|How the García Girls Lost Their Accents|
Uprooted from their family home in the Dominican Republic, the four García sistersCarla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofiaarrive in New York City in 1960 to find life far different from the genteel existence of maids, manicures, and extended family that they left behind. What they have lostand what they findis revealed in fifteen interconnected stories that begin with thirty-nine-year-old Yolanda's return to the Island and moves backwards in time to the final days before their exile. Along the way, we witness their headlong plunge into the American mainstream. Although they try to distance themselves from their Island life by ironing their hair, forgetting their Spanish, and meeting boys un-chaperoned, they remain forever caught between the old world and the new. This story of the immigrant experience evokes the tensions and joys of belonging to two different distinct cultures.
Julia Alvarez is originally from the Dominican Republic, but emigrated to this country with her parents at the age of 10. She is the author of four novels: How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies, ¡Yo!, and In the Name of Salomé. She has also published four books of poems, including: Homecoming and The Other Side; a book of essays, Something to Declare; three books for young readers, The Secret Footprints (picturebook), How Tía Lola Came to Stay (for middle readers), and Before We Were Free (for young adults); as well as A Cafecito Story, a "green" fable based on a sustainable farm-literacy project she and her husband, Bill Eichner, have set up in her native country. She is also currently a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College.
How much of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents is autobiographical?
All writers write from some background and mix it with things heard, said, and imagined. It's impossible to unravel truth from fiction. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents is based on my own experience but that's as far as I would go. My family would murder me if I ever said it was the truth. It's based my own experience and my own stories as far as I am a Latina and an immigrant. But I think the focus should be on the work itself.
Of the four García girls, why did you decide to write a sequel for Yo as opposed to the others? What draws you to her character? Is she the most autobiographical?
The name "Yo" is a play on the Spanish word for "self". She is sort of the centering point of view in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and she plays the role of the storyteller. It seemed appropriate, then, to turn the table on her and see what stories others tell about her, so make her the subject. Turning the table on the storytellers. It is like a Rorschach test. It has everything to do with you are and not what's on the page. So what I'm doing is letting the others get to tell their own stories, making the others the speakers. I like to tell people that it is a novel that is a meditation on narrative. It's a meditation on what stories are for, what they do, what is our responsibility, what do we owe each other. There are no answers, of course, but that's what does through my head.
Do you plan to write more about the García girls?
Never say never. After How the García Girls Lost Their Accents I said that's over and done. Never say never. Maybe I'll be writing about them in their walkers still kicking up a storm. You never know.
What are you working on now?
I just came back from a book tour with a new young adult title, Before We Were Free. The work was the second part of "book biz", as opposed to writing; the promoting and visiting bookstores and meeting readers, which is the best part. Basically introducing it to the world. Now, coming home, I'm working on a book of poems. And on finding an illustrator for a picture book for children, The Legend Of Altagratia, that's already written.
- Discuss the title of the novel. What steps do the García girls take to "lose their accents"? In what ways does each girl try to become more American? In turn, what steps does each girl take to define herself as an individual?
- In the first chapter, Yolanda has returned to the Island to try living her life there. What do we learn during the course of the novel that explains why she would want to leave America? What difficulties does she encounter in trying to reassimilate to Island life? After experiencing the freedoms of America, can Yolanda be happy back in the rigid structure of Island life?
- Why do her older sisters intervene when Sofia becomes involved with Manuel? Are they more upset by the way Manuel treats Sofia, or that Sofia might stay on the Island indefinitely to be with her boyfriend? What about Sofia's transformation during her time on the Island troubles the sisters so much? In the end, were they right to ensure Sofia's return to America?
- What is the significance of the García girls' nicknames? Why, when she gets older, is Yolanda so opposed to her many nicknames?
- What attempts does Mami make to keep the family as a tight unit? What are the long-term effects of Mami's refusal to see her daughters as individuals? How does this effect the girls (consider Sandra's art lessons and Yolanda's writing)?
- As children, the girls are fascinated by the presents that are brought back for them from New York. What do the toys from FAO Schwartz represent to them? In what ways are they given an unrealistic impression of America? How are they effected when the steady flow of toys and presents they received on the Island is cut off?
- How does each character change when they are forced to leave the Island? Is America responsible for the adults that each girl becomes? Are they torn between their childhood on the Island and their adulthood in New York? Also consider how Mami and Papi change. What effect does the emigration have on Papi? How is his older self different from the way we see him when the children are young?