‘Shadow Families’ by Mia Alvar

Taken from the debut collection of short stories by New York-based Filipina writer Mia Alvar, ‘Shadow Families’ focuses on the social division between the rich Filipina wives and the katulong, or ‘helpers’ who come ‘to clean floors or mind rich people’s children . . . often younger than we were but always ageing faster . . . their spines hunching over brooms and basins, their lungs fried by bleach and petroleum vapours’. Alvar’s characters, almost without exception, are members of the Philippine diaspora – economic migrants who have travelled to the Middle East or the States to work as maids, chauffeurs, or nurses. Set in Bahrain, the story juxtaposes immense wealth with the poverty of the katulong; a world with a melange of religions – Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism – and conflicting views on sexual propriety. A rare example of a story narrated in the first-person plural – ‘we’ – this formal choice is immensely effective in conveying the way society’s marginalised are always viewed collectively rather than individually.

First published in Five Chapters, collected in In the Country, Oneworld, 2015