Speaking at Lenoir Rhyne University's Monroe Auditorium, Julia Alvarez demonstrated the power of repetition as she shared her own story, that of an American writer with roots in the Dominican Republic. More than once, she reminded her audience of the pivotal events in her life that led her to this place in her career: 1960--New York City--a sixth grade teacher--a librarian. Born in the United States, Alvarez spent her first ten years in her family's home in the Dominican Republic before fleeing the Trujilla dictatorship. When she was taunted by her classmates, "Why don't you go back where you came from?" she wanted to say, "We can't go back." She compared her situation to the cartoon characters who find them selves running off a cliff, realizing, "Yikes!" there is no ground below their feet and no way to turn back.
Alvarez's first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents was chosen for this year's Hickory Big Read, and she has been in Hickory since Wednesday, signing books at the library, speaking to 2500 fourth graders on Thursday, and speaking again to students on Saturday. Not living in Vermont, Alvarez described her own time in Fayetteville, North Carolina in the late 70s, teaching poetry to the elderly. (She learned later that some had come to the class thinking she was teaching them about poultry.)
In a carefully prepared but conversationally delivered presentation, Alvarez came across as generous and self-effacing. Before her introduction the audience was told she would speak 20-30 minutes, followed by a period of questions and answers. Although the time flew by, she seemed in no hurry to end her speaking engagement or to cut off any questions that remained.
Ms.Alvarez considers herself an American writer. In response to one audience question, she admitted that she came to literature through North American writers, canonical writers. In fact, she pointed out her wonderment that she now finds herself located on library shelves right next to Louisa Mae Alcott, near Emily Dickinson, on the opposite end of the alphabet from Walt Whitman.
In the literature class I teach this semester, I assigned a chapter in our text devoted to Julia Alvarez's poetry. Even before I heard her speak, I was struck by her easy allusions to Frost, to William Carlos Williams, to a host of canonical writers. Although she didn't come into literature through Latino/Latina writers, she does attribute the influence of the storytelling tradition to those roots.
She quoted former slave Terence, who said, "I am a human being. Nothing human is alien to me." Indeed, the thrust of her presentation focused on the power of storytelling. In fact, when she mentioned some of her favorites from literature, she alluded to Nancy Drew, but specifically mentioned Scheherazade, the hero of the Thousand and One Arabian Nights. She reminded us that stories are all around us and that, she said, is how we learn to be human.
I know all too well how unpredictable author readings can be. Some seem to have an inner clock ticking; some seem to wish they had stayed home. Julia Alvarez seemed genuinely pleased to be right where she was--in a room full of readers, an audience that chose to be there with her on a beautiful Friday night in Spring.