An Interview with Julia Alvarez, by Elizabeth Blachman

Julia Alvarez’s first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, is in some ways a classic coming-of-age novel—but Alvarez structures the tale chronologically backwards, so the four García girls begin as adults and grow younger throughout the work. When time works in reverse, the moments of childhood, its small sins and strange discoveries, feel like the climax of who we will become. Other of her novels make similar trips—the tale of a woman in her sixties who joins Castro’s revolution is woven with the past of her mother; a woman looks back on the coming of age of her three sisters and the series of events that led to their deaths as martyrs of a brutal dictatorship. Even a nonfiction piece about quinceañeras—one of many books Alvarez has written for young adults—becomes in part a journey into the past as she remembers what it was like to grow up as a Latina in the ’60s. As Alvarez’s characters trace their way back through the episodes that crafted their identities, it becomes clear that children are creatures of the moment. Growing up is for adults. It is the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

We asked the novelist and poet about growing up under a dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, her work with the sustainable farm and literacy center that she and her husband started there, and how memories become the stuff of stories.

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez book cover

The theme of this issue of Slice Magazine is Growing Up. We thought of you right away because I devoured your novels when I was a teenager, and also because so much of your work sheds light on what it means to come of age. I was wondering why you decided to organize How the García Girls Lost Their Accents in reverse chronological order so that the four sisters grow younger throughout the novel.

It’s easy to tell you in retrospect why I structured the narrative in García Girls that way. But it’s never as easy or clear a process when you are inside a mess and trying to make it a novel! Years later, after many interviews and Q&As, you come up with brilliant answers, as if these choices came full-blown like Athena from Zeus’s head. So my honest reply: I wasn’t satisfied with the traditional chronological bildungsroman model of starting with early childhood and ending when the writer/artist/protagonist comes of age. This wasn’t the traditional, canonical artist-as-a-young-man story. So I was fooling around with how to structure the whole. And I thought, well, structure should recreate the way that I want the reader to experience the story. And that’s when I thought, I want my reader to be thinking “like an immigrant,” always “going back to where we came from”; instead of progress toward a climax, a return to a homeland.

The structure also mirrored this quirky habit of mind I had: whenever I was going through some big milestone in my life in the United States—shipped off to boarding school, kissed by a guy for first time—I’d think, you were once a little tiguerita from another world and language! Look at you now! It’s like I had to pinch myself to believe that this moment was happening to the little know-nothing kid I still carry inside me. Again, always going back. Maybe we all do this? And I fool myself that this is the immigrant experience?

I’ve always loved how García Girls ends with this one sin from Yolanda’s childhood, where she steals a tiny kitten from its mother and the act haunts her. Those small moments from childhood feel so significant. Would you share a memory or moment from your own childhood that stays with you?

I remember reading Wordsworth in college, “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” and the Prelude, where he writes about “those spots of time,” moments of “renovating virtue,” he keeps returning to for sustenance. Those moments give him “intimations of immortality.” For me they are not just moments of renovating virtue. They can also be terrifying moments that continue to haunt me. Moments that have this luminous quality: time sort of opens up.

I write about one of those moments in a poem in my collection The Woman I Kept to Myself. I call it “Intimations of Mortality from a Recollection in Early Childhood.” It was a moment when I was four or five or six—those years merge with each other . . . I looked down at my arm, and it’s as if by doing so, I had pulled a plug, and suddenly I was yanked down into my physical body. I was flesh and bone (little hairs, little pores, little beads of sweat), transfixed, and trapped! I had become incarnate. And, alas, mortal. I don’t know why it took me four, five, six years to realize I would travel through life in a body. But there you go.

Do you ever use those moments in your stories?

Absolutely, I use those moments in stories, and especially in poems. It might be that lyric poems are all about those moments—not just relating them, but creating them in language for the reader. Yes, that happens when you are writing, the very process of writing creates those moments. I have luminous memories that I’m not sure I actually lived or lived them in my reading or in my writing. Does it matter?

What books or authors were most important to you when you were growing up?

I can’t pass myself off as an early reader. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, I hated books, especially because they delivered stories via the solitary act of reading, of separating yourself from others. Ours was an oral culture; stories came through living, breathing people. It was also a “we” culture, where pleasure came in the collective. I should add that it was also a dictatorship, where the act of reading was subversive, branded you an intellectual, a troublemaker. Reading was not something that I recall being encouraged in my family or in the culture around me. Kids get a big kick when I tell them that I was a terrible student and flunked every grade through fifth. That said, I always clarify that I loved stories, and in an oral culture, I had plenty of storytellers all around me. So actually it was books, as in censored, bland, lifeless texts, that I hated.

But I do recall one wonderful picture book my aunt (the only reader in the family) brought me as a gift, The Arabian Nights. The cover showed an olive-skinned girl with dark hair and eyes who could have been Dominican. She was Scheherazade, captive in the sultan’s court, telling stories to keep herself alive, and in the process changing the sultan’s bloodthirsty ways, and ending up marrying him. (This was the kid’s version, remember.) Wow, this little piece of luminous information slipped into my head: that stories have power, that they can transform others, that they can save your life.

In your adult novels you often write from the perspective of your characters as children, and of course in your novels for younger readers you are also writing from a child’s perspective. What, if anything, is different when you are writing for adults versus when you are writing for young people?

That is a good question. When people ask me about my kids’ books, I say, “I write for children of all ages.” I don’t have those separations in my head when I am writing: this is for kids, this is for adults, this is for poetry lovers, this is for Latino/as. I think those categories often have more to do with marketing and sales strategies than with something integral to the books themselves. Would The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn now be published by the children’s division of a publishing house? How about Great Expectations? I think three of my “children’s books” especially (Return to SenderFinding Miracles, and Before We Were Free) take on serious, adult issues through the point of view of young protagonists.

Perhaps with my Tía Lola books, it did make a difference that I was thinking of my readers as young kids. I shamelessly indulged my capacity for joy and for making things work out mostly okay. Maybe that’s the difference with writing for very young kids. We want to give a larger measure of hope and joy than of fear and sadness, as these kids are being launched into a world that will require resilience, creativity, compassion. We want to put ways of thinking, paradigms of responding, possibilities of resolving challenges in our books because these narratives do become internalized: structures and metaphors and ways to travel through the world. (Think of me and Scheherazade!) But if we make these stories flimsy, mere fluff and fantasy, false to the deeper realities, then they won’t be of any help to our young readers, those future adults who will run the world. So we want capacious narratives sturdy enough to outlast childhood. That’s why the best kids’ books you keep rereading as an adult .

For much of your life you have been a teacher, working with children and college students. Has your teaching changed you as a writer?

Even though for many years I complained that I couldn’t get my writing done because I was so busy being a teacher, I do think teaching can be a kind of apprenticeship for a writer. In order to teach, you have to learn things consciously, which, then, of course, you have to “forget” when you are writing. I think it was Donald Hall who said, “When you learn something so well that you forget it, you can begin to do it.” It’s like riding a bike. You break down all the steps, you slow it down: now I step on the left pedal, now I shift my weight to my right side, now I—whoops! Now I’ve fallen down and now I get back on again . . . At some point, it all comes together, and you’re off, riding that bike like a pro. Look, Ma! No hands! Same with teaching: you focus intently on how a text is put together; you learn the tradition; you look at the rhyme scheme—the off-rhyme, slant rhyme, free verse. You are teaching this in the “neutral territory” of someone else’s work. But meanwhile, all those lessons are being absorbed, and they come to bear on your own work.

The negative in teaching—and why I gave up tenure over a decade ago to become a full-time writer who teaches on the side (before that, the balance was on the other side: a full-time teacher who wrote on the side)—is that, at least for me, that intense creative energy that I needed for my writing, I was using up in teaching. Unfortunately, I just don’t seem to have the capacity to do both at the same time (some writer-teachers do). I guess I’m not a great creative multitasker . But I do miss the classroom. Visiting schools, being in residence for short periods, giving readings and presentations, as well as being a writer-in-residence at Middlebury—all of these are ways of getting my teaching “fix.”

What do you think young people need from the adults in their lives or from the books they read?

I’m going to answer this question with a quote that came up at a dinner party several nights ago. We were talking about our new roles as “elders” in our professions, our families, our communities. Our host quoted Rachel Carson as his model for being an elder. “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder . . . he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in . . . I sincerely believe that for the child, and for [the elder] seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. . . It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.”

I totally agree! It’s probably the best gift we can give anyone, but certainly the best mentoring we can do for young people: to accompany them; to feel with them the wonder, the mystery, the joy, the terror, letting our passion be our guide. Kids of all ages respond to enthusiasm and passion. Blake said it: “Energy is eternal delight.”

As for what young people need from books? I return to that “luminous piece of information” that reading The Arabian Nights put in my head as a young child: that stories have power, that females can be powerful storytellers, that stories can liberate and change people. When kids are young, their minds are so open and malleable. What they experience in books as well as in life helps form their idea of what life is all about. They will structure the world using those narrative patterns. So it’s important to give them books that are as capacious and compassionate and diverse and multilayered as possible! Much easier than later having to knock down old walls to build new additions or tear down the whole damn structure in order to be able to see the big sky.

This is an excerpt from an interview that appears in issue 10 of Slice. To purchase issue 10 and read the full interview, click here.

Author photo by Bill Eichner.

Julia Alvarez is the author of fiction: How the García Girls Lost Their AccentsIn the Time of the Butterflies, iYo!In the Name of SaloméA Cafecito Story, Saving the World; nonfiction: Something to DeclareOnce Upon a Quinceañera; poetry: Homecoming, The Other Side, The Woman I Kept to Myself; books for children: The Secret Footprints, A Gift of Gracias, the Tía Lola series; and for young adults: Before We Were FreeFinding Miracles, and Return to Sender. She lives in Vermont.

Elizabeth Blachman studied literature at NYU before pursuing a career in modern dance. She is currently editor-in-chief at Slice magazine, a company member at Todd Rosenlieb Dance, and a freelance writer and editor. Her socks never match.