Reactions – In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar

An excerpt from the Goodreads blurb:

These nine globe-trotting, unforgettable stories from Mia Alvar, a remarkable new literary talent, vividly give voice to the women and men of the Filipino diaspora. Here are exiles, emigrants, and wanderers uprooting their families from the Philippines to begin new lives in the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere—and, sometimes, turning back again.

I have heard In the Country by Mia Alvar celebrated and recommended more than any other book so far this year. While processing and thinking about the stories after I finished them, I searched my normal outlets for what other people were saying about it. For good reason, reviewers summarized the stories and applauded Alvar’s incredible gifts that she demonstrates over and over throughout a phenomenally engrossing and emotional debut text (read said reviews here and here). However, I haven’t quite found yet the review that names this book for exactly what it is – an unflinching, brave, and heart-wrenching Feminist text.

Throughout these stories, readers are treated to both male and female flawed characters – yet it is the often ugly, unyielding truth about womanhood in each country Alvar’s characters visit that we realize how devastating being a female in particular can be (though isn’t always). I realize that describing something as Feminist in 2015 is not what everyone would call a compliment and is perhaps why this exact description is missing from the conversation about this book. However, to me, this collection of short stories accomplishes nothing short of brilliance with its persistent honor and recognition of women who give all the fucks. Here she writes in the tradition of excellent female writers like Sylvia Plath, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Gloria Anzaldua, Maxine Hong Kingston, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, and Jhumpa Lahiri, and she does it in the most honest and badass Feminist way possible. There is no overt magical realism in this text, but there is a frequently ethereal and opaque quality to its fragility, vulnerability, moral ambiguity, and many subtle yet powerful insights into the sacrifices women make often silently and with little fanfare. Women throughout the book are sometimes manipulated and yet other times manipulative themselves, but in no story was I able to forget the either obvious or implied systems and/or mindsets that were bringing them down. I didn’t realize this was consistent throughout really until the last story, either, which is a huge testament to her craft as a nuanced and subtle storyteller.

A reaction to this book wouldn’t be complete without recognizing the courage it took and significant amount of research to represent here the Philippines and its diaspora. I saw many readers and reviewers praising this book for its lucky ability to educate them because they were ‘interested’ in the Philippines and ‘had met many Filipino people.’ I think what Alvar accomplishes here is beyond a nice journey for privileged white Americans to experience; she tears the guts out of some of these characters, and it is not for the reader’s casual ‘enjoyment’ or ‘education.’ This is not simply a gentle, generic foray into people’s countries of origin or residence, and it is not a pleasantly voyeuristic meandering; this is meticulously detailed insight demonstrating one woman’s ideas on what it means to belong to or interacting with a specific culture through the remarkably awesome device of many short stories rather than a single narrative arc. I cringe when I read people saying they now ‘get’ the Filipino experience. No single novel or even wonderfully diverse set of stories can ever capture the experience of an entire nation of people (no matter how ‘exotic,’ new, and singularly illuminating it may seem), and shame on readers for assuming that one book they read about the Philippines helped them to understand everything there is to know about it–even though this book contains an impressive variety of characters from different economic classes, races, and religions. Author and Queen of Everything Awesome Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie already covers this very problem far more eloquently in her TED Talk called The Danger of a Single Story that is absolutely required viewing if you haven’t seen it already.

All that being said, I would like to reiterate that Alvar has told boldly tenacious tales that were perhaps profoundly influenced by her life experience. We as readers are indeed very fortunate to have the chance to hear her stories that might reflect truly intimate life experiences, and I in no way intend to belittle or trivialize these experiences by implying that they aren’t comprehensive or important enough. In fact, her stories shouldn’t be an end to thinking about this country; instead, it should be another important step in an effort to raise awareness about oppression and inequity for women world-wide.

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