Julia Alvarez on Finding Our Voices and Connecting with One Another

Posted by Cybil on April 1, 2020
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In a year that seems to present new challenges for us at every turn, Julia Alvarez’s latest novel, Afterlife, has arrived at the perfect time.

Alvarez, whose bestselling novels In the Time of the Butterflies and How the García Girls Lost Their Accents have sold millions of copies, begins Afterlife with Antonia Vega, a writer and college professor whose life is in the midst of falling apart. While grieving the death of her husband and the disappearance of her sister, Antonia must help a pregnant, undocumented teenager whose life suddenly collides with her own.

A meditation on family and community, Afterlife illuminates our duty to help others even when we need to help ourselves.
Alvarez talked about writing, community, and her latest novel with Goodreads contributor Rebecca Renner. Their conversation has been edited.

Goodreads: Afterlife is more complex than it seems at first glance. Was there a single idea or instance that inspired you to start writing it?

Julia Alvarez: So many different little threads go into writing a book. I was kind of shocked when my publisher said it’s my first adult novel in almost 15 years. Writing for me is not just a production thing. It’s a way of life. It’s what I do, one of my rituals of connectedness that I do every day. But as I’ve gotten older, I haven’t especially felt that I need to publish everything.
I’ve been saying that as my first novel written as an elder. When I was a younger writer, there were so many things I felt I needed to prove, that I was so ambitious for. As an immigrant, I wanted to feel like I was part of literature, that I belonged. Those of us who came before a multicultural world, there wasn’t literature about people like us. So, I was determined to find my way and prove myself. At this stage of life, I have a different perspective. I no longer feel the need to prove myself. It’s not the gasoline that drives me.
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When I started thinking about this novel, I reflected for a long time, and I asked myself, What are the stories I need to tell? At this stage of life, what is most pressing? That is what I began asking this character, Antonia. In a sense, her world has come apart. Everything that she relied on has been kicked out from under her. How do you survive in a world of loss and still not lose hope? How can you act out of generosity and be a bigger version of yourself rather than getting small and tight, as we do when we’ve lost things and we’re scared?
Antonia is very much trying to keep everything tight and controlled. But life doesn’t let her do that, and all kinds of things come into her life to challenge her. When I was writing, I didn’t have the answers. I just wanted to understand and live out the questions through the characters in the book.
When I was writing this, I felt like we’re living in elegiac times. There’s so much loss going around with climate change, the loss of species, the loss of communities that are going underwater, shootings, divisiveness. It just feels like we’re living through so many losses, but you can’t stop at despair.
I wanted a character who wasn’t allowed to do that, who didn’t allow that of herself.

GR: I did notice that. Antonia doesn’t really react to grief in the same way so many characters in fiction do. So many times, when grief is the main subject, especially in older books, we get into this deep, dark place where nothing can be done, like a melancholia. Your book does the opposite of that. How did you develop that in the narrative and in the character?

JA: I think your characters have a little of your DNA as well as the DNA of all the people who have impacted or touched your life. All of it goes into the making of a character.
Even though the worst that could happen, as Antonia envisioned it, did happen within the book, it is a kind of luxury to end with despair. You have to go through it. You can’t just deny it or repress it.
One of the little lines she quotes—because she’s been an English teacher, so she’s got all these lines that have been meaningful to her which she now marshals out, trying to try to help her make sense of this moment—is a Wallace Stevens line that goes, “After the final no there comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends.” So, she can’t have the luxury of just the final “No.”
I say it’s an elder novel in some ways, because as you lose people and you lose certain abilities, one of the challenges of this time of life is you have to keep hopeful, if not for yourself but for the ones coming after you, for the young people that need our hope and our energy and whatever wisdom we have. We want them to know that we know the mess we’ve contributed to, but you can’t just stop at your despair. You owe it to your community, and you owe it to the young, and you owe it to this beautiful Earth to not stop at that, not to close down that way, because that then is the end in so many ways.
One of my favorite lines that I’ve been quoting a lot is from a poem by Wendell Berry: “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.” I’m telling myself that these days, believe me. I guess it’s part of my characters’ DNA, because I’ve struggled to make that part of my own DNA, not just as a writer but as a person in community connected to others.

GR: Part of the fuel for Afterlife are the connections between Antonia and her three sisters. Can you tell us about how those relationships came to be?

JA: I started with sisters in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. In the Time of the Butterflies is about four historical sisters who started the resistance movement against the dictator in the Dominican Republic. I come from a family of sisters, no brothers, which as you know in a Latino family the sons were what the family focused on. But being in a family of all girls, we were what we focused on.

So sisterhood, not necessarily of blood but how women in general make these connections of solidarity and survival, is in our DNA as females after years of coming together to raise our voices and fight for equal rights. There’s resilience and power in that. That’s especially evident to me in familial sisterhood. Even with its lack of respect of individual borders and assumptions and assigned roles, sisterhood comes with a special bond, strong connection, and love.
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Sisterhood is very much a part of my own DNA, but also of my character Antonia’s DNA. She wants to be her own person. She’s known as the sister who keeps her own personality, the selfish one, the one disconnected from the others. And yet, you know, when it really comes down to it, she’s no good at it. She isn’t just a “me”; she’s a “we,” too. Admitting that is part of her journey.

GR: You mentioned how publishing has been growing to make room for more multicultural perspectives. What has it been like to be at the forefront of that?

JA: Well, when you’re going through it, you don’t think of it as being at the forefront of anything. I remember thinking there was no space for me.

In college, I majored in creative writing. I wanted to be a storyteller, to be part of this big table of American literature. I started writing seriously during college, but in a way to earn a living right after college, but my first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, wasn’t published till I was 41. So, by then, I had already been writing and sending my work out—and getting it sent back—for 20 years. I remember one editor saying that I should try sociological journals that are published studies of minority ethnic groups and so forth, like they didn’t belong in literature.
It was a long road, and thank God I found compañeras, Sandra Cisneros, Helena Viramontes, and others who were going through the same struggle, and we had a kind of sisterhood. We had each other for moral support, but really, it was like the larger culture wasn’t listening at all. It was just, I think, a lucky kind of moment, in which suddenly a few successes like Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior made the major publishers realize that there was a readership out there for this and this literature was exciting. And suddenly we were “discovered” in the same sense as Columbus “discovered” America. Hello, we were already there!
Over the years, I’ve seen American literature really get infused with a kind of energy and have a rebirth because of the infusion of so many wonderful voices that have origins in cultures or traditions from elsewhere. They have changed the syntax and the language and the vocabulary and the characters of literature, and literature, because of them, has become much richer. That’s what’s so exciting about American literature right now.

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GR: Who are some of your favorite new voices you’ve been reading?

JA: Well, Ocean Vuong is really an exciting new writer; Ted Chiang’s Exhalation. I love The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. What a wonderful book. What a novel! Edwidge Danticat is a wonderful writer. A person I’ve read in translation—Jenny Erpenbeck, a German writer who wrote the novel Go, Went, Gone—is just amazing. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a wonderful book. Angie Cruz, a Dominican writer a lot of people are very excited about, wrote Dominicana. Another wonderful Dominican poet and novelist is Elizabeth Acevedo. Kali Fajardo-Anstine, whose book of stories, Sabrina & Corina, was sent to me to blurb, was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction.

I mean, the list just goes on and on. This infusion of energy into American literature has come from traditions and cultures and storytelling from around the globe.

GR: You mentioned how supportive your writing community was when you were starting out and struggling. How important do you think it is for writers to have that kind of community?

JA: I think it’s so important. I’ve heard so many debates about MFA programs and whether they help or not, or whether you should or you shouldn’t get one. And I can tell you that the single most important thing for me—my MFA program was at Syracuse University—was not necessarily my teachers, though I was really lucky in the teachers I had, but the community of the other young writers that continued past when we were in the program was so important.

I’m really feeling this now because my tour was canceled. I thought I didn’t like touring. I don’t know what author does. But I realized that one of the things I miss is the connection. Because what you write, that’s only half the circle. Having a reader take it in and respond to it completes the circle. So, I think having a community—it could just be one other reader you really trust or a group of other readers and writers—is really important.

Even someone that we always hold up as a writer who really wrote in isolation, Emily Dickinson, was constantly sending her poems out to a few editors that she had chosen, sharing them with her sister-in-law and with her sisters.
Having a community is a necessity. Because, think about it, if we go to the very roots of storytelling, it’s our little human families sitting around a campfire telling stories. Those are the origins. Storytelling is all about connectedness.
That’s also why I don’t understand writers who say they’re not much of a reader. For me, reading is part of a conversation that elicits my own writing. When my reading isn’t going well, my writing isn’t going well. I think there’s a synergy there. Writing is a conversation over time and generations, but also with your immediate contemporaries.

GR: Speaking of community, part of Afterlife focuses on helping undocumented immigrants. What were the challenges of writing about a subject that has been so politicized?

JA: One of the things that Antonia discovers is that even as she is becoming a reluctant activist, everyone assumes that her Anglo husband’s activism was because of her influence. People assume that because she’s Latina, but it was actually the other way around.
In a sense, when you come from a group that has been marginalized, you’re already part of a political paradigm. Your life is already part of the politicized landscape whether you want it to be or not. So, even as Antonia wants to be honest and authentic in how she responds, she struggles with that. I think even deciding to be apolitical is a political stance. Something that I’ve found as I’ve been getting older is that these borders—of what’s political and what isn’t, what’s male and what’s female, what’s us and what’s them—are things we’ve created, but they’re much more porous. You can’t keep something out of the story because it’s political.
But you also can’t force a character to do the right or moral thing, because they’re flawed. The novelist has to tell the truth according to that character. I think that if you are accurate to your character and aware of the situation they’re in and aware of your times, that will get into your work without you trying to put it in or take it out.
It’s like how my students are always worried that if they read too much of a certain author that they wouldn’t have their own voice. I tell them, Well, maybe at first you would imitate them and sound a little like them. But don’t worry. Your voice is like your fingerprint. You can’t change it.
If you pay attention, and you listen and are present to your characters, those politics, those concerns, those reactions will come out, but it has to come from the character in the situation, not because you feel like you’re going to create a really moral or righteous character or despicable character. Those flat things are not very interesting in life or good fiction.

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GR: Antonia seems very real that way, in her reluctant activism.

JA: I’ve known people that are really noble and stay true to certain principles. And that’s a certain kind of character, but that’s not my character in this situation. In the Time of the Butterflies was about four sisters, and one of them was the firebrand. I mean, she really basically built the underground. She was amazing. I found her the most difficult of the sisters to write about because she needed to be more than just her politics. She needed roundness and complexity. As I researched her as a person, and I interviewed more and more people who knew her, it turned out that she had her moments and her crises and her darkness. That was a part of her. What we take away from her because of the great things she did was how great she was.

But study any great leader in history—whether it’s a Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela—they’re full of flaws, and that’s part of what makes them so wonderful. Because they were fully challenged and for whatever luck, whatever support they got, whatever moment they were living, they rose to the better angels of their nature and became the larger versions of themselves.

GR: Do you think that now that we are in these elegiac times, as you called them, that even if we are reluctant, it should be our time to be active and help others like the characters in your book?

JA: I wouldn’t want to prescribe to anyone what this moment should or shouldn’t mean to them. But I think we also have to understand that we have never been so connected. For instance, this virus [coronavirus], no matter how high you build a wall, it’s not going to honor borders. It’s not going to know that you’re in the 1 percent or not. We’re in this together. We’ll sink or swim together.

With that realization, that we are all pieces of something larger, I think the truest activism is the activism that comes out of who you are and what your talent is. You might not be someone that goes out on the streets and marches. You might not be somebody that creates a lasting work of art. But there might be other ways in which you tap into the mystery and love in you and bring it forth. Putting that out in the world, I’ve got to think that's the best thing you can do, not something mandated by someone else. Putting more love out there in whatever form it comes is what we all need.
Right now, there are these locked-down, quarantined cities in Italy, and people are out on their balconies singing to each other, doing call and response. Someone sent me a link to a video of people doing that. And at one point in the video, even the dogs are joining in barking, and I thought, what a way to be together apart, reminding each other that we are one human family.
Many of us are realizing life goes on, and it gets hard, and there’s not much we can do but face it. I’m going to be 70 in about a week, and my husband’s 76, and it has come as a shock to realize we’re the vulnerable people everyone is talking about [vulnerable to the virus]. Our neighbors have been calling or emailing, asking if we need anything or saying they can pick up groceries. It has been a wonderful thing to realize that there is community out there and that we’re here for each other.

GR: Is writing one of those things for you, one of those ways to “be together apart”?

JA: Oh, that’s wonderful. I said that about something else, but that’s a great way to think about it. Writing has always been that, right? A way of being together apart. As an author, you’re isolated, supposedly, but through your characters you’ve become the other. You’re together with them. It’s a way to connect with your readers even though you’re apart from them.
I think that’s my new definition of writing: a way to be together apart.

GR: Your writing has influenced so many people. Who influenced you?

JA: I was an English major, and what we read was the canon, you know, the mostly white and mostly male writers, heavily leaning towards British writers, but American writers, too. One of the things that actually taught me is that literature is about becoming others, and I learned to stretch those muscles, because I was having to become people that were very different from me. But the downside of that was not really believing that literature was about people like me. Learning otherwise was part of my own education after college.
Still, I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson. In these women writers, at least I found a gender-simpatico connection.

But then a big book that opened up my sense of what was possible was reading Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior, which was about a Chinese American family in Sacramento, California, but she could have been talking about my Latino family. Just reading the book itself was a wonderful kind of mentorship.

Another book that felt like that to me was Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, a Native American writer. It was important for me to discover and read poets from my own roots in Latin America, like Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, novelist García Márquez, not to mention the storytelling of my own contemporaries, Sandra Cisneros, Cherríe Moraga and the anthology she and others put together, This Bridge Called My Back; Denise Chávez, Ana Castillo, Helena Viramontes, Cristina García—these were the voices that began to contribute to me trying to find my own voice, and in a way feeling that there was room for me and that the space in literature was bigger than I had been led to believe.


Julia Alvarez’s Afterlife will be available in the U.S. on April 7. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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message 1: by Chris (new)

Chris Loved the interview...waiting for this book!

message 2: by Angela M (new)

Angela M A wonderful book and a terrific interview. Thanks.

message 3: by Kathya (new)

Kathya Outstanding interview, thank you so much Goodreads. I have placed a hold on this book from my library, but after reading this interview, I will be purchasing it instead, I want this book to be a part of my library collection.

message 4: by Julie (new)

Julie - One Book More Great interview! Alvarez is one of my favorite authors! When I was a teacher, I convinced my boss to purchase 30 copies of "In the Time of the Butterflies" so I could introduce them to one of the best writers of our time. I pre-ordered "Afterlife" and can't wait to read it!

message 5: by Toni (new)

Toni Trees Interesting. Particularly liked Alvarez's comments on the current pandemic, especially when she adapts a phrase to define writing as "a way to be together apart". I'll probably use some of her comments in the COVID-19 (private) journal I'm keeping after reading Camus and Defoe on the waves of bubonic Plague. The two very different Plagues share many intriguing aspects. I'm hoping other, better writers will publish on this topic, after adequate time to digest and ponder the multitudinous implications and effects of COVID-19 on individuals and society.
Thank you, Julia and Rebecca!

message 6: by Isabel (new)

Isabel Rivera Well expressing and wonderful interview, mentioning an interesting authors names . And that Themes are curious and intriguing about
“Afterlife” a very interesting topic, after the actually situation.
Like different times full of deceases , in difficult times,they gonna be 👍 okay because life’s go on.

message 7: by TMR (new)

TMR Well informing interview, will definitely check out the books.

Bianca Williams Hi my name is Bianca Williams I loved the books😃

message 9: by Beth (new)

Beth Reynolds What a wonderful interview. I can't wait to read the book !

message 10: by Oliver (new)

Oliver Cadam A fascinating interview from an established renowned and successful author I'd never heard of! Maybe that's because I'm not a US based author (or reader), but whatever the reason it's always good to be pointed in the direction of a great writer, so thanks to GoodReads for that.

My interest was piqued in the first few lines when Julia says, "Writing for me is not just a production thing"......huge sigh of relief here. I can't speak for the publishing and distribution business in the US, but over here in the UK our retail shelves are chock-full of the same old names and finding 'new' and exciting writers is not easy. Many of these guys are churning out 'production line' tedium, living off their good names established some time ago, and banging out paperbacks plastered with highly questionable endorsements from the great and the good of a bygone popular fiction era. Doubtless distributors (who clearly control the market) would tell us that they stock what people want to buy, but I think it's the other way around; they buy what's available! Distributors really don't want to take on what they perceive as the risk associated with new and unknown authors. That's short sighted in my view, but hey, wouldn't it be encouraging to see many more new authors available in airport lounges and train stations?

I've now read quite a bit about Julia Alvarez and she's certainly a very interesting and highly successful author. I look forward to reading some of her works in the coming weeks. I note that most of the comments here come from female readers, and I'm aware that fiction in general attracts roughly an 80% female readership, at least in the western world, so I hope her works are attractive to male readers too. It'll be interesting to find out.

Thanks again for a very interesting interview.

Oliver E Cadam

message 11: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth I LOVE Juliaʻs use of Scylla and Charybdis as symbols of the "odyssey" of life. I have been a fan for years of JAʻs writing and remember when she came to Lawrence in honor of "The Butterflies".
Read her novels-you will not be disappointed!!

message 12: by Adam (new)

Adam I read In the Time of the Butterflies when I was fifteen. Picked it up on my own, and it opened a world of literature by strong women. Time to read it again, and also time to pick up this new book. Great interview!

message 13: by Maria (new)

Maria Alonzo Wonderful interview. I will definitely be buying her book. Her past books were great.

message 14: by Lavender (new)

Lavender What an interview, can't wait to read the books .

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