Interview With Julia Alvarez
Julia Alvarez is one of the most recognizable faces in Latinx literature. She has won the Hispanic Heritage Award, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award, and in 2013 she was awarded the National Medal of Arts from the President of the United States. In this interview with Héctor "Vale" Rendón, Julia Alvarez talks about her identity and the role it has in her writing, her time in the Dominican Republic, the impact of her family's stories, her writing process, and much more.
HÉCTOR RENDÓN: Julia Alvarez was born in New York City to parents from the Dominican Republic. She is one of the most recognizable faces in Latinx literature. She has won the Hispanic Heritage Award, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award, and in 2013, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by the President of the United States. Julia, thank you so much for being with us. First, I wanted to ask you about you. Who is Julia Alvarez? A lot of people have read your novels and your poetry, and we think that we know you, but I believe it would be very interesting to hear from you how you define yourself. Who is Julia Alvarez?
JULIA ALVAREZ: Bueno, I’m recalling the Borges’ story about the two Borges—the Julia Alvarez that disappears and does the work. And then the Julia Alvarez who’s out there and getting attention and going on book tours. The truth is, I’m not very interested in Julia Alvarez, but she is my eyes, my senses, my ears, my smells. She is the only vehicle I have out in the world gathering the research. She is my way of accessing material of all kinds that I need in writing my stories. In that sense, I think of Julia Alvarez in service of the story. When I’m writing a story, I’m not really very interested in Julia Alvarez, and who she is, and telling my story, and getting things off my chest. I’m interested in my characters, and the story itself, and what it requires. But I need that Julia Alvarez to be my eyes and my nose and my senses, and my gatherer of experiences. And I use whatever has happened to her, whatever she has learned, whatever she has heard from others, whatever she has read, whatever she has imagined in the service of the story. But ultimately, I’m not interested in portraying her. So in our personality, celebrity-driven cultures, we pay too much attention, I think, to the author. And really, once we’re gone, what will be left of us, or as long as it is useful, will be the stories we wrote. That’s really my focus.
RENDÓN: I was wondering while you were talking about this if this is a condition for writers, to see themselves as a person from the outside, and then detach themselves from that person, and then become somebody else while they are writing. Do you think this is a condition for writers?
ALVAREZ: Well, I think we disappear. It’s funny because I think people think that because writers are writing about their emotions and their feelings and so forth, they must really be focused on themselves. But I think it’s the opposite. One of the great joys of writing is you disappear. In fact, I have been doing a meditation practice now for over a decade. And when I first sat down to meditate, I had never meditated before. But I thought, why is this not unusual or strange to me? It’s all about disappearing, of disengaging from the self and being present. And I feel like when you’re writing, that’s exactly what you do. You’re immersed in the characters and in the stories. And sure, once you publish something, once it’s out there, once you’re trying to earn a living, the self comes forward. And it seems like it’s an important part of it, but it really isn’t an important part. I used to tell my students, because sometimes they’d write something and it didn’t work, and I say, “This part here is just not working.” And they’d say, “But that’s what really happened.” And I would say, “Don’t let yourselves be subject to the tyranny of what really happened.” Because stories tell truths, sometimes indirectly and through fabrication, better than the truth itself can tell itself. It’s what the story and the characters require. And as such, you really do disappear into them. Like an actor who’s in character as you write the story. Of course, there’s that writer that moves back from the story and revises and sees what works and what doesn’t. But again, even the critic is disappearing into the entrails of the story to see that it’s alive and that it’s beating and that it works.
RENDÓN: And that is why it’s probably so difficult for writers to produce a good story, right? If you have to somehow detach yourself from reality and then create a new reality that is what is required from the characters. I think that is a very difficult task. And you are very much the kind of writer who accomplishes that. Now tell me, you were born in New York City, as everybody knows, but you lived the first ten years of your life in the Dominican Republic. I wanted to ask you what kind of impact those ten years had on you as a writer?
ALVAREZ: My parents had a first attempt at immigration, and they were so homesick. So my older sister and I were born in New York City. And when I was one month old—the story varies, one month or three months. But anyhow, I was a newborn infant—my parents returned to the Dominican Republic. Papi was not very convinced that it was a good idea because the dictatorship was still going on.
RENDÓN: Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship, right?
ALVAREZ: Trujillo’s dictatorship. But supposedly, he was going to have free elections. Things were going to be loosened up because there was pressure from the United States after they supported him for all those years. And so, out of homesickness, and not feeling like they belonged—imagínate, people back in New York—now we think there’s so many Dominicans. There were no Dominicans, no family. And with raising a family, they wanted us to be part of the extended family. So they returned. In fact, you know, I always think that I came here when I was ten to this country and this language. Because really, my upbringing, my immersion, those first ten years, was completely in that culture, in that language. From a very oral culture to a storytelling culture. Nobody in my family was a reader except for one tía. She was a jamona because, “quién se va a casar con una mujer que siempre está leyendo libros.” I didn’t think she was a very good example of what would be a good future. But it was a storytelling culture, an oral culture. And in a dictatorship, people didn’t write things down. All the media was state-owned. So all the good news came through what people called “Radio Bemba.” “Bemba” is a Dominican slang for big mouth. People told stories all the time. Kids love to hear this because I flunked every grade through fifth grade. I was just bored in school. It was propaganda. It was all very flat, boring stuff. And my teachers would fail me, and I’d have to go to summer school, and they would say to Mami that I would never pay attention. But the minute I got home, and there were all these tías around, and Mami, and Abuela, and they would say, “Ven acá, te voy a contar un cuento,” and I would sit down, riveted. And I would ask again and again for it to be repeated. So I had no problem paying attention. I just knew a good story, and that’s what I loved. When I came to this country, I went to school, and we learned the canon and the great works of literature, white, Anglo Saxon. And I always thought, “Well, that was where my training was.” But I realized that everything that my teachers were saying about how a story worked, and the timing, and the characters, were things I had learned from people—some of them who couldn’t even read or write—the greatest storytellers in the family and around me in the culture. So I feel like it really formed me, those stories that were told, the legends that I grew up with. Those were big, huge things I carried in my head when we came to this country. We left everything behind, but I say my imagination was packed.
RENDÓN: That is a very good way to put it. Some researchers say that each person is actually formed until they are about ten years old. Would you say that was your case? That you were already fully formed when you were ten, and when you arrived to the U.S.
ALVAREZ: I feel like certain things—the bedrock was there. But by the same token, I don’t think I would have become a writer had I stayed in my native country. It was the ‘50s. I was a girl. I wasn’t expected to get much of an education past high school. After the quinceañera, it was pretty much you were out on the marriage market. Hey, all the women in my family were strong figures and very powerful, but it was entre familia. I didn’t know women that were out in the world. I really didn’t have that as a model. And I loved stories, but stories for me were a communal thing. They were told entre familia or in a gathering. I never saw people sort of separate themselves to go read a book except for that tía. That was considered something raro, you know, solitary to pull yourself away from the community. So I don’t think I would have had that discipline and that sense of the need for solitude. Coming to this country and the trauma of that—and I think of it as traumatic in many ways, suddenly being ripped from everything I had known from a really big, extended, loving familia, from that culture, from the language, from the smells, from people who made me feel loved and like I belonged. I say that even though I grew up in a dictatorship, I didn’t feel the dictatorship because the buffer of my family was all around me. And so I was yanked from that into New York City, 1960. Nobody we knew. No Dominicans there. Suddenly having kids make fun of us and make fun of our accent. People in our building complaining that our food was smelly. These things were like a shock to me, and it turned me inward. Thank God I had a really good sixth-grade teacher who sent me to the library, who could tell that I loved stories. And she kind of, I don’t know how she did it, convinced me the books—which I hated, hated textbooks—all those tías and all those family members and all those people that we knew that told stories, that those kinds of stories could also be found between the covers of books. That’s when I became a reader. And what I think I discovered by reading is what we had come searching for in the United States of America. My parents had said that once we were here, “We were going to be free, we were going to feel part of a great democracy, a great empowerment, not under a dictator.” I found the dictatorship of the playground and the bullies there as bad as anything that a dictator could do. But what I’ve discovered between the covers of books was the great democracy of the imagination, where everyone could belong. You could be a girl. You could be a little Dominican girl. Somehow, something about that was what the great democracy, the big table was all about. Even though I came to the language late, I realized early, already in high school, that I wanted to be part of that world, that that was going to be what I wanted. That’s the only literary green card I really wanted. I don’t want to minimize that we didn’t want to be thrown out or deported or sent back or whatever. But that was the allegiance—that’s what I pledged allegiance to.
RENDÓN: That’s beautiful, Julia, to see literature as your green card because it gives you freedom. That is a beautiful idea.
ALVAREZ: You know, it’s the legacy of all of us, of the human family. We tell stories. We string together experience to try to capture what can’t be put into words, the experience of being alive in all its complexity. And I think the great thing also about reading is that when we read, we become the other. If we could only have those muscles really strengthen, we could have an incredible world. So for me, reading stretches the same muscles of compassion. Social justice is, I would say, the activist public face of the imagination. It’s a failure of imagination when we can’t imagine someone else requiring, needing, what we ourselves want for ourselves and our families.
RENDÓN: Absolutely. You already mentioned the dictator, Rafael Trujillo. Do you remember anything of those years? You said that you were buffered by your family. But do you remember anything from those years? Because those years in the Dominican Republic, they define the history of the country in recent years, right?
ALVAREZ: Oh yeah, I think the whole country is still in post-traumatic stress. You can get rid of the dictator, but the effects of it take generations. And I always also say that you can get rid of the dictator, the physical dictator, but the little dictator in the soul of a nation that allowed this to happen for so long still has to be addressed. And if you don’t face the history—that’s why these truth committees and testimonial committees are so important—if you don’t tell the story, if you don’t face the history, it will keep repeating itself. And yes, I remember. I had uncles that disappeared. Papi was involved in the underground. I remember terrible punishments because I was a very curious little girl, and I went into Papi’s study, and I discovered some guns in his closet, which I went ahead and told the story to everybody. Mami had to leave in the middle of the night with the guns. So I was buffered by the family, but little kids can sense the anxiety and fear around them. I could see that if you asked too many questions about an uncle that was no longer around that had been arrested, that looks went around, and you could feel it. But it was perhaps more scary because it wasn’t explained. And, of course, I remember the parades. And my grandparents’ house was next to the dictator—Angelita, his daughter—[they were] next to her house. I mean, she had extensive grounds. And I remember looking through, and they would clear all the streets around their house when El Jefe would be coming. I remember all the pageantry and parades and that every house had his picture. I was a kid. I thought he was like a god. It took coming to this country, and finally, the stories being told. And as soon as we left, three, four months later, the Mirabal sisters were killed. They had started the underground that Papi was a member of. My uncle was part of the plot that eventually killed Trujillo. He was taken to prison after the assassination. We didn’t know where he was for months. He was one of the few that came out of the torture prisons alive. So, all those stories were part of my family.
RENDÓN: Thank you for sharing that. Of course, El Jefe, the way that Trujillo was known, is a character that still haunts us today, right? Now, let’s talk a little bit about your novel Afterlife. It was published last year, but this year it’s being launched in the paperback edition. It’s a story about immigration. It’s a story about family crisis and about making peace with those who at some point will be gone forever from our lives. Why did you decide to write about this idea of us making or establishing a connection with what is described in the title as the “afterlife”? How do you make that connection between the afterlife and the family crisis and the connection with those that at some point will not be around us?
ALVAREZ: It also just came out in Spanish, I think in September. Más allá is the title.
RENDÓN: With a translation by Mercedes Guhl, right?
ALVAREZ: She did a wonderful job. And it was the first translation I got very involved in because I could so much hear the voice. And I learned so much by sort of helping edit it. But anyhow, it’s a novel that took a long time to write. I struggled with it. And I have to tell you that one of the driving reasons that I wrote it was because people have often said to me, “Oh, Garcia Girls, your novels have helped me as a young woman coming up in this country. What it means to be Latina in the United States, and the sisterhood and all of this.” And one of the things that I yearned for was missing—in many books, not just books by Latinx or authors of color—was older protagonists, older protagonists that were as complex as a range of my younger characters. What is this ethnicity and identity? How do you carry it into old age? Especially because the older you get, you begin to shed selves. All these ways that you struggled the make your way in the world and constructed an identity for yourself—many of those things start falling away. And so many of the fictional, older people that I encountered in novels were always like, la viejita, la abuelita. They weren’t complicated enough. And I wanted the sisters, and especially my character, Antonia, all the full complexity of her ethnicity and how it plays out—I wanted that present. That was one of the first things that interested me. My editor was a little nervous. She said, “well, people might think it’s religious, or that you’re saying that it’s going to be a novel in which Julia Alvarez has converted or something.” The way I meant it is very much that when you live to be as old as I’ve been lucky enough to live, you realize that every life has many little deaths in it. And I don’t mean just people we lose, although that’s a part of it. But we lose selves. We lose certain certainties. We put aside certain dreams. But if we’re resilient, if we’re lucky, if we have a community around us, we resurrect. We have an afterlife after that life is over. Also, as you lose people, I’ve come to realize that when you lose someone that you dearly loved, who had certain qualities that lit up your world, if you let those qualities die, then that person has a final death. It’s part of our culture that we’re not just an “I,” we’re a “we.” From the minute we’re born, we have, “ay mira, la naricita de su abuelita.” We have always known that we are part of a bead in the necklace of the generations. So, part of it is to keep alive, to give an afterlife to the people that we’ve lost by not losing those things that were best in them. But I also, as you say, wanted to explore the complexity of the immigrant experience. Because something that has happened here in Vermont, which is not a very diverse state, is that in the last twenty years, we’ve had a huge influx in all the dairy farms. Most of the milking is being done by undocumented migrant workers. And interestingly enough, in my county, most of them come from a little town in Chiapas. And how someone from Chiapas knows that a little farmer needs three milkers is amazing. But because it isn’t a very diverse state, many farmers, schools, or the hospital would call me if they needed a translator.
RENDÓN: So have you become the translator of the town?
ALVAREZ: Well, now, in twenty years, it’s really developed, and there’s an infrastructure now. There’s an organization of people that do the translation. There’s an open door clinic, but not when they first came. The representations in the mainstream sometimes airbrush everything together. Every migrant is this doc figure. It’s complex. Real equality is about being granted the complexity and the range that the mainstream grants itself. I think that’s important. The full complexity and diversity of who we are within our communities, not just out diversifying the world. It’s a complex identity.
RENDÓN: And of course, you already talked a little bit about your main character Antonia, but I wanted to ask you about the sense of community. Because somehow I feel that—I mean, the novel has been praised everywhere—and I have the feeling that that praise somehow is connected to the sense of community that the novel transmits.
ALVAREZ: Part of the thing that is in the novel is that everybody assumes because Antonia is a Latina, the fact that the couple is very socially active and involved, that it’s because of her. When it’s really her Nebraskan, white husband who is the activist. She always calls herself the reluctant activist. She’s very much a solitary soul. It isn’t her natural inclination to go out there. But what we were talking about earlier, part of the afterlife that she can give her diseased husband, Sam, is to keep those values alive in a sense. And so, in spite of herself, she gets involved and gets pulled into the story that’s unfolding in her garage. Once you get inside someone else’s story, there’s a connection that’s made that’s very hard to turn down. Chekhov once said that “the task of the writer is not to solve the problem, but to ask the question correctly.” It’s not to answer it but to pose it and explore it through character, and story, and action.
RENDÓN: Thank you for sharing that, Julia. I have two more questions. One of them is related to your writing process. Can you share with us, what’s your writing process? Is it something where you isolate yourself? Is it more of a social process? What does it look like when you’re writing?
ALVAREZ: It is a very solitary process for me. I have friends that go to the—not during this year of the quarantine, of course—but they go to coffee shops to write. And I could not do that because I would be paying attention to everyone, and what’s going on, and the smells—too distracted. So, I do require solitude. And I think of it very much as a practice. It’s something that you do every day. I tell my students that it’s the practice, it’s the discipline, it’s the commitment that makes a book finally come to reality. And you have to put in the time. For me, writing is not a job. It’s a way of life. Some of the time, I am actually at my computer, at my desk writing. And other times, you’re always paying attention, collecting, listening, being present in life so that it gets into the work. I’m very much a person of discipline. I get up, and I do my yoga and my meditation, and then I sit down to write. And some days, nothing happens. And some days, it’s agony. But if I do my work, when I read the book, I can’t tell you from one paragraph to the next which one was the one that I sweated over—which chapter came a little easier. It’s a kind of practice. So that’s what it looks like. It’s very, very boring. You know, some of my students think of being a writer as being published, going on book tours, getting attention. And I tell them, “Not really, it’s a way of life. It’s a way of making meaning.” Some people do it through dance, some people do it through planting a garden, and a writer does it by writing. But you have to be writing to be inside that life.
RENDÓN: And in relation to that, who are the people or the writers who have molded you as a poet, as a novelist?
ALVAREZ: There’s so many of them, and it’s not a done deal. Right now, I’m reading the Hungarian writer, Magda Szabó, and I am in love with her. And before that, I went through a huge rereading of everything by Toni Morrison. I’m constantly reading to learn. These are my teachers. So I’m constantly learning. I often say that the story that most influenced me growing up—mi tía, the one that was the reader in the family gave me have a picture book that I fell in love with, was the only book that I wanted to read, and I loved it, I memorized all the stories, was the Arabian Nights. And here was a picture book—there was a brown girl on the cover, telling stories. First little character that looked like a Dominican, and saved her life and the lives of all the women in her kingdom by telling this cruel sultan stories night after night. For me, that story was really formative, and I only realize it now looking back because it put a little luminous piece of information in my head. The stories have power, that they can transform you and save you, and that they have a social aspect. They can, you know, save the woman in the kingdom. That was a very important formative story for me. I think the first thing that I wanted to be, and what I always wrote till I was in my 20s, were poems. And I think it’s because I missed my native tongue, and poetry had kind of the musicality, the rococo nature of my Spanish mother tongue. So I wrote a lot of poetry. I loved the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman—remember, back then, that’s what we read. I remember discovering Langston Hughes and the blues and feeling this profound connection with both the musicality of it, but also the content of it. I read “I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes. And I felt like it was a promise to me, a little message in a bottle. So that was really important to me. And then, I gave myself my own education, reading Neruda and Vallejo, also García Lorca—huge influence—feeling suddenly proud that these voices were coming and influencing American poets. Those were my first mentors and muses in terms of books that were really influential. To me and I think many Latina writers, This Bridge Called My Back by Cherríe Moraga, that anthology, Gloria Anzaldúa—you know, the sudden coming to realize that our stories belonged on the shelf of American literature—it was a huge empowerment to discover them. So, oh my gosh, I will think of many, many names and titles that I could have quoted to you, but so many of them that have formed me.
RENDÓN: I can imagine. And just for you to know, several of our guests here in Latino Book Review Presents have mentioned you as an inspiration as a writer for them.
ALVAREZ: Well, you know, it’s funny because I was thinking before having the interview, Oscar Hijuelos, Our House in the Last World, that was really important for me; Piri Thomas, Edward Rivera, Family Installments—any book that was by a writer from my part of the world, I don’t know, gave it a kind of affirmation that it could be done. It was also important for me to discover a community of other Latina writers. Sandra and I had our first books come out the same year, and to have this hermana en la palabra—and Ana Castillo, and Denise Chávez and Dolores Frida, people of my generation—to find them out there and to feel that we were together in this, it gave me a lot of confidence that I didn’t have because I had been writing already for over twenty years before my first novel. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents was published when I was 41, but some of those stories were from when I was at Syracuse, a 21-year-old. It took a long time to feel like it wouldn’t be rejected.
RENDÓN: I don’t think you would have been rejected. You are too good to be rejected.
ALVAREZ: Oh no, back then, I remember getting a note from The New Yorker back then saying that they didn’t publish these ethnic memoirs that were “more like sociology, not literature”— ouch! The letter [said] that I might “try some other publications in the sociological field because they didn’t publish these kinds of ethnic memoirs.” But it wasn’t a memoir. It was a story. It was very dismissive. Of course, I didn’t see any evidence to the contrary in their pages. Now I do. I think that these worlds are opening up, but it wasn’t so when we were getting started.
RENDÓN: Absolutely. And I know I said I only had two more questions, but I actually have one more. What would you say to Latinas and Latinos who are suffering discrimination? Is there something that we can say to let them know that things can get better?
ALVAREZ: Well, I think the best empowerment is to provide those kinds of opportunities and examples that it can be done. I’m not very public. I don’t really like going out and being on the road, but I always welcome the opportunity to be in a school or a community and be able to provide that kind of example to young writers of color from our communities that they can, that it is possible, and that they shouldn’t give up. You know, I found a lot of rebuffs and a lot of rejections, but I also had those people along the way that gave me a little push and confidence. And so I think, to provide that where we can, and sometimes it’s in very small ways, when you’re presented with the opportunity to help and to provide encouragement, it’s really critical. I remember being down in Chapel Hill, and they brought in a whole classroom of kids in primary school. I was there at the university for a gig, but they asked if I would meet with them, and I said, “Sure, of course.” The kids came in, some of them were their parents, many, many from migrant Latinx communities, and there was a little girl sitting in the front row. And I spoke in English and Spanish as much as I could because I was told from the beginning that not everybody would understand me. And these little dark, luminous eyes kept looking at me. And I said, “Does anyone have a question?” right before we were ending. She raised her hand, and then she was so afraid to speak she burst into tears. She was just too frightened. And the teacher later told me that she was a very new kid from the migrant community. And she didn’t know any English, and she was very, very afraid. When I saw her, my heart just melted. And before she went out the door, I called her to me. And I had this little pin that was a butterfly on my jacket, and I took it off, and I pinned it on her. And I said, “Whenever you are not feeling like you can do it, remember you have wings, and you can fly.” It wasn’t even a literary moment. It’s really funny because I have her on my computer. I have certain images on my desktop, and she’s one of them. I was just so touched. And so I think people did that to me. In one way or another, they pinned a butterfly above my heart and gave me confidence. I always love this story that I heard an older woman tell about una viejita that had spent her whole life reaching up, reaching up, trying to touch the stars. Since she was a young woman, it had been her dream to touch the stars. And finally, as an old, old woman, she finally touches a star, and father sky looks down and says, “How did you get to be so tall?” And she says, “I’m standing on a lot of shoulders.” And so I think of all the shoulders that I stood on to get to touch my star. And I think part of the responsibility now is to provide those shoulders for the ones coming after us.
RENDÓN: That’s a very powerful image. Thank you for sharing that, Julia. It’s been a privilege to have you here on Latino Book Review Presents.
ALVAREZ: Thank you for the work you and Latino Book Review are doing. Gracias.
RENDÓN: Muchas gracias, Julia.