This book is part of a reading project, in which I am seeking to read only books written by women and minorities–and falling into a specific set of categories established by the popular book blog Book Riot in its 2016 Read Harder Challenge. You can see the full list of books I’ll be reading and reviewing here.
Assignment: Read a book that is by an author from Southeast Asia
Whenever I listen to professional book reviewers waxing poetically over literary fiction, I usually hear them classify stories into one of two categories: those which are plot-driven and those which are character-driven. Some stories focus more on the events of the story, while others focus more on how the characters develop through those events. Well, the collection of stories within Mia Alvar’s In the Country are among the first that I personally would classify as setting-driven.
From beginning to end, these stories are all about place.
Shadow Families opens up with, “Every weekend, in Bahrain in the 1980s, we took turns throwing a party.”
The Virgin of Monte Ramon starts with, “Annelise was my neighbor, if you measured the distance in steps. I lived on a quiet hill in the town of Monte Ramon.”
Legends of the White Lady begins with, “If you are beautiful and broke, one place left for you is Asia.”
The characters in each of Alvar’s stories are sojourners. They, at various points in their lives and within various social classes, are travelling from their home in the Phillipines to different parts of the world. The stories are about the place you’re from, the place you end up, and tension between the two. The characters bring a sense of Filipino culture to the places they end up–from New York to Saudi Arabia–but also seek to adapt to the culture of the countries they come to call home.
In addition to the emphasis on setting, the stories of In the Country feature prominently the tension within relationships of various social institutions–husbands and wives, employers and employees, parents and children. You get a real sense of longing in these characters–they all seem to be searching for a home, not just in the sense of physical space, but also in the sense of social identity.
One of my favorite scenes (possibly because it reminded me of how self-concious I feel when I’m eating something messy like a grapefruit around my own wife) occurs between a husband and wife in The Miracle Worker. The protagonist has just come home to her husband and is reflecting on their relationship. He had always been extremely supportive and accomdating–the perfect husband. And yet, as her life as settled down and she finds herself not so dependent on him, she begins to question the sense of beloning she feels with him…
But now that we really did live on a desert island, I was finding myself less and less in need of that oasis. Here in Bahrain, where my daily stresses were so few, where television and groceries provided the most taxing strains on my attention, I’d grown more and more aware of what came with Ed’s constant, indestructible love. His incompetent winks. His noisy, desperate waty of eating. The texture of his skin, baked rough and leathery by this new climate, and its now perpetual film of grease…
In reading In the Country, I also feel like my perspective has broadened and I’ve learned a little about the cultural nuances of Southeast Asia (which, of course, was the point in my reading this particular book). For example, I learned about the contemporary custom of Filipinos migrating to Middle East to work as servants in families of wealthy oil tycoons. I hadn’t realized that this kind of class structure existed.
I also got the sense of how people from Southeast Asia may see the world differently than people like me, who have only been exposed to the culture here in the United States. For example, a character in Esmeralada (really cool story written in the second person) reflects on how the east and west view the concept of a family. In more indepently-minded western societies, siblings often drift apart in their relationships with one another. In eastern cultures, however, interdependence is more highly valued and the concept of “distance” between families doesn’t quite compute.
“Are you and Pepe close?”
The first time Doris asked you this, you shook your head. Almost nine thousand miles. She laughed. “I don’t mean close on a map,” she said. “I know he’s far away. I mean, how distant are you? Your relationship.” This threw you. How “distant” could the blood, running through your own veins, be? “So, you are close,” Doris said. You learned to keep it simple with Americans who asked you after that. Yes, very close.
I really enjoyed the stories in Mia Alvar’s collection and would highly recommend them for anyone looking for a literary lens through which to experience Southeast Asia and its cultural interaction with the world.