Writer Julia Alvarez is the author of a book of essays; five collections of poetry; five books for children; and five books of fiction, including How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies, and her latest novel, Saving the World.
She received her Bachelor of Arts degree summa cum laude from Middlebury College and also attended Syracuse University, from which she received her M.F.A. She did not attend Harvard University (though she was accepted). Alvarez has held various positions—she served as Poet-in-the-Schools in Kentucky, Delaware and North Carolina and was a professor of creative writing and English at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, the University of Vermont and the University of Illinois. Until her recent retirement (though she is still affiliated) Julia Alvarez was a professor of English at Middlebury College, having taught there since 1988.
Saving the World is a novel within a novel. Latina writer Alma Huebner is sidetracked by the little known (but true) story of Francisco Xavier Balmis, who in 1803 undertook to vaccinate the populations of Spain’s American colonies against smallpox. Needing living “carriers” of the vaccine, Balmis approaches Isabel Sendales y Gómez, the rectoress of La Casa de Expositós, who selects twenty-two orphan boys to be the carriers and joins them on the voyage. Isabel’s noble example moves Alma to write a much different story than she had intended. It is Alma’s efforts to write that novel that forms the superstructure of Saving the World.
Julia and I (for the second time) met at a coffee shop in Andover. Our conversation, as is my wont and habit, ranges far and wide and occasionally deep. Whatever the topic, Senora Alvarez’s wit, intelligence and compassion shine through. Which, finally, is the point of all this talk.
I think you will agree.
Robert Birnbaum: What ever happened to Las Girlfriends [Ana Castillo, Denise Chavez, Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez]?
Julia Alvarez: Well, there was some truth to the term. We all began writing at the same time and reading each other’s work. I was reading Sandra. Sandra was reading me. We were reading Ana Castillo, Denise Chavez. Back then literature by multicultural, ethnic writers was relegated to sociology. But we were reading each other, writing with the others in mind. So we felt like, “Here we were, a little coven.” A coven airbrushed and physically brought together—
RB: —by Vanity Fair.
JA: Yeah. I think they approached Susan Bergholz, our agent—
RB: I had forgotten she represented all four of you.
JA: Susan was out there from early on, fighting the battle—out there representing us when no one was paying any attention to our work. So I think Vanity Fair approached her and she said, “How ’bout this? Putting these women together in one of your glossy pages?” It felt a little bit like we were performing ourselves. But I think a lot of writing and promoting often feels that way.
RB: If I recall correctly I had talked with each of you at that time. And each of you sort of scoffed at—
JA: We were all a little embarrassed by it. Aware we were made into a product. There is always that sense of being marketed when they do something like that. But hey, we are still in touch with each other, still reading each other, still girlfriends.
RB: Well, how could you not be?
JA: Oh yeah and happy for each other’s successes. As for the Vanity Fair idea, it was sort of like when your parents push you together and say, “You’re friends. We (the parents) are best friends, so…” It felt a little bit of that—
RB: My recollection was that the piece in Vanity Fair asserted that you had created a new genre of fiction.
JA: Well, I don’t know that we created it. Maxine Hong Kingston had published Woman Warrior years before. Call it Sleep, remember that wonderful novel?
RB: By Henry Roth?
JA: The American novel has always had a touch of that, the outsider, the coming of age [narrative] and so on.
RB: In your new novel, the character Alma, a Latina novelist, seems to be very well regarded, and is doing well by book industry standards. She expresses great resentment and bitterness about it. That couldn’t be you—you seem to be flourishing. So are you—
JA: —she doesn’t think she has been ill served by it. What she regrets is that the book biz has gotten her far away from her reasons for writing—that the biz can become very much this performance and this self-promotion and this kind of glossiness, and a certain amount of inauthenticity tends to creep in. I don’t know if that happens more when you are from an ethnic community or not. When the year 2000 was approaching and everybody wanted a Latino pundit on their radio program or TV, [I was asked] to predict what I saw for Latinos in the new millennium. [laughs] You find yourself with your Latina training, wanting to be polite and kind and to oblige and you feel like you need to be nice because here you are being asked a question and it’s an honor and a privilege and you are so lucky that anybody would even care, etc. But you find that you are saying things that sound bogus. Because statements, reactions to questions—they just don’t have the complexity, the texture, the largeness of story. Here you’ve worked for three, four years on a novel, that you hope approaches that complexity and mystery, and then you’re asked to summarize what it’s all about for a sound bite. You have your picture taken. People are responding to you, not to the work. It’s the creation of personality and celebritydom around writers—you know the book tour—
RB: Do you have to participate?
JA: You know, it’s funny. There are several answers to that. First of all, I already gave you one—good training as a Latina. You pitch in and you do the work and you do what is asked of you. You are polite and you don’t say no. There’s that. I am still with Algonquin, my little publisher, who is one of the little independent publishers still trying to make it. Most people in the company read the list. You talk to the person in the mailroom—they have read you and they are all pitching in. There is Michael Taeckens [Algonquin publicity director] who is lovely—
RB: —and Shannon [Ravenel]
JA: Shannon and all these people are pushing for your book, working their butts off and you’d feel like some diva if you don’t pitch in to help. So I think you have to do a certain amount to survive in the book culture. Sure, you’d like to be like Coetzee and say—
RB: Or Roth.
JA: Or Roth. Although I heard him [Roth] on Fresh Air with Terri Gross.
RB: He just did an interview with a Danish journalist that was published in the Observer.
JA: Nobody says no to everybody. I am sure even Coetzee—
RB: Reading the interview I wondered why he even bothered. He was gruff and dismissive.
JA: It’s not that there is anything wrong with a certain amount of book biz, because you know what? I read a book I love and I go to the Web and look for interviews with that author. I want to read Coetzee’s Nobel Prize speech. I’m curious about what he thinks about this or that aspect of craft. So there’s nothing wrong with the process. It’s just that sometimes, as a writer, it takes you away from this (picks up a copy of Saving the World), which is what you know. I mean it’s what I really know. What do I know about bilingual education? I’m not busting my butt in the schools of Lawrence [MA] with all the teachers there. Why should I be the one to comment on what they do day in day out? The things I really know I know through story. So sure, I feel unsettled when I’m being asked to comment on these other things. And some of us are good or gracious about doing what we are asked to do. But the most important thing is to stay focused on your work because I have seen young writers made into stars and I don’t think it’s good for them. But you go out there and promote your book and talk about the things you know. Heck, I did a website! I didn’t want to do a website at all.
JA: I thought, “I don’t need a website.” But Susan Bergholz kept getting called left and right. She said, “If you have a website, I could say, ‘Go read it on her website.’ I wouldn’t have to be inventing the wheel each time.” But now you know what’s happening? Everybody thinks my website is a blog. So they are writing me wanting me to respond. That’s the new thing—to have a blog. So, yeah, we have to be careful not to let ourselves get too far away from the writing. As for Alma, I wasn’t necessarily speaking about myself but about the ways a writer can be pigeonholed and become a kind of product: the ethnic writer, the girlfriends. Alma acknowledges that it has worked in her favor. It’s part of what gets her launched. So how can she be scoffing at it? Yet it puts her in places which—
RB: So it becomes a burden? The very business that creates success becomes a double-edged sword.
JA: It’s true of anything, right? My sister has a little restaurant, and I used to complain to her about grading papers. I love the classroom, but grading all those stacks! She pointed out that every job has parts you don’t like, “I don’t like to chop vegetables.” I said, “Why don’t you get a sous chef?” She said, “I can’t afford it.” The thing is to try as much as possible to stay connected to the things you feel are serious and important so that you don’t sell yourself down the river. I suppose you can decide to be a purist like Bartleby and refuse to do anything. But most of us do a certain amount of it. And when it starts to feel inauthentic or not right, you stop. It’s a constant, everyday balance of knowing how much. It’s great to live in Vermont, to live out of the way. But right now, I have to brace myself and put in the work as I haven’t come out with an adult novel in six years, so I have to do a certain amount of the book promotion. And then come summer, back to my real work. As for Alma, I think she got lost for a while in the inauthenticity of it and so she is pulling back. But really what’s going on for Alma is a Dantian dark night of the soul. She is questioning everything about her life, including what it means to be a storyteller in a world where things are falling apart.
RB: Have things in the book world gotten more inauthentic?
JA: For me?
RB: In the business of books, in publishing. Are things more mechanical and formulaic and marketing-oriented? Book touring appears to be a big thing.
JA: Oh my god!
RB: Ten years ago it was getting big, but there was an ebb and flow, but now it’s a relentless stream of authors crisscrossing the country and the world.
JA: It’s hard when you ask me about trends. I don’t feel like I can make such a general statement. But I know I still read for the reasons I was reading back then. I think readers still read for the reasons that we all read. But the other stuff, I think there has been an appetite created, like there is now about coffee [we’re sitting in Starbucks in Andover]. Before, there was your basic Chock Full O Nuts and Maxwell House brands. The market develops an appetite for seeing the authors, hearing them on radio and television. And in some ways that’s a good thing. It gets the word out. That’s why we authors do it. But in some ways often it becomes the thing that drives—
RB: It becomes the wrong thing, the focus of efforts—
JA: Some people come to my readings and they have never read any of my books. Maybe they’ve seen an article or they’ve heard that I am Dominican or a Latina. But the people who are readers are still reading—there is something we need that we can only find there, in stories, in poems.
RB: Everyone will say that there is a constant but small group of people who are the readers. The business needs to expand that core of readers, and the expanded constituency seems to have been badly trained.
JA: I myself will go to a reading by writers I like the first time, to hear their voice. I am curious. But usually the next time it’s like a job. If it’s a friend, it’s because it’s a friend. It used to be there were no author photos in the backs of books, no blurbs, no nothing. You’d finish a book you loved and you’d stroke the cover and rush to read the next book by that author.
RB: Now you have celebrity photographers and book-cover designers and coaches and all sorts of stuff. Apropos of nothing, when you go to a place and you don’t know anyone and get into a conversation and you are asked to describe yourself, do you say, “I am Dominican and a writer?”
JA: It depends on who it is I am talking to.
RB: A stranger.
JA: Depends on the stranger. I was just in Lawrence and every second person was Dominican. We talked Spanish and Spanglish with the kids. Back and forth. No need to describe myself. When I tell people about my Dominican background, it’s a way of explaining my roots, where I come from.
RB: Would you say, “I’m a Dominican from Vermont”?
JA: I don’t ever talk of myself that way. We would start talking and I would say, “I’m originally from the Dominican Republic—”
RB: If I just met you, you wouldn’t say Vermont? You would say the Dominican Republic?
JA: I would say I live in Vermont but I’m originally from the Dominican Republic. So, I let people know straight off that I once came from somewhere else. I guess when we arrived in New York, immigrants, when someone asked us where we were from, it often felt like they were telling us we didn’t belong.
RB: A question as an accusation—
JA: To just say “I’m from New York” would be to deny something. So I always learned to say—because I didn’t want to be ashamed of it—that I was originally from the Dominican Republic. I would always add that. But the question can still be an accusation—I can still hear in a conversation where someone is putting me in an ethnic cubby hole and that’s where I get my elbows up because I feel like once they do that they are closing me down in a little box that won’t allow for all the complexity of who we all are.
RB: But everyone does that to everyone.
JA: I suppose we are all so mobile and our American culture is so complex that we are all trying to get a handle on each other. You are on email with someone and you don’t know where they are. Accents still tell us a little bit, but email doesn’t tell us anything. And so we are trying to give each other a local habitation and a name.
RB: Anyway, do see yourself as a writer or a teacher? What do you say?
JA: I guess now I am saying more I am a writer. I used to be a teacher who wrote on the side. And now I gave up tenure—
RB: So now you are writer who teaches on the side?
JA: Right and it’s a very nice connection with Middlebury College. They allow me to come in and teach periodically. I can use the library. Living in Vermont, you can feel very isolated. Being at the college gives me a structure to belong to—a community. Though the longer I live there, the more my community becomes the community itself, beyond the college.
RB: Middlebury has a lot of writers, yes? Jay Parini—
JA: Yes, Robert Cohen, who was at Harvard for many years. David Bain, who writes nonfiction. Ron Powers, who did the recent Twain book.
RB: And there’s Breadloaf.
JA: There’s actually a very large community of writers in Vermont. A few years back, some magazine published a map of writers living in the state with who’s where, and it was amazing how heavily populated the state is with writers. But Vermont is still basically a rural community. In fact, I can go days without seeing people. Now, my connection to the college is that I teach occasionally; I’m also an adviser to the Latino student association, ALIANZA. They call me their madrina [godmother]. I love being there for them. Many of them are Dominicans from Lawrence and New York on full scholarships. It just gives me some sense of connection to some other part of myself—so I would say mostly I am a writer who teaches on the side.
RB: So this is the first novel in five or six years—you have published how many novels?
JA: Adult novels, four.
RB: And a book of essays? And the book on coffee—
JA: A Cafecito Story, I call that one a green fable. And some children’s books. Poetry.
RB: I don’t know your poetry.
JA: I began as a poet. That’s my first love.
RB: Why did you give it up? Or have you given it up?
JA: I just came out with book of poems, The Woman I Kept to Myself, in 2004.
RB: I don’t know why, I lost interest in keeping up with poetry.
JA: Yeah, part of it is that it is not out there in the market.
RB: I was glad to see Camille Paglia‘s book—it started me thinking again about poems.
JA: When I go to Breadloaf, I like to go to the poetry lectures. I am much more interested in what the poets have to say. They are the ones at the cutting edge where language meets the ineffable, the silence. Seamus Heaney gave a reading a few years back at Middlebury and he said poetry is about [she opens her mouth as if to say something]. He just stood there, his mouth hanging open, as if dumbfounded, like he couldn’t find the words.
JA: His point, I think, was that poetry tries to put into words what can’t be put into words! That is what poets do. I think of them as the hot lava pushing out. They are the scouts, traveling out into the unknown where language has not gone before. They are doing interesting things with language, thinking about ways of using syntax. They talk about line breaks, about the breath as opposed to the visual cutting off of language. Storytellers, we’re the settlers, we come in later, we need schools and a post office and homes and day care centers—but I am more interested in poets. I learn more from them. I don’t know why.
RB: It’s interesting to me that your partner is a farmer.
JA: He’s a physician. But his first love is farming.
RB: I got the impression that he devoted himself to the eleven acres you have.
JA: No, no no. He’s a physician. But he grew up on a Nebraska farm.
RB: That’s what I get for taking this dust jacket bio seriously. [both laugh]
JA: I know. I once told a journalist the story about how I never went to Harvard for a doctorate. I explained that my papi was always saying, “You have to have the last degree. We are immigrants. You have to have the last degree.” So after I got the MA in creative writing he said, “You have to get that Ph.D.” And he really was pushing for it. So I went ahead and applied to Harvard, thinking I’d never get in and that’d be the end of it. But I got in. [laughs]
RB: You wouldn’t have liked it.
JA: Not only did get in, I got a fellowship. And so I didn’t turn it down at first. Instead, I went and checked it out. I spent a day attending classes and I thought, “I will die. I will die here.” So I had to tell my father—I was Papi’s daughter. He was so proud, he was bragging about it to everybody. He wanted to frame the acceptance letter.
RB: What could be better than turning it down? Everyone accepts.
JA: That’s what I said. I told him, “Papi, I’m going to frame this. On one side you’ll have the acceptance letter and on the other side you’ll have my letter turning them down. And you can say: not only did I have a daughter who was accepted at Harvard but she refused to go.” [both laugh] But Papi wanted me so much to go. Anyhow I told the journalist this story, and next thing I know, the article comes out saying I have a Ph.D. from Harvard. People I know were coming at me saying where do you get off saying you have a Ph.D. from Harvard?
RB: All right, so Bill is a doctor and grew up in Nebraska.
JA: On a farm. His first love is farming. That’s why we got involved in this project in the D.R. with small farmers, who are struggling to stay on their little parcelas and not sell out to the big plantaciones, the big agribusiness model of farming that does away with the little farmers, the same thing that happened to farms in Nebraska when he was growing up and what is now happening there.
RB: What isn’t happening, I take it, is what happened in Puerto Rico, where people don’t even want to work on the land?
JA: Sorry, that’s happening in the D.R., too. That’s why there is a big Haitian immigration. Illegal immigration like the Mexicans that do all the work in the fields in California. Haitians are everywhere. Haitians are doing a lot of the construction work and sugar-cane cutting. It’s hard work. The Dominicans won’t touch it. So yeah, it’s happening in the D.R. too. Because that type of work doesn’t pay. When the market went down in coffee a few years ago, some of those farmers were getting 33 cents a pound for coffee. Who can survive on that? Fair trade is at $1.25. Who can survive on 33 cents? And so the rural communities empty out and folks end up going to work at the free zones or the resorts—sexual tourism is also a big problem, but hey, it pays a lot better than coffee. And of course, many end up illegally in the USA.
RB: What about tobacco?
JA: Same thing. A little more lucrative. No, it’s happening to farming everywhere—the technification of agriculture. Bill saw that happening to the little farms where he grew up. His parents were sharecroppers. They never owned their own farm. Only later when he became a physician—he got off the farm and got educated—he bought his folks a little farm in Vermont. So their last years were spent on land they owned and they farmed. Which was really special.
RB: That reminds me of the book The Long Emergency, which is about the end of the oil era and argues that we need to return to local agriculture and be closer to our food sources, we won’t have the fuels to run these agricultural concerns.
RB: I bring up the farm and such because that’s a real dose of reality. We are talking about writers and poets who seem in a way to be increasingly marginalized from mainstream perceptions, as if they have nothing to do with real life. Is your life real to you?
JA: What do you mean?
RB: Do you feel like you may be cloistered in this artistic bubble—
JA: Not at all. I guess because I live in a rural community where my neighbors aren’t necessarily intellectuals. My next-door neighbor is a sheep farmer. Biggest compliment he ever paid me was when he said he’d seen my book in the library. My husband is an ophthalmologist and has a lot of the old timers for patients. Old French Canadian farmers who are barely surviving out there. He comes home every day with stories. My world isn’t really even the academic world, which can also be its own kind of bubble. When we go to the D.R., we are in a totally rural community, up in the mountains, off the grid, no electricity, no phones. Most of my neighbors up there don’t even know how to read or write. What does it mean that I’ve written a book? I like that. I like to be in those worlds where I’m not in a bubble. But that said, I think a lot of life seems very unreal to me right now. Partly, it’s because now with all this technology we are exposed to so many other worlds, especially when you are traveling between them and one world is still inside you and you are moving to another world or you are hit by something like the news of Katrina or Iraq or 9-11, or some other devastating reality and you are thinking, how do I make sense of this? A lot of it is that we are getting so much information all the time and trying to integrate it and make meaning of it—that it just ends up seeming unreal. Which is the reason that maybe—as you were saying—people go to nonfiction—I mean why read fiction? I’m reading 1491, an excellent book by Charles Mann. Also, Collapse by Jared Diamond, excellent. Both nonfiction. I am getting information from both these books, that’s good, but I also need to make sense of it. How do I integrate what I’ve learned into my own life? How do I make meaning of the experience of living in this world? That’s what I think fiction can help us do. It provides a way to emotionally integrate and make sense of this mysterious world through story and character. That’s why I appreciate fiction that lets more in. That’s why I don’t like fantasy fiction or specialized fiction. I don’t want gated communities when I read novels. Why I love Coetzee’s work. The worlds in his novels are almost as big and baffling as the one I live in. I love what Czeslaw Milosz said when he was asked if he was a political writer. He said he was not political in the usual way the term is applied, politics as in an ideology, a polemical stance. But he said that poetry that sinks below a certain level of awareness, that that is not good poetry, it is no longer useful to us. This awareness doesn’t have to come out in obvious ways, and in fact the writing gets flat and useless if it comes out in obvious ways. But good writing has a level of awareness of its own time. So if you are living in Nazi Germany, say, and you are writing delightful, exquisitely beautiful little clueless poems and stories, well, how can those be of value to your readers trying to integrate the reality around them? Even García Márquez, when he writes about a wild, magical world, there is a level of awareness in his work of the reality out there. So I agree with Milosz’s observation that good poems, good stories must have a certain level of awareness to be of value to the people we are writing for in our own time and down the line to others in the future. So you have Milton writing about Paradise Lost but he is totally aware of 17th century British politics—it’s there. We go to fiction that has that level of awareness in part to help us integrate things.
RB: “We” meaning serious readers? Everyone?
JA: I think William Carlos Williams was right, “We cannot get the news from poems but men die daily for lack of what is found there.” That failure of awareness, of emotional connectedness, is all around us, just look at our White House. At officials and pundits reacting to Katrina. “We didn’t know that this could happen here. We thought this only happened in the third world.” The third world indeed. Since when were there levels of other people who can suffer more? The head of FEMA said, “We are seeing people we didn’t know existed.” Edwidge Danticat wrote a wonderful essay about this kind of response. Did you read her essay?
RB: I love her work but no, I didn’t see it.
JA: I think it was in The Progressive. I felt the same outrage she expressed so very eloquently in her essay. I felt relieved she had written her essay, as I don’t think I could have been as wise and precise. My anger would have gotten in the way. Anyhow, I ended up writing Edwidge, thanking her—
RB: —the last thing I read by her was when her uncle was detained in Florida entering the country and he died in custody of the INS.
JA: That was a terrible story. Now there is someone—she has done the going on tour, she has been on Oprah—who has stayed true—stayed focused. And that’s what I am talking about, there is no reason to be Alma, to become jaded unless you have somehow sold out to that. But at least Alma starts to realize that.
RB: Why did Alma take on a pseudonym?
JA: Because of being caught between worlds. There is a prohibition on taking stories outside the community. It’s very tribal. An understanding that stories are powerful. That to know someone’s story is a privilege and a power. And so our communities, which often already feel marginal and powerless, respond negatively to this kind of exposé—what feels like an exposé to them. I read how this happened to Maxine Hong Kingston with the Chinese American community after Woman Warrior. And I guess a similar thing happened to Edwidge with Breath Eyes and Memories with the Haitian community. Alma herself is caught in a compromising place in terms of being a writer, trying to be true to what she sees and not betray her community, her family, she is trying to juggle worlds, trying to negotiate between them.
RB: In Saving the World, the story about an early 19th century voyage—
JA: —a true story—
RB: —right, the trip to inoculate the world against small pox—
JA: It was the first global attempt to eradicate a deadly disease. 1803-2003. And we don’t even know about it in this country.
RB: How did that happen?
JA: I don’t know. I found out about it as I was doing research for In The Name of Salomé and it was a little footnote that said that the smallpox expedition that was going around the world with the recently discovered smallpox vaccine did not stop in the Dominican Republic because the island was at war: the eastern side was occupied by the French who were fighting the Haitians in the western side. Smallpox broke out among the troops and the footnote lamented that the island could not avail itself of the vaccine. The note mentioned that the carriers of the vaccine were 22 little boys who’d been taken from an orphanage in Spain and sequentially vaccinated. And I said, “Oh my!” We have a friend who is a physician but his hobby is medical history. So I called him up and said, “Peter, what about this smallpox expedition?” He said, “I never heard of it.”
JA: And I started to read more and more about it.
RB: Is it possible that it was ignored because it was written about in Spanish?
JA: Actually one of the best articles about the expedition was written in English by a fellow named Michael Smith, a professor of history at Oklahoma State University. Things started coming together for me—I googled the expedition and it turned out that the bicentennial was coming up, 1803-2003, and a conference was being organized in Madrid. One of the organizers was this American woman—a science editor—who lives there. So, I got in touch with Catherine Mark and she connected me with all the material that was out there. Of course, I also had to go to Spain and walk the streets the orphan boys had walked and visit the dock the expedition set out from. I began to learn more and more curious little details. One of the most amazing details, for me, was finding out that the rectoress of the orphanage not only released the 22 boys but she got herself invited along on the expedition. I mean a novelist loves this—when you come across this bit of information that’s also a lacuna, because all that is known for certain about her is her first name, Isabel. We know she went along with the original 22 boys and then continued with the group expedition as far as it went to Manila in the Philippines. Balmis, the expedition leader, went on by himself to China and then back home to Spain, picking up new boys at each stop to be his carriers. It is an amazing story. Also such a metaphor for how we move forward as a civilization but often it’s off the backs of the little people. Sure, the results were great. Hundreds of thousands of people were saved by this vaccine. On the other hand, there were the little orphan boys. In our own time, we have the AIDS situation, comparable in some ways to the smallpox epidemics in Isabel’s time. I started researching our own contemporary epidemic, trying to educate myself on what was happening with AIDS in the Dominican Republic and so many of these little third world countries. What was that movie—The Constant Gardener?
RB: Yeah, the LeCarre story with Ralph Fiennes?
JA: He’s great and the actress [Rachel Weiz] was also very good. That movie addresses the very issues I am talking about. The issue of pharmaceutical testing in Third World countries and people being used as guinea pigs. AIDS clinics that are testing sweat shops. Don’t get me wrong. There are conscionable clinics, real Isabels out there. One of those I met in the D.R., Dr. Ellen Koenig, who has set up a first-rate treatment clinic in the country. She has managed to get first-world treatment for her patients, and when there is a study of a new medication, there has to be the same commitment to ethical procedures as would be required in this country. In other words, her clinic is committed to long-term treatment of her patients, not just using patients for the length of a study, when their usefulness might be outlived.
RB: So they are not guinea pigs?
JA: No. But atrocities are out there. We see them all around us, especially in our so-called “Third World countries.” But it happens here in the USA, too. This, in part, was what Edwidge’s essay about Katrina addressed. But no one, no one, is a person that it’s okay that this happens to. But what do we do when we encounter those people who are not getting a fair shake? But how do you live a conscionable life in the midst of this knowledge?
RB: An authentic life?
JA: An authentic life, a life where you feel like your moral compass is somewhere in the range of a true north. Fiction—I go to fiction to find out. What I am saying is, how do you do it?
RB: Doesn’t it start with wanting to do it? It seems like many people don’t frame life in terms of moral imperatives and concerns.
JA: I don’t know, maybe I’m romantic about thinking that readers who are thinkers, that—
RB: That’s probably not a lot of people.
JA: I realize we went off on a tangent—
JA: I think we started with William Carlos Williams, what he said about how we get things from poetry that we need in order to be spiritually alive, aware. The importance of integrating things emotionally and intellectually, spiritually—that’s what happens when you make the work large enough to hold what you know, so it does not sink below a certain level of awareness. But hey, we all get tired—I want to go watch, not a football game, but my version of a football game—we need relief from all that we know, because we don’t want to end up as Cassandras, going mad from taking it all in, these inequities, these juxtapositions. And yet, we also don’t want to end up in a bubble, in a gated community in our heads, Fortress America, dividing the world into us’s and thems, like the President does.
RB: It seems like everyone does it.
JA: I suppose. It’s like the passage in the novel where Alma remembers her husband telling her about some Far Eastern monks who could not harm any living thing. What would happen if they found out about microscopic life? They wouldn’t be able to sit anywhere, wouldn’t be able to breathe [laughs]. So we have to live with a certain amount of forgiveness, cutting ourselves some slack, of selecting and leaving some things out. But we periodically have to come up for air and try to put more of what is out there into the picture. People say, “What is being political? And what is to be a spiritual person?” That, to me, is being a spiritual person—it’s that integration and that constant challenge to take as much in as you can bear, to struggle to put it together, and that means also on the action level to a certain extent—our actions integrating as much as possible. And it’s hard work and we all get tired. And that’s okay too. It’s okay to take some time out.
RB: I am troubled by this question of why some people care about inequities, injustices, things that seem self-evidently troublesome in the world. So many people seem not to care. Where does that come from?
JA: I think it’s shutting down. It’s not seeing.
RB: Maybe they were never engaged. Shutting down means there is some base-level awareness.
JA: I wonder about myself. I wrote a poem called “Homecoming.” It was the title poem of the first book of poems I wrote and one of the lines is, “One does not see the maids when they pass by with trays of deviled eggs arranged in daisy wheels.” There is a way in which, when you are embedded in a culture, you don’t see the things around you. It’s often a blind spot for the whole culture. So, I don’t think I have more integrity or spirituality than anybody else in my family. It’s just that my life took a different turn. We came to this country and here I became one of the others. So maybe that made me develop a certain sensitivity. I became one of the others. And I think that also happens when you read. You become aware of the other. So, I’m not more noble or moral—I just got lucky by being . . . I was catapulted from a certain complacency. That’s a danger, too: to take on marginality as a mantle of noble sentiments. One of the things I found out from working on this coffee and literacy project in the D.R. is about the pitfalls of being a do-gooder, the danger of moral arrogance, a kind of visionary imperialism—sometimes kids come down to help and they really believe that in three weeks or even a semester or a year they are going to change the world—
RB: They are doing it for their college education.
JA: I don’t know why. In every field we have to try to keep a clean windshield, you know?
JA: There is shit everywhere. The language itself gets muddled and used dishonestly. For me the way to clean the windshield is through writing, which goes hand in hand with reading. Jay Parini said something really interesting when we were on a panel together. He said, “When my writing isn’t going well, my reading isn’t going well.” That is certainly true for me. I need to be reading things I am excited about, things that are maintaining a certain level of awareness in me, language that is setting a high standard for the clarity and luminosity words are capable of; otherwise, my own writing is not going well. My own living isn’t going well. They’re all part of the same thing—reading and writing and living. Reading is one of the ways I stay conscious. You know how in a choir, the choir leader will play a note that the singers are going to begin with? Good writing, excellent writing plays that note for me so I can pitch my own voice at that level, or try to. The danger is to fall back on all the things that worked last time. The writing becomes inauthentic. Sometimes that’s what people want or think they want. I can’t tell you how many times on the book tour with In the Name of Salomé or after one of the poetry books I’d get a question from the audience, “When are you going to write another book like In the Time of Butterflies?” [laughs] “When are you going to write the sequel to García Girls?” The point is that if I am really doing my job, really serving my readers, I have to keep pushing myself as a writer.
RB: Did you read Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat? Sort of the same subject as Butterflies?
JA: Yeah but from a different point of view. I actually thought his best was his depiction of Balaguer [perennial presidential candidate in the D.R.].
RB: He is he still alive? [laughs] The last time I took note of D.R. politics, he was running for office again and he was in his 90s.
JA: [laughs] Yeah, I know. There was some wonderful joke and I can never remember it about, “Yeah, is he still alive?” [laughs] Anyhow, his [Vargas Llosa] depiction of the plotters [group plotting to overthrow Trujillo] was heavily influenced by Bernard Diederich’s The Death of the Goat. Even Vargas Llosa’s title for his novel [The Feast of the Goat] is an echo of the Diederich title. A way for Vargas Llosa to acknowledge his debt to Diederich. All of Vargas Llosa’s chapters about the plotters follow the way Dietrich put them together. You follow one plotter, then another plotter and then another plotter. But then, I don’t think there’s a problem with this. Stories don’t belong to anyone. Only in America–and England, I guess—do we suffer the anxiety of influence and sue each other for traces of one story in another. Hello?! This is the way stories work.
RB: And have you read the new Garcia Marquez?
RB: It’s a bittersweet little book. There has been a muted and mixed reception that seems to me to be from a refusal to relate to a 90-year-old character.
JA: On the other hand, Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead—people really responded to that. I thought that was a wonderful book.
RB: And there was another book, Old Man Waiting by Peter Pouncy, that had an elderly man as the protagonist. These are all books that make readers think about that fearsome time called old age.
JA: Yeah and then [Joan] Didion wins an award with that incredible book. That’s really a wonderful book. Part of the reason I was reading it was to make meaning of what is happening to all of us in my generation as we begin to lose the people we love.
RB: I was amazed that people went crazy about that book. That book just went flying out of bookstores. She certainly had a large audience but that book touched a nerve.
JA: And it’s a scary book.
RB: Here husband dies and then her daughter.
JA: A lot of people who are readers and a lot of baby boomers are thinking about how we are we going to grow old? How are we going to lose partners and people we love? And for me that book is like fiction. A lot of Didion’s nonfiction always read to me like her fiction. It was the same voice. A quirky voice that it always feel slightly—
JA: Yeah. And metaphoric.
RB: Every sentence seems to not quite end with a period. Speaking of writing, did you write this book in English?
JA: I don’t write in Spanish.
RB: There were a few places where I was reading Isabel’s—an early 19th century Spanish woman.
JA [in a tremulous laughing voice] I know—
RB: —but her diction didn’t sound like an early 19th century Spanish woman.
JA: Oh really? She sounds too contemporary?
RB: Not too. Just a little bit.
JA: Well, yeah, that would have been a place where Shannon and I both nodded [giggles]. I tried hard to keep that voice.
RB: [laughs] Why don’t you write in Spanish?
JA: I never learned to craft that language. I came to this country before bilingual education. I was discouraged from speaking Spanish with my sisters at school. In fact, in high school, I was made to take French. My advisor said, “You already know Spanish!” So, I lost the capacity to really express myself in my native tongue. It remains a childhood language.
RB: So your Spanish is oral Spanish?
JA: Yes, mostly oral Spanish. I never learned to craft that first language, to swim and not sink in its poems and stories. A loss I still lament. One I am trying to remedy, but it would take a whole lifetime to catch up. I tell this to my English-speaking students in writing classes, you have to re-learn English as a writer. It’s not the same as spoken language, informational language. They have this illusion that they already know English, but they have to become conscious of it in order to be able to access its richness and variety in their writing. They have to learn how to use it as a writer. Yeah, it is probably where I failed at conveying—
RB: Don’t be hard on yourself.
JA: I always say—my excuse—is: “This is Alma imagining Isabel’s story.” Blame it on my character! It is always, in a sense, Alma’s lens of Isabel. Alma is the carrier of Isabel’s story, much like the little boys where carriers of the vaccine, much like we, the readers, become carriers of the larger story, Alma’s as well as Isabel’s.
RB: You are using true history as a basis for a fiction that does let you off the hook for certain things.
JA: Was it the Roth novel Plot Against America, people said, well that’s not what happened? I felt I had to stay true to certain parameters.
RB: What if you said there were 24 boys?
JA: Well, I invented the 22nd kid.
JA: Actually, I didn’t invent him, just his character. We know there were 22 little boys but only 21 names are given in the official documents. For me as a novelist it’s a lacuna which I am grateful for. I can invent and imagine that 22nd boy. Why was his name left out? What might have happened to him? I do feel compelled to observe the facts that are out there. Same with the Mirabal sisters in In the Time of the Butterflies. Theirs was a nation’s history, so I didn’t feel like I could really bend things. But fiction is thankfully more interested in character, the truth according to character. Which gives you lots of wiggle room.
RB: Why do people read a novel, a product of creation, and want it to be factually correspondent to what they know?
JA: Because they believe it so much that the narrative world becomes real, maybe even more real than real life. So when the reader finds a glaring error, a contradiction, they wake up. John Gardner writes about it in The Art of Fiction. Writers are weaving a narrative dream and where there is a tear, the reader wakes up. Not good. Readers sometimes write to tell you that on page thus and such, they found a mistake. Kids in fourth grade react the same way when there is a misspelling on their handout. This actually happened with the advanced copy of Saving the World. It had a slightly different ship on the cover. I sent the advanced copy to one of the women who had helped me with the maritime stuff and her reaction was, “That’s not a corvette on the cover.” [laughs] Nothing about the rest of the novel! Did you notice the bed on the beach? Beds are in bedrooms. It’s a novel.
RB: It’s an odd kind of disjunction. Is this an odd period for you? [we spoke before the book was published]
RB: Can you get started on something else now?
JA: I am working on a nonfiction book that I don’t know where it’s going to end up. On quinceañeras, the big ritualized celebrations that Latinas have on their 15th birthday [like a Sweet Sixteen]. The book was originally commissioned by a Penguin imprint which was doing a series of books with DVDs, pairing up different writers with different topics. An under-one-hundred page book—kind of like those Short Lives but on cultural topics. They had one on Kent State, Thirteen Seconds. Then the head of the imprint quit to go grow grapes in upstate New York, so all of a sudden my book is in an odd limbo. But I have gotten so involved in the material that I can’t stop now. On the one hand, the statistics are telling us that Latina teenage girls are topping the charts for all kinds of at-risk behaviors. On the other hand, this Cinderella-type fantasy is being perpetrated. A lot of families even go into debt. They mortgage the house.
RB: Instead of attending to real-life concerns?
JA: Yeah, but it’s not that easy ditching it. Imagine, a whole community spends three months, six, a year, preparing and focusing on its young girls. Quite an investment of time and energy, and it makes the girls feel supported, loved, encouraged to be the new up and coming leaders in the community. Positive things happen at a time in life when young girls are especially vulnerable. Read Reviving Ophelia, about the research on what happens to young girls at this pivotal time in their lives. So the tradition is also onto something that’s important. Again it’s complicated, and the writer wants to get all of that perplexing variety down on paper.
© 2006 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing