It is not that I did not love or relate to any books before I read Julia Alvarez. I recall an affinity for Megan McCafferty’s series about a young aspiring writer named Jessica Darling, and loved books that plunged me into unknown worlds, from Hogwarts to Eoin Colfer’s underground world of fairies.
My father worked at a refrigeration shop on Northern Boulevard in Corona, directly across the street from where the Corona branch of the Queens Public Library was located, so I spent most of my afternoons there, participating in an after-school program and then sitting cross-legged in the aisles, reading for hours.
I must have read hundreds of books, but I never encountered any character like me: Dominican, nerdy, an immigrant whose first language was Spanish. By the time I found Alvarez’s debut novel, “How the García Girls Lost Their Accents,” I’d already resigned myself to using books as windows rather than mirrors.
“García Girls” is about four sisters, Carla, Sandra, Yolanda and Sofía, who emigrated to the United States from their native Dominican Republic with their parents to escape Rafael Trujillo, a brutal dictator who ruled the island from 1930 to 1961. The book is told in reverse chronological order, starting in 1989 with an adult Yolanda (Yo, for short; Joe, in English) returning to the Dominican Republic after a five year absence, and ending in the 1950s, when the family was still living under the dictatorship. Alvarez describes the girls’ fumbles through the English language and the bullying they experienced from Americans who called them names like “dirty spic” or told them to “go back to where you came from.” She captures small moments of newness: the first sighting of snow; the girls’ adjustment to stockings, cold weather and cooped up apartments.
The truth is, the lives of the Garcías were not much like my own. I arrived in the United States when I was 3, so I could not relate to the traumas of being a new immigrant; I did not remember enough of the “old country” to truly yearn for it as they did. But I relished and latched on to everything I recognized: Spanish words or phrases specific to Dominican slang (“antojo”; “jamona”; “U’té que sabe”); the fact that everyone had a nickname (“Lolo”; “Mundín”); and that the parents were called “Mami” and “Papi” instead of Mom and Dad. The girls, like cousins of mine who came to America later than I did, were placed in a grade below their age group to make up for their lack of English. Carla, the eldest, wears her hair in a “tubie, using her head as a large roller,” and when Yolanda returns to the Dominican Republic, her aunts lament that she and her sister “get lost” in the United States, which is to say that they stay away and don’t come home.
The García girls lived in a household where “the rules were as strict as for Island girls, but there was no island to make up the difference,” their parents “worried they were going to lose their girls to America.” This latter fear, especially, loomed over my childhood — that I would become too brave, too free or too loose. I was threatened with “island confinement” if I stepped out of line, a threat the García girls’ mother followed through on when she found a bag of marijuana behind her daughter’s dresser. When the Papi in the book, ready for a night out, turns to the girls and says, in a show of charming arrogance, “A handsome man, your Papi,” he could have been my father, feeling himself after a fresh haircut.
“García Girls” depicted, also, the troubling aspects of my community, specifically the ingrained colorism. Sandra is the most beautiful sister because of her blue eyes and “peaches and ice cream skin,” while Sofía, the youngest, “was considered the plain one, with her tall, big-boned body and large-featured face”; Sofía brought “good blood” into the family by marrying a German with “fair Nordic looks.” The maids were all brown or “black-black” and from the country, campesinas who, in many ways, were iterations of me.
Alvarez rendered my reality a little more tangible by putting it in words, but more than validation, the book proved to be premonition. Yo’s fear that she “would never find someone who would understand my peculiar mix of Catholicism and agnosticism, Hispanic and American styles,” would arise for me in college, when my upbringing became a marker of difference. As an adult, I returned to my little island, finding, like Yo, “what she has been missing all these years without really knowing that she has been missing it.”
Alvarez’s novels were an alternate education. Through the García girls, I learned about feminism, and my feelings of injustice, which had always been dismissed as childhood naïveté, were reaffirmed. I checked out more titles by Alvarez: “In the Time of the Butterflies,” a lyrical work of historical fiction based on the story of the Mirabal sisters, revolutionary heroes who had opposed and fought against Trujillo, only to be brutally tortured and murdered by him; and “In the Name of Salomé,” told from the dual perspectives of the famed Dominican poet, Salomé Ureña, and her daughter, Camila, a queer writer.
That Yo, Salomé and Minerva, one of the Mirabal sisters, were writers, is no doubt part of what appealed to me. But these books’ greatest gift is merely that they existed, and discovering them made writing as a professional calling seem more real and open to me. In an author’s note appended to the 20th anniversary edition of “García Girls,” Alvarez wrote that, in the beginning of her writing career, she attended a conference where someone she admired pronounced that “no writer could write in a language they hadn’t first said ‘mama’ in.” These words had a “paralyzing power” over a young Alvarez, for whom English was a second language. The sting of those words was eclipsed, however, by Alvarez’s reading of Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior”; she recognized herself in Kingston’s memoir of growing up Chinese-American in Stockton, Calif. “I got brave,” wrote Ms. Alvarez. “I began to write my story.” Alvarez passed that bravery on to me.
The Julia Alvarez Starter Kit
IN THE TIME OF THE BUTTERFLIES Read this first. It’s my favorite: beautiful, heartbreaking and alive.
IN THE NAME OF SALOME This historical novel investigates womanhood and sexuality through the stories of two Dominican icons.
¡YO! If you like “García Girls,” consider this follow-up, which delves into the third García sister; each chapter is told from the perspective of a different person in her life, painting a variegated picture of the family writer.
THE WOMAN I KEPT TO MYSELF Alvarez has a book of essays that is part memoir, but, if you’re interested in knowing more about her, I much prefer this book of poetry; it perfectly captures the inbetweenness of her identity and the circumstances of her upbringing.
SAVING THE WORLD This is a sort of novel within a novel, about a present-day Dominican writer intrigued by Isabel Sendales y Gómez, a nurse who joined the expedition to bring the smallpox vaccine to the Americas.
Concepción de León is the digital staff writer for The Times’ books desk.
[Photo Credit: Bill Eichner.]
For full article, read https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/20/books/in-praise-of-julia-alvarez.html