When My Hollywood by Mona Simpson became a bestseller a few years ago, the novel – about an American family with a Filipina nanny – revealed a genuine thirst for stories about people leaving the Philippines to find work around the world.
It has taken until 2015 for such narratives to percolate. The Bamboo Stalk, Saud Alsanousi’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction award-winning chronicle of the quiet army of Filipina maids who come to the Arabian Gulf to work, was published to great acclaim in English.
And this week, Manila-born Mia Alvar adds to the canon with In the Country, her debut collection of short stories, many of which are set in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. It explores some of the hidden tensions beneath, as one of her narrators says, “our cheerful, hardworking and obedient tribe”.
“I wanted to understand the people who make up our hotel rooms, serve our food, or maybe work in our homes,” says Alvar, who lives in New York. “I dearly hope that when people read these stories, they’ll think about the lives and basic humanity of these people.”
Alvar manages to set such concerns around satisfying stories that are thought-provoking, witty, heartbreaking and, occasionally, political. It’s a defiantly literary book, carefully written – but never suffocatingly so.
In Shadow Families, a group of wives married to engineers, doctors and diplomats welcomes a new, attractive Filipina émigré, and is part-worried, part-amused by the thought of their husbands as “lusty wolves”.
“I don’t have a problem with impressionistic snapshots of places and people, but for me it was important that my stories had a narrative,” says Alvar. “And with Shadow Families, I got to play with ideas that maybe didn’t feel so serious.
“I grew up watching Filipino soap operas, but I’ve come around to the idea that it’s a part of who I am. I do have this instinct for a goofy reveal, whether that be somebody falling pregnant, or a case of mistaken identity.”
Alvar genuinely seems to understand the Filipino characters and communities she tracks across the world. She’s uniquely placed to do so – she was born in the Philippines in 1978 and her family moved to Bahrain six years later. They relocated to New York when she was 10, although her father continued to work in Bahrain until he retired.
“I actually haven’t been back to Bahrain,” she says. “There were mysteries and questions that stayed with me, though, and it was such a conscious and formative time that I have very distinct memories.
“There’s definitely an ‘official narrative’ about people who make the choice to live and work away from the Philippines. They’re seen as heroes and saints, very focused on sacrifice.
“There has always been this sense of pride about the Filipino reputation for diligence, industriousness, general pleasantness... I don’t condemn that subservience, but I do find it interesting.”
That certainly comes across in The Miracle Worker, in which a Filipino “oil wife”, who teaches a child with special needs in Bahrain, is shocked to find her seemingly subservient friend Minnie wants to go on strike to raise the minimum wage and age ceiling for incoming workers. Minnie backs out, but has her own way of protesting. As Alvar writes: “What looked like a lifetime of toil and taking orders had contained subversions that no one, until now, had seen.”
And yet, as she says, Alvar hasn’t returned to Bahrain since she left, and has only been back to the Philippines once. How could she be so confident in the truth of these stories?
“I badgered my family members for information,” she says. “But it was only important in that it gave me a footing to write a story. There had to be a point where I declared such factual usefulness to be past, where places such as Manila and Bahrain and its people could serve the narrative rather than being exactly documented.”
The real test, of course, will come when the kinds of Filipinos who are at the centre of her stories pick up In the Country.
“I hope that anyone who does that would feel glad to see themselves represented as a literary subject,” she says. “In the end, though, it’s about creating fully realised human beings, rather than simple character types.”
• In the Country (Knopf) is available in bookshops now