JUSTINE VILLANUEVA Reviews
In the Country by Mia Alvar
(Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, New York, 2015)
My heart soared when I first read reviews of "In the Country," Mia Alvar's debut collection of short stories and a novella about Filipinos in the diaspora. I rejoiced to read there would be stories that particularly involve domestic helpers. Like many of my immigrant friends and family members who work in various capacities as domestic helpers, I yearn for stories that reflect our experiences. When the book came out, I did not hesitate to splurge. However, it remained unopened on my shelf for a week. When I finally started reading the first story, I savored each word, prolonging the moment when I had to turn to the next page. I could not bear the thought of finishing the book and then not having anything more to look forward to.
As a writer and reader, I celebrate the arrival of Alvar in the literary scene. She weaves rich stories full of memorable characters and twists that force the characters to reconsider their long held values. Alvar's lush prose transports me to exactly where the story is: the cramped sari-sari store, the congested Manila traffic, the boisterous living room parties.
In the end, however, what prevents me from fully embracing Alvar's collection is the elitist attitude that pervades in several of the stories. If you are like me and have been taunted as promdi (from the province) when in Manila, grew up watching innumerable Tagalog movies that portray people from your province (or the mountains) always as bucktooth simpleton domestic helpers who speak laughable broken English, you lose your sense of humor about these things and you develop a sensitivity to lines describing the people you identify with as "sweet, humble church mouse, who'd somehow strike us as child and granny all at once." You tire easily of stories that show a helper only through the eyes of the rich or educated elite character or narrator whom she serves or befriends. Your spirit drops as soon as the helper is introduced because you already know how the story will go: First, the elite character waxes poetic about the helper's faultless work ethic, enduring loyalty, and eternal gratitude. Then, something happens and the helper is revealed as an ugly and malignant usurper of power, a mysterious dark insubordinate force that upends the status quo. Once she has played her role, the helper disappears and the elite character learns a profound lesson and emerges a more "enlightened" being.
"Shadow Families" follows this story arc to a tee. Filipino professionals in Bahrain and their educated housewives, believing themselves to be lucky and "owing the helpers a chance at the life we enjoyed," throw weekly parties for the grateful helpers. They even make sure they send the helpers home with leftovers. When Baby, a helper, shows up at the parties with dyed orange hair and clear plastic heels accentuating her long legs, it is clear that her presence is unfamiliar and intolerable. In her own way, Baby protests against the class based lines drawn by the Filipino professionals by flaunting her sexuality and not caring about what they thought of her overbite or her broken English. Most importantly, she refuses to fawn over them for the kindness that they were doling out. But the rule is clear: There is no place for a helper who doesn't look or behave like one. Predictably enough, Baby is chased out of Bahrain through the group's plotting. After Baby leaves, the housewives learn their lesson. They stop their parties and grow "warier...of the katulong who came to our houses to share our food and accept our hand me downs. For the first time they seemed capable of harming us."
Other stories in the collection show how the educated and well-off class patronize the helper. In "The Miracle Worker," Sally, the narrator, tells of Minnie who mistakes her for a domestic helper. When Sally reveals that she does not have an amo but is the wife of a Filipino engineer stationed in Bahrain, Minnie, according to Sally, "retreated so quickly from small talk to bows and helpless apologies,...servitude a habit and posture in her body." Nonetheless, the two women become friends. Like the "lucky" housewives in "Shadow Families," Sally feels compelled to share with Minnie the bounty of her rich life. She gives Minnie presents, invites her over, drives her back. When Minnie confides in Sally her involvement in a strike for higher wages, Sally, who thinks of Minnie as "small, deferential," does not believe Minnie has it in her to strike. Sally later finds out that Minnie has been striking in her own way all along. After her discovery of Minnie's secret insubordination, Sally realizes, "what arrogance to think I should take up her cause, even the score. She does not need my protection. I had underestimated her."
In "The Kontrabida," the narrator, Steve, portrays his mother as frail and weak, the quintessential long suffering domestic helper, the wife, who serves her abusive husband until his death. During his visit, Steve discovers something that casts his mother in an unholy light. As a result, Steve is stripped of his self-designated role as the hero in her mother's world. What his mother once told him is true: "You underestimate me...You don't know my strength."
The truth is this: In most stories, the helper is almost always the unknown outsider. She is very rarely the protagonist or the narrator of her own story.
"Esmeralda" tells of a Filipino cleaning lady's life in the United States, her love affair, and her experience of the 9/11 attacks. However, her story is told in the second person point of view. Had the story been allowed to unfold from Esmeralda's point of view and in her own words, it would have been a very powerful story. As it is, the story lacks self-empowerment. It is as if a force beyond her control is instructing Esmeralda about her own life.
Given a voice, what stories would we, the helpers and those from the provinces and mountains who supposedly occupy the lower strata of the power structure, tell? And when we do tell our stories, would the world, like Sally, look at us as "more alive than ever, revealed... in new textures and colors?" Or would it, like Steve, vow to do anything to preserve the status quo, refuse to get to know the "stranger laughing in the dark?"
Alvar shines a bright light on our diverse lives as Filipinos in the diaspora and what she exposes, though not all to my liking, is still relevant, if only so we could become more self aware. For this, Alvar's collection is well worth the read.
As for me, I'm still waiting for stories told from the point of view of the helpers from the province or the natives from the mountains, unabashedly claiming our space, telling our own stories the way we see fit.
Justine Villanueva grew up in Malaybalay, Bukidnon and immigrated to the United States when she was seventeen years old. She writes about cultural assimilation, ageing, and identity from the perspective of Filipino immigrants. Her short stories have appeared in UC Berkeley's Maganda, San Francisco State University's Yellow Journal, and University of San Francisco's Ignatian Literary Magazine. She is currently completing a children's book that will be published by the nonprofit, Libro Para Sa Tanan, A Literacy Project (MamaMama.net). She also runs a blog of letters to her sons at ginikanan.com. When not writing, she spends time with her sons, and works as a dance instructor and as an immigration and bankruptcy attorney. She lives in Davis, California.
[Each review provides the opinion of the reviewer and not necessarily the opinion of THE HALO-HALO REVIEW staff.]