Interview: Mia Alvar, Author Of 'In The Country' Mia Alvar's new short story collection spans the globe — from Manila to New York to Manama, Bahrain — to offer a more complicated narrative of Filipino exiles, emigres and wanderers.
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Beyond The 'Sometimes Sentimental' Story Of Filipino Migrants

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Beyond The 'Sometimes Sentimental' Story Of Filipino Migrants

Beyond The 'Sometimes Sentimental' Story Of Filipino Migrants

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Mia Alvar was born in the Philippines, but as a small child, her family moved to Bahrain. Then they moved again to New York. The cities of her own childhood are the settings in her new collection of short stories, "In The Country."

MIA ALVAR: Part of the project for BU was kind of getting behind the official, sometimes sentimental narrative about overseas Filipino workers.

RATH: What's the - what's the sentimental version?

ALVAR: Well, you know, there's an overarching sense of them as the heroes and saints of their family who are making this huge sacrifice - which, of course, they are - of being apart from the people that they love in order to support those same people. And I was curious about where some of these characters kind of hew to that narrative and where they kind of go off-script, as well.

RATH: Let's talk about one of these stories. There's an amazing story called "The Miracle Worker," obviously playing off the title of the old play about Helen Keller, and this is about a character named Sally. She lives in Bahrain, and she's been hired to be kind of a miracle worker, to work with a disabled child.

ALVAR: Yeah. That story and that title really speaks directly to this reputation that Filipinos, who represent a large number of the ex-pat workers in that area of the Middle East - that sense of them - as Sally, in the story, calls them, the cheerful, hard-working and obedient tribe (laughter).

RATH: Diligent, industrious, and...

ALVAR: Right - literally miracle workers.

RATH: And something that's interesting about Sally's situation and is true for other characters in these stories - the degree to which your identity is defined by what you do, by your job. I mean, it's true for everybody, I guess, but when you're in this foreign environment, it's that much more of a contrast.

ALVAR: Right. And yet, when people are sort of thrown together in a place that's strange or foreign to them, Filipinos who maybe would not have socialized with each other back in Manila spend all their free time socializing with each other and kind of lean on each other and feel a responsibility to each other.

RATH: There's another character here, Esmeralda, who does seem to fall into that familiar pattern. She's a Filipino woman working as a maid in New York City.

ALVAR: Right.

RATH: I was hoping you could read the opening passage from her story.

ALVAR: Sure.

That morning, you're awoken by an airplane humming so close overhead, it seems to want to take you with it. The clock says five, an hour ahead of your alarm. You've lived close to two airports for almost two decades. You're used to planes. They even show up in your dreams. In last night's dream, you died. Your body crumbled into ash. Before you could learn what came next, before you could see where your soul went, a machine - some giant vacuum cleaner, which in real life was this plane - came down to sweep you off the earth like dust. After today you'll never hear a plane in the same way again, but you don't know that yet.

RATH: What's - another thing that's wild about this story - you use the second-person all the way through. You, you, you -you do this, you do that. Why that approach? I mean, it's kind of - it has a sort of haunting quality about it.

ALVAR: Well, I think the second-person is just polarizing, for understandable reasons. People don't like being told that they are someone they're not or they're doing something that they definitely aren't. And it can come across in sort of an almost aggressive way (laughter).

And I sort of decided that I was OK, in this particular story, with kind of aggressively insisting that the person reading identify with Esmeralda, whose real-life counterpart might not have time to read a literary short story collection. Yeah, I think the second-person kind of speaks to the desire to have someone identify with this character and also the impossibility of it.

RATH: Mia Alvar's debut story collection is called "In The Country." Mia, thanks very much.

ALVAR: Thank you.

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