By Kyung Yoon
Asian American Life
Mia Alvar’s book, In the Country, has had the kind of reception that most first-time authors can only dream about. In April, she won the prestigious PEN Bingham Prize for debut fiction for her collection of short stories about overseas Filipinos, spanning different time periods and countries.
Her book brings to life the stories of Filipino men and women who, like many of her aunts, uncles and her own parents, left their homeland in search of better jobs and opportunities, often to support family members back home. Alvar says she wanted to get beyond the sentimental stereotypes of these overseas workers and delve into their inner lives and motivations.
“These are men and women I grew up with,” she says, “and so I wanted to know more about their love lives and what they did for fun and what made them angry. I wanted to know more than that they send money home. Like everybody, they are more than their job title.”
Alvar’s stories also have a historical context, including the title story of In The Country which is set during the martial law years of Ferdinand Marcos, culminating in the murder of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino and the “People Power” revolution in 1986 that led to his wife, Corazon Aquino, becoming president. But the protagonists in Alvar’s stories are often the everyday working people rather than the history makers, giving readers a personal lens on how historic events affect ordinary citizens.
The settings for the stories are taken from where Alvar grew up: the Philippines, the Middle East and the United States. Born in Manila 38 years ago, she lived in the Philippines until the age of six when her family moved to Bahrain. At the time, she says her family was reeling from the devastating loss of her older brother, who had passed away two years earlier.
“The Philippines was under martial law, people were unsure of their economic future in their country and my parents were also grieving this loss,” recalls Alvar. “So when they had the opportunity to leave and go to Bahrain where an uncle of mine had found work, we took it and followed my aunt and uncle there.”
Alvar’s father found a job with the Ministry of Tourism in Bahrain and her mother worked part-time as a school teacher. After four years, the family moved to New York City when her mother got the opportunity to pursue an advanced degree in Special Education at Columbia University.
Alvar says, “There was always this sense when I was growing up that upward mobility was possible and that education was the way that was very central to their upbringing and they tried to impart that to my generation.”
The Harvard-educated Alvar says that she hope her writing, along with that of other Asian American authors, can be an addition to a fuller American story and not be marginalized on a “special shelf” in fiction.
“Growing up as a kid and looking for books that represented my family’s experience or communities that resembled mine, it was often set aside as a category of its own: Asian American Literature, Immigrant Literature,” Alvar recalls. “And now people are realizing It’s not just Indian American lives or Filipino American lives, it’s everybody’s life because we all live in the same cities and same country.”
In addition to the PEN Prize, In the Country also won the Barnes & Noble’s 2015 Discover Award and was named “One of the Best Books of the Year” by the New Yorker, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, the Huffington Post, Kirkus Reviews and may other publications. Alvar was also recently honored for her contributions to the Filipino American community at the recent Evening in Manila Gala sponsored by the Advancement for Rural Kids and Mahalirka/Jeepney.
Alvar is now working on a full length novel that builds on the themes of migration and diaspora—topics that are clearly close to her heart and experiences.
For more on Alvar’s story watch this month’s Asian American Life (CUNY-TV)
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