Interview with Julia Alvarez

Q: Your family moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic when you were 10 to escape the Trujillo regime. You’ve said that moving to the United States is what made you a writer. Why?

A: The Dominican society and times I was raised in did not encourage young girls to have “careers.” Remember this was the ’50s in a repressive dictatorship, where telling stories was a dangerous activity. Mine was an oral culture, full of storytellers, but reading and writing were not encouraged. (No public libraries, no free press!) Coming to the United States suddenly thrust me into a world where I was an alien, where I spoke the language with an accent. This abrupt and painful “translation” led me to the company of books, the homeland of the imagination where all were welcomed. In trying to master my new language of English, I had to pay attention to words, their little reputations and atmospheres, their exact weights and balances, their smells and sounds and textures. This, of course, proved to be excellent training for a beginning writer! And so it was that what I had once considered a tragedy, losing all I knew and loved, provided the opportunities for me to find my calling as a writer.

Q: Why did you choose to write a novel about the Mirabal sisters instead of nonfiction?

A: Originally, I had planned to write a nonfiction book, but in conducting interviews, there were so many versions of “the truth,” and so many gaps in the lives of the sisters, that I began to have to make imaginative leaps in order to put the whole truth together. One of the things that happens in a dictatorship is that there is only one “official story” recorded, everything else is protectively oral and vanishes when the source is murdered and disappeared. Some of those sources had survived, and of course, I interviewed them, including the one remaining sister (of the four Mirabal sisters), Dedé Mirabal. I soon learned that even among these sources there were varying versions of what “really” happened. History, I was learning, is the story we tell ourselves about what really happened. My task as a writer/novelist was to try to get as many versions of that reality and then imaginatively construct the story. The fact that there were so many versions of what really happened should not surprise us: After all, we experience history as individuals through our particular characters, personalities, points of view. This reality of how we live history ideally suits the form of a novel, which focuses on “the truth according to character.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a new novel coming out in October, finding miracles. It tells the story of a young girl, Milly, who is adopted by her Peace Corps parents from a Latin American country. Milly has kept her adoption secret from most of her friends as she doesn’t want to be any different from her brother and sister, both biological children of her adoptive parents. But then, one day in her 16-year-old life, a refugee from the genocide going on in her native country appears in her class and this brings to the surface what Milly has always kept hidden. The story recounts Milly’s search for and acceptance of her very own story. The title comes from the fact that her orphanage name was Milagros (which translates, miracles). I’m really excited about this novel because more and more adoptees from Third World countries are coming of age in Anglo and American families, and their understanding of who they are has to involve a piece of where they came from. But how to incorporate that piece, how to make meaning of a far-off and alien past in order to shape a present and hopeful and compassionate future, well, that’s what this story is all about.

I guess finding miracles is all “done” so it’s not the novel I’m actually working on now! I have already started something new, which is still in its beginning stages so it’s hard to talk about. It involves a historical event and a fictional story, both. I just never do make it easy on myself, do I?

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