Julia Alvarez

Presented to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club by Helen Tubrett,

November 10, 2020

Julia Alvarez is a Dominican American poet, novelist, essayist, and writer of fiction for “young readers of all ages.”  Born in New York City on March 27, 1950, she returned to the Dominican Republic shortly after her birth and was raised there until the age of ten when she fled with her parents and three sisters back to New York following her father’s participation in a failed attempt to overthrow the country’s brutal dictatorship.

This “flight to freedom” was traumatic for Alvarez, and the losses she experienced were profound.  But her abrupt return to the United States was also instrumental in her becoming a writer. Overnight she became an exile, the foreigner in a strange land whose dark skin and obvious accent set her apart and made her the target of ridicule.   Coming from somewhere else and speaking another language were characteristics that identified Alvarez as an outsider to many Americans, but she refused to let them silence her.  Isolated by her experience of immigration, she turned to books and, like her childhood literary heroine, Scheherazade, she found solace and then power in the English language.

Alvarez’s first published work was a collection of poetry titled Homecoming.  At the time of its publication in 1984, Alvarez was thirty-four years old.  From this vantage point she looks back on her Dominican childhood with an understanding that derives from having come of age as a bicultural woman in the United States in the 1960s and early 70s.  In the reissued volume that was published twelve years later, she refers to the poems in this collection as “the confessions of my young woman’s voice.” 

Confessions continue in Alvarez’s autofiction, beginning with her first novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), and continuing with her companion volume ¡Yo! (1997).  Central to the stories in both novels is the writer Yolanda Garcia who, like Alvarez herself, was forced to flee with her family from the Dominican Republic to the United States in 1960 and whose experiences as an immigrant are based on Alvarez’s own.  As Yolanda searches to understand who she is and where she belongs, we see how Alvarez is “mapping a country that’s not on the map” by writing stories that exist on the border line between her two countries, her two cultures, and her two languages – liminal subjects which she continues to explore in a later collection of essays, Something to Declare (1998), and in another volume of poetry, The Woman I Kept to Myself (2004).

But the work of fiction that really put Alvarez on the literary map and confirmed her status as someone who uses her art to speak for those whose voices have been silenced is the novel In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), her account of the lives and deaths of three of the Mirabal sisters – Minerva, Maria Teresa, and Patria – women who were murdered because they dared to speak up and oppose the Dominican Republic’s tyrannical dictator.  In the novel we hear from each of them along with their surviving sister Dedé whose testimonio bears witness to her sisters’ deaths and becomes part of the written record that not only preserves their memory but persuades all of us to speak up against injustices in our own country and around the world. 

In “A Postscript” to the novel, Alvarez writes that she began the story of the Mirabal sisters to understand what gave them the “special courage” to risk their lives by resisting the dictatorship.  She goes on to say that sometimes she took liberties with the events pertaining to the dictator’s thirty-one year reign of terror for this reason:  “I wanted to immerse my readers in an epoch in the life of the Dominican Republic that I believe can only finally be understood by fiction, only finally be redeemed by the imagination.  A novel is not, after all, a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart.” 

Much of Alvarez’s fiction this century continues to tell “her story,” as opposed to his story or even history.  It is not all testimonial literature, but Alvarez does persist in writing to give voice to the voiceless, especially women and minorities on the margins.  She is not afraid to take on the issues of her time as a Latina and a woman of colour in America because she believes in the power of art – particularly the narrative form – to educate, to inspire, to empower, and “to right what happens in the world.”

Educated at Middlebury College (B.A., 1971) and Syracuse University (M.A., 1975), Alvarez returned to Middlebury College as a professor of English in 1988.  In 1998 she became the college’s Writer-in-Residence, a position she held until her retirement in 2016.  She and her husband continue to make their home in Vermont.

Alvarez is the recipient of numerous awards for her literary work, including the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature (2002), the Américas Award (2002, 2010), the Pura Belpré Award (2004, 2010), the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Achievement in American Literature (2009), and the National Medal of Arts (2013).