Ask the Author: Julia Alvarez

“I'll be answering questions on June 5th!” Julia Alvarez

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Julia Alvarez In keeping with Mr. Johnson's commandment, see my advice to aspiring writers, I write every day—or try to. But I don’t know where I’m going till I get there. If I give you a destination or set up the parameters of the work by describing it, I’ve already contained it in my idea of it. So I’m letting myself play and wander and wonder over stories in my family’s past, stories in the past of my native country (Dominican Republic), the narrative ties that bind us all into blood families, nations, human family. That about covers the whole map! Additionally, I’m not just interested in content, but also in how a story can get told in ways that surprise. I remember my astonishment reading Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic and realizing the effectiveness of writing a novel in the first person plural point of view and in small vignettes. More recently, I’ve been dazzled by Colum McCann’s Apeirogon, and its almost Scheherazadian way of telling a story in 1001 small narratives, with "everything" thrown in and, amazingly, everything fits. . .
Julia Alvarez Like my character, Antonia, I struggle with that balance, and I often get it wrong, going too far in one or the other direction, and needing to--as with Antonia--recalculate. I do know that we don't need to build another wall, one dividing art and activism. Doing what we love and doing it in service to our communities is the most profound and transformative activism. (Howard Thurman, the Civil Rights activist, once remarked: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
I am also well aware that having that choice is a privilege, one that is denied you if you live in the "wrong body" (in terms of gender, race, class) or in oppressive regimes which we, Americans, can no longer think of as happening over there in other countries only. So, part of the struggle is to create communities that allow for this choice, as it shouldn't be a privilege but a right: the right to be fully human! And while this lack of equality exists, we are bound to address it.
Let me end with another favorite quote, this from the incomparable Toni Morrison: The function of freedom is to free someone else. If I'm going to get the balance wrong, I'd much rather "err" on the side of generosity.
Julia Alvarez Reading, reading, reading. . . I always say if my reading isn’t going well, my writing won’t either. Reading poetry to start the writing day is especially effective for me. If a poet is really good, I feel the mystery stirring in me again, the faith confirmed that language can be used to get hold of what can't be put into words! Then, like that kid who doesn't want to go inside at the end of the day, I want to “stay” in that space that language can create, and the only way to stay there is to write, write, write, losing myself in the writing.
Julia Alvarez I do have siblings, three sisters--an all-female family. Maybe because of that, I've always been drawn to stories in which there are strong bonds between women, whether of blood or friendship. My first novel How The García Girls Lost Their Accents, as well as its sequel, ¡YO!, focus on the four García sisters, and In The Time Of The Butterflies is about the four historical sisters, the Mirabals. As a young reader, my favorite books were the Arabian Nights, in which Scheherazade and her sister, Dunyazad, work together to enthrall the cruel sultan with stories, and also Little Women, about four sisters, very much like my own family. Those powerful bonds of blood or friendship were what allow so many women to survive and thrive in the oppressive regimes they found themselves. That said, I don't want to airbrush "the sisterhood" and make it all about how wonderful and empowering such covens can be--they are also riddled with competition, conflict, grievances--and I can attest to that in my own life and in my novel! Especially in a Latina sisterhood, we don't have "pelos en la lengua," we don't hold back when we have something to say. The sparks fly, but they also create a bonfire by which we can sit, feel warmed, tell our stories.
Julia Alvarez I'm afraid that Antonia has inherited the literary DNA of her creator! I, too, have stories, poems that are my "string in the labyrinth" and help me navigate my way. Many times a poem or passage reminds me of what I would otherwise forget. I don't mean "facts," but something more elusive, vital, and necessary. Certain poems and stories help me when I am feeling lost, disheartened, and in despair. I think of them as food for the soul, the fuel that runs my life. But most of all I feel accompanied by certain poems and stories. I feel less alone, and that is a great comfort, especially in dark times.
Julia Alvarez “IF” I could travel. . .? I do travel all the time to any fictional book world I want, many times over. Every time I fall in love with a book and become absorbed in it, I enter its world and I don’t want to leave! Sometimes I slow down, count the pages till the end, not wanting to go back to "the real world," like a kid begging for just five more minutes outside as the day is ending before having to come in. . .
Julia Alvarez -What books are on your summer reading list this year?
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Beloved (I want to reread it after decades since last time I read it) by Toni Morrison
The Odyssey (heard great things about this translation), trans by Emily Wilson
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
Lying Awake by Mark Salzman, Mark,

Basho, The Complete Haiku (Trans by Jane Reichhold)
Hirshfield, Jane, Ledger
Shaughnessy, Brenda, The Octopus Museum

Solnit, Rebecca, Recollections of My Nonexistence

FREEMAN’s The Best Writing on California issue—so many cool writers are in, including favorites like Manuel Muñoz, Juan Felipe Herrera, Jennifer Egan, Reyna Grande, Tommy Orange, and the incredible poet I just “discovered” earlier this year, Natalie Diaz. (She has an essay in FREEMAN's about her career as a basketball player.)

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