Julia Alvarez

NEA Literature Fellow and 2013 National Medal of Arts recipient
Julia Alvarez

Photo © Bill Eichner

Transcript of conversation with Julia Alvarez

Julia Alvarez:  In the Time of the Butterflies is a book that helped me understand my country's story and my parents' story.  But I think it was a book also that I had to write because it as a debt that I owed.  If I can put it in those terms, I wasn't thinking of it analytically in the way that I have to repay this debt and tell this story.  It was more that it was a story that was a pebble in my shoe that I couldn't shake out. We were the family that got out and came to the United States and one thing led to another, and here I am, an American writer, but this is a story that I left behind and there but for the grace of accidents and God and, and history, we got out and they didn't make it. And so what is the responsibility of those that survive? To remember, and to remind.

Jo Reed:  That was author Julia Alvarez talking about the writing of her novel - and the most recent Big Read selection - In the Time of the Butterflies. Welcome to Art Works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed. In 1994, three years after writing How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Alvarez wrote her second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies.  Set in the Dominican Republic, In the Time of the Butterflies is a fictionalized account of the Mirabal sisters, three of whom were murdered by henchmen of dictator Rafael Trujillo for their resistance to his regime. The girls were known in the underground by their codename Las Mariposas or butterflies.  Julia Alvarez spent her childhood in the Dominican Republic until the family fled the country because of her father's political activities.   When I spoke to Julia, I began our conversation by asking her when she first heard of the Mirabal sisters.

Alvarez: Well I remember we got here August 6, 1960 end of November about four months after we left they were murdered. And about a week or two later there was an article in Time magazine. I remember opening this Time magazine and seeing this picture and seeing something about, you know, the Dominican Republic, and of course anything that I found in print that had to do with- with us, I was right there, and I remember my father coming and taking it away as if it was something I shouldn't be reading. And so soon thereafter, you know with the underground really got active in the Dominican Republic and there was a plot that succeeded in killing Trujillo and that was the same underground group that my father had been a part of, excuse me, and my uncle was part of that group so he was taken away. So my cousins and my aunt, right where we live, right next door to us were suddenly under a house arrest, and that's when I really became aware and heard them talking, and heard about the Mirabal sisters. And imagine what a story, at that point, I only knew that there were three of them, but they were three sisters and- and they were killed. And they didn't make it out. And me and my sisters, we had made it out. So there was this strange feeling of why did we get to be the lucky ones? I think that I identified when I read that feeling that they were figures inside me that I felt compelled to tell their story. As I got older, every time I'd go we started going back once the dictatorship days were over, every time I could fi- I you know, people started talking about the dictatorship I would ask about the Mirabal sisters. It captured the imagination. You know these three young women who had been so brave and who, you know, had been murdered on a lonely country road I, you know, it just kept being in my head. And I think the big thing is too that even friends that were really well-informed and knew a lot about history, they had never heard of the Mirabal sisters.  So I was constantly telling the story.

Reed:  And the decision to make it a novel as opposed to a piece of history, because you write nonfiction as well as fiction.     

Alvarez: The original idea was to write a bi- kind of biography of them. What happened was that this woman press out in I think it was Washington was doing a series of postcards about women heroines around the world and they contacted me if I would pick a Dominican heroine and write the little blurb behind the postcard about her. And so I said well "Can it be more than one?" They said well, you know, it's just one postcard." I said "But these are three sisters who started the underground." "Oh great!"   So I went back to the Dominican Republic, you know, you start talking, all those cousins you have. All those aunts and uncles, and somebody knew somebody who knew the daughter of one of the Mirabal sisters that had been murdered, Noris. So of course they called her up and of course I was there with Noris and Noris said "Well come up and see the place where the girls were, were born, and you have to meet Dede. "And I said "So who's Dede?" They said she said "You know, the- the sister they didn't kill." I thought oh my goodness, four sisters.

It was before the time of lots of recordings, lots of pictures and imagine everything being so controlled by the state, you know, having an official official press. It was an oral culture. There wasn't that much written down about them. And whoever I talked to depending on who they were, they would have a different opinion or story of what they remembered. And I realized that let's call the truth sitting in the center. You know there was the truth, some factorial truth, but depending on where you were sitting around that circle, you had a different point of view. And so sometimes I would get conflicting stories, you know, from people that had both been there, would both swear that this and this ha- had happened. So I started to realize that history itself is the story we tell ourselves about what really happened. So that you know, even what we're remembering historically, especially when we're talking about the past when there might not have been such accurate bookkeeping, but even the way we live history. The way we live history is through personality through ourselves and our lens. And that's already the province of novels, because novels are the truth according to character, and you know, this is what you do in a novel. You try to imagine the character going through these situations. So there were fixed points of things that I knew had happened. These were certain stories that I tended to, as I became more involved in the girls' personalities, believe and give more weight to. Of course, anything that Dede told me, understanding that it was coming from her point of view of course, I also gave a special weight to. So it was a real slow moving into understanding that- what Novalis said about novels, novels arise out of the shortcomings of history, of just the facts that I knew that I was moving into the province of their characters and who were these women and why and how, how had they become mobilized? And how did these women manage? What was the story?

Reed: Did your parents know the Mirabal sisters?

Alvarez: My father knew of them. I mean they were the underground symbols. So everybody that was in that group knew of them, but he didn't know them personally. My mother didn't get involved at all. She was terrified.

Reed: Julia, you were born in NYC but your family moved to the DR when you were just 3 months old. Tell me about your childhood.

Alvarez: I grew up in the Dominican Republic in the middle of I call it a tribal kind of family. Lots of  relatives all living, you know, side-by-side houses, so there was a whole group of us, cousins. Everybody had a cousin their same age practically. And we hung out and you ate at whatever house you were at when it was mealtime so it was, you know, being raised by- by many second mothers and fathers, aunts, uncles, my grandparents.  My father's family was huge. He was the youngest of 25 children. The first wife had had 10 children. The second wife had 15. And so we were it- it was- every time- it seemed like, you know, we were always everybody you met was related to you. So it was growing up in that kind of in that kind of atmosphere. All the while, not knowing as kids because this clan protected you, that we were living in the middle of a dictatorship, and that we were in danger. That said there were some members of the family that were pro-dictatorship. As a matter of fact at one point when my father was under suspicion because of me because I was the kid in the family that people were especially careful not to repeat things around because the other side of loving stories was that I also loved to repeat them and to tell them. And maybe sometimes even embellish them. So, I was especially targeted as somebody that people had to be careful what they said around, because I did love stories. Cause you could repeat something in school and then your family would be taken away, if someone had, if the teacher then reported your family to the authorities. You know there were secret police everywhere.

Reed: Explain the extent of Trujillo's control over daily life in the Dominican Republic.

Alvarez: It was, you know, everything from having his picture in your house with a caption that said "In this house Trujillo rules" and that was like a mandatory portrait there with Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary and Trujillo. There were secret police everywhere, the SIM, Servicio de Inteligencia Militar. They were everywhere. You couldn't leave from one town to another without stopping at a checkpoint.  Everything was legislated by the dictatorship and any, any breath of an opposing point of view could get you in trouble. Later I read this in a history book about a young boy who was asked to write an essay about, you know, the heroes of the country and wrote this lavish essay about Trujillo and went back to the teacher, and the teacher wrote on the margin that Trujillo was certainly one of the benefactors of the country but that there had been other heroes. And this went back home with this comment and the father was in the SIM and the guy, his wife and his two kids were hauled off and never seen, never heard from. There was this atmosphere of total repression and fear. It was a police state.

Reed:  Trujillo ruled the DR from, what, 1930 to 1960, 61. What does that do to a person, to a country, to live under decades of repression? The regime lasted 30 years.

Alvarez: 31.

Reed: 31 years.

Alvarez:  Yeah. I mean I think that's one of the things about a dictatorship that you- you end up i in the dictatorship also betraying yourself constantly making those kinds of accommodations and one day you're living the kind of life and being the kind of person that you never intended to be. And I think a dictatorship survives in a sense by putting a little dictator inside each of us, you know, and there's a kind of mentality. I really understood that once we came to this country when I would see my parents' reactions to things, and I thought, "We've left the dictatorship but the dictatorship is still inside them," you know, their kinds of fears, their rigidity about things, their absolute terror sometimes about what would happen if we got in trouble. That was the dictatorship inside them

Reed:  You were 10 years old when your family left the Dominican Republic and suddenly you're back in the city of your birth, New York.  What a change that must have been for you.

Alvarez: It was amazing. It was as amazing as all the stories said it would be. I mean just looking down from the plane and seeing so many- so many huge, tall buildings. I had never been above a two-story house. I had never been in an escalator or an elevator, or those doors that open by themselves in magic when you went to the grocery store. It was- it was incredible. It blew my mind, to use an expression that came later. I just could not believe how amazing it was. So that part was astonishing. We had lived pretty much in a rural place, you know, and suddenly we were in a concrete city and this was before the big immigrations of Latinos, at least in the Dominican Republic. Not that many people were getting out.

Reed: This is in 1960.

Alvarez: Nineteen sixty, there wasn't that family around us anymore, that cushioning clan. So, so- so the physically in- well through all my senses everything was so different. But what was most amazing was the language. Now I had learned a little English in school, but classroom English did not seem to even compare to spoken English. I couldn't tell where a word ended and another began. I didn't know, you know,why people were saying this word as opposed to another. The kids were not very nice. They were calling us names, telling us to go back to where we came from, you know, all the things that kids can do in a playground. So suddenly instead of this really embracing family in which you were just loved for being there, you didn't even have to do anything, I was suddenly out. I felt unwelcome. And in a way that was the really the hardest moment definitely up to then in my life, because I knew by then that we couldn't go back.

Reed: But Julia you became someone who lives by words, they're your art. How did you make the adjustment?

Alvarez: Thank goodness that I found the public library, because they put books in my hand and maybe out of desperation and needing company, and feeling so bereft, I had to- I was thrown back on myself and then to discover that there were these worlds I could enter where everybody was welcome. No sign posted on the cover saying No Girls, no this, no that. You could enter and you became these other people, and you could be a prince, you could be a pauper. You could be a slave girl, you could be a, you know, a- a person from an upper class family in- in Britain. You could be any number of things, and I thought this is where I want to be. This is the United States I was searching for came to me between the covers of books. You know, this great democracy of reading, you know, and- and that I could have access to these books and these stories. After a while you've been sitting there listening to all these stories, all these stories and there's one missing: the one that only you can tell. And so in a way, you know, that immigration that was the toughest thing that ever happened to our family was what connected me to what I ended up doing with my life, what I think is my calling.

Reed: Julia, you're probably best known as a novelist, but you began your writing life with poetry.

Alvarez: That was my first love. I wanted to be a poet, and I think poetry is more like Spanish in the cadence language and the rhythms and I think it was my way of speaking Spanish and English to become a poet, and what started to happen is that I was writing longer and longer narrative poems, and at some point I can't even remember if it was a teacher or a friend said "Why don't you- have you ever thought of writing some stories about this?" And I thought yeah, well, no but let me try. So but it didn't, you know, I think it didn't happen Garcia Girls came out when I was 41, and a little book of poems that I had came out when I was 34, it was a small print run. Two things I think were happening. One thing was that in some ways I had been brought up to be a Latina woman who didn't have a public voice so I was constantly unsure of myself as a writer. You know, is it okay for me to write to tell these stories? And remember, when I was little I had gotten in trouble for telling stories. So there was that kind of censorship. Writing poetry was fine. When that book came out I gave it to all those aunts, all those relatives. It was on the coffee table. Nobody read it. Nobody reads poetry, you know? It was just something that I had done, so you know, I didn't get any flak, but I think part of me was afraid of telling the stories, Maxine Hong Kingston starts out The Woman Warrior with a line that I think could start off any Latina's novel from that generation. "My mother told me never, ever to repeat this story." And then she tells the story. When I started writing Latino literature hadn't been invented. You know, ethnic literature hadn't been invented. African-American literature was just starting to be- certain books were put into the curriculum. I was writing in history hadn't yet caught up with my own work. In other words, I would send things out and they would be of sociological interest only, and I think Maxine Hong Kingston's I think it came out in 1976, I think that The Woman Warrior really was a moment in which the mainstream culture said oh my goodness, this is beautiful. This is lyrical. This is American literature. You know, this is part of who we are, these stories of people that have come from somewhere else, something that is enriching to the culture. One of the things you learn with stories is that, you know, stories are about all of us. Stories don't belong in ethnic bunkers and only people from that ethnicity can tell them, and only people from that ethnicity can read them. So when we put these labels you know, of- of "Latino" or "Women's Literature" or something like we're doing something that is really antithetical to how the world of story works, because the world of story, this is its- its wonder. Its, it belongs to all of us.

Reed: Yet, I think what happens with literature is the paradox of the more particular the writing is the more universal it becomes.

Alvarez: Because part of the thing is that as you enter these stories, the way to become someone else is through the details, the particulars, the local habitation in a name. But what happens is that as you become that person you connect with things that are deep within yourself that you didn't even know were inside you. So that reading Hamlet you sort of understand your own indecisiveness or your conflict of loyalties, or through becoming that character, but it's through the details, you're right. That's the magic of how stories work. You have to enter into the, what is it that Lorca said "The poet is the professor of the five senses, " that's how you get your reader involved and enmeshed. You know, you have to totally immerse yourself in it so that you can smell it, you can touch it, you can hear it. And that is how you get it across to the reader. And I- I anyhow think that the muscles that you're stretching when you're reading are the same muscles you use for compassion and understanding. It develops that capacity, you know, to be- to be compassionate, to understand, and to see and to be, you know, a fuller human being. 

Reed:  That was author Julia Alvarez, whose novel In the Time of the Butterflies is our most recent Big read selection.  You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor. Original Guitar Music composed, performed, and used courtesy of Jorge F. Hernandez. 

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov.  Next week, a conversation with bluegrass sensation and 2010 National Heritage Fellow, Del McCoury.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Writer Julia Alvarez discusses how her life as a reader led to her life as a writer and the rich source material she finds in her family's immigrant experience. [22:05]