Something to Declare
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In her new book, Something to Declare, Julia Alvarez writes of the process by which truth becomes fiction and fiction becomes truthful. "Who knows," she writes, "what mystery (or madness) it is that drives us to our computers for two, three, four years, in pursuit of some sparkling possibility that looks like dull fact to everyone else's eyes." Indeed, it is the very collisions of art and reality, intellect and emotion that lie at the heart of Alvarez's entire body of work.
Her delightful, energetic novels, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and ¡Yo! tell the story of an immigrant's search for identity and a place in the world. Both feature the second of four sisters, a woman who finds her identity as a writer, an interpreter of her family's and her homeland's history, and as a lover of language itself. Something to Declare is Alvarez's first nonfiction book, in which she writes autobiographically for the first time of her life as an exile, a daughter, a teacher, a wife and even a gardener in Vermont. In so doing, Alvarez shows us the method behind her magic: how she has reshaped the experiences that have influenced her, how stories are born, and why, after all, writing really matters to our world and to our souls.
Alvarez's fiction, her tales of growing up, her portraits of women and men, of families and insurgencies domestic, political, and cultural, are reminiscent of authors as disparate as Jane Austen, Gabriel García Marquéz, and Toni Morrison. But like the Caribbean culture into which she was born, Alvarez's voice is a distinct, musical synthesis, and in her work she merges the two very different settings of her own life: the Dominican Republic and the United States.
Much of Alvarez's writing revolves around the drama of family, but politics is never far removed. In How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and ¡Yo!, and in Something to Declare she describes in often harrowing detail her family's hurried escape after an aborted coup against the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Alvarez's narratives can move seamlessly from the chatter of young girls to the terror of a father hiding from Trujillo's secret police in a hidden closet. A passage from The García Girls illustrates how the narrator's sensual connection to her homeland is accompanied by an awareness of its innate danger: "The rustling leaves of the guava trees echo the warnings of her old aunts: you will get lost, you will get kidnapped . . . you will get killed."
Alvarez began her career as a poet and has published a number of acclaimed volumes of poetry, including Homecoming (1984; expanded and reissued in 1996) and The Other Side/El Otro Lado (1995). In 1991 she received the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award for excellence in literature that reflects a multicultural viewpoint. That same year, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents was listed by both the ALA and The New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book. A national bestseller, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents paved the way for Alvarez's subsequent fiction, from the haunting In the Time of the Butterflies to the uproarious sequel to The García Girls, ¡Yo! It also positioned Alvarez as one of a pioneering group of Latina writers, including Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Denise Chavez, and Helena María Viramontes.
About the Books
Something to Declare
In this two-part collection of essays, Alvarez chronicles her abiding passions: the drama of family and history, and the art of writing. For Alvarez the two go hand-in-hand. In the first section ("Customs"), Alvarez describes first hearing the strains of the language that would become the lingua franca of her writing in her U.S.-educated diplomat grandfather's perfectly enunciated English. In the essay "My English," she describes how English went from being what her parents spoke to keep secrets from her to her ticket into a new world and a career. Conversely, in the essay, "Family Matters" Alvarez describes how Spanish remains a strong influence on her writing. She writes: "What surprises me is to discover how much of my verbal rhythm, my word choices, my attention to the sound of my prose comes from my native language as spoken by la familia." Alvarez's family is ever present in these essays. Few contemporary authors have written as keenly about the relationships between sisters, and between daughters and fathers and mothers as Alvarez does. Alvarez's doctor father is a lone, proud man among five women; at peace with his family and yet rooted in his culture's code of male privilege and domination. Alvarez's mother tries to keep her four girls from plunging headlong into a culture that mocks the rules of the old world and la familiaóa land of private schools, rebellion, boyfriends, bell-bottoms, marriages, divorces, and careers as farfetched as a that of a writer living in Vermont.
In the second half of Something to Declare ("Declarations"), Alvarez tackles the business of writing itself. She talks openly about the personal sacrifices she has made for writing. She describes how she chooses which story to tell, why some of her projects have been stillborn, and how her career as a well-known writer living in the United States has "played" (and not played) with her extended family in the Dominican Republic. Among the gems in here is a description of Alvarez making a keynote address to the Caribbean Studies Association in Santo Domingo only to receive a tongue lashing from an elderly Dominican writer for writing in English. Alvarez's response is a powerful proclamation of a writer's sense of identity, roots, and the need to live in many worlds at once.
In the essay, First Muse, Alvarez describes her discovery of The Arabian Nights and Scheherazade. Seeing herself reflected in the dark-haired, almond-eyed girl on the book's cover, Alvarez identified with the bright, ambitious girl stuck in a kingdom that didn't think females were very important. It was Scheherazade who gave Alvarez the courage to explore the cross currents of sexual politics in the Caribbean and introduced her to the power storytelling gave her within her culture and family. The title of Something to Declare captures with typical Alvarez wit the dual dramas she describes in the book's pages. While she often feels like a stranger, passing through customs of a strange world, her passport is the writer's voice: ringing out with clarity, commitment and the will to declare the truth as she sees it, wherever it is to be found. People magazine wrote of Something to Declare: "Reading Julia Alvarez's new collection of essays is like curling up with a glass of wine in one hand and the phone in the other, listening to a big-hearted, wisecracking friend share the hard-earned wisdom about family, identity, and the art of writing."
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents
This acclaimed novel begins in the present, as 39-year-old Yolanda returns to her native Dominican Republic, looking to her many tías and cousins "like one of those Peace Corps girls who have let themselves go." Basking in the familiarity of her homeland, with a craving for guava that leads her on an expedition into the island's interior, Yolanda journeys back in time and space to that moment when the García family was suddenly uprooted to the United States. With each of the four García sisters taking a turn on stage to play out their dramas of rebellion, self-discovery, partings and returnings, Alvarez creates a sensual tapestry of interlocking relationships set on the fault line of two very different cultures. Scenes built around carefully observed moments, a gesture or conversation, resonate powerfully against those that come before and afterward. The result is a novel that builds an almost rhythmic momentumóuntil we realize that through Yolanda we are experiencing what it means to carry within us those times and places that shape usóbut to which we can never return.
In the Time of the Butterflies
Based on the true story of the Mirabal sisters, three revered young activists murdered after visiting their jailed husbands in 1960 in the Dominican Republic, In the Time of the Butterflies is a novel told primarily from the point of view of Dedé, the surviving sister. Nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, In the Time of the Butterflies has a tone and feel that is distinct from Alvarez's other work. As we watch the Mirabal sisters leave their innocent, upper class existence for the lives of revolutionaries, Alvarez weaves a hypnotic spell of politics, family, and a slowly unfolding tragedy. In the Time of the Butterflies is a novel infused not only with Alvarez's impeccable attention to physical and psychological detail, but with a powerful sense of outrage. Much of Alvarez's writing captures the small acts of courage that allow families and individuals to survive upheaval. In the Time of the Butterflies is about following one's passions in the face of death itself.
¡Yo! picks up where How the García Girls leaves off, with Yolanda García having become a writer famous for the stories she tells about her family and friends who, to varying degrees, are outraged by seeing themselves in print. And in ¡Yo! these characters get their say, as Alvarez brilliantly weaves together 16 stories told from the point of view of sisters, mother, a frustrated lover, a lonely, freewheeling girlfriend, a former teacher and even the maid's daughter. Yolanda protests to them all: "All I did was write a book . . . It's fiction!" But on a visit back to the island she concedes: "It's all one big story down here . . . The aunts all know that their husbands have mistresses but act like they don't know. The president is blind but pretends he can see . . . It's like one of those Latin American novels that everyone thinks is magical realism in the States, but it's the way things really are down here."
Julia Alvarez has been hailed uniformly as a writer of strength and depth, whose warm, wise prose infuses an acute awareness of history with an insightful sense of contemporary life. Described as, "Potent and luminous . . . a writer of grace and power" (The Philadelphia Inquirer), critics have also praised Alvarez's work as: "Delightful . . . engaging" (The Chicago Tribune); "Ironic and brilliant" (San Francisco Chronicle); "Breathtaking" (The St. Petersburg Times); "Lucid . . . affecting and genuine . . . laced with wisdom and humor" (Miami Herald); and "A tour de force" (The New York Times Book Review).
Julia Alvarez was born in the Dominican Republic and migrated with her family to the United States in 1960. Her acclaimed first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, received the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award, was listed by Americas magazine as 1993's #1 bestseller in Latin America, and was named by both the ALA and The New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book of 1991. Her second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, was nominated for the 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award. Both books are available in Plume editions, along with her poetry collections, The Other Side and Homecoming. She lives in Middlebury, Vermont.
- Something to Declare is divided into two parts: Customs, and Declarations. Why do you think she structured the book in this way? How are the two sections different from each other, and in what ways do they work together?
- Although Julia Alvarez writes in English and claims that she "is not a Dominican writer," can comparisons be made between her work and that of other Latin-American writers you have read? What authors come to mind?
- Throughout Something to Declare Julia Alvarez invokes the names of English language authors to whom she feels a kinship. Are there other English language writers whose influences you see in her work?
- In Something to Declare Julia Alvarez discusses her own writing techniques and methods of forming stories, as well as her belief in writing as a discipline that must be practiced every day. Do you find Alvarez's discussion of writing and the writing life inspiring, or daunting? What advice do you draw from this work?
- Alvarez finds the subjects of her poems and fiction in unusual places: the 1961 Better Homes & Garden Sewing Book, the kitchen of a writing colony, etc. How does this approach differ from what you were taught or have come to expect from other writers' descriptions of their writing process?
- Alvarez uses autobiographical information as a basis for the two essays, "Family Matters" and "Grounds for Fiction." Specifically, how does she incorporate this material and use it to illustrate her points?