Although Julia Alvarez was born in New York City, her family moved back to the Dominican Republic when she was only three months old. The family was relatively wealthy and lived comfortably until 1960, when authorities discovered that Alvarez's father belonged to an underground effort to overthrow Trujillo's regime. Fearing for their safety, the Alvarezes fled back to the United States. Just three months later, the Mirabal sisters—founders of the underground—were murdered.
Alvarez, her parents, and her three sisters made their home in a small apartment in New York City. Despite the racism of some classmates, Alvarez enjoyed learning English and credits the experience with helping her become a writer. As she explains, “Not understanding the language, I had to pay close attention to each word—great training for a writer. I also discovered the welcoming world of the imagination and books.”
After high school, Alvarez earned her bachelor's degree from Middlebury College, and her master's degree in creative writing from Syracuse University. She had been teaching at Middlebury College for three years when her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), was published. The book received widespread acclaim and enabled her to pursue writing as a full-time career. She was 41 years old.
Alvarez lives with her husband, Bill Eichner, in Vermont. In 1998, the couple founded Finca Alta Gracia, a farm and literacy center located east of Pico Duarte, the highest peak in the Dominican Republic. Workers there cultivate environmentally sustainable shade-grown organic coffee, the sale of which supports a school on the farm where children and adults can learn to read.
On October 15, 2009, Josephine Reed of the National Endowment for the Arts interviewed Julia Alvarez. Excerpts from their conversation follow.
Josephine Reed: Your family left the Dominican Republic in 1960, when you were ten. What was that shift like for you? What was school like for you?
Julia Alvarez:I had never been on an escalator or in an elevator, or those doors that open by themselves when you went to the grocery store. We had learned that we were coming to the land of liberty, the home of the brave, the land of the free, and this was going to be great. And what I found was that in the school yard, the kids were not very nice. They were calling us names, telling us to go back to where we came from. So I felt unwelcome. And in a way that was really the hardest moment up to then in my life, because I knew that we couldn't go back, yet I didn't want to stay here. But thank goodness that I had a good sixth grade teacher and that I found the public library, because they put books in my hand and I discovered that there were worlds I could enter where everybody was welcome.
JR: What is In the Time of the Butterflies about for you?
JA: In the Time of the Butterflies is a book that helped me understand my country's story and my parents' story. It was a book that I had to write, because it was a debt that I owed. We were the family that got out and came to the United States, and here I am—an American writer. And what is the responsibility of those who survive? To remember, and to remind. It's through telling the story that we really understand the full complexity of what happened to us. Not just the facts, not just the either/or, but the full, textured complexity of a dictatorship and how we got out of it.
JR: Did your parents know the Mirabal sisters?
JA: Everybody who was in that group knew of them, but my father didn't know them personally. My mother didn't get involved in the underground at all.
JR: I'd like to talk about the intersection of history and fiction in this book. For example, did Minerva really slap Trujillo at a dance?
JA: I talked to many people who experienced the Mirabal sisters from different points of view. Some things other people said were corroborated by Dedé, but others were not. When I asked her about the slap at the dance, she said, “Julia, there was not a slap. At the dance, he was making advances that she was finding invasive and repugnant.” She said there were words and a confrontation, but there was never a slap. However, other people who were at the same party swear they saw and heard the slap. There's even a famous merengue about the slap. In writing the book, I had to decide what truths to privilege, balancing different points of view. Ultimately, what is important in a novel is the truth according to the character telling or living out the story. In many ways fiction more closely approximates how we ourselves live our own historical moment than an objective record of facts does.
JR: Julia, why do you read? Why does one read?
JA: There are very few people who you ever know with the intensity and profundity that you know a character from a novel. I think that the muscles that you're stretching when you're reading are the same muscles you use for compassion and understanding. To be able to become a reader is to become sensitized and aware of things. It develops that capacity to be compassionate, to understand, to see, and to be a fuller human being.
"I found in literature a place where the table was set for all. Everybody was welcome. I found true democracy in reading."
The Arabian Nights (collected works, various authors/translators)
Leaves of Grass (1855) by Walt Whitman
Middlemarch (1871-1872) by George Eliot
The Woman Warrior (1975) by Maxine Hong Kingston
Disgrace (1999) by J.M. Coetzee