Focus: In The Country by Mia Alvar

Ma. Isabel Ongpin

Ma. Isabel Ongpin

The Philippine Literary and Writers Festival is this week. More and more Philippine authors, young and younger, are writing. Many of them are writing in English, which, despite the supposed decline of the language here is compensated for by the number of Filipino writers who are exposed to it. Many of them do from their experience of living in other countries by way of working abroad, either through the exile of their parents or their own. This is the Philippine diaspora. In a population of about 100 million Filipinos, 10 percent are out of the country, doing work overseas.

It was only a matter of time that the phenomenon of Filipinos scattered abroad in substantial numbers, forming small communities, reflecting from their distance the country and people left behind, would express themselves in writing, actually literature.

One of the young writers that I have met in this category is Mia Alvar, born in Manila but grew up in Bahrain and is now based in the United States. She visited Manila late last year and through the sponsorship of the National Bookstore gave a talk expressing what she normally wrote about.

One of the major influences on her in her life abroad was Filipino movies. From them she was able to discern what we really care about, how we express ourselves regarding our values and act out a life that mirrors them.
This vis-à-vis her own family and Filipino community experience in places away from the country furnishing her another parallel experience that she synthesizes to write incredibly sensitive but well-balanced tales of striving, hard-working, mostlycourageous characters who take the path of work abroad, or simply find themselves there. The course of their lives while initiated by asingular motive soon has to confront many detours and deviations from which they and the reader who follows them experience everything that life brings. Ms. Alvar does not only write of Filipinos abroad, she is a clear and expressive observer of Filipinos here with an unerring touch that resonates with her readers.

Her book of nine short stories published by Alfred Knopf in 2015 is a treasure trove of nine singular stories that feature both Filipinos abroad and Filipinos at home.

In social settings in alien countries, Filipinos cling to each other, having gained some education and the well-paying jobs they landed by way of sacrificing being in the company of their parents as they battle poverty-stricken lives in continuous never-ending struggles. Their progeny, now better off, find jobs abroad while the now older parents stay home and continue to work. In exile, replications of the social hierarchy exist with the added dimension of having to deal with foreigners who are their bosses or their subordinates, situations froth with friction. As they carefully navigate through a middleclass life, the fruit of their parents’ work and their own education and the regimented life of work and church, children and babies, they come to the stage where their children grow up in their own world, again different from theirs as theirs was different from home.

Her fine story, The Kontrabida, shows the to and fro of a New York pharmacist’s son whose parents decline in health and life back home, which makes him visit them to help. As with any human being, it brings back the past with its turmoil and tranquility, suffering and loving. One may run away but his past runs along with him.

The present reality has to be confronted and indeed, he does. The author’s characterization, the portrayal of falling off the middle class, the weaknesses and strengths of the characters are realistic. One appreciates the sensitivity and deftness of her story, the skill of observation and the conveyance of the Truth that she weaves into it.

Another story is about a Filipino teacher in the Middle East facing the task of caring for a special child and finding the conscience to lower her employer’s expectations of both the child’s future and her own skills, and in a way her own marriage.

The Virgin of Monte Ramon is set in a small town in this country, where two sick and marginalized children, find each other beyond the difficulties of their circumstances. Bullied, looked down upon, unfairly treated, they find and maintain their appreciation of each other through their courage and their love.

A maid’s leap into the unknown in an alien country when she has a chance to come home to family, a poor mother and a beloved but ne’er-do-well brother, tests her courage, stamina and finally her sense of right and wrong. She makes the choice.

The Legend of the White Lady is a sad tale of wasted opportunity and inability to fit into a life one has chosen.

It derives from an alienation from family and a failure to love. It has Manila, Balete Drive, taxi drivers and other local characters for a supporting cast.

The book is In The Country and I bought it at National Book Store last year but they have run out of stock and we should appeal that they replenish the supply.

Mia Alvar is a brilliant talent that writes about us.


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