The stories in Alvar’s debut collection In the Country cross continents and eras with intimacy and longing.
What was it like to write about so many different places and time periods?
The collection was started and finished many years after I actually lived in many of these places. I was born in the Philippines, lived there until age six, then moved to the Middle East and lived there for four years before moving to New York. I’ve learned that it’s hard for me to write about a place if I’m still there, or very soon after I’ve visited. It takes a little bit of distance. My last visit to the Philippines was in 1998. “The Kontrabida” was semi-inspired by that trip but not finished until many years later.
In the story “Shadow Families,” which is set in Bahrain in the mid-1980s, you write that the Filipino children there could “change their accents at will.” Did you feel that way growing up? Did writing these stories give voice to those different accents?
I definitely had a little bit of that experience growing up in Bahrain. I think, as a kid, you repeat what you’re hearing: the kids you go to school with or the adults your parents associate with. So there is a similar process, pulling from those different places and inhabiting different characters. I am a bit of ventriloquist, but I still have comfort zones. I haven’t fully made the leap to taking on a character who was born in a very different place from where I’ve lived.
How much do you know about your characters before you start to write?
My process is nerdy and inefficient at the same time. I wrap myself up in books about a time period, archives, and photos. I like to have a sense of a character, including details that don’t necessarily make it into the story. It’s comforting to me to know what they eat, where they shop, and what they have in their bags before I sit down to write.
“Esmeralda” tells the story of a woman who works as a night cleaner in the World Trade Center. Can you talk about the importance of an immigrant voice within the 9/11 narrative?
To be honest, I was terrified of writing a 9/11 story. And actually, the early versions of that story were not set on that day at all. I was writing this story to answer questions in my mind about a certain group of women I’ve encountered a lot in my life—Filipino women who, for decades and decades, have supported families back home—and I wanted to know more about their interior lives. I had no intention or plan to set it during 9/11.
But a few years ago, I had a studio residency in Lower Manhattan, [for which] big corporations donate unused office space to artists, and during my residency, the corporation was Goldman Sachs. The Freedom Tower was being finished then, I was surrounded by the 9/11 Museum, and I was spending a lot of time in that building at night, so the people I would see were the people taking out the garbage. It was impossible to be in that space, writing about someone with this kind of job, without that event seeping in.