Recent Atlantic Unbound interviews:
Two Geeks on Their Way to Byzantium (June 28, 2000)
Richard Powers -- a writer who connects technology, art, and politics as few others can -- talks about his new novel, Plowing the Dark, and the age-old human search for the virtual and the eternal.
A Kinder, Gentler Overclass (June 15, 2000)
David Brooks, the author of Bobos in Paradise, explains why bourgeois bohemians are here to stay.
American Literature (June 1, 2000)
Sherman Alexie -- poet, novelist, short-story writer, Native American -- strikes out at the "eagle-feathers school of Native literature."
A Satirist in Full Stride (May 17, 2000)
George Saunders, whose new collection of short stories has just been published, may be the most talented goof-off writing fiction today.
Towards a New Urbanism (April 26, 2000)
Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck, the authors of Suburban Nation, argue that the antidote to sprawl is good old-fashioned town planning.
Passion's Progress (April 20, 2000)
Edna O'Brien talks about her admiration for Joyce, the importance of myth, and how her new book, Wild Decembers -- in which heartache is prefigured by a tractor -- fits in with her own "inner gnaw"
The Foreigner (April 13, 2000)
Susan Sontag -- whose new novel, In America, has just been published -- doesn't feel at home in New York, or anywhere else. And that's the way she likes it.
More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Join the conversation in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.
For the Domincan-born novelist and poet Julia Alvarez, the past is prologue
Julia Alvarez tells her students to "write about the stuff that isn't quite comfortable inside you, the things that are hard to get at and say," and she often follows her own advice. Alvarez has devoted her writing life to subjects that are both close to home and close to the bone -- her books revisit the stormy history of her native Dominican Republic and flesh out ancestral memory with an exile's urgency. Alvarez's family fled the island in 1960 to escape the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, and a wrenching sense of estrangement often lies at the heart of her characters' struggles to stay true to their origins while discovering themselves.
In two of her recent books Alvarez has illuminated Dominican history with fiction based on the country's heroines. In her 1994 novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, she drew on the story of the four Mirabal sisters, who became Dominican legends when three of them were killed in 1960 after waging an underground fight against the Trujillo regime. Her new novel, In the Name of Salomé, traces the lives of Salomé Ureña, a celebrated Dominican poet in the late nineteenth century who crusaded against colonial rule and started a school to educate women, and her daughter, Camila Henríquez Ureña, who in her sixties, after years of teaching at Vassar College, moved to Cuba to join Castro's revolution.
In addition to her historical fiction, Alvarez has published two other novels, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991) and ¡Yo! (1997); poetry volumes, including The Other Side/El Otro Lado (1995) and Homecoming (1984); and a collection of essays, Something to Declare (1998). Alvarez teaches literature and creative writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. She and her husband run a coffee farm, Alta Gracia, in the Dominican Republic.
Julia Alvarez corresponded recently by e-mail with The Atlantic Monthly's Hilary McClellen.
Before 1960 I was not a literate person, in the sense of the written word. The Dominican Republic of the 1950s was still basically an oral culture. I went to a little American school, learned classroom English, and practiced reading from a dull "reading book." At home, there weren't many books around. I only knew a couple of readers -- an old-maid aunt, a "funny" uncle -- whom everyone worried over because it seemed antisocial and sad that they separated themselves from the group in order to involve themselves in something that was written down. So, I was not a reader or a writer. But I do think that my native culture put in me a love of stories. The family and the world around me were full of great storytellers.
Then, coming to this country, to New York, in 1960, and finding such an unfriendly, unwelcoming world, I was thrown back on my own resources. I became a reader. I loved how books belonged to everyone, how everyone was welcomed at the table of literature. It seemed a much better world to settle into than the United States of America of 1960, before the civil-rights movement, the women's movement, multiculturalism. I've often quoted the poet Czeslaw Milosz's statement, "Language is the only homeland." Perhaps not the only one, but certainly the only one I found back then which was inviting. I settled in. I wanted to read everything.
Another factor: intentionally having to learn a language made me sensitive to the little particularities of this or that word. Certainly, every writer, even those who become writers in their "original" tongues, must relearn their language as writers in order to craft stories and poems. In any case, I was forced to learn the English language in that conscious way when I was ten.
Your first book, Homecoming, was a collection of poems. You've also published four books of fiction, a collection of nonfiction, and other collections of poetry. In which genre are you most comfortable?
That's hard to say. I think at particular times in my life, one or another genre feels like the right one for me to investigate. Poetry was my first love, and in some ways continues to be. It seems to me the hardest to write, and the least rewarded genre, at least in this culture. But poems, the best poems, address that cutting edge of self -- hone it as well -- that edge where the self transmutes into spiritual being, or something like that. (I need a poem to say what I mean right now!) That said, or imprecisely said, I also very much like the essay form -- it provides me with the precision to really zoom in on an idea. And fiction -- fiction is wonderfully egalitarian, in its bungling, fleshy, noisy, human way, allowing all kinds of diversities and perspectives to enter. It's an open house, or rather, the illusion of an open house.
Two of your four fiction books -- In the Time of the Butterflies and your most recent book, In the Name of Salomé -- are works of historical fiction. What is it about the Mirabal sisters in In the Time of the Butterflies and Salomé Ureña and her daughter Camila Henríquez Ureña in In the Name of Salomé that made you want to tell their stories? What responsibilities do you feel when writing about historical figures?
Who knows what that pull is that brings a storyteller and a story together? It seems atavistic, almost magical, like a spell that is cast on us by our "material," and at the same time a spell we cast to make the material come forward and sing its song in our ear. We do the latter by craft, which is why I urge my students not just to rely on "a really great idea" coming and plopping itself down on their screen or on their paper. Work, work, work -- and invisible work at that -- has to be done to make it sing to the lords and ladies, and the maids and migrant workers, of Byzantium.
So, part of me doesn't know why the Mirabal sisters or why Salomé became such powerful figures in my imagination. I know with the Mirabal sisters I felt a measure of responsibility to tell their story. They were the four sisters who were sacrificed to the regime, whereas my sisters and I made it safely to this country. It was also a desire to understand my parents' generation, who fell victim to the dictatorship -- la generación perdida (the lost generation), as they are known in the Dominican Republic -- so much talent, so much energy and faith, so many lives gone to waste. I needed to understand and to redeem the time for myself.
Salomé was a different kind of pull. Through immersing myself in her life, I was able to connect with my own history and literature in a way that I never had before. Because I came to this country when I was young, my reading and training, my point of view, if you will, were formed in North America. As I was writing this book, I had to adopt another point of view, become a true "American," meaning a citizen of the whole hemisphere. I had to see things from the point of view of that other America, "our America," as the Cuban poet and revolutionary José Martí called it, so often misunderstood and misused by "the monster to the north." (Again, Martí.) But I was not interested actually in taking sides -- no true novelist is -- I did not want to create monsters or to simplify that complex relationship of North and South. Through the story of Salomé, the Dominican patriotic muse, I connected deeply with that other America, and through the story of her daughter, Camila, I became a wanderer through the Americas, weaving North and South together, as she had to. But first and foremost, I was drawn to both women because of their incredible story.
Yes, after all that highfalutin talk, I have to admit what all writers know: we are drawn to our characters because of their stories. It has to be a good story -- our first care as writers is to captivate our readers, because no grand or noble intention will survive a bored reader.
Your other two fiction books, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and ¡Yo!, follow the lives of four sisters in situations that reflect your own experiences. Since some of your writing is based on personal experience, does your family's reaction, or how you anticipate their reaction, affect your work?
When you are writing, you have to turn off all the censors. Although I disagree with Joseph Conrad about many things, I do agree with his definition of art as "a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect." And so, given that high mandate, we can't be saying, "Oh, but Mami's gonna get mad if I put in the part about the abortion. And my uncle will think this awful character is him if I give the character the same nose or put him in a similar predicament as when my uncle got caught with his pantalones down."
After the story is written down, of course, we have to live in the world and be responsible to others, so that might force us to withhold something from publication or revise it for tactful or compassionate reasons. But generally it's not what we write that offends our families -- were they to read the very same story written by someone else, they might even feel profoundly moved or understood. It's the fact that the writer is us, their daughter, their sister, their niece, their ex-wife. The fallout has to do with their unfinished business with us, most likely, not with the story. But I also understand that stories are magical circles we draw around ourselves, and when, as a writer, we tell stories, they are bound to overlap with the stories of others with whom we have shared our lives. They might feel we are treading on their magical and sacred ground, that our public voice drowns out their small, private one and discredits their song. As writers, we do have to guard against that temptation to be literary conquistadores of material. We do have to respect the territory of other people's stories!
But, the truth, I almost always agree, will set you free. Tell the story responsibly, and I do believe that we will be embraced even by those who might give us the most flack at first. At least that has been my experience.
In ¡Yo!, Yolanda García (a character often compared to you) finds the perfect place to write: the tower room in a house in the Dominican Republic. Do you have such a place of your own? Is there a "perfect" place for you to write?
Unlike my character Yo, I find it virtually impossible to write in the Dominican Republic. First off, until recently, I didn't have my own place down there. And I agree very much with what Isaac Bashevis Singer said about the writer -- "a writer needs an address, very badly needs an address." You've got to be settled down in some place in order to be able to travel to some other place on paper.
I write mostly in my home in Vermont: a perfect space, very quiet, out in the country, very solitary. In fact, it's the quiet here -- the absence of those voices that back "home" on the island call to me to become involved in the immediate work to be done -- it's that absence, that silence, which allows me to hear what my characters have to say.
You've been teaching for a number of years, the last twelve at Middlebury College in Vermont. Have your students changed over the years? Has your teaching style changed?
I now teach only part time, very part time, at Middlebury. In fact, my most recent teaching venture was a workshop called "Writing in the Wilds." It involved taking twelve Middlebury students down to the Dominican Republic, to the organic coffee farm, Alta Gracia, that my husband Bill and I have started in the mountains. Half the day, the students worked on the farm alongside the campesinos, or in the comunidad, teaching literacy classes, etc. And during the other half of the day, they took a workshop with me based on the writing they were doing that was coming out of the experience. This has been my richest, most profound teaching experience to date -- and it revealed to me the kind of teaching I want to be more and more involved in. Less traditional, escaping the "gated community" feel of many of these small, lovely, excellent, but ultimately limited colleges, which provide everything but that full immersion in the world in which the majority of the population on this planet lives. I want teaching-learning structures that combine those worlds, that spread the wealth around -- whether the wealth is hard currency or literary currency.
My students have changed -- and maybe it's because I have a self-selecting population, willing to take courses like the one above. It seems to me that they are increasingly aware of the world out there. They're sophisticated, have traveled widely, and they're also increasingly uncomfortable with their privilege and beginning to question what responsibilities come with that privilege.
My teaching style has definitely changed -- I'm much more of a student along with my students. As a younger, more terrified, untenured teacher, I was too afraid to show I didn't know. Now, it's part of how I teach. The poet Theodore Roethke once told his students that the highest grades would go to those who took most seriously their responsibility of teaching him! I'm all for that.
Your work is often taught in multicultural and ethnic literature classes. How do you feel about having your work assigned to these categories?
I am always wary of being pushed off into some specialized area of literature, as if the literature Latinos or Afro-Americans or Asian-Americans or women write is not also a part of the literature of the United States -- or the planet! I know there are sometimes specialized courses or seminars offered on a certain field or era or theme (I myself have taught them), and that's fine. It's a way of introducing students, faculty, the academy, to a whole new group of writers who might otherwise be ignored, or a way of delving deeply into the work of certain writers.
But (a big "but") I am fearful that keeping us in separate categories is a way of keeping us at a remove, as if we're not part of the whole stew. And such separation goes against the grain of what literature is about, what it is meant to do: be the table set for all. I ain't Danish or royal and yet I can read Hamlet. I can become Hamlet. Good books are good books. They break down boundaries. They are an opportunity for us to make the human race humane. So I feel very reluctant to put my work in any kind of a cubbyhole that earmarks it for certain people or prescribes the subject and a priori says: this is what this book is about.
You've written that you find your work as a writer to be "at odds with my training as a female and as a member of la familia." In what ways is this true?
I think that many Latinas of my generation could have written the first sentence of Maxine Hong Kingston's memoir, The Woman Warrior: "My mother told me never ever to repeat this story." And then, Hong Kingston goes on to tell that story.
Not that as a Latina I was raised to be weak and powerless. No, las mujeres around me were strong and resourceful and full of compassion, but they exercised that power privately, within the home. How many times as a child did I hear, "los hombres son de la calle, las mujeres de su casa." Men belong to the streets (the world), women belong at home. Latinas of my generation were not encouraged to have public voices or to seek any fulfillment outside the parameters of la familia and the church.
To this already moated existence was added -- when we became immigrants -- the prohibition of stepping outside our culture and allegiances into the mainstream. For although my parents wanted us to make our way in this new country, they still wanted us to maintain our Dominican-ness, to live at home with Mami and Papi, to marry someone from our culture, to raise a family. And so to go outside this tight circle of familia-religión-cultura and become a writer, telling stories outside the culture, why, that was to jump all three binding hoops of my upbringing and make my own way in the world.
In Something to Declare you talk about wanting to write on a subject that would take you to the Midwest. Why are you drawn there?
I'm drawn to understand more about the place that formed and informed my husband's character: Nebraska, farm country, a sharecropper life. My husband's family was poor, and in a sense, my husband, too, felt disenfranchised from the larger culture, an "immigrant" of sorts when he entered the consolidated high school in town, with his funny "country" way of talking, his homemade clothes and home-cut hair. I once lived in the Midwest, and I didn't take to it. It scared me, how landlocked it was, the lack of diversity, the distance from the centers of ethnicity and color. (Even living in Vermont, no mecca of diversity, I'm only a few hours from Boston and Montreal and Nueva York and New Jersey, close enough that I can get there in an afternoon if I'm desperate to connect to mi otro mundo.) But I do feel drawn to the Midwest, and I do want to go back, on paper, and explore the place that formed my husband and that has informed so much of North American culture.
What's next for you?
First, surviving the book tour of In the Name of Salomé with body and soul together. All the traveling, the talking, the lack of writing, lack of family life -- all these things wear down the spirit. I heard Zadie Smith [author of the novel White Teeth] complaining -- while at the same time acknowledging we're lucky to be writers who can make a living at writing -- that all this book touring is crazy. She said that writers are being asked to be rock stars, that we're being rewarded not for doing what we do, writing, but for being good at talking about the writing, for hawking and peddling ourselves as "personalities." Yuck! I love meeting my readers, don't get me wrong, that part I enjoy -- but it's all the media stuff and the creation of "buzzes" around books I can't stand. So many good writers and fine books get ignored because they can't be "handled" correctly.
We should all be wary, writers and readers, lest our work be turned into a commodity and our love of good books into a consumerism that does judge books by their covers.
Join the conversation in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.
More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Hilary McClellen is a staff editor at The Atlantic Monthly.
All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.