On May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.
This week we have the pleasure of chatting with Mia Alvar, the charming and brilliant author of In the Country. Mia was born in Manila and grew up in Bahrain and New York City, and the stories in her debut collection follow an intriguing and varied cast of characters in each of these locations. In these stories, which are so true to life, family members show both deep love for and drastic misunderstanding of each other. Mia offers us stories of personal struggles, with vivid backdrops of politics, history, and socio-economic class differences. Her prose is deceptive in its seeming simplicity—its layers of meaning resonate long after the final page is turned.
As Mia tells us, she identifies with the narrator of “A Contract Overseas”, who has just discovered her enthusiasm for writing. The narrator’s brother understands, saying, “Now it keeps you up at night. You feel awake for the first time. Like you’d been sleepwalking through life before.” In the stories of In the Country, we are clearly reading the work of a writer who is passionate about her work.
Where were you when you found out your first book, the amazing story collection In the Country, was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
I was at home—getting updates simultaneously from my agent, who was finalizing the sale; and from my sister-in-law, who was in labor with her third child. The book deal was confirmed within a few hours of her (sister-in-law’s, not agent’s) giving birth. My husband was also working from home that day, so there was this happy embarrassment of good news in our apartment. We celebrated by passing a flask between us on the LIRR train that we rode to go meet our new nephew.
The first story in your collection is “The Kontrabida” was issue #165 of One Story in the summer of 2012. Were you working on other stories from In the Country around the same time? Can you talk a little bit about how you put together this collection of stories?
I did have other stories in the works alongside “The Kontrabida,” but at first I didn’t think much about how they’d all come together. I somewhat naively thought the setting(s)—this loose triangle of Filipino communities in the Middle East and America and the Philippines—would be enough to make it a collection. But over the years—and especially after Hannah Tinti worked with me on “The Kontrabida”—it became clear to me that those details of place and culture were more like points of entry than a subject. I realized that the stories I most wanted to tell were all in some way about the tension between cleaned-up “official” histories (whether in textbooks and newspapers, or in heavily curated family albums) and people’s messy, more complicated experience. After I knew that, I could see more clearly which stories belonged in the collection and which ones had to go.
Your stories so effectively explore the working lives of characters with a wide range of professions: medical doctor; special education teacher; fashion model; oil industry worker; nurse; journalist; etc. How did you go about preparing to write these characters, who are all so different and so convincing?
I’m glad you were convinced! To be honest, I find it extremely hard to sound authentic about people who do things I don’t in real life—but at the same time, I’ve never felt inspired to write from the perspective of a Filipina-American fiction writer in her thirties living in New York City. Maybe someday. But for this book, because I was drawn mostly to characters who are different (at least in surface ways) from me, I tended to over-prepare, wrapping myself up in a cocoon of research and interviews and prewriting and obsessive, borderline-Method techniques for getting inside their lives. Almost none of that material ended up in the stories, but it did give me a way into the voice or inner life of each character, which then allowed the details (work-related or otherwise) to fall into place. It’s not really necessary to describe what a nurse does at her job with which tools, but somehow having that information beforehand helped me figure out how that nurse might speak to her journalist husband at breakfast.
Many of your stories explore the role of the mother within a family, including the influence a mother has on her children, and the ways that mothers can surprise their children’s expectations of them. Your title story, which ends the collection, explores Milagros’s identity as a mother as one of its central themes. What most intrigues you about exploring motherhood in your writing?
This actually surprised me. I’ve only ever experienced life on the daughter side, so motherhood wasn’t a theme I consciously set out to explore. But mothers do come up a lot in the stories, and I guess that this goes back to my obsession with official narratives vs. real experience, and how those things pull against each other. Motherhood seems to be one of those ideas that we humans are most tempted to sentimentalize and oversimplify and “scrub,” so that space between the pretty mythologies and the complex, more gnarly aspects of it turned out to be rich and fascinating territory for me. And the writerly-craft nerd in me must have recognized on some level that motherhood—where the pressures are so intense, and the stakes could not be higher—is just a really great source of chaos, conflict, trouble…all of the things you don’t want in real life but do need in fiction.
Your stories take place around the world, with characters who are struggling with leaving or returning to their native Philippines. In “Shadow Families”, ex-pats in Bahrain throw parties for their fellow Filipinos and help each other out in an attempt to make their borrowed city feel “like home.” What does “home” mean to you?
It almost feels easier to define what home isn’t. At least in my experience, it’s hardly ever the place we’re physically and geographically born into—as many of my characters discover, either by choice or by accident or by economic/political necessity. I identify more than a little bit with the young girl narrating “A Contract Overseas,” who finds a sort of home in fiction and storytelling and other writers, after feeling basically like an alien within her own family and neighborhood her whole life. As sappy as it sounds, that whole “where the heart is” cliché rings very true for me. Even as they keep trying to recreate all the details of their original home, I suspect that what the women in “Shadow Families” are really after is the kind of connection and sense of belonging that two people—born in completely different countries and circumstances—find with each other, improbably, in “Esmeralda.”
What are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?
Meeting my fellow debs. Getting all cleaned up (I hear the dress code is “Brooklyn fancy”), and toasting to the One Story crew, who always know how to throw a party.