UO Today: Filipino-American fiction writer reads her work

Mia Alvar

In a new episode of UO Today, Filipino-American fiction writer Mia Alvar reads from her short story collection “In the Country” and discusses her life and writing.

Alvar lived in the Philippines until age 6, when she moved to Bahrain for four years and then to New York. Interested in writing, Alvar began reading short story collections like “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri and “Drown” by Junot Díaz during her college and graduate school years in the late 1990s.

“It was reading those collections that made me think about writing fiction that didn’t center around one protagonist over many, many pages, but covering or telling the story of a community over many different perspectives,” she said.

In 1999, Alvar returned to the Philippines for the first time in 16 years and found the country fascinatingly unfamiliar. She tried to process her experiences through poetry, her usual medium.  

“I tried to write about them in this form that I knew and I noticed that my poems were becoming a little more narrative, a little more linear and focused on people and characters, and that was when I realized maybe I was another sort of writer,” she said.

“In the Country,” Alvar’s debut collection, tells the stories of Filipinos in the 1970s living under martial law in the Philippines or in exile in the Middle East and the United States.

“My mind and my curiosity always goes to what individuals in a particular situation are going through,” Alvar said. “What I’m wondering about a certain time period historically, it’s the day-to-day things I want to know, how much things cost, what people did for fun, and that carried over into my fiction.”

In one story, Alvar imagines the personal lives of future Filipino president Cory Aquino and her husband Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. during their three years of exile in Boston.

“I felt that the job of documenting this family journalistically and historically had already been done and done well, and they also are still such mythological creatures among Filipinos,” she said. “So I wanted to take a very personal look at their marriage and a time in their life that always fascinated me. I think until the day she died Cory Aquino referred to those three years in Boston as the most peaceful time in her life. She would’ve loved to just be a housewife there for the rest of her life, but that’s not where history took her.”

For the full interview and to hear Alvar read from her story collection, go to the UO Today channel.

“UO Today” is a weekly half-hour interview program hosted by Paul Peppis, a UO English professor and director of the Oregon Humanities Center. Each episode features a conversation with UO faculty and administrators, visiting scholars, authors or artists.

It is produced by the Oregon Humanities Center in collaboration with UO Libraries’ Center for Media and Educational Technology. An archive of past interviews is available on the Oregon Humanities Center’s website or on their YouTube channel.

—By Sarah Eddy, University Communications