by case. Sometimes it really is necessary to explain what's going on in Manila in the early eighties, and sometimes it's okay to drop a slightly revealing but not overly explained detail.
When it comes to considering audience, it’s been crucial to have an editor I really trust. She doesn’t share my background or Filipino cultural references, but because I trust her tastes and sensibilities and sophistication as a reader, I know that when she recommends more explanation, it’s in the service of better storytelling and not out of idle, armchair-tourist curiosity or a desire to be spoon-fed information.
The stories in the book, with the exception of the novella at the end, are all about the same length, and all fairly long—around 25 or 30 pages. How did you come to work at this scale? And have you always?
Yes, I was the person in workshop everyone hated because I would hand in these 30-page stories—and they were heavy. The feedback was often, “Are you sure this is a short story? This seems like it wants to be a novel.” I’ve always had this maximalist impulse: why say something in seven words when you can say it in seven sentences? Each of the stories in the collection has been at least three times longer than its final version.
I’d wondered about that—whether you start at the beginning and keep going until you feel it’s done, and the stories all happen to feel finished at that length, or whether it was a process of cutting down.
Thirty to 25 pages is the shortest I could get them. The drafts grow much longer and meander in many different directions before I even figure out what I hope to say. Some of my favorite stories to read are beautifully spare and compressed, but I've never been able to do that. My instinct has always been to go deep into the backstory of even the most minor character, to enter all the rooms in the house, not just the ones where the action takes place.
At the reading, you said that you’d be going back to the Philippines for the first time since you’d visited during college.
Yes, for a literary festival, and some readings and other events. What I'm most excited about is visiting Davao, my father’s home city, for the first time. I plan to stay and travel around a while, outside of promoting the book. I don't know how much of it I'll pretend is research. I’m a little superstitious about trying too hard to get “material” out of one’s travels, but I’ll bring a notebook with me.
The last time I visited the Philippines was for a sad occasion. My grandmother was sick, and almost certainly going to pass away. “The Kontrabida,” the first story I started writing in the collection, grew out of details I took in from that visit: the sari-sari store that had been added to my childhood home, the funeral rites and preparations around my grandmother’s death—things that must have seemed normal to me as a kid, but were completely alien and arresting by the time I returned. That visit was really the reason I started writing fiction, so I’m happy to go back in order to share the finished book with readers in the Philippines, a much less tragic reason than what brought me there last time.