Stopping by with Julia Alvarez
During this extraordinary moment—of both pause and activism—we asked writers, musicians, curators, and innovators to reflect on the power and memory of language, shared spaces, and this moment in time. Subscribe to the PSA newsletter for more Stopping By responses and to keep updated with the PSA.
Julia Alvarez has written novels (How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies, ¡Yo!, In the Name of Salomé, Saving the World, Afterlife), collections of poems (Homecoming, The Other Side/ El Otro Lado, The Woman I Kept to Myself), nonfiction (Something to Declare, Once Upon A Quinceañera, A Wedding in Haiti), and numerous books for young readers (including the Tía Lola Stories series, Before We Were Free, Finding Miracles, Return to Sender, Where Do They Go?, and Already a Butterfly). A recipient of a 2013 National Medal of Arts, Alvarez is one of the founders of Border of Lights, a movement to promote peace and collaboration between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. She lives in Vermont.
What is the last thing you read that moved you?
I’ve been rereading books I read as a young woman, both because I wanted to check back with an earlier reading/writing self, but also because I’ve found that there’s so much I missed the first/second/even third time. Sometimes, disappointedly, I’ve found I’ve outgrown a work or author. But let’s not go there. Let me talk instead about my rediscovery and jaw-dropping amazement with Toni Morrison’s novels. I knew they were good, but I was wrong. They’re monumental. After a lifetime spent in the craft of writing, I know how difficult it is to write well, but to write so as to touch the hem of this master, well, to amend what Chaucer said, no matter how long the life, her craft is impossible to learn. I’ve just finished rereading Beloved and I’m midway through Song of Solomon. I marvel at how profoundly Morrison embodies her characters: we smell, touch, taste them—we become them; her ability to encompass so many lives, situations, emotions; her razor-sharp ability to penetrate a character/situation; the richness and economy of her details, both, and just the sheer power of her prose that sweeps us along and delivers us in a place we didn’t know we could go. Morrison plumbs the depths of racism, eyes wide open, no apologies; her fierce imagination is both a shattering and a cleansing. Each novel breaks my heart over and over—a good thing—bringing down “systemic” literary reading habits, cultural and racial assumptions I didn’t realize I had or held. The experience has been what I am now calling “transformational reading.” Reading her work is just the beginning of the work we all have to do in reviewing/revising our national narrative and working toward MLK and Morrison’s BELOVED community. Her novels are fuel for the long journey ahead.
What is a book that changed your life?
I’ve retold this story so many times that anyone who has read a previous Alvarez interview will think, Oh, no, here she goes again! But as a little girl growing up in a dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in the 1950s, I wasn’t much of a reader. In fact, I hated books, which I encountered only in school, which I hated, too! Smart cookie—I see that now, as the school was regimented, the curriculum doctrinaire, the texts “approved” and booooooring. Luckily, I was surrounded by an extended familia of amazing storytellers. It was an oral culture, not a literary/reading culture—which was considered an antisocial activity: separating yourself from others to go hang out with a book. But then the one tía who was “the reader in the family” gave me a picture book of The 1001 Arabian Nights, and I was smitten. The cover showed a brown girl, who could have been Dominican—instead of the usual white princess with a fair complexion and blue eyes. Scheherazade—that was the girl’s name—lived in a repressive kingdom ruled by a cruel sultan. Every night he had a woman brought to him and at dawn she was executed. But Scheherazade enthralled him by telling stories, night after night, for 1001 nights. The sultan was transformed by the power of her storytelling and changed his evil ways. Scheherazade had managed to save, not just her own life, but the lives of all the women in her kingdom. Wow! This was a luminous piece of information I carried forward in the bloodstream of my imagination: that stories have power, that they can transform you and save you and others. I consider her my first muse.
And she is still inspiring me and others. On July 25th, we launched The Scheherazade Project. Women artist-activists have volunteered to perform a story, either through words, dance, music, any art form, one Scheherazade per night for 101 nights until November 2nd, the eve of the election. We will boot the sultan out of the White House with the power of our stories until we vote him out on November 3rd and begin to heal the violence in our nation and take better care of each other!
What is a book you think everyone should read and a piece of art everyone should encounter?
Toni Morrison, Toni Morrison, Toni Morrison. See reasons above. I’m also a huge fan of Jenny Erpenbeck, a contemporary German writer, whose novel, Go, Went, Gone, is a powerful and accurate portrayal of the gradual politicization of a retired Classics professor when he encounters a group of refugees camped out in a small square in Berlin. I don’t read German, but Susan Bernofsky’s translation makes the prose sound as if it were written originally in English. A beautiful, devastating, and transformative book.
As for a piece of (visual) art, hands down: Goya's Dog Drowning, one of the “black paintings” from his later years, after he went deaf (some would say mad) and painted somber and despairing images on the walls of his house. I don't know how the museum folks managed to salvage it and remove that image from the wall of the villa and transfer it to a room in the Prado. It’s huge, floor to ceiling, the canvas is mostly a golden glowing roil of the quicksand—or is it a flood?—hard to tell, and then the little face of the dog, struggling to stay above the flaming waves. You want to reach in and rescue it, and it's precisely that feeling of compassion that I think Goya wanted to call forth. When I first encountered it, I sat stunned in front of the painting, and afterwards kind of stumbled out of the museum, trying to get my bearings. I'd never experienced a piece of visual art that way (music, literature, yes, but paintings seem more removed, framed and therefore at a distance from me). Anyhow, I'm afraid I missed a lot of other amazing art at the museum that day. It made me think of an uncle I had—by marriage—who lived in Switzerland and would travel to museums all over Europe just to visit one or two paintings he loved. I thought, but tío René, you're not getting your money's worth seeing only one painting at the Louvre or the Tate or the Rijksmuseum! He claimed that was the only way to visit a museum. When I saw the "Dog Drowning" I understood what he meant. I'd go back in a heartbeat to see the original. As it is, I bought a poster of it and it hangs on my wall by my writing desk. I think of that little dog as my companion, an emblem of compassion.
What is your first memory of poetry?
Growing up in the Dominican Republic, we girls were taught recitation. I say girls because I don't remember the male cousins ever being marched out in front of company to perform. I turned out to be a super memorizer—any poem read to me a few times, I knew by heart. So, I had something of a "repertoire." Mostly, each girl had her signature poem. Mine was Rubén Darío's "A Margarita Debayle." I loved the musicality of the lines, the passion of the young intrepid girl who disobeys her father to chase after a star. When I came into English as a ten-year-old and became a reader, poetry was what I loved most of all. Again, I learned all my favorites by heart and drove my sisters crazy by reciting them in bed after the lights were out. Looking back, I think I was missing the musicality of my mother tongue, and I found in the cadenced language of poetry a way to speak Spanish in English.
The pandemic has emptied many public spaces. What space—and community—do you miss the most?
I miss our college library (Middlebury College) which has supplied whatever books, films, materials I‘ve needed for research and fun for now going on four decades. (I should add that any books I truly love, I purchase, preferably hard cover, as I want to live with them, close by on my shelves.) I also miss the wonderful librarians, a profession that has provided me with curators and guides all my reading life. (I wrote them a love poem, published years back in Library Journal, titled, "Why I Am In Love With Librarians.") I also miss the physical space, lingering before the stacks, discovering a book I didn't know I wanted to read. The hush of the space, the view of the distant Green Mountains, the feeling of being surrounded by generations of storytellers, whose shoulders I stand on. The building has been shuttered since late March, but the librarians recently returned and are providing patrons requested books/materials lining up our paper sacks for pickup in the vestibule. Bless their hearts! Essential workers, too, as far as I'm concerned.
Public space is rife with words—signs, logos, advertisements. If you were to choose one poem or text to inscribe in a public place right now, what would that be? And where would you place it?
A tough choice, as every day, I read or reread or remember a poem (usually it is poetry), which gets in my head, and becomes a kind of mantra. Two poems especially recur: Wendell Berry's "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer's Liberation Front," which is on the long side, but there are so many memorable, quotable lines to post, among them:
. . . every day do something
that won’t compute. . .
Love someone who does not deserve it.
though you have considered all the facts.
OR the wonderful last line:
The other choice would have to be Adam Zagajewski's "Try to Praise the Mutilated World," a poem I connect with September 11, 2001, as it appeared in a New Yorker soon after the attack. It still seems pertinent and prescient of this moment. Just the title is a rallying reminder to all of us of what we must do: love our broken world, work to heal it, make it whole again.
Have you thought differently about the role and power of language and art in the wake of murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the wide-spread protests?
We are witnessing the power of getting the story out, very much in the testimonio tradition of our Latin American countries. After traumatic, violent events, gathering to heal by telling the story of what has happened/is happening to us. We are having to examine and revise and in some cases reframe our national narratives. I see more and more venues publishing and broadcasting the work of writers of color, who were writing before these historic times, but now they are featured and being given the attention due them. Some writers/readers have complained to me that it’s overcompensation, but I see it as “literary reparations” for decades, centuries of absences/silences. Time to listen, to take in, be transformed by what we read and hear. The time will come—as Langston Hughes wrote in his poem, “I, Too,” in 1925—when writers of color are not consigned to the kitchen of minor/”minority” writers but will be at the table “when company comes.”
Have you created something during the lockdown, or are you working on anything now?
Of course, I've continued my writing ritual—how else to stay sane? I admit that at the beginning of the shutdown, when my book tour was cancelled, all visiting and visitors on hold, I felt this pressure to accomplish. After all, this was a great opportunity to get lots of writing done. But I wasn't factoring in that historic global events were unfolding, and as an artist, I was picking up that disturbance with my little zeitgeist antennae. I’ve been distracted, some days, despairing, then chastising myself for wasting time. But I’ve realized that it would be a mistake to go back to old ways of writing, structuring narrative, even going back to the usual sources/springs for my stories. We are living a deeply mythic moment and it must not be lost on any of us, including writers.
Milosz used to say, when he was asked whether he was a political writer, that he believed that a writer didn't have to be political in any obvious sense—subject matter, polemical stances. But that poetry should not sink below a certain level of awareness of its own time, otherwise it is not useful poetry, cannot serve us. If you are living in Nazi Germany, say, and you are writing exquisitely beautiful but clueless poems and stories, how can those be of value to readers in their quest and questions as they try to integrate the reality around them?
A way of saying that a writer who will serve us and have lasting power should have a moral imagination.
I think a lot about Milosz's comment as it applies to this moment of pandemics—both the viral one and the ongoing generational pandemics of violence against communities of color: it's a time to listen, to take in what is happening. As artists, especially, we need to live this moment, stay present and awake, be kind and gentle with ourselves and others, and struggle to integrate and make meaning of this transformative time we are living in. Perhaps, on the other side of this, we will be able to create something useful, imbued with compassion, clarity, and greater love.
So I work at my desk toward that possibility—listening, reading, writing in a journal, working on a new novel (a very different one from the one I might have written last year). As an immediate way to help and hope, I've contributed short pieces and poems when invited, as I've been by PSA for this interview. To provide whatever small insights and intimations I can offer as we all move through this time, hoping for the cure that Seamus Heaney describes in "The Cure at Troy" as that once-in-a-lifetime possibility when "the longed-for tidal wave/ of justice can rise up,/ and hope and history rhyme." Another set of lines to post in public spaces.
A note from Julia: This written interview was completed weeks before the Democratic Convention. So I was thrilled when Joe Biden quoted these Seamus Heaney lines at the end of his speech. He already had my vote—but anyone who is on the fence: you’ve got to love a candidate who quotes great poetry, not just to show off, but as a commitment to the arts and to a moral imagination. By way of saying, a Vote for Biden is a VOTE FOR POETRY!