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Best known for her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), Julia Alvarez is noted for portrayals of familial relationships, the Hispanic immigrant experience, and for insights into such issues as acculturation, alienation, and prejudice. Alvarez frequently blurs the lines between poetry and fiction and uses circular rather than chronological narrative structures. Writing about How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Jason Zappe has stated that ”Alvarez speaks for many families and brings to light the challenges faced by many immigrants. she shows how the tensions of successes and failures don’t have to tear families apart.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Escape to New York
Born in New York City, Julia Altagracia Alvarez grew up in the Dominican Republic until the age of ten, when in 1960 her father and the rest of the family escaped the country after supporting a rebel faction trying to oust dictator Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo had come into power in 1930 in an election overrun with fraud, but his efforts to secure control of the Dominican government resulted in thirty years of tyrannical rule by him and his carefully chosen surrogates. He was infamous for his use of violence against those who disagreed with his policies and also against his country’s Haitian neighbors. it was this deadly regime, and her family’s escape from it, that inspired much of Alvarez’s most successful works. Alvarez’s father (who often recited poems to Alvarez) established a medical practice in the Bronx while her mother, born Julia Tavares, attended to their four daughters.
Balancing Personal and Professional Life
Alvarez attended Connecticut College for two years, graduated summa cum laude from Middlebury College in 1971, and earned her MA in Creative Writing at Syracuse University in 1975. Alvarez wrote her first book, the full-length poetry collection Homecoming (1984), while teaching at the University of Vermont. Much of the book was composed when she was thirty-three, about eight years after she earned her master’s degree. As she explains in Something to Declare (1998), she married and divorced twice before turning thirty, setting aside her writing each time, believing, as she had been told by the women in her family, that she could (and should) write later. The second divorce had the unexpected effect, however, of free ing her to do as she wished. Having failed traditional expectations, she enrolled in a fiction workshop and accepted a temporary teaching position that afforded her time to write.
The Garcia Girls and Continued Success
In the years between publishing Homecoming and The Other Side: El Otro Lado (1995), Alvarez found an agent who won her a contract with Algonquin Books for her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. The novel received almost instant critical praise. Exhibiting Alvarez’s innovation in narrative form, the book is a series of fifteen short stories interwoven to tell one tale in reverse chronological order. Spanning the years from 1956 to 1989, this work chronicles the lives of the Garcia sisters— Carla, Sandra, Yolonda, and Sophia—from their upbringing in the Dominican Republic to their escape to the United States. Largely autobiographical, the work explores such issues as acculturation, coming of age, and social status.
Alvarez’s next novel, In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), is set in the Dominican Republic and relates in fictional form the true story of the four Mirabal sisters, also known as the Butterflies, or Las Mariposas. As active opponents of Trujillo, three of the four sisters were murdered by the government in 1960. In arguing for the importance of the part they played in Dominican history and consciousness, Alvarez also explores more universal themes of history, tyranny, freedom, and survival. In the Time of the Butterflies was also well-received, and during this period Alvarez earned numerous awards and grants for excellence in multicultural literature.
While writing her novels, Alvarez put an end to her itinerancy by accepting a teaching post at Middlebury College in 1988 and marrying Bill Eichner, an ophthalmologist and author of The New Family Cookbook (2000), with whom she built a house on eleven country acres in Vermont. She earned tenure in 1991 and was promoted to full professor in 1996. While she considers receiving praise after so many years of work wonderful, Alvarez has mentioned in interviews and autobiographical essays how difficult it was for her to field questions that assumed her life exactly mirrored that of her characters. Alvarez, in order to spend more time on her writing, gave up her full-time post in 1998, yet maintained her relationship with Middlebury College as a writer-in-residence. Since producing her second collection of poems, the prolific Alvarez has published additional novels, a collection of autobiographical essays, and children’s books.
Works in Literary Context
A Multicultural Woman’s Perspective
Like her contemporaries Amy Tan and Jamaica Kincaid, Alvarez explores multicultural experiences by focusing on domestic spaces and featuring the voices of women. Thus, for example, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents tackles issues of acculturation through family stories, and In the Time of the Butterflies, while focusing on the Mirabal sisters, provides readers with a historical account of the bloodthirsty rule of the Dominican Republic’s dictator Rafael Trujillo. In both her novels and her poems, domestic spaces and family relationships provide safety from tyranny, misunderstanding, and prejudice.
The Caribbean and Post-Colonialism
In both her poetry and prose, Alvarez tackles issues that pertain specifically to countries (such as the Dominican Republic) that have experienced colonial occupation and ensuing chaotic—and often violent—social conditions. The characters from Alvarez’s works often confront hardship, uncertainty, prejudice, and fear. In addition, as in the case of the Garcia sisters, they must also face the difficulties of immigration, becoming acculturated to new American surroundings, and homesickness. Joining the ranks of Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat and West Indies poet Derek Walcott, Alvarez seeks to expose both the advantages and difficulties of forging a new Caribbean-American identity in the post-colonial period.
The Influence of Poets and Poetry
Though Alvarez is perhaps best known for her novels, critics have noted that her work is heavily influenced by nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets. Scholar Kathrine Varnes, for example, has noted similarities in tone and style between Alvarez’s poems and those of Elizabeth Bishop and W. H. Auden. Even while writing prose, Alvarez shows her love of poetry, often as an important part of a character’s life, whether in Yoyo’s discovery of Walt Whitman in How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, or in Minerva’s love of poetry in In the Time of the Butterflies, or in the narrative of In the Name of Salome (2000), in which the main character Camila mourns the loss of her mother, Salome Urena, a poet whom Alvarez describes as the Emily Dickinson of the Dominican Republic.
Works in Critical Context
The critical reaction to Alvarez’s works has been generally positive, with most critics praising her sympathetic and personal portraits of families and the immigrant experience. While Alvarez is praised for her poetry in literary circles, it was the 1991 publication of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents that secured her place as one of the most important of contemporary Caribbean-American writers. Alvarez received continued popular acclaim for her second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies.
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
The novel became an international bestseller and won her a PEN Oakland Award and a notable book designation with the American Library Association and The New York Times. Most praise from commentators has been aimed at her ability to effectively portray the immigrant experience. As Donna Rifkind wrote of the author in the New York Times Book Review, ”She has, to her great credit, beautifully captured the threshold experience of the new immigrant, where the past is not yet a memory and the future remains an anxious dream.” However, Rifkind was less enamored with other elements: ”The Garcia girls may have indeed lost their accents, but in her first work of fiction Julia Alvarez has not yet quite found a voice.” Similarly, Ilan Stavans has stated of the work: Alvarez has an acute eye for the secret complexities that permeate family life. Although once in a while she sets into melodrama, her descriptions are full of pathos.” Jason Zappe, writing for The Americas Review, noted that Alvarez ”displays a talent for portraying the immigrant experience with sensitivity and light-heartedness.”
In the Time of the Butterflies
In her second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, Alvarez recalls a grim incident in Dominican history: the untimely deaths in 1960 of three sisters—the Mirabals—who had denounced Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship. Alvarez chooses to portray these events from a subjective fictional perspective rather than as historical biography. According to Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, writing in the New York Times Book Review, by dealing with real historical figures in this novel, Ms. Alvarez has been much more ambitious than she was in her first, as if she needed to have her American self learn what it was really like in her native land.” Nation contributor Ilan Stavans stated that, although Alvarez’s subject matter is not unique, her pen lends it an authenticity and sense of urgency seldom found elsewhere.” Stavans went on to state that In the Time of the Butterflies is full of pathos and passion, with beautifully crafted anecdotes inters itched to create a patchwork quilt of meaning and ideology.”
- Narins, Brigham, Deborah A. Stanley and George H. Blair, eds. ”Julia Alvarez (1950-)” in Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 93. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996, pp. 1-20.
- Sirias, Silvio. Julia Alvarez: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. Periodicals
- Stavans, Ilan. Review of In the Time of the Butterflies. Nation. November 7, 1994, pp. 552-556.
- Tabor, Maria Garcia. ”The Truth According to Your Characters: Interview with Julia Alvarez.” Prairie Schooner 74, Summer 2000, pp. 151-56.
- Varnes, Kathrine. ”’Practicing for the Real Me’: Form and Authenticity in the Poetry of Julia Alvarez.” Antipodas 10, 1998.
- Vela, Richard. ”Daughter of Invention: The Poetry of Julia Alvarez.” Postscript: Publication of the Philological Association of the Carolinas 16, 1999, pp. 33-42.
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