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date: 14 December 2017

Alvarez, Julia

Julia Alvarez, born in New York City on 27 March 1950, lived in the Dominican Republic until 1960, when her family sought political refuge in the United States. The shock of being transplanted from a tropical paradise amidst an extended and well-respected family to Queens, New York, where she and her family—mother, father, and three sisters—were viewed as outsiders, informs much of her writing. Often her work is autobiographical, but even when not, her characters are caught between worlds: cultural, lingual, economic, national, political, and familial. Equally essential to her work is the experience of what it means to be a writer. The author of eleven books, Alvarez has proved herself a talented and flexible writer and has won many prizes and awards, including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Josephine Miles/PEN award. She was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Alvarez lives in Vermont and the Dominican Republic, where she visits relatives and tends the shade-grown coffee farm she started with her husband, Bill Eichner, a cookbook author and ophthalmologist.

Early Writings

Most readers know Alvarez mainly as a novelist, but her first publications were poems that garnered a dedicated group of readers. Her first widely available book, Homecoming, was published in 1984, when Alvarez was thirty-four years old, after many years of writing and itinerant teaching. Homecoming's title poem, the first in the collection, describes a trip to the Dominican Republic for a cousin's wedding. While an uncle exclaims “all this is yours!,” the poem's narrator realizes how this opulent wedding and lifestyle are built on the backs of the many servants, a moral and social price she is unwilling to pay. Like an inoculation against nostalgia, this poem sets up for difficult balancing in the rest of the poems as they explore both the good and bad of life's choices. The first section, the housekeeping poems, depicts a strict mother and precocious child negotiating their relationship through household chores such as sewing, cleaning, cooking, and folding clothes. Dusting, for instance, describes the mother erasing the daughter's fingerprints with her polishing flannel, but the daughter “refus[ing] with every mark/to be like her, anonymous.” Other poems, such as the intricate villanelle Women's Work (added to the 1996 revision), assert that housework can be an art not unlike writing, which she describes as “housekeeping paper.” The most dramatic achievement of Homecoming is “33,” a series of forty-six sonnets turning around the speaker's thirty-third birthday. The poems explore her worries about lasting romantic love, growing old, achievement in writing, and political corruption while they employ fun technical experiments: a primer; a sonnet that uses all w-words for rhymes; mini narratives about her parents or the UPS man; a sonnet in He/She dialogue; and several lists and phrases reminiscent of the celebrated nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman.

Seven years after Homecoming, having landed a tenure-track position at Middlebury College in Vermont and having met her husband, Alvarez published her first celebrated novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991). While mirroring some of her family's difficult experience fleeing with four daughters from the Dominican Republic to the United States, the novel reveals Alvarez's enduring penchant for narrative experimentation by moving backward in time, from the United States in 1972 to the Dominican Republic in 1956. The effect is of falling deeper into memory, especially since each chapter takes the point of view of a different character. For the Garcia girls, the past contains not only the usual generational conflicts but also the clash between the expectations of a traditional Dominican culture and the allure of 1960s liberation in the United States.

Alvarez's second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), is based on the true story of the Mirabal sisters, also called las Mariposas, the butterflies. While traveling to visit their husbands imprisoned for resisting Rafael Trujillo (the same dictator against whom Alvarez's own father struggled), three of the four sisters were murdered—just months after Alvarez's family moved to New York. Alvarez was able to interview the eldest and survivor, Dedé, in 1992 in the Dominican Republic. As Alvarez explains in her postscript, her novel attempts to find a middle ground between facts and legends, so that her readers can celebrate the courage of the sisters as fully imagined, real people. Perhaps because these sisters' stories represent what might have happened in her own life, Alvarez portrays the emotional states of these national heroines with remarkable clarity, showing, among other things, how personal decisions about whom to love have political ramifications. Particularly poignant are the journal entries of María Terésa, which move from a childlike drawing of new shoes and a list of birthday gifts, to diagrams of how to build a bomb, then a drawing of her sister Minerva's meager home and a detached narrative of her brutal interrogation with names blacked out. Each sister has chapters in her own voice, and the novel is framed by Dedé's shuttling between 1994 and her haunting past.

The Other Side/El Otro Lado (1995), Alvarez's second collection of poems, is even more concerned with feeling suspended between two cultures, two nations, two languages, and the two selves of the past and the present. Rather than fight it, however, this collection embraces both positions, as its self-translated title suggests. While she revisits the style of domestic poems so successful in Homecoming, the innovations of The Other Side lie in the long title poem narrating her return to the Dominican Republic. Unsure of the direction her life had taken, and with the racist taunts of the Queens playground still echoing in her adult ears, the speaker “mounted a silver Pegasus and headed south to the island.” Illustrating her continued sense of suspension is her accompanying North American boyfriend-masquerading-as-husband, Mike, who serves to dramatize the cliché “you can never go home again.” Despite frustrations and difficulties, the trip confirms the importance of words and writing to her happiness.

Other Publications

Alvarez reaches a new level of experimentation in her third novel, Yo! (1997). It is cast in voices of characters from How the García Girls Lost Their Accents except for Yo, a novelist whose “real life” family is not particularly pleased with the way their stories have been told. (Yo is short for Yolanda but is also Spanish for “I”.) Although we might understand Yo! as the author's attempt to appease her disgruntled family, the novel achieves a much wider scope. Instead of reading the narrative from the first-person point of view (often erroneously) assumed to be the novelist's position, we learn of the novelist (the character) through others and their not always sympathetic perspectives: angry sisters (one of whom claims her husband changed after reading his depiction), a cousin and maid's daughter (both hurt by Yo's childhood writing—a journal and a school report), a professor, two illiterate workers who ask for her help, and Yolanda's third husband, who initially does not understand her rituals with, for instance, spirit water. As do her poetry collections, the novel ends with an affirmation of writing as a vocation—for Yo, this comes in her father's voice.

Her fourth novel, In the Name of Salomé (2000), picks up Alvarez's persistent themes: the importance of individual choices in the making of history, family strife and reconciliation, the crucial values of language, literacy, and storytelling, and, of course, the perennial searches for meaning and romantic love. Like her second novel, In the Name of Salomé is based on historical people, particularly the poet Salomé Ureña (1850–1897)—a woman whose early patriotic poems made her the Dominican Republic's national heroine—and her daughter, Camila, depicted by Alvarez as a shy and intelligent woman devoted to her family, to her work as a language professor, and to her privacy. The novel begins with Camila's third-person point of view, in 1960, as she retires and leaves Poughkeepsie, New York, after years of teaching; then comes Salomé's first-person voice describing her birth into a country fraught with revolutions, “eleven changes of government” during her first six years. As Camila's story travels backward in time, her mother's moves forward, alternating chapters until they meet in Salomé dying in childbirth. Finally, the epilogue brings Camila back to Santo Domingo in 1973, after thirteen years of revolutionary work in Cuba.

Alvarez puts her writing where her heart is. One sees this in her recent publications for younger readers—The Secret Footprints (2000) for ages four to eight, How Tía Lola Came to Stay (2001) for ages nine to twelve, and Before We Were Free (2002) for ages thirteen and up—and in A Cafecito Story (2001), a short narrative about growing ecologically and socially responsible coffee. In Something to Declare (1998), a book of autobiographical essays, Alvarez describes herself as a “synthesizing consciousness.” Nervous about labels like “Latina writer” that might limit her audience, she is committed to bringing cultures together and eschewing old stories that no longer work for contemporary life. For Alvarez, this synthesis and revolution come through the transformational power of the written and spoken word.

Works

The Housekeeping Book (1984)Find this resource:

Homecoming (1984, revised 1996)Find this resource:

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991)Find this resource:

In the Time of the Butterflies (1994)Find this resource:

The Other Side/El Otro Lado (1995)Find this resource:

Yo! (1997)Find this resource:

Something to Declare (1998)Find this resource:

The Secret Footprints (2000)Find this resource:

In the Name of Salomé (2000)Find this resource:

How Tía Lola Came to Stay (2001)Find this resource:

A Cafecito Story (2001)Find this resource:

Before We Were Free (2002)Find this resource:

Further Reading

Bing, Jonathan. Julia Alvarez: Books That Cross Borders. Publishers Weekly 241:51 (December 1996): 38–39. This brief interview offers a good picture of the author in her early years and her sense of the writing world.Find this resource:

García-tabor, María, and Silvio Sirias. The Truth According to Your Characters: An Interview with Julia Alvarez. Prairie Schooner 74:2 (Summer 2000): 151–156. A conversation with college students from a Latino literature course covers some of Alvarez's thoughts about her works and writing in general.Find this resource:

Sirias, Silvio. Julia Alvarez: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn., 2001. The only book-length study of Julia Alvarez, this resource includes a helpful overview of the author's life and the Latino novel and a chapter devoted to each novel.Find this resource: