Introduction to Julia Alvarez
by Kathrine Varnes
ulia Alvarez, as a bilingual writer, brings what we might call a built-in counterpoint to the tradition of English poetry. She writes for the most part in English, but her formative years until the age of ten were spent in the Dominican Republic, so Spanish holds for her the deep emotional tie of the mother tongue, or as she puts it in "In English," "It's puzzling then that I write in English,/as if I have to step back from myself/to be able to say what I'm feeling." She concludes,
Yet as I write in English I murmur
The words over in Spanish to be sure
I'm writing down the truth of what I feel.
(Que escribo lo que siento de verdad.) (The Woman
A prolific author, Alvarez has published considerably more since trading her tenured professorship for the position Writer-in-Residence at Middlebury College. To date, she has brought out six novels, seven books for young readers (from picture books to young adult fiction), two works of nonfiction, and three full-length books of poetry. Details on these, including the specifics of translations, speaking engagements, journal publications, awards and many other activities are updated regularly on her website,
JuliaAlvarez.com. In addition to her books serving as texts in One Read programs or in school curriculums, Alvarez has been awarded many honors, including an NEA fellowship and a Josephine Miles/PEN award. More impressive, the awards come to her work, no matter the genre she publishes. In 1995 she received the Jessica Nobel-Maxwell Poetry Prize from the
American Poetry Review. Her nonfiction study of Latina coming of age rituals in
Once upon a Quinceañera
has been named finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, while Alvarez herself was selected in 2008 by the USA State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs as one of 15 most prominent Hispanic-Americans in the arts. In 2009, she received the 2009 F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature. Her recent
Return to Sender
earned the 2010 American Library Association's Pura Belpré Author Award, which honors a Latina or Latina writer and illustrator "whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience" in children's literature. She divides her time between Vermont and the Dominican Republic where she visits relatives and Alta Gracia, the shade grown coffee farm and literacy center she started with her husband, Bill Eichner, cookbook author and ophthalmologist.
If a reader were forced to pick a predominant theme in Julia Alvarez's writings, it would most likely be that of feeling torn between two nations, two languages, two cultures--and the many crises in identity that such a straddling can trigger. For a quick instance, the mere fact that she gave her second book of poetry the bilingual title of
The Other Side/El Otro Lado
expresses her need to reflect that straddling. All three poetry collections, as it happens, touch upon this idea in their titles: the first,
Homecoming, and the third,
The Woman I Kept to Myself. This overall theme derives largely from her own life. Even when she moves from her autobiography-based poetry to historical fiction, the conflicts within her central characters continue to bear this prevailing theme out, and even the quickest outline of her life can suggest why. Although Julia Alvarez was born in New York City, she grew up in the Dominican Republic, surrounded by family and servants who knew her and her family well. Living in the context of a large and well-regarded family network provided her with a kind of status and identity, which of course offered her a kind of privilege, but this came with expectations that could be smothering. Moving to the United States at the age of 10 so that her family, particularly her resisting father, could escape from the Dictator Trujillo, the young Julia was stunned to discover this new concept of being something called a minority, and yet she was also released--somewhat--from the confines and risks of her previous life. But the move back to New York was not a single event. As she grew up, her family kept in contact with those left in the DR. They visited each other. The straddling of two cultures was something that she revisited continually as she tried to find her place. Midpoint in her career, it seems she turns a corner when more of her work plays with the relationship between the two languages. In a more physical sense, it is clear that Alvarez committed to a bi-national life when she and her husband established Alta Gracia. Although many of her awards are for contributions in American literature, she is widely read throughout the world, her prose works having been translated into languages as far flung as Turkish, Dutch, Korean, German, Japanese, French, Norwegian, Italian, Portuguese, and of course, Spanish.
While most her acclaim as a writer comes from her successful novels and children's books, she has often remarked in interviews and autobiographical pieces that she identifies as a poet first. Her largest influences, if judged by how often she mentions them, are Whitman, Frost, and Dickinson, although she frequently quotes or refers to canonized English poets from Chaucer forward. Alvarez's commitment to poetry also figures large in her fictional characters' lives, whether in Yoyo's discovery of Walt Whitman (in
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents) or Minerva's love of poetry (In The Time of the Butterflies), or in the narrative of
In the Name of Salome, in which the main character, Camila, mourns the loss of her mother, Salome Urena, a poet whom Alvarez describes as the Dominican Republic's Emily Dickinson. On her website's introduction to her third book of poetry,
The Woman I Kept to Myself, Alvarez explains that she is always writing poems alongside her novels, so it comes as no surprise that poetry maintains a steady presence in the prose itself as well.
What may, however, surprise some readers is that while she seems to tackle the technique of narrative increasingly head-on when it comes to her novels, she appears less inclined to experiment as her poetry progresses. In her first three novels, for instance, she increases the dispersal of narrative voices, so that her first novel is told in the voices of four sisters, her third novel,
is told in a much wider variety of voices including even the sparsely punctuated stream of consciousness from a stalker. Her fourth novel,
In the Name of Salome
alternates two historical timelines: one moving forward, one moving backward--until they meet. The experimentation in her novels hardly shocks a reader of twentieth- and twenty-first-century prose, but it clearly engages the form, as if she means to work out a new technical problem with each novel, or means to manipulate narrative convention for the best presentation of her story.
A similar engagement with form appears in her first two books of poems. The first book,
Homecoming, takes on the dominant forms of the poetic tradition, with a nice range in the housekeeping poems of couplets (Her floor was as immaculate/as a just-washed dinner plate, 7), plenty of free verse with ample slant rhymes, even a touch of concrete poetry in "Hanging the Wash," a pair of companion villanelles "Mother Love" and "Women's Work," not to mention the accomplished sonnet sequences of
Redwing Sonnets. Perhaps like many first books, this is where Alvarez proves her knowledge of poetry, her right to join in the ranks of poets before her. And she merges women's and traditional men's traditions, too, when claiming her place in "Woman's Work"--first offering her mother's voice: "Who says a woman's work isn't high art?"/ She challenged as she scrubbed the bathroom tiles." By the end of villanelle, we see how Alvarez synthesizes her mother's tradition with her own, adopted tradition of English literature:
I did not want to be her counterpart! I struck out . . . but became my mother's child:
That the villanelle comes to the English tradition of poetry via the French in the late 19th century only enriches the sense of synthesis as Alvarez realizes her identity as a woman writer.
a woman working at home on her art,
housekeeping paper as if it were her heart. (45)
Looking at the whole body of poetic work thus far, Alvarez tends prefer longer poems or a long series, narrative and meditative, working the lyric impulse against the narrative drive. She tends to favor a beguilingly conversational free verse or a loose iambic meter, a loose pentameter when writing villanelles or sonnets, as in the sequences in
A formal mix continues inThe Other Side/El OtroLado which employs shorter line poems reminiscent of the ballad stanza, as in
The Gladys Poems, continuing Alvarez's housework theme from
Homecoming, but also includes longer iambic lines, alternating long and short lines, the critically celebrated and witty "Bilingual Sestina," ("Some things I have to say aren't getting said/in this snowy, blond, blue-eyed, gum-chewing English," 3) and narrative poems that use travel, strangers, and love interests to sound out the speaker's identity. With the exception of the sestina, Alvarez appears in her second book more interest in exploring the range of free verse, playing with indentation and white space as well as focusing a good deal more on narrative in the poems. Also, she presses her thematic interests harder, looking past her singular identity into her position within a privileged class and noting more mindfully her surroundings. Her poetry sparkles in this book with political awareness, particularly in
The Gladys Poems
written for a beloved housekeeper, and in the title poem in which she narratives a return with a soon-to-be-ex boyfriend to the Dominican Republic where she observes, among other things, that "I see how privilege hums/down all the avenues of who I am,/ how even what I loved
to me" (138). Alvarez manages a remarkable balance here between the deeply personal and the political, and shows how they cannot, in fact, be parted.
The third book departs from the previous trend of offering a mix of forms, but continues with the concept of a meditative narrative made up of sequenced lyrics in a fix shape. Composed of blank verse with an occasional couplet when it suits, each of the 75 poems is thirty lines of pentameter in three 10-line stanzas. While one would hardly call this an experimental aesthetic, it is surely an attempt to measure out her language. One could hardly miss it, and in that sense it does call attention to itself, but it couldn't be called flashy. Nor does it match the exuberance of her technique in her earlier poetry or the novels that noticeably play with point of view or shape plot through reverse chronological timelines. The regularity, however, over such a length of 75 poems does bring to mind longer sequences, of sonnets and other traditional forms, and the rationale in selecting of the form is similar to her sonnet sequence 33, which began as33sonnets to reflect her 33rd year. Later, when the 1984 grove edition went out of print and Alvarez found herself revising the sequence in
for a 1996 edition, she added 13 more sonnets for a total of 46 to reflect her age, and her increased political awareness. Describing
The Woman I Kept to Myself
on her website, Alvarez remarks:
I actually started writing these poems in thirty lines as a birthday poem for my fortieth birthday. A way of assessing where I had come from, where I was going. But after I had thirty poems together, and my fortieth birthday had come and gone, I kept writing. For me, poetry is that cutting edge of the self, the part which moves out into experience ahead of every other part of the self. It's a way of saying what can't be put into words, our deepest and most secret and yet most universal feelings.
Her rationale for selecting 30 lines seems similar to that of an organic poet, in that the form must reflect the content, and must be fitted to the moment. In the poetry of Julia Alvarez, since "poetry is that cutting edge of the self," the form is tailored to the self's progress through the ages, thirty to forty and beyond. In other words, while it may appear or sound different than her earlier poetry, the decision-making and rationale for her later poems are not too far removed from the thinking behind her first.
The Woman I Kept to Myself, more than even the poems in
orThe Other Side/El OtroLado, is more unabashedly autobiographical, as the title and the quotation above might suggest. And yet, perhaps because Alvarez understands poetry as expressing not just "our deepest and most secret . . . .feelings," but simultaneously those which are "most universal," the poetry seems more personal than confessional. What we read is a maturity and a confidence that her most private apprehensions connect her to others rather separate her from them. The book contains three sequences of the 30-line poems:
7 Trees, seven poems on important trees during life, the title poem and largest sequence with 61 poems, and finally,
Keeping Watch, another seven-part sequence like the first. A large number of the poems meditate on the life of the writer, on language and writing. One poem, "Spic," for instance, remembers how her mother told her the children were shouting "speak" at her, and not the bewildering slur she thought she heard, crediting her mother for instilling Alvarez's penchant for storytelling. Another poem, "You," considers the all-inclusive you in English as opposed to Spanish and other languages where one must distinguish between familiar, formal and plural
yous. Yet another, "Direct Address," praises poems "addressing me as you ñ and through I know/that thousands upon thousands of readers/have trod his
Leaves of Grass, I'm still convinced/ it's me Whitman's instructing. . ." (137). By poem's end, she becomes not reader but writer who wants "agency, not fame" and advises her own readers, "So you (yes you!),/keep watch! I could be under your bootsoles/ or inside this poem already inside you" (138). Both playful and serious, this proposition appears also at the end of her sonnet series 33, but here it is less a question, more of an assertion.
"Leaving English" appears in the last third of
The Woman I Kept to Myself, and it touches on many of Alvarez's recurring themes. It begins:
Before leaving English, I cling to words
Even when the lines enjamb, they hold together as rhythmical units. She plays with assonance and off rhyme within the line, listing "dirndl and trill and sin"--words with the very different etymologies of German dialect, Italian and Old English/Old Norse, respectively ñ as a way of showing her poet's ear and perhaps also making a bit of a joke about English and its roots. Plus, these words together conjure up the briefest glimpse of a girl's dress, her trilling song, and her fear that such singing might be unwelcome. Indeed, who could do without these words? But before we can get too academic about it, she invites her husband, her personal embodiment of English who can protect her against "possession" by another, neatly coupling the lines via her invite/night rhyme, though enjambed.
I haven't paid attention to in years:
dirndl and trill and sin, until the thought
of spending weeks without them is too sad
to think about. Come with me, I invite
my monolingual husband, so at night
you can whisper sweet nothings in my ear
against possession by my native tongue.
Even if Spanish made me who I was,
it's English now tells me who I am. (111)
In the second stanza, her husband objects, "You talk like an addict, . . ./ Language is not a drug!" and her family complains, "One thing is learning English, another/ to think you're lost without it, por favor! (111). But despite these objections, our speaker maintains its importance to her, throughout, most poignantly in her final stanza:
Before leaving, I touch the shelves of books,
then close my study door reluctantly
like a child casting a longing glance
at bedtime at her bears and dressed-up dolls,
posed to enact some simple ritual,
a tea party, a classroom scene. Stay!
Don't you dare move! But English won't obey,
no living language will. When I come back
it will take días to collect myself,
pieces of me not fitting anywhere. (112)
At first glance, the simile may look too cloying--teddy bears and dolls? But in the context of Alvarez's youth, childhood is always in Spanish. Here she recreates a new childhood in English, in her shelves of books, even as she knows it won't be fixed. The scene brings up that fundamental fear children have at bedtime that they won't wake up, that they may miss something important. For Alvarez, that missing thing is herself, "pieces of me not fitting anywhere." Her slip into Spanish for días mimics that sense of fragmentation and also suggests that she will be at a loss to express some of her experiences from the Dominican Republic in English, that she will spend a few days in the awkward state of literal translation, when sentences still don't quite make sense. Frequent readers of poetry might see this as an advantage, since this state of defamiliarization is often something native speakers of English seek out through overwrought approaches to technique when writing poetry. As in much of Alvarez's work, the genius is subtle. One could read for the literal meaning alone and be perfectly happy. A reader more greedy for nuance, however, will not miss that this struggle with language also can represent the writing life, any time the author steps away from her playthings, if even to answer the phone.
The Housekeeping Book
(Burlington: Vermont Council of the Arts, 1984).
(Grove Press, 1984); revised and enlarged (New York Plume/Penguin, 1996).
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
(New York and London: Plume/Penguin, 1992); reprint of hardcover edition (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991).
In the Time of the Butterflies
(New York and London: Plume/Penguin, 1995); reprint of hardcover edition (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1994).
The Other Side/El Otro Lado
(New York and London: Plume/Penquin, 1996).
(New York and London: Plume/Penguin, 1997); reprint of hardcover edition (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1997).
Something to Declare
(New York and London: Plume/Penguin, 1999); reprint of hardcover edition (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1998).
(North Andover: Kat Ran Press, 1998).
The Secret Footprints (New York: Knopf, 2000).
In the Name of Salome
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2000).
How Tia Lola Came to Stay
(New York: Knopf, 2001).
A Cafecito Story
(White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2001).
A Gift of Gracias: the Legend of Altagracia
(New York: Knopf Book for Young Readers, 2004).
(New York: Knopf Book for Young Readers, 2004).
Saving the World
(Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2006).
Once Upon A Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA
(New York: Viking Publishers, 2007).
The Best Gift of All: The Legend of La Vieja Belén/El mejor regalo del mundo: la historia de La Vieja Belén
(Miami: Alfaguara Infantil, 2008).
Return to Sender
(New York: Knopf Books for Children, 2009).
Old Age Ain't for Sissies, ed. Julia Alvarez (Sanford: Crawl Creek Press, 1979).
A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women,
ed. Annie Finch (Brownsville, Oregon: Story Line Press, 1994): 16-18.
"Noah's Ark Choices"
125 (1 Sept 2000): 168-71.
Jonathan Bing, "Julia Alvarez: Books That Cross Borders,"
Publishers Weekly, 241:51 (December 1996): 38-39.
Heather Rosaria-Sievert, "Conversation with Julia Alvarez,"
Latin American Literature and Arts Review, 54 (1997): 31-37.
Maria Garcia Tabor, "The Truth According to Your Characters: Interview with Julia Alvarez,"
Prairie Schooner, 74 (Summer 2000): 151-56.
Julia Alvarez: Novelist and Poet, (Gale/Lucent 2007).
Langdon Hammer, "Poetry in Review,"
Yale Review, 83:1 (June 1995): 121-41.
Fred Muratori, "Traditional Form and the Living Breathing American Poet,
New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly
(Winter 1986): 231-32.
Julia Alvarez: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.
Luz Maria Umpierre, "Sexualidad y metapoesia: Cuatro poemas de Julia Alvarez,"
The Americas Review: A Review of Hispanic Literature and Art of the USA, 17:1 (1989): 108-114.
Kathrine Varnes, "'Practicing for the Real Me': Form and Authenticity in the Poetry of Julia Alvarez,"
Antipodas, 10 (1998): 67-78.
Richard Vela, "Daughter of Invention: The Poetry of Julia Alvarez,"
Postscript: Publication of the Philological Association of the Carolinas
16 (1999): 33-42.
To read poems by Julia Alvarez, visit her website at www.juliaalvarez.com