“I was in this big circle of storytellers, the Jane Austens and the George Eliots and the Emily Dickinsons. And after you’re a reader for a while, you realize there’s one story you’re not hearing—the one that only you can tell.”
—Julia Alvarez ’71
Intro: I was in this big circle of storytellers, the Jane Austens and the George Eliots and the Emily Dickinsons. And after you’re a reader for a while, you realize there’s one story you’re not hearing—the one that only you can tell.
P: You’re listening to Midd Moment, a podcast of ideas from Middlebury’s leaders, independent thinkers who create community. I’m Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury and professor of religion. Julia Alvarez is a prize-winning poet, novelist, and essayist. She’s also a Middlebury alum, Class of 1971. Julia is the author of over 19 books, including How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Name of Salomé, and In the Time of the Butterflies, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary of publication this year.
Her work has earned her numerous awards, including the 2009 F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Excellence in American Literature. And in 2013, President Obama awarded her a National Medal of Arts. As Middlebury’s writer in residence emerita, she has been a guiding literary voice in the Bread Loaf and Middlebury College community.
When she joined me in conversation, we discussed the chorus of gatekeepers who punctuated her life, from Catholic school nuns in New York City to our own Dean Wonnacott. And how her tenure book at Middlebury, which she wrote in the midst of feeling like a complete professional failure, defined an entirely new genre of literature.
I know you also have a strict writing routine so I’m especially grateful for your time today.
A: Well, first off, thank you for making time because you are a fellow writer and poet. It works both ways.
P: So I wanted to jump in by asking you about the fact that a lot of the inspiration of your work, whether it’s essays or novels, it draws upon your experience growing up in the Dominican Republic and immigrating to the United States at the age of 10.
It would be great to hear from you a little bit about what your childhood home was like in New York City and in the Dominican Republic. What was that contrast like and what is the feeling that you have about both homes?
A: Growing up in the Dominican Republic, it was a dictatorship.
My father was in the underground: there was a level always of tension but not understanding as a kid what was going on because of course they didn’t tell the kids what was going on. But I’m amazed that I had such a happy childhood in spite of the fact that it was a scary place to be, because I had an extended familia.
My father’s the youngest of 25 kids, first wife had 10 kids, and then she died, amazingly not in childbirth, and the second one had 15, and my father was the youngest of that.
A: We are second group of children, so I had cousins that were older than my father. I mean it was just a clan and so there was this protective familia, extended familia around us. I described it as there was always a hand to hold, there was always someone telling a story, it was that kind of a family. At 10 years old we came to the United States, and it was overnight because we had to escape. My father was under suspicion and they got us out just in time—the people he was working with in the United States that were now against the dictator—long story there. But New York City was the opposite, I mean we had no one there. I didn’t know the language very well. It wasn’t a very friendly place. Civil rights movements were just getting started. We were seeing things on television.
Broadcast: Malcolm X, what brings you here today?
X: Well, I’m out here to see this successful exposé of the New York City school system, it proved that you don’t have to go to Mississippi…
A: And I thought, my parents kept saying, we’re so lucky we escaped the dictatorship to come to this free country. But it didn’t look like that was really happening for everybody in this country, so it was a big shock. And I think that’s when I went internal and I was never a reader, I flunked every grade through fifth grade in the Dominican Republic. And kids love hearing that; I was not a scholar but I loved stories. And I think that throwing me into this situation created the necessity for interior resources that before that been outside of me.
P: Did you have siblings?
A: I had three sisters.
P: Three sisters, okay so…
A: We had each other.
P: You had each other…
A: There was no big Dominican community then in New York. So it was really each other, and trying to negotiate our way into this new culture, not having the vocabulary we now have about ethnicity, or gender, or any of that stuff.
P: Do you think if you’d stayed in the Dominican Republic, you would have not become a writer? You think you could have stayed more of an extrovert and always held someone else’s hand and followed a different path?
P: Or do you think you would have found the reader even in the Dominican Republic?
A: I think, it’s not a reading culture.
A: Even nowadays, it’s an oral culture.
A: Even though, it was very social and external, women stayed dentra familia.
A: My grandmother didn’t go past fourth grade. So I would likely after, if I went through high school, I would probably likely get married and start a family. And I probably would have been a storyteller, like my aunts and tias and abuelas, they were storytellers. But it would have taken a different form than what it became here so, you know it’s interesting.
P: It is and it’s a very interesting question, right? That you could be a storyteller, and be this fabulous storyteller in any culture and in any way, and yet because of your move to New York, your love of literature, your love of reading, and your love of writing came early to you. But as of a result of having to manage a huge transition and a traumatic one.
A: Yeah, I often would tell my students that, that sometimes the worst thing that has happened to you, losing everything—I mean, basically, that’s what it felt like—can really be an opportunity to find some…you have to go deeper. And so to find reading, and to find writing and storytelling was something that came out of that traumatic transition for our family.
P: So paint the scene for me: you’re in New York, you decided, did you write a play first, did you write a poem first?
A: Poetry is my first love.
P: Poetry, yeah.
A: And what I think is that in English—I miss my Spanish—and the musicality of poetry, which of course I loved when it was rhymed and metered and I would memorize it, recalled my native language. So I loved poetry and I would write poetry, and we shared the bedroom when we first got in, my sisters and myself, and I would read and recite till late at night and it was to make meaning of our experience for us.
The other day I called my sister, and she’s what, I’m 69 and she’s 64. And in the middle of, we were talking and she started reciting from memory one of my poems. I said, what, did you have a copy of that? Cuz I don’t have it anymore. She says, it’s in my head, we heard it so many times at night. So I think it was writing for them.
A: And then teachers who, what I think is a really wonderful teacher is somebody who sees in you what you don’t even know yet is in you and encourages it.
P: Absolutely, so who was that teacher for you?
A: There was a nun when we first came, Sister Mary Zoe. She could see that I was completely clueless, but then as I caught on, whenever she was telling a story, I was right there. So she encouraged me to start reading, sent me to the library, librarians. That’s my first love too, librarians that put books in my hands.
I would say this, in my workshops to my students, you can’t be a writer unless you’re a reader. And I think what happened is that I became a reader first and I was in this big circle of storytellers. The Jane Austens, and the George Eliots, and the Emily Dickinsons. And after you’re a reader for a while, you realize there’s one story you’re not hearing, the one that only you can tell. So I wanted to tell that story. I say, I came to the language late as a 10-year-old, but to the profession early, because I knew I wanted to be a writer by 15-16, that was my passion. But back then, there was no such thing as multicultural literature. So I really didn’t believe that it could be done.
P: Despite the doubt she carried within herself, teachers like Sister Mary Zoe were cultivating a love of reading in young Julia Alvarez. At the same time, Julia was having trouble socially in the public school. Bullies were making fun of her and her sisters, so their mother applied for Julia and her older sister to attend an all-girls’ boarding school. They got in with full scholarships, so from 10th grade on, she was away from home.
P: So in the high school, you kinda always knew you’d go to college?
A: Well, by then, yeah, I mean coming to this country completely, you know we became the parents of our parents. I mean, it completely shifted the ground. And even though I love them dearly, they could no longer be my in loco parentis.
P: Of course.
A: And so, my teachers became that. They were the ones that I think that’s why I even went into teaching, because they were the ones that were models for me.
P: Did you think that anyone in your boarding school before you got to college, understood the true experience of what you and your family went through in leaving Trujios, Dominican Republic, and reestablishing a life?
A: Well, I think that by writing, I began to understand.
P: Yeah, yeah.
A: I began to understand what had happened to us; part of writing it was to come to that understanding. And so, what was a surprise to me when Garcia Girls, which was my tenure book of Middlebury…
I was coming up for tenure and my chair of my department said, we love you. You have great student evaluations, we want you to stay, but you need a book, a publication. I had a book of poems from way back and they were waiting for the new one. So that’s how Garcia Girls, my tenure book came out, I had the letter that it was gonna be published. It wasn’t even published yet, but it was such a surprise to me when it was published.
P: The people loved it.
A: Because for me, it was making sense for me and my sisters, and all of those Latina friends I had. And suddenly, people, really? Oh, or that they would relate to it if it was so different. I mean, why should I be surprised? I’ve been relating to Hamlet and two British girls in the countryside of Jane Austen, I had done those translations, but that people would do that back to me, that was an amazing moment for me.
P: So as you got that kind of close attention, you also probably saw in other faculty as well as other students the power of creativity.
A: Right, right.
P: And that you could communicate something about yourself, in a way that, A, only you could do. But also, that might make your world comprehensible to a very white, New England world.
A: My model for writing is Scheherazade, it was the one book I remember from childhood that I really got into. The woman who saves herself by telling stories and saves the women in the kingdom and changes the Sultan’s mind. But that I saw that through the storytelling, you could save yourself and other people could become the other. And that’s what I loved about literature, that it was the table set for all.
A: That we became each other in the process of reading, in the process of writing. And I thought that was an amazing power.
P: You paved the way for other writers. There really wasn’t a thing called Latinx literature when you started to write. You gave permission for other writers to do that in a way. And what I love about that is that it sounds like from your story, you didn’t set out to be a trailblazer or to create a genre or anything like that.
A: No, at all, I mean, that’s a thrilling thing, but I can’t claim that was my motivation.
A: Because I never thought I would have an American, as I understood American back then, readership, cuz I’d never seen it.
P: Given that you work in children’s literature and in essays, and in adult literature, and in poems and in novels, I mean, you move between genres in this really wonderful way, because you probably have always felt free to do so, because you could kinda do what you wanted in a way.
A: Yeah, yeah, yeah, it was being a failed woman. Garcia Girls came out when I was 41, and my family thought it was crazy, I had nothing to show for myself. I didn’t have a husband, I didn’t have kids, I called myself a migrant writer, I would go wherever I got a job. I had failed at how I was supposed to succeed, so I was free.
P: The last we left you, you were in your young women’s boarding school in New England, and we want to get you now to college, so-
A: Well, I didn’t get into any schools, except on the wait list of Connecticut College. It was either that or a Catholic college near Queens, where they were living, and living at home with them. So I was lucky, I finally got off the wait list and ended up at Connecticut College. I was writing a lot then and I won a poetry prize there and the creative writing teacher, Bill Meredith, was on the staff at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. And he said to me, there’s this place, I think you might enjoy, the writer, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, so I ended up coming the summer of ’69 and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I mean, all these writers, people that loved writing as much as I did. So I came down to the admissions office and there was a guy there named Fred Neuberger. And it was Friday afternoon, and he was the only one around.
So I walked in and I told him, oh, Mr. Neuberger, I want to come to Middlebury. He said, oh, really? And I told him about Bread Loaf. He said well, here’s the application form, apply. Deadline is in December, early decision or whatever, whatever. I said no, I wanna go here, now.
He says that’s like in 10 days. We have this process, young lady. I said well, can I work here until I can get in? And it doesn’t happen anymore this way. But he said, well, how soon can you get this application to me? And I was jumping up and down, and he said, I’m not promising anything. So I sent everything in. And we were packing up the car for Connecticut College, my older sister, me, my parents driving us up. And I get a call from Mr. Neuberger. He says you still wanna come here? Cuz you’re in. It was my dream come true. And Papi, driving up from New York with his three-piece salmon suit and his Panama hat. And I was so embarrassed by back then, cuz I wanted a dad that was preppy and-
P: Right, right, right.
A: Anyhow, we’re driving. And as we’re going down College Street, he starts looking around. He says, what are all these boys doing here? Cuz I had omitted to say that it was it was a coed school.
P: And it had been coed since the 1880s.
A: Yeah, what did my parents know about colleges? And so, he said to me well, what are all these boys, in Spanish, what are they all these boys doing here? And I said, Papi, I don’t know. They must be the brothers of the girls who go here helping them move into the dormitories.
P: No. So, wait when did he actually discover that you…?
A: Well, very soon afterwards cuz he started asking. But there was a wonderful then called Dean of Women, Erica Wonnacott.
P: Yes, a dean of great fame.
A: And she had a talk with Papi, and she promised that he could call her every week and that she would keep tabs on me. I don’t think she ever kept tabs on me. But she allowed me to stay here. And it was an amazing experience. Not because it was coed, but because I was in Robert Frost country.
Recording: I’m very honored to have been invited tonight to Bread Loaf as one of the guest speakers on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the conference. I remember the first time I came to Bread Loaf, summer 1969, a young girl, 19 years old. I was blown away. People who loved stories and poems as much as I did, who had also come here to learn how to work the magic. I heard talk about writing, the craft of writing, the writing life. I’m reminded of what Frost, for whom Bread Loaf was a magical place, said about writing poems. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. We want surprises, don’t we, when we sit down to write? This has been a special mountain for me, a place of surprises, a place of discovery, a place of magic.
P: That was Julia Alvarez speaking at the 75th anniversary of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2000. The audio comes from Middlebury Special Collections. Julia surprised me with an item from her own personal archive, a copy of a poem that she wrote, her first assignment while a student at Middlebury from the fall of 1970.
So you also wrote when you were at Middlebury.
P: And I believe that you have some record of that?
A: Yes, well, the first assignment that we got in my poetry workshop, we read “A Silken Tent,” by Robert Frost, which is a sonnet that’s all one sentence long. As our assignment was to write a sonnet that was one sentence long and it played on a certain word. And I remember sitting in that library, was over here in Starr, in that big room in there, sweating bullets, as Huck Finn would say, thinking, I can’t do this, I don’t know how to do this. And I worked and worked. So it’s a sonnet. And it’s one sentence, and you’ll hear the word play. “You start to count my fingers one and two, but then stop short as angry teachers stop between the dates of wars to wonder who was playing with a pencil that just dropped, while all the warring Dukes of Aragon are left to tend the war and count their dead, the master of the class swears he is done with teaching those who can’t be interested; your anger, love, is much like this account, you stop your counting if I do not share in counting with you when you start to count, forgetting there are countless ways to care; count on my fingers, I will not look away and kill your love that mine may have its way.”
And so I had-
P: That is fantastic.
A: Can you tell what word I’m playing on? Count…
P: Yes, yes, yes.
A: Anyhow, I turned that in. And my poetry teacher loved it, and I just felt like, I’m in. I really feel like I came into my calling at Middlebury. That’s why it’s such meaningful place for me. It’s here that I connected with what I really feel deeply called to do.
A: And if an education does anything, it’s really that connecting.
P: You write a lot about women who find a way to overcome odds.
A: One of the heroisms that most touches me is the heroism of the anonymous. Which was a way of describing female heroism long before we gave names and women became figures. So I love the anonymous heroism that can happen. And also, I don’t know if you know that wonderful poem by Czeslaw Milosz? It’s about someone that is a servant, and it says, “It does not matter whether he knows what he serves, who serves best doesn’t always understand.” I admire that kind of service to a calling or a profession that doesn’t need to put its name on it.
A: I really admire that quiet service, like when you or whoever at graduation says, first look around you: somebody got up early and put these chairs out. That anonymous service that makes it possible for the rest of us.
A: The privilege to be able to connect with what we love to do. But there’s a service element to it. And I think it’s really important. I mean, I think it’s important for me that I didn’t get some publicity and acknowledgement until Garcia Girls, and I was 41 and I’d already been writing for 25 years. Because-
P: It didn’t matter to you at a certain-
A: Well, of course it was affirming, but I was doing it for the right reasons. I wasn’t young and it went into my head or anything like that, because I had been doing this laboring in the vineyards. And I love that attitude of doing the work, which is you do the work. And in workshops it’s so hard. I’ve found the opposite, to convince my students that they don’t have to instantly get famous and publish. That maybe they need to work it a little longer. But that kind of service to a calling…
P: Yes, and that the work of writing is about something else entirely. I think about that a lot that, is there a way in which, as you say, writing could be understood as a form of labor rather than as an identity? And as soon as someone’s identity is fixed as a writer, you have a whole other set of distractions. Whereas if you just care about the work of writing, and you never think of yourself as a writer, but just do the work of writing, it frees you. Back to our earlier conversation, in a way.
A: Right, right, there’s no privileging of it. I get up, and I look across the pasture, and as I sit down to write, the lights are on in the sheep farm. And he’s been up for several hours.
P: He’s doing his thing.
A: And I think Tom, you’re doing your stuff and I’m doing mine.
P: One of the things that I love to talk about as an educator, and you’ve really alluded to it in many of the stories of your life that you’ve already shared, is what’s your question? What’s the one question that you’ll never get tired of asking, and you’ll never know the answer to?
A: When you asked, immediately I had an instant response, which is the question that I ask myself: Now in the time left me, what is the appropriate use of my energy and time with all that I’ve learned, and all that I’ve traveled? How do I wring myself, so there won’t be a drop when death comes for me?
P: I think that’s a truly wonderful, and moving, and inspiring answer, and I’m so grateful that you shared that answer with us today. No matter what age, we should be asking ourselves that question. So thanks for coming in today.
A: Thank you, Laurie.
I was a little nervous talking to the president.
P: I’m pretty easy to talk to.
A: Yeah, you are.
Hi. This is Erin Davis, producer of the show. Midd Moment is produced by myself and Juliet Louini, Class of ’18.5, with help from Chris Spencer. Special thanks to Middlebury Special Connections for the archival audio of Julia Alvarez that you heard in this episode; Julia speaking at the 75th anniversary of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
If you have a Midd Moment to share, a time when things came together in a particularly Middlebury way, share your memory on social media using #MiddMoment or record a voice memo and email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to include your Midd Moment in a future episode of the show. For more conversations like this, subscribe to Midd Moment on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening.