Mia Alvar, winner of the PEN/Bingham Prize, uses her and her family’s experience of being immigrants in the United States as material for her first collection of short stories, In the Country. Alvar talks to Melissa R. Sipin about the difficulties of creating characters that are furthest from her—characters not based on people from the same generation or upbringing as Alvar’s, even if they share an immigrant history. Alvar explains why it was difficult yet important to avoid stereotyping these characters and how she worked to remain empathetic to their perspectives and belief systems.
Melissa Sipin: What brought you to writing?
Mia Alvar: I started writing pretty early, when in the Philippines, which is where I was born. Back then it was a form of entertainment. This was pre-Internet, so whenever I read a story or a poem or a book I tried to imitate it, as a way to extend the life of a book, to get more out of it. I guess what brought me to writing was the same thing that motivates people to write fan fiction.
I thought I wanted to be a poet for a really long time. The teacher that I was closest to in high school was a poet and that was my introduction into the literary world. It wasn’t until my senior year in college that I started getting serious about writing fiction or even thinking about it.
I visited the Philippines for the first time in ten years to see my grandmother who was sick and most likely passing away. I was keeping a notebook while I was in the Philippines—just images and experiences that were arresting or alien to me after so much time away, particularly around death and how that’s practiced in the Philippines. And when I went back to Boston, where I was going to school for my senior year, a lot of very vibrant, groundbreaking short story collections were coming out that were set in immigrant communities. Junot Diaz’s Drown was one of them. Reading that at the same time that I was coming off of this trip made me think of my family’s memories and experiences as material for the first time and it got me thinking about short story collections—which I just fell in love with at that point—and made me want to try writing.
Tell us a little bit about the process of writing the book. What I tend to do is try to fit a novel in the short story form. I try, but I put in too much. Your book reads like novellas in short stories, almost like the work of Alice Munro—you’re able to capture an entire life in a snapshot. What was the process of putting together the collection and trying to see what associations the stories brought to each other, how they spoke to each other?
I’m glad you feel that way about short stories because I’m like you—in my MFA workshops I would hand in thirty- to thirty-five-page stories while other students were handing in these beautiful compressed ten-page stories. I would always get this feedback in graduate school: “Are you sure this is a short story?” “Maybe you should just explore it and admit you’re working on a novel.” But to be honest there was no one idea among the nine stories that felt like, “Okay, this is really what I want to work on to the exclusion of everything else.” It’s the same reason I fell in love with short story collections in the first place. I love the idea of entering a territory or a community from different angles and perspectives, instead of one epic narrative.
The process was long. Each story was inspired by anything from a personal memory or a family anecdote to a news item or something I had heard happen to someone else. Or sometimes it was a formal challenge in combination with those things: for instance, I love short stories written from the collective first person point of view, so I wanted to try that. I also wanted to try the second person. It really was a different set of inspirations (for each story) and then I would usually try to read everything I could related to that project, whether it was researching martial law in the Philippines or trying to read every story I could find written in the second person. I had that instinct of: “I can’t start writing until I know everything.” This is not very efficient, but I would do that and go back and forth over many months and years. Sometimes a deadline would come along and I’d have to finish a draft and hand it in for an application. But that draft could have gone in a completely wrong direction. And then I would just start over and try to revise the story from there. It took a long time, especially since I could never seem to work on multiple stories at the same time. For the most part I would have to finish each one before moving on to the next.
Kind of like a stepping stone?
Yeah, there wasn’t enough space in my brain for more than one story or project. I guess I’m sort of obsessive.
It’s hard not to be because these stories are so intricate. One of my favorites in the collection was “The Legends of the White Lady.” It was how you played with myth, entered into the voice of an “all American” model, Alice Anders, whose deep relationship with Sabine, a half-white, half-Filipina model, transforms into an obsession. Sabine haunts Alice everywhere, especially in Manila, in double-mirrored bathrooms. I felt most at home in her voice and related to her the most. I guess it’s because though I’m a daughter of immigrants, I’m also a daughter of L.A.—meaning, I have a multitude of selves within me (American, Filipina, femme, writer, etc.). Alice’s second visit to Manila was almost like a homecoming, returning to a land that Sabine came from but was also a stranger (that moment she was called “white” because of her biracialness). Can you speak a little bit about embodying these multitudes of selves for yourself?
With “Legends of the White Lady,” I had a similar experience of identifying with Alice. I’ve done a couple of these Q&As with people and one of the questions that comes up often is: “Which of the characters do you feel closest to?” or “What is the closest to your experience?” The last thing I ever expected was to feel a special connection with Alice in that story. She’s the only non-Filipino character in the collection, looks nothing like me, and isn’t in my line of work. But once I got her voice, after finally finding the right tone and rhythm and diction for her, I could relate to her on so many levels—her grief, her loneliness, her struggle to get by in a difficult business and just exist as a female body in the world.
I didn’t consciously choose first person for most of the stories. It kind of chose itself. Sometimes it would take many drafts to know whose story it was, whose voice was coming up the strongest. And then there were stories that clearly belonged to a particular character from the very beginning. So many of the stories, particularly the balikbayan stories, are inspired by storytelling in my own family, which is always from the first person perspective.
“Legends of the White Lady” was originally written from the perspective of the actress Claire Danes, or a thinly fictionalized version of her. In the late 1990s she filmed a movie in Manila called Brokedown Palace. The movie is actually set in Bangkok, but was filmed in Manila. She (Danes) came back and gave this really controversial interview about Manila because she hated her time there. But she used this really surreal language which was interesting to me because Manila does feel surreal in a lot of ways, even if there are more sensitive ways to talk about it.
You’re right. Manila is the definition of surreal and fragmentary.
Yeah. Claire Danes was like, “The places smelled like cockroaches,” or “People were walking around without arms and legs.” All these things that she found…“ghastly,” I think is the word that she used about Manila. It was her language that was really very controversial in Manila; she was declared persona non grata in the city. Her movies were banned there (I don’t know if this is true today still). But to me there was something compelling about her description, even though I understood why people were offended by it. So I started writing a story from the perspective of Claire Danes filming that movie in Manila. But it turned out not to be very interesting for me to write that story, and so it was clearly not going to be interesting for anyone else to read. Shifting her experience slightly to that of another White American woman traveling in Manila for a slightly different reason and obviously with very different status made the character more interesting and complex and fun for me to write.
She (Alice) was very complicated too. The story is about the complexity of whiteness—how, as an all-American woman, she is displaced at home and also abroad, even though her skin color is desired.
Obviously there’s a lot of privilege associated with her character, but I wanted it to be a slightly complicated story of privilege. When I wrote the story I knew that there was this reversal happening—an American traveling to the Philippines. One reader pointed out to me specifically that Alice is a kind of “overseas contract worker” in reverse, which is interesting and not something I was conscious of while writing. Another reader mentioned that Alice gets to experience a version of what happens to minorities all the time: people aren’t sure where she’s from from, or they think they know, and guess wrongly all the time—the way Filipinos might get confused with Asians from other countries (for instance). And so I didn’t want it to be purely this story of “The Ugly American” or the clueless American tourist coming to Manila. I wanted her to be more interesting than that.
Even the blending of myth was so smart. When I think about writing a story about Ferdinand Marcos and martial law, which is history with a capital “H,” I always become caught up with telling it right. I trip over what exactly happened to my family during the Marcos regime, and it becomes my writer’s block. I’ve always wanted to try to write about these things from a distance, because what my family sacrificed to come to America was always wrapped up in silence. I guess that’s why I was interested in the first person narration in this book because the silences even in their psyches were pretty loud.
Yeah, some of these characters were harder than others, and it wasn’t always the characters I expected. In some ways the characters who were closest to me, at least on paper, were the hardest to get to know. Some of the female narrators, like the girl who narrates “A Contract Overseas” and Sally in “The Miracle Worker” were a little bit harder. I was trying to capture a voice and a perspective that’s a generation removed. I’m obviously privileged compared to someone like my mother, who leads a pretty middle-class existence now but growing up dreamed of getting to America, with all of her efforts in school and work directed toward that goal. That’s a very different perspective from the way I grew up where artistic or literary ambitions weren’t ideal, , but weren’t so crazy either. I’m sure my mother would have been very happy if I went to law school. But when it became clear I was interested in becoming a writer and majoring in English, it wasn’t as if I was telling her I planned to go to outer space. Whereas my own mother probably wouldn’t have dreamed of doing something so impractical, with her own parents and siblings depending on her from an early age. But I wanted to access perspectives like my mother’s without falling into a stereotype. That was the thing that I most passionately wanted to avoid in the collection—making people into types.
Another area where I had difficulty was writing about a lot of people who, in the real world at least, would be very religious, which was a big part of my upbringing but is no longer a part of my sensibility at all. I could have easily avoided writing about religion, which I was uncomfortable with, or written about people’s faith in a way that demeaned it and made them seem superstitious and foolish. But it was important to me that I don’t do that, particularly with Esmeralda. It was clear to me that her belief system was central to her worldview and a huge part of what kept her alive and what allowed her to survive in this country. So that was a very uncomfortable thing to try to get in touch with and try to get intimate with. But eventually I hope it came across as real and not as the thirty-something literary writer in New York trying to understand what this “Catholic thing” is all about.
I loved the way you used second person POV for this story. I’m someone who has submitted a lot of second-person stories in the workshop, and it always a hit-or-miss with them. More than that, I loved how this story focused on a voice that wasn’t highlighted in the media after 9/11. How did you go about researching for this story?
The 9/11 story wasn’t that hard to research because it was around me the whole time I was finishing “Esmeralda.” It took me many years and drafts to write that story. At the end, I had a studio in lower Manhattan. The new One World Trade Center was being built close by and all the archives were easily accessible from that day; the 9/11 Museum and the 9/11 Memorial had just opened. It was almost unavoidable for me as a subject and I had an abundance of testimony about that day at my fingertips. Selecting and paring down to just Esmeralda’s story of that day was important. There were so many different experiences of that day and it was important to me writing that story to stay close to her point of view, to not sound like a Wikipedia entry. I didn’t always know how to solve that problem. I tried to be sensitive to tone and word choice. I always want my stories to sound like a human is telling them. This is also why trusted readers and editors were so crucial for me in the later stages. I had been with some of these stories for so long that others could really hear them in a new way that I probably couldn’t anymore. They were able to tell me: “You’re over-explaining here” or “You’re being too vague” or “Too subtle here.” My editor, Lexy Bloom, had a really a good eye for always bringing big historical moments back to the level of the family, the characters and their bodies—what people were actually feeling. The email that Esmeralda finds on John’s computer screen came directly out of feedback from Lexy.
The New York Times said in their review of your book something along the lines that your prose connoted a kind of ‘armchair tourism’: “Clearly a writer with enchanting powers, Alvar wills us to crisscross the globe with them all over again.” And I really love what you said in response to this in your interview with Electric Literature: “One thing that’s troubled me a bit in some of the pre-pub write-ups about the book is the notion of “armchair tourism.” The idea that my book is a good one to read if you’d like to visit the Philippines without leaving Brooklyn? I get it, but still…”
As far as you’re concerned, the Manila, New York, Bahrain were imaginary—they had real-life counterparts but they were reinvented to suit the story. Could you speak a little bit more about the danger of armchair tourism, but also the power of imagination? For me, especially as someone who grew up in a lot of silence, I always felt a kind of dysphoria, as if I was always displaced or unmoored… But when I wrote, especially when I wrote fiction, I finally found a “home” I felt comfortable in. A “home” I could imagine, and one that was more “safe” to me. What I’m trying to say is that I felt most at “home” in fiction.
It’s funny, as soon as I came down so hard against reading books as a form of armchair tourism, I was reading Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade. It’s a story collection mostly set in northern New Mexico, and while reading and enjoying it, I kept thinking, “I’ve never been to the American Southwest! I’m learning so much about New Mexico!”
And I realized how hypocritical it was for me to be that dismissive of armchair tourism because I think it’s a human instinct and every reader does it to some extent, whether they feel they’re experiencing a foreign geography, or profession, or group of people. I understand the instinct better now than I did before and I think it’s okay as long as people remember that something is fiction. But I did have an anxiety about it with my book because there was so much that was invented. I needed that freedom in order to write about these people and places. I would drive myself crazy sometimes when I tried to capture something exactly as it was in real life, until I remembered: “I’m a fiction writer. I don’t need to drive myself crazy over this!”
I can just change the name of a place, and create this world that maybe, sort of looks like a suburb of Manila, one that people who grew up in suburbs of Manila might recognize, but isn’t faithful to a map or to someone’s ‘real life’. The more writers I talk to, the more I realize how common this is. I was on a panel with Boris Fishman and Sara Novic. We were talking about diaspora fiction, and Sara said that for her novel Girl at War sometimes she tried to describe something exactly as it was in real life, and people in her workshop would say, “This could not have happened!” Whereas some things that she invented completely were accepted without question. It’s so interesting to me that this happens in the writing process, and it’s something special about fiction. Imagination can make things more real than they would be if they were just reported from real life.
Right. And I loved how this book fills a need that someone like me—a diasporic Filipina—needs, and maybe what many overseas Filipino workers, who live in almost every country, need. There are Filipinos in Nigeria, Qatar, Bahrain, France, Nepal, Australia, Dubai. I have this intrinsic feeling that people have been wanting a book that shows them what over 10 million Filipinos who are in diaspora experience. I’m not necessarily talking about the burden of representation, but more so what Toni Morrison said when she wrote The Bluest Eye: “I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.” For me, In The Country gifts me that emotive want of “feeling home.”
Yeah! Obviously, part of the reason to read fiction is to look for experiences that are very different from your own, but then growing up as a person of color trying to be a writer, you also look for people whose experiences, even if they’re not exactly like yours, kind of speak to you. There was a time growing up when I searched for immigrant narratives very intensely. And something in me would always perk up when I would read an “immigrant story” where it wasn’t just the East-West kind of brown-country-to-America axis, you know? East-to-West is not the only migration happening. Other migrations have been happening for years.
That’s why I loved how the stories in Bahrain were not necessarily military-based! There are so many reasons why Filipinos come to Bahrain, and they’ve been building a home and community in Manama for years.
I’d love to read a collection about the Middle East from a military perspective! That’s what we’re waiting from you to write.
[laughs] Well, that’s definitely one of the things I’m trying to write, especially about the places I’ve visited because of my experiences as a Navy spouse.
I’m really fascinated by how place, even if it starts out as a physical location, turns ideal or imaginary for people. I mean, in the most obvious way, I’m interested in how that happens for both Filipino migrant workers whose intention is not to become a Saudi or a Bahraini but instead to go back after a certain amount of time has passed and a certain amount of money has been made; and how the home country or motherland becomes wrapped up in myth and sentiment, the tension between the idea in someone’s mind and what they actually do return to. That’s part of what the title of the collection means to me. Obviously “in the country” is this refrain throughout the stories: characters describe themselves and others as coming in or out of the Philippines all the time. But in that title story, when the line comes along, it’s actually an invention, a lie. And likewise so many of the things we think we know about a place over the years just become inventions.
I love how you said that you want to write the overseas worker story but without the sentimentality, because we always hear about the dramatic and sad sacrifices and the saints overseas workers tend to become. And here, we see them more in flesh and blood, more embodied.
It’s a bad idea to have a thesis or a central argument for a book, but if I had to have one for this book it would be something along those lines. That people are so much more than their job title or their nationality or the place they are born in or currently live in.
We’re so much more than the places we come from, and often those places become imaginations or ideals—like my hometown, Carson, CA, is slowly becoming gentrified because of the StubHub Center. It’s no longer the Carson of my memories. That kind of ties to what you said before—that the Bahrain, New York, and Manila in your book are very much imaginary, because they’re ideals in the minds of the characters.
What’s next? I heard it was a novel…?
I’m working very slowly on a novel that takes Milagros from the title story and follows her life after the events of “In the Country.” I’m still at the reading and information-gathering stage, because I have no idea how to write a novel, and I’m going to have to teach myself.