Poet, novelist, essayist Julia Alvarez will be the guest speaker at the Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series at Syracuse University, where she received a master of arts. The talk takes place at 7:30pm on Tuesday, March 31, 2015, at Crouse Hinds Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic Center, located at 411 Montgomery Street, Syracuse. Here are excerpts of her interview with Melinda Johnson:
[Julia] Alvarez has been busy since she earned a master’s degree in creative writing at SU. She has written dozens of books, from fiction, nonfiction to poetry and young adult. She has drawn upon her Dominican Republic roots in many of her writings. Her first book is the semi-autobiographical “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” (1991). “In the Time of Butterflies” (1994) is a fictional account of the three Mirabal sisters who were assassinated because of their efforts to overthrow Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. Her books of poetry include “The Woman I Kept to Myself” (2004) and “The Other Side/El Otro Lado” (1995). Among her nonfiction works are “A Wedding in Haiti: The Story of a Friendship” (2012) and “Once Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the USA” (2007).
[. . .] Since 1985, she has been at Middlebury College in Vermont, first as an assistant professor, professor and as writer-in-residence since 1998. She lives in the state’s Champlain Valley with her husband Bill Eichner, an ophthalmologist and farmer. She celebrated her 65th birthday on March 27.
Q. In the past, you have described the childhood experience of coming from the Dominican Republic and settling in the United States 50 years ago as “cultural schizophrenia.” Do you still feel this way?
Part of the reason that I felt that schizophrenia is because of the landscape I landed in, the cultural milieu of that time when you had to choose. You were an American and that meant you cut your ties to the past. You learned English and that was that. That was the old paradigm of what it meant to be an immigrant in this country. And now with mobility, going back and forth, the Internet, you don’t ever leave behind _ you never did anyhow. It’s just that if you couldn’t bring it into your life in the United States, it felt like another part of you that you had to choose constantly and feel a divided self. Ultimately, you can’t do that without cutting off your life support system. That is so much a part of who you are. I felt like it was either or. It’s not, it’s both. That’s the richness. You have this much larger perspective, more textured view. It’s really the way we all have to start thinking on this planet: That we’re really not just citizens of one country or one tribe. We are, but we’re part of a larger weave and narrative. If we want to survive as a human family, we have to start thinking that way.
[. . .] Q. Does it bother you being identified as a Latin-American writer?
I feel like more accurately I’m an all-American author, with all the Americas (North and South) inside me, sort of speaking my Spanish and my English. The rhythms, the syntax, word choices are affected by the fact my first language was Spanish. These phrases that we use to identify where you came from and what you’re bringing to the circle, they’re fine. They’re part of tracing a root system. But if you stop at that and get into a racial bunker and it’s us against them, then it really doesn’t’ work for me. If there’s one thing literature teaches us, it’s that this is a table set for all. To write a book, anybody can read it and become the characters in that book. It could be written by a woman. It could be written by someone from the upper class. It could be written by a kid that started out as a street kid. For me that’s what I love about stories. It’s a huge democracy. It’s the grand democracy. It’s what we came searching for in the United States of America. We landed in 1960. The civil rights movement was just getting started. I mean this did not seem like the America I was promised. But I found it between the covers of books, in the imagination, that grand liberation.
[. . .] Q. You wrote a poem, titled “The Red Pickup.” Did you ever get your red pickup?
That’s what I drove to school today. Absolutely. Of course, it’s a metaphor for just having the stuff that was in me. At that point, in my life as girl in a family of too many girls, in a culture where girls — my grandmother didn’t go past fourth grade. My grandfather went to Cornell. That was the difference. For me the red pickup was just an expression of that energy that was in me that I didn’t yet know how to harness or how to use it. I think we’re born with a certain something in us. You have this energy and your job in this life is to bring it forth, cultivate it. It’s not for you to keep. It’s for you to kind of hone it and harness it and contribute it into the whole. If you don’t, it’s going to destroy you. It can’t stay in the container of self. It needs to come out.