Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Review: A Filipina writer addresses her country’s diaspora

Review of: In the Country: Stories
Author: Mia Alvar
Publisher: Vintage
Source: Purchase, Barnes and Noble
Grade: A

How can words so easy to read be so heartbreaking? Each short story of Mia Alvar's collection, In the Country: Stories, chronicles, in clear and lovely prose, a different aspect of the Filipino diaspora she knows from personal experience. Most often, she explores the effect of having so many of her countrymen and women flee their homeland, often for economic reasons, but sometimes as political exiles.

Occasionally, Alvar even considers the reverse of Asian migration.

"Legends of the White Lady" features an over the hill American model looking for work in Manila, where, "in cities like these there is a demand for blue eyes and light hair and skin like milk." "Peaches and cream," her agent says of her, and she "loath(es) them all for loving something so commonplace -- even if that commonplace thing was me." "The Virgin of Monte Ramon" questions the Word War II legacy of Americans in the Philippines, and the children they sometimes left behind.

None of Alvar's characters escape their story without having their hopes, expectations, even their fears, turned upside down.

Sometimes they're adult children like the New York pharmacist of "The Kontrabida," traveling to Manila say goodbye to his dying, abusive father and the mother he thought was a saint in waiting, only to find his parents' roles the reverse of what he remembered.

Or Filipino guest workers in wealthy Middle Eastern countries (a situation Alvar is personally familiar with from her childhood in Bahrain), ex-pats such as those of "The Miracle Worker," "Shadow Families," and A Contract Overseas," living in, but never part of, the life of their host countries.

And then there are those who stayed behind against all odds, epitomized by the politically-active journalist of the final, novella-length story of Alvar's volume, "In the Country." Set against the repression of the Marcos regime, the husband's purity of purpose threatens the emotional well-being, and finally the lives, of his family. Who is good, who is evil, who is merely deluded? Alvar's stories offer her readers, no less than her characters, no easy answers.

(So many events lately, I’ve gotten behind on book reviews. But I’ll do some catch up this week. Tomorrow: North Texas writer Deborah Crombie’s latest, Garden of Lamentations.)

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