Something to declare

Julia Alvarez talks about moving to America, her relationship with her family and the rituals that keep her a focused writer.

Topics: Memoirs,

Julia Alvarez was 10 years old when her family was forced to flee the Dominican Republic for the United States. Her father, who had been involved in a coup attempt against dictator Rafael Trujillo, was in grave danger — within a few months, many of his co-conspirators would be killed. The twin themes of persecution and exile percolate through much of Alvarez’s artfully constructed fiction, including the critically acclaimed novels “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” (1991), “In the Time of Butterflies” (1994) and “Yo!” (1997).

This month Alvarez publishes her first nonfiction book, a collection of essays titled “Something to Declare” (Algonquin). Part memoir and part how-to text for aspiring writers, it’s a lucid, light-as-a-butterfly book that pencils in the real stories behind Alvarez’s fictions. Alvarez writes here about her large, boisterous and politically active family; her difficult move to the United States and her attempts to learn a new language; her years of bouncing from teaching job to teaching job, wondering if her fiction would ever see the light of day. She also delves into deeper, more personal subjects, like her decision not to have children.

The great thing about Alvarez’s fiction has always been this: Even when she’s probing difficult themes, she doesn’t have a pretentious bone in her body. Her work is rich, funny, full of feeling. Talking to Alvarez, who is now 48 and lives with her husband on their farm in Middlebury, Vt., you feel a similar vibe — here’s a serious woman who refuses to take herself, or anything else, too seriously.

Your new essay collection is largely about cultural differences, so I have to ask: What was the deal with those drinks called engrudos that your parents forced on you and your sisters as a child?

An engrudo is what you get when you take all the food that somebody has left on their plate — and that somebody was usually me — and you mix it in with milk and maybe some chocolate powder to disguise the fact that it’s all this stuff. Then you put it in a big tall glass and the person has to drink it before they can do anything else.

Yuck!

I knew the word engrudo from my family, but when I looked it up I realized that it means gruel. Gruel, engrudo. Remember in all those horrible fairy tales, where stepmothers make little kids eat their gruel?

Was this punishment — or just a trick to get you to eat your spinach?

There was nothing appetizing about it. It was what we were threatened with if we didn’t eat our vegetables, if we didn’t eat our food. It was nothing like, “Here’s a little chocolate drink for you!” It was big and it was mighty evil looking.

A more important cultural difference between the United States and the Dominican Republic, where you were born, is the way that each culture views its writers — particularly its women writers. You’ve said that after your first novel, “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,” was published, your mother didn’t talk to you for several months. Why was that?

I think it was for a variety of reasons. A lot had to do with the fact that I come from a culture in which women were not encouraged to speak up. Maxine Hong Kingston was very helpful to me. She begins “The Woman Warrior” by saying: “My mother told me never, ever to repeat this story.” That was such an eye-opener, because that’s the way with many of my stories. No “once upon a time” or any of those catch phrases. I come from a culture where women are not encouraged to speak. [Instead, they are encouraged] to keep their mouths shut, to keep things in the family, to be the guardian of the stories and to be very careful who they’re released to. It’s a way of understanding that stories are powerful. You know, in the world we lived in, people “got disappeared” for saying the wrong thing. What people said mattered. I was raised in that world, and suddenly here I am — a woman with a voice in another language, one that we’re supposed to keep things from, you know, the gringos and the Americans. And I have a voice and I’m saying things about women and women’s experience which are not nice. That women have mouths and needs and bodies and problems and breakdowns and all of the stuff that is not nice to admit and certainly not to the [Americans].

Was your mother shocked that you were telling family secrets, or just that you were writing about such intimate things?

I think it’s a combination of both. They would say to me when I was little, “Don’t think you’re a woman, talking like that. What do you know about woman stuff?” It was the way a mother always feels about a child, you know. “How can you talk about those things? People will think things actually happened to you if you write them down.” So for my mother, part was just shock that a woman should speak up, and part was “What will people think of us?” And all of what that means when you’re an immigrant and you’re so prickly about how other people are perceiving you.

Writers clearly need to draw from their own experience. But can they go too far in terms of exposing the people around them?

You can’t censor yourself when you’re writing or the play — the real freedom to say and to bear witness — would shrivel up. But once it’s written, once you’ve got it down on paper, once you haven’t curbed it as it’s coming out, you revise and you also make decisions about what you will publish. You know, there are certain essays I’ve written that aren’t in the book because I didn’t think they were helpful to put out there. You have to be careful to take care of the people in your life at the same time that you have to be careful not to compromise that sense of seeing things clearly and setting them down. I really agree with Conrad, who said it was important to “render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe.” You know, to see things clearly and to try as clearly as possible to set that down. But we’re also human beings in connection with each other; we know the tender hearts of the people we love. So it’s always a balance. What did Faulkner say? You know, kill your grandmothers, it doesn’t matter, a good passage of prose is worth anybody’s grandmother. Well, I don’t think so.

As a novelist writing a collection of personal essays, did you ever worry about frittering away material that you might want to draw on for your fiction?

That’s an interesting question. For me, writing is about draining the cup and hoping it’ll fill up again. And you can’t safeguard that in any way. My experience is that each thing you write, you learn so much that it fills you up for the next thing. And each thing you experience does that, and fills you up for the next thing. Not that I don’t go through
writer’s block, because I do. But I think that’s more about needing gestation time and needing to understand and take in, more than it’s because I’ve used up something that I shouldn’t have used up.

You mentioned earlier that becoming a writer went against your family’s — or the Dominican Republic’s — conception of what a woman should be. Has your family come to terms with what you are?

I think so. I think one of the things I’ve learned about being alive — not just being a writer — is that it’s a process. Just as you’re learning things from what you write, the people who are your readers forget they’re even your families, finally decide whether or not they have faith in your vision and in your skill and they’ll go along with you. With
family, too, it’s a process for them of trying to understand what it is to have a storyteller in the family — a storyteller who’s gone public with the storytelling. I think that they’ve learned that judgments are not going to be made about them. “Yo” was about some of this. Part of what happens is that a storyteller tells the story and then people around her story seem somehow circumvented by that story that’s gotten the attention. “In the Time of the Butterflies” was really wonderfully received, especially in the Dominican Republic, and the family feared what might be thought about them, and about this kooky woman in their family. But here she was having written something that was getting this kind of national praise, and then they thought, “Well, maybe she’s OK.” And remember that the country, too, is changing from the country of my childhood or my adolescence.

- – - – - – - – - -

It seems like your parents had very strong ideas about the kind of woman they wanted you and your sisters to be.

Well, I don’t think it’s just my parents, I think it’s our culture. I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s in America, and the women’s movement really didn’t get started until the ’70s. There were very definite ideas about what a nice woman did, what a good girl did. But I think it was especially strong in my own native culture, which was probably 50 years behind what this culture was.

Your essay here about the Miss America pageant is fascinating. When you watched the pageant with your parents as a girl, you saw it as a liberating force in many ways — it helped you envision freedom and options. For many American women, the pageant has long meant the opposite.

It’s funny. I have this friend who is trying to get funding for a series that she wants to do. It’s about different aspects of women’s history, and one of the episodes is on the Miss America Pageant. Her theory is that the Miss America Pageant represents a real marker in our culture of women having brains and getting scholarships and talking about who they were besides being good looking women, though that always was included with
it. In some ways it was a much more surprising force for change than we think. And imagine for us, coming from the Dominican Republic … the fact that these women were going to college! And were out there talking and did talent shows and things like that! For us it represented, gosh, the advancement of these women.

Your family, you write, wasn’t particularly literary. Yet wasn’t your grandfather a cultural attaché to the United Nations?

Oh, yeah, but what was that? I don’t want to undermine my poor papito, but I mean, at one point one of the people sent [by the Dominican Republic] to France as an ambassador had never worn shoes on a regular basis. Do you know what I mean? These titles don’t mean the same thing. I think that my grandfather probably was given the post because he was identified as one of the people that did love poetry and music and so forth. And that is in the book. But we were not a reading family. We were not a literary family. It was more like we knew that there was such a thing as opera, as opposed to not knowing that there was such a thing, but we didn’t know a thing about it. We knew that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel was a great work of art, but we didn’t know why. It wasn’t a literary family, but it was within a culture where 80 percent of the people couldn’t read at all. So to have once read Shakespeare was a big deal. To know what Shakespeare meant and to have aspirations. So you have to put it in a different plane.

When did you begin to know that books and writing were important to you?

It was really coming to this culture. And coming to another language and losing everything and looking for an anchor somewhere. I found it in books. And you know how it is: Read a wonderful book that stirs you and then you want to try to do that too. And having to learn a language, of course, really makes you pay attention to why people are saying things one way as opposed to another. Why they’re using one word as opposed to another. And that’s what we do when we’re writers — we have to relearn the language and do that kind of listening to the language that happens when you’re also learning a new language in order to survive. Because you know that if you say something one way, you get the stern look or you get a bad reaction — and then you wonder why this instead of that.

You moved to America at age 10, and at the time your family was facing political persecution in the Dominican Republic. How real did that persecution feel to you?

It’s interesting, you know, because I didn’t grow up feeling terrified. I think my parents really kept a lid on what was going on. But I sensed a kind of tension and nervousness and I knew that certain things couldn’t be talked about. And I remember that whatever we wrote to anybody, the letters were carefully looked at and we had to rewrite them. I thought often it was because of spelling or something like that, but it was my parents’ monitoring because there was very bad censorship and a police state surrounding whatever was written, whatever was said. And so I remember that kind of monitoring, but you know, it’s funny, you just think of it as “That’s the way it is.” That’s what parents do to kids or that’s the world we live in.

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When you moved to the U.S., you write that you faced a different kind of
persecution — from boys on the schoolyard who mocked your accent.

It was terribly hurtful, the way things are big and hurtful when you’re young. This kind of rejection was hurtful and scary. At one point it involved kids throwing stones at us. It was a school that I was finally removed from because it was not a great place for us to be. I don’t know how I responded. All I can say is that one of the reasons that I really felt this need and this desire to find a belongingness in books, in the world that I got through just opening a book, was because of that experience.

You say in “Something to Declare” that you wanted to become a writer, at least in some small part, to say the things you didn’t have the language to say back on the schoolyard.

In part, it was the desire for revenge. To show them that I had a story, that I deserved to be alive and that I was just as good as them. But as I say in the essay, that soon turned into something else. I think that if you’re going to love a craft and devote yourself to it, it’s got to be more than out of petty vengeance. So who knows what fills the tank that gets us started?

You’ve been writing for a long time, but your success came relatively late, didn’t it?

Yeah, I was 41 when my first novel was published.

You led a nomadic life, moving between teaching jobs. Did your confidence ever waiver that you’d eventually make it?

Oh come on, of course. All the time. And it still does. It’s a craft where you always have to keep a beginner’s mind to write the next book, or you’re just going to be writing the old book again. So you never know. If you do have a beginner’s mind and you want that freshness and you want to get at the cutting edge of what you know, then you don’t know if you’re going to do it, because you’re not going to do the same thing again. And you don’t know if your skill, your talent, your energy, your character extends that far.

Was your first novel, “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,” a book that you had had with you for a long time?

Oh, absolutely. And being so nomadic and having no stability, it was a book that I wrote the way many women write their first books. So many of them get up at 5 a.m., before the baby gets up. I didn’t have that kind of family, but I had those kinds of jobs. It was really a book that I wrote when there was time to write. And though there was more time to write for me because I didn’t have the complications and the demands, I also didn’t have the kind of nurture that comes from having a family. So I was really writing it out there on blank air.

Are you glad, in retrospect, that your life was as topsy-turvy as it was, with all that moving around and being divorced twice by the time you were 30?

I don’t know what to say. I think of the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” The tumultuousness of not finding a steady job and the moving around and the not quite knowing how to put all the pieces together wasn’t so bad, because I was part of a whole time in our culture where everybody was questioning those things. And I had a very complicated combination of impulses coming from being neither this nor that. So at
the time I certainly didn’t feel it was a great thing to be experiencing and I didn’t think it was the greatest thing for my work because I wasn’t getting it done. But you make out of your life whatever it needs to be. Your work, if it kicks you around and bangs you around a bit, then that’s what you make into what you create. Other writers who’ve had very sane
and simple lives make something of that. I think it’s more about the desire to make something of it, than it is about the content of what you’ve had. And I’m talking now about fiction and poetry, not necessarily memoir writing or something like that.

- – - – - – - – - -

You write very eloquently in this book about weighing your career vs. having children, and you chose not to have any. Does that decision loom large in your life these days?

Yeah, but first of all it’s never a decision. Maybe some women make these decisions where they sit down and make it very clear-cut. But your life leads you in certain directions and certain things don’t happen in time. And certainly, certain basic things — like if I had never fallen in love — if they hadn’t happened, it would feel like a loss to me. The idea of never having been a mother to a child, that is certainly one of those things. Because of the time I grew up in, I thought that it had to be an either/or. I didn’t know that you could try to do it all. And the kind of men that I was seeing also believed you couldn’t have it all. It was hard. A lot of my friends who chose to have children are not in their original marriages, as they found out that it didn’t have to be either/or and they and their spouses or partners struggled to figure out what that meant. One of the things that has happened with being a teacher is that I feel that I’ve had some of that feeling of nurturing and mothering and taking care of students over time. And certain students remain in my life over time. The other thing is that now, especially with being in the Dominican Republic, with this project that we’ve started up in the mountains, I have a lot of kids there that I feel a responsibility toward. All of a sudden I have this whole crew of kids. It’s not the same as raising them, but I’m connected to the future.

What project is this?

We bought some land, Bill and I, in the mountains and we have an organic coffee farm there. We’ve joined a cooperative that’s growing organic coffee. It’s a very, very special community of farmers up there. And we bought land in the cooperative and we started a foundation there. We’re hoping that the coffee will take off and help fund an arts foundation for Dominicans. Dominicans don’t have things like Yaddo, they don’t have fellowships they can apply to at colleges. And if there’s a writer or painter or musician, there really isn’t that center where they could go and maybe get a month or two months off and a stipend and work on their work. We’ve had it now for about a year and a half, getting it started. I became the godparent to one child and that became a relationship, and all of a sudden it started to spread — that Julia was out there as a potential godmother.

How often do you get back there?

This year I’ve been three times. And Bill’s been five times, I think, because he’s the farmer in the family and so he’s really involved in the coffee project part of it.

When you go back, are you claimed as a Dominican writer?

Absolutely. I can’t believe it. I’ve said, “But I write in English. I come so much out of this other experience.” But I think part of it is just that your roots are always your roots. It’s like if you leave Middlebury, Vt., and you grew up here, everybody always thinks of you as a kid who grew up in Middlebury, Vt. Even if you’re in California. There’s that sense that you’re theirs. Their Dominican blood is in your veins. It’s an important topic now, especially in these so-called third world cultures that have had a lot of immigration. And the Dominican Diaspora is huge. There’s a real dialogue going on now about what it means. I mean, if Naipaul lives in London but he grew up where, in Trinidad? What happens if you also change language? It’s odd. And yet you’re definitely writing out of a Dominican focus and background and maybe even a lot of your themes come from there, but it’s another language and you’ve also gone through this other experience and sensibilities.

Do you feel a kinship with other Latin American writers? Both men and women?

I think I feel a kinship particularly with USA Latinos. Because I think we’re not easily defined. I’m not a Dominican writer, and I’m not an American writer if we’re going to define an American writer in a traditional sense of somebody who grew up here and has roots here and, you know, had a certain formation. And I think that’s no longer the way we think about American writers at all. That’s been exploded by the literature of the last 20 years. But I’m not a writer of these places — I’m that mixed breed. I’m that hybrid. I think of myself very much as someone who is putting together different kinds of worlds and a different understanding of language from having those two worlds. I think that being American, of this hemisphere, is about that encounter. America’s a place where worlds collided and languages and experiences collided. I think that in a way it’s more and more the experience of the whole globe, as you get, say, someone from Bosnia who lives in San Francisco and marries a Japanese-American — what are their kids? With these great shifts of population and mobility and immigration of this late 20th century we are more and more these hybrids.

You offer quite a bit of advice in this new book to young writers. Among other things, you counsel them to avoid self-importance in literature. You say you realized the importance of the vernacular partly by talking to maids.

In the Dominican Republic we have a society where class is important, and growing up I was raised by maids. They were the ones whose stories I heard as a kid. They were the ones whose view of the world I absorbed. So the idea that literature comes only from a certain pure, canonical entity, and that’s what literature’s all about — that’s the education I received in the United States, it was about the canon and certain literary subjects, the big subjects that mostly male writers wrote about. And until I started to believe that other voices or possibilities were also part of literature or could be part of literature … that’s where Maxine Hong Kingston was so important for me. You know, to discover this Asian-American woman with a very different experience from mine as a Latina, but that this could be made into fiction and into wonderfully lyrical, wonderfully written fiction. I thought, wow, I didn’t know that. Maybe I should have known it but I didn’t know it. This was my first encounter with it. So it’s about paying attention and finding those moments of magic in what is out there, that might not have a big sign on it that says, “This is literature.”

When you talk about avoiding self-importance, are you talking about style or theme or both?

It’s hard to separate in a work what is one and what is the other. It’s all of a piece. The writers who always surprise us and start us thinking in new ways about literature always break those molds anyhow. You get a James Joyce doing something totally different than what was done before. You get Virginia Woolf. Those writers were listening to something else than what were the canonical, right ways to do things. But on the other hand, and this is what I tell my students, they knew what those forms were. It wasn’t just rebelling to rebel, but it was an understanding and knowing of that form and that kind of thinking. And moving beyond it. And that’s more when you get to the level of craft. That you have to understand what you’re going to explode, what you’re going to do differently. You have to understand that tradition that you’re working against.

I was fascinated to read about your daily writing rituals. Can you talk to me about the clean bowl of water you put on your desk every day?

There’s nothing to say. Except that I do it.

You also avoid newspapers in the morning. Why is that?

Well, I think I want that beginner’s mind which you have when you wake up in the morning. Like no other time. And if you start filling it with what’s happening to Clinton today, or a year ago Lady Di died or all those things that become ripe in your head with images, then you lose it. Or at least I do. Other people are better at concentrating. It’s just
something about my focus and wanting to hone it on what I’m working on.

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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