When it came out in 2015, I was so, so happy that Mia Alvar’s book of short stories In the Country was greeted with such critical acclaim. Alvar’s booked topped nearly every “Best of” list for 2015, and rightfully so. I would personally say that of the forty-two books I read last year, Alvar’s collection of stories was in my top five for sure. I really cannot recommend it highly enough.
Whether they tell of wealthy housewives in Bahrain trying to keep their expat community together amidst rumours of infidelity, or a political activist in the Philippines who pays for her husbands horrific choices, Alvar’s stories are engaging, nuanced, and highly readable.
Alvar is Filipina, having been born in Manila and raised in Bahrain and New York. With the success of Alvar’s book, I was reminded of the racial hierarchy of preferred narratives by Asian women writers enforced by the often-myopic practices of Western publishing houses.
I mentioned in my previous entry that stories by Korean women are seemingly scarcely available on the North American market. Ditto for work by Thai women. Come to think of it, do you see universities offering courses focusing on the writing of Vietnamese or Mongolian women? Yeah, didn’t think so. China and Japan get relatively more air time, but I’ll shamefully admit that Alvar’s book is the first fictional book by a Filipina woman I have ever added to my reading list.
Not only is this a prime example of institutional racism, but this preference for certain stories over others hints at classism and colourism as well. Ultimately, these practices remind us whose stories are deemed worth sharing with the world, and whose stories will remain quietly on the shelf.
Alvar doesn’t hesitate to retell/rewrite some stories you think you already know—those of Filipina domestic workers whose rights are all but ignored by the greater population; women who have to work far too hard for next to nothing. A classic stereotype of Asian women that Alvar flirts with is the meek, submissive woman who convivially cleans up after everyone without complaint. It seems like a simple story, until you learn more about the last woman standing.
Take the opening story, “The Kontrabida,” told by a man who visits his family in the Philippines where his father is dying. He feels sorry for his mother, ashamed that she plays maid, treating him, her own son, as an honoured house guest, all while taking care of his terminally-ill father:
“‘Bed or bath?” she asked, returning to the kitchen. A pail of water was filled and waiting for me in the bathroom; on the master bed, new sheets. Which did I want first? All that was missing was the sir.
The baby monitor groaned on the table. The call bell dinged in the store. My mother glanced from one to the other, torn.
Without giving away more spoilers, suffice to say that the narrator’s worldview is turned on its head when the story simply ends with him marvelling at his mother thinking, “I never guessed that she might be the one to watch.”
This sentiment is echoed throughout all the stories, all of which have a woman as the protagonist: in Alvar’s stories, the women are the ones you should be watching—and here you thought they would disappear quietly into the background.