How Julia Alvarez Wrote Her Many Selves Into Existence
This summer on Code Switch, we're talking to some of our favorite authors about books that taught us about the different dimensions of freedom. In our last installment, we talked to author Ross Gay about the importance of celebrating joy. Next up, a conversation with the writer and poet Julia Alvarez.
Growing up, there were a lot of pieces of Julia Alvarez that felt like they didn't fit together the way they were supposed to. Today, Alvarez is an award-winning author, most known for her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. But as a young girl, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic and an aspiring writer, she said there were versions of herself that she wasn't always allowed to share, because they weren't acceptable to her family and surrounding community.
For Code Switch's summer book series on freedom, I spoke to Alvarez about her 2004 poetry collection, The Woman I Kept to Myself, in which she explores all her different selves — the little girl who recites poetry to herself every night, the sister who fears her family's reproach, the seasoned professor who prides herself on helping her students — and how she uncovered them with writing. In a way, it's a very Code Switch-y collection — an acknowledgement that you're never all of yourself all of the time, and that so many of us exist perpetually in gray areas.
We talked about the selves we don't share with the world — or that the world doesn't let us share with them — and how we can find freedom in giving those selves a voice. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You're most famous for your novels — especially How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents — but you started out as a poet. Where did the inspiration for The Woman I Kept to Myself, your third poetry collection, come from?
Every time I want to touch bottom in myself, I return to poetry. I feel like poems are where I am meeting up against the silence. I'm trying to understand and give word to feelings that are yet to be brought into language. I wanted to touch on those moments where there's a little enlightenment or a little awareness. It doesn't have to be about something big or important, but those little things you keep to yourself — selves that you keep to yourself — and give us language to understand them.
Did you find freedom in speaking to those selves, in the process of writing those poems?
For me, maybe because I am a writer, naming is a kind of liberation. I always think of that line from Dylan Thomas: "I sang in my chains like the sea." There's something about singing that, even if you're feeling chained, even if you're feeling oppressed, the song in itself is a liberation. And because there is a listener, there is community, and there's a sense that you are connecting with a reader at those deepest levels of the self, and therefore maybe liberating them. I love the Toni Morrison quote, "The function of freedom is to free someone else." And I feel that when you give word to these secret selves, hidden selves, outlier and outlaw selves, that you kind of liberate. You pass on the courage to someone else.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the poem that you get the title The Woman I Kept to Myself from. It's called "By Accident," and in it, you set up this story of how you almost feel like you became the person that you became by chance. You write:
"... nothing prepared the way, not a dramatic, wayward aunt, or moody mother who read Middle-march, or godmother who whispered, 'You can be whatever you want!' and by doing so performed the god-like function of breathing grit into me."
How did you become the woman that you are, then, and who specifically is the woman you kept to yourself?
To set the scene of the poem, it's something that really did occur: At night, my sisters and I would be in the room with the lights off, and I would start reciting poems that I had memorized. And Mami, with her chancletas, would come down the hall, turn on the lights, and she would say, "Why can't you be considerate? Keep it to yourself." And [the speaker] says that this self that she kept to herself is what drove her to poetry. All those selves that were not acceptable, or that people found irritating or didn't understand, they went on paper. So it's not a specific one woman— in fact, it's all the women that you keep to yourself, which form the woman you get to yourself.
You write several poems about how you were defying expectations by taking to writing and taking to writing in English, specifically, as a woman and as an immigrant. Where did you find that freedom to write yourself into existence?
Writing for me is a way of self creation. So, where did that come from? Well, it came out of necessity. Many of these poems are those moments where the speaker realizes that things are not making sense to her. She doesn't fit in. So out of necessity, you're needing to make yourself up, because the self that's getting put on you doesn't fit, and you will start to wither and die if you just cramped yourself into that definition.
Growing up in a very patriarchal, machista culture in the 50s in the Dominican Republic in a dictatorship, there was a lot of repression. And then when we came to [the United States], all of a sudden, everything had been stripped away that had made meaning for me. So instead of going out to community, I was forced into creating an interior self and a life in there that could feed me and nurture me. That's where I became a reader, and I [started to] want to be a writer. But back when I was getting started, people like me weren't in books. So it was definitely a writing that I was doing for myself out of a kind of necessity. I discovered in doing that, that this was where I was really alive, that this had become my homeland. I couldn't stop doing it. So I was lucky that in the course of my lifetime, the world opened up.
You mentioned earlier how fictionalizing yourself gives you more liberty to explore, that freedom that comes from fictionalization. How is it different in poetry as opposed to fiction?
Writing in English and writing poetry was a kind of protection, because, as they say, nobody reads poetry. When my first book of poems came out in 1984, with trepidation I gave them as gifts to my mami and papi. And the book sat there proudly on their coffee table, and they never read it. They didn't know what was inside.
However, when I published How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, I got into immense trouble with la familia. And I thought, "Well, didn't you read the poems?" When Homecoming came out, I pulled the box into the apartment and I thought, "Oh my god, what have I done? I am going to be in such trouble." I was trying to calculate how much it would cost me to buy them all and not allow them to be circulated. I was so afraid when I heard my voice in these poems. I was terrified.
It's that phenomenon where you open the cage of the songbird and it won't come out. You know, of course, that wonderful title [of Maya Angelou's memoir] that says, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But a sequel to that would be, what happens when the door to the cage is open? Will the bird continue singing? Will the bird be silenced, either by the world out there, or by the world that you've absorbed because you're afraid? Freedom is a scary thing.
What did it take for you to fly out of the cage, and for you to not be afraid of your own voice anymore?
I still am! When a book comes out, I want to pull it. But I feel like I believe in it when I'm writing. I believe in it when I meet another reader and they connect with what I've worked on. That connection gives me bravery.
Something that is really important, too, about freedom — it's never a done deal. It's a continuing process, and you constantly have to be vigilant and keep challenging yourself. I once had a young student who wrote a little poem that I always remember. She said: "Why do I want to reach for the stars, but I never get past the front door?" I said, "Welcome to the human condition." We want this kind of freedom and release, and yet our little lives and our little containers in our little houses of what we're prescribed don't let us achieve that freedom. But it's important to keep reaching and to keep trying. Because the house gets bigger, and the front door wider, and one day, who knows where you'll be able to fly.