Heidi and Julia, Part Two

Julia Alvarez (with red boa, center) and Haverford College students. Ida Faiella, soprano far left

Julia Alvarez (center right) with Haverford College students, and soprano Ida Faiella (far left), composer Heidi Jacob and Prof. Theresa Tensuan (far right)

On December 1, Bryn Mawr College hosted a cultural double bill called Julia Alvarez: Words and Music. Last week, I wrote about the first part of the evening, which showcased the four new songs Haverford music professor Heidi Jacob composed to poems of Julia Alvarez. Today I’ll talk about the second half of the show, in which Ms. Alvarez took the stage to read her poems and to speak about her life and unusual literary influences.

What radiates beyond both words and music is Ms. Alvarez’s irrepressible personality, a trait she deliberately tried to tone down when she moved from the Dominican Republic to the United States at the age of ten. At the time, she wanted more than anything to be an All-American girl (not realizing until later that she was already American.) Holding back her warm Latin side was a challenge, as the cultural differences puzzled her. For instance, when one of her teachers said, “Julia, I’m very disappointed in you,” she had a hard time believing the woman because the criticism was delivered in such a controlled, calm tone of voice.

My friend Ariadne, who was in the audience and who teaches advanced-level Spanish, told me later that she found herself thinking, “Yes! Sometimes I want to say to a student – you turned in such a bad paper, you can do so much better – I want to kill you! In Mexico City I would say that, but of course I can’t here.”

I suspect that Julia Alvarez’s irrepressible nature might have less to do with her cultural background, and more to do with who she is. As a child, she was “overly affectionate,” only allowed to fully express her love for her family members when she ironed their clothes. Ironing, she explained, was a privilege and a step up in the pecking order of domestic chores because “You could be trusted with something you could do damage to.” It’s beautifully shown in the poem she read called Ironing Their Clothes, where she is “forced to express my excess love on cloth.”

Domestic chores in general were the unlikely catalyst for her first collection of poems. She described how, as a young fellow at the MacDowell Colony, with the lofty canon of English literature in her ear (“Turning and turning in the widening gyre” and so on,) listening to the other fellows busily clacking away on their typewriters while she waited vainly for inspiration, she was suddenly freed by the sound of the vacuum cleaner in the hallway. She realized that her first training was in the household arts. She thought, “Why dismiss this?”

And so she produced her first collection of poems, Homecoming, as well as the poems in the following collection El Otro Lado about her muse, Gladys, a warm-hearted maid from her childhood who was always singing (and who, in the poems, abruptly stops singing whenever Ms. Alvarez’s formidable mother appears on the scene – perhaps a metaphor also for parental repression of Alvarez’s natural, exuberant impulses.)

Another of Ms. Alvarez’s muses was the old photographer who had the unenviable job of trying to capture all 24 of her father’s siblings and their offspring in the annual family photo. “You don’t know they are muses until you look back,” she said. Nor is it obvious at first what will become a departure point for writing -– an image as random as “men coming out of holes” (like manholes) has proved a recent whimsical influence for her lately.

The day following the concert and reading, Julia Alvarez spoke even more frankly about her work at an informal luncheon at the Women’s Center at Haverford College, when she spent time with students in Theresa Tensuan’s Contemporary Women Writers class. When Homecoming was published, Ms. Alvarez said, she wanted suddenly to silence herself, afraid of her family’s reaction. However, not a single person questioned her honest portrayal of family life; her aunts and mother even proudly displayed the book on their coffee tables. Since it was poetry, nobody actually read it! But when her first novel came out, exploring some of these events and observations in prose, her family was outraged, her mother especially.

“Why do you have to write about unhappy things?” her mother demanded.

Implied was the larger question, “Why read?” Ms. Alvarez described how, growing up in the outgoing Dominican culture, people told her, “If you read too much, you will get sick. If you read too much, nobody will want to marry you -–” a pointed reference to a bookish maiden aunt, who had given Julia and her sisters a much-loved copy of Scheherezade.

Ms. Alvarez said that as a child, she was not much of a reader; she did not like reading the censored material taught in the Dominican Republic, and she fidgeted in class (she thinks that nowadays she most likely would have been diagnosed with ADHD.) The stories she heard were not found on the printed page, but were told around the kitchen table.

Later, when she moved to the U.S., she discovered books. The kids on the playground were not particularly friendly to her, but in books, she was “welcome at the table” again. In the world of stories, she “could become anybody.” So although she came to reading late, she knew early on that this fellowship of writing, of story-telling, of words and literature, was where she wanted to be.

Julia Alvarez shared other insights into her creative life. Among the folders in her file cabinet, she keeps one called “Curiosities,” and another called “Letters Not Sent.” She writes, not to tell, but to find out about things. When asked why she did not write the screenplay for the movie version of her novel In the Time of the Butterflies, she quoted Chaucer: “Time is so short and the craft so long.”

A wise thing for all artists to remember.

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