How the Alvarez girl found her magic

A girl whose life dangled by a story showed me how to redeem my own.

Published May 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Reading was not an activity that was encouraged in my family, certainly not for girls or even for boys. In fact, as a child, I only knew two readers. One reader was my cousin Juan Tomas, who not only loved to read but as a teenager began to write poetry. This affliction was blamed on the fact that, el pobrecito, he had been sent to boarding school in Germany when he was 9. His father had meant to make a man out of him and instead he came back a reader. "Se va a enfermar," my grandmother would say, shaking her head every time she found Juan Tomas sitting in a chair, reading a book. "He's going to get sick." It just wasn't healthy to enjoy such a solitary, sedentary activity in a culture that prized social interaction and considered cock fighting, rum drinking, and womanizing as normal activities for healthy young men.

The other reader I knew was my maiden aunt Titi, who was 26 and unmarried. Una jamona, an old maid. !Pero cómo no! my grandmother scolded. But of course! Who would want a woman who was a reader for a companion?

Perhaps you think that because I became a writer, I was one of those born bookworms who despite this lack of encouragement kept a diary and read Cervantes by the time she was 9. I'm afraid I was definitely in the non-reading tradition of my family. I didn't care much for books. In part it was that I was surrounded by non-readers; there weren't many books around. At the American school where I was sent in hopes that it might turn me into a well-behaved young lady who spoke English, I was introduced to books: Dick and Jane, and their tame little pets Spot and Puff. Just that morning we had trapped tarantulas in the yard and witnessed Iluminada receiving a spirit. Believe me, the Dick-and-Jane readers seemed bland in contrast to the world I was living in. Besides, these books were written in that impossible marbles-in-your-mouth language of English. In my first self-motivated piece of writing, I scratched out a note for my teacher, a note that eventually found its way home to my mother. "Dear Mrs. Brown," my note read, "I love you very much. But why should I read when I can have fun?"

Although I was not a lover of the written word, I loved a good story or a catchy rhyme or the rhythmic lyrics of a merengue. I just didn't think of these treasures as anything I'd find between the covers of a book. I was growing up in the '50s on a little island in the Caribbean, a basically oral culture where the most interesting information was passed around by word of mouth. I was also growing up in a ruthless dictatorship within which key information could not be written down. So, I never trusted books as places where I could find out anything I really needed to know. Instead I went to the people around me to find out the things I wanted to find out about.

There was my grandmother, who told me about ciquapas, beautiful magical women who came out at night to hunt for food but disappeared at daylight. Iluminada, the cook, was born under a Santo, which meant that from time to time she would throw something like an epileptic fit when her Santo entered her. Porfirio, her husband, had lots of warts on his arms until he got the paletero, the candy man, to count them, and the next morning, Porfirio's arms were clean as a newborn baby's and the paletero had 27 warts on his arms. No one wanted to buy candy from him from then on.

So although I did not have a literary childhood, it was a childhood surrounded by stories. What good were books with storytellers like Iluminada and my grandmother Mamita around?

But then I read my first book, read in the sense of being carried away by a narrative to a world I had not known before. It was "A Thousand and One Nights," and it was given to me by that maiden aunt who read books and knew Latin and had not married by the time she was an old lady of 26. "A Thousand and One Nights" was the story of a young girl who lived in a kingdom where the sultan was killing all the women. This young girl's father kept her hidden away in his library. There, she spent the day reading books and learning all the stories in the world. Finally, this young girl volunteered to go to the sultan and try to save all the women in her kingdom. For 1,001 nights, she told the sultan story after story she had read in the books in her father's library. Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. Sinbad the sailor. Aladdin and his magic lamp. The merchant and the genie. Wonderful stories that mesmerized me as well as the sultan. In fact, he was so happy with this young storyteller that he spared her life and stopped killing women altogether. He also made her the queen of his kingdom.

Wow! I was impressed. I hadn't known stories had this kind of power. They could save lives. Reading could lead to becoming a queen. I became curious about books, books with bright, colorful pictures that were not part of school, books that began with a smart girl about to do something exciting -- like Scheherazade in "A Thousand and One Nights."

Looking back, it strikes me as curious that this was the book that made the biggest impression on me as a young child. Here we were living in a dictatorship, surrounded by secret police and disappearances. It makes me wonder if part of my affection for the young girl of "A Thousand and One Nights" was that she had found a way to escape a situation not unlike the one we were in.

We left the Dominican Republic on August 6, 1960. My father had become involved in a plot against the dictator, and the secret police were on his trail. Overnight we lost everything: a homeland, an extended family, a culture and, most important, the language I felt at home in. The classroom English I had learned at the American school had very little to do with the English being spoken on the streets and in the playgrounds of New York City. I could not understand most things the Americans were saying to me.

One thing I did understand: Boys at school chased me across the playground, calling me names, telling me to go back where I came from.

"No speak English," I lied, taking the easy way out, instead of being brave and speaking up like Scheherazade.

But my silence was only strategy. I knew where to go when the world was unfriendly: the portable homeland of the imagination. From Scheherazade, I had learned where the real power lay. I read and read and read. My teachers began to encourage me to write down the stories of where I had come from.

Looking back now, I can see that my path as a writer began in that playground. Somewhere inside, where we make promises to ourselves, I told myself I would learn English so well that Americans would sit up and notice. I told myself that one day I would express myself in a way that would make those boys feel bad they had tormented me. Yes, it was revenge that set me on the path to becoming a writer. At some point, though, revenge turned into redemption. Instead of pummeling those boys with my success, I began to want to save them. I wanted to change those looks of hate and mistrust, to transform the sultan's face into the beautiful face of the reclining prince on the cover of my childhood storybook.

Where did I get the idea that stories could do that? That I could do that?

At the end of her 1,001-night ordeal, Scheherazade has not only saved herself and the women in her kingdom, but she has transformed the sultan from a cruel tyrant into a loving man by the power of her stories.

That first book not only made me a reader, it gave me a powerful model of what I might want to do with my life. Stories had power: to save a life, to transform a king, to redeem the past, to protect a country and to while away night after night with the enchantments of narrative. I wanted to learn how to use that magic.

And so, I became not just the third reader in my family, but its first writer.

By Julia Alvarez

Julia Alvarez is the author of the novels "How the GarcC-a Girls Lost Their Accents," "In the Time of the Butterflies" (a national Book Critics Circle Award finalist), and "Yo!." She has also published two poetry collections ("Homecoming" and "The Other side/El Otro Lado") and a collection of essays ("Something to Declare").

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