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Julia Alvarez (1951- )

Julia Alvarez (1951- ). Background and Biography. Early Life in Dominican Republic. Born March 27, 1951 Spent the first ten years of her life in the country of her birth (DR) Grew up in an affluent family, surrounded by maids

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Julia Alvarez (1951- )

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  1. Julia Alvarez (1951- ) Background and Biography

  2. Early Life in Dominican Republic • Born March 27, 1951 • Spent the first ten years of her life in the country of her birth (DR) • Grew up in an affluent family, surrounded by maids • Experienced security and comfort of living in an extended family, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins

  3. Early Life in Dominican Republic • Alvarez says that she did only very little reading in those early years, even “hated books, school, anything that had to do with work.” • However, Dominican culture is steeped in oral traditions, putting a high value on a well told story and a skilled story-teller • As a young child, she became proficient at reciting poetry and was often asked to entertain guests

  4. Politics and Family Involvement • Politically, however, the life of her family was all but blissful • DR was ruled by the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo • Julia’s father (a medical doctor) became involved in a failed plot to overthrow the dictator • Soon after the plot was discovered, he was implicated • Through the intervention of some American co-conspirators, her father was offered a fellowship to specialize in heart surgery in the US • Surprisingly, Trujillo’s government granted her father and his family permission to leave the DR

  5. Emigration/Immigration • Julia was thus up-rooted very suddenly from her accustomed environment • Quote: “I lost almost everything: a homeland, a language, family connections, a way of understanding, a warmth.” • Like many immigrants, the Alvarez family experienced considerable difficulties adjusting to customs and language of the US

  6. Immigration and Language • Especially, speaking a language other than English was considered “Un-American” • (note to class: and still is by many Americans supporting an “English-only” or English as official language movement….we will talk about language as both a personal and political issue when we discuss the book) • Alvarez quickly learned English and thus lost much of her mother tongue, Spanish • Today, she speaks Spanish only with an American accent and would never consider writing creatively in her native language • Quote: “I say what happened to me is that we left the Dominican Republic and I landed not in the U.S., but in English.” • Though “losing her accent” was difficult for her, she states that the English language—more than the US as a country—became her “homeland”

  7. Difficulties of Assimilation • Taunted on the playground; she isolated herself from her schoolmates, also leading her to discover books • She decided early on to become a writer • She learned English much quicker than her parents and became independent of the highly restrictive traditions of her home country • Family settled in Queens, New York, but did not consider the area safe; her parents also did not consider the public or Catholic schools adequate and sent Julia, at age 13, to a boarding school • Since then, she never permanently lived with her immediate family again; during the summers, she and her sisters were sent to the DR with the express purpose to stay in touch with their culture and language • She became interested in the differences between the two cultures; in the DR, she especially observed the gap in living conditions between rich and poor, and double standards between men and women

  8. Education and Jobs • Graduated high school in 1967 • Attended Connecticut College for two years, winning a poetry prize there • Transferred to Middlebury College in Vermont to pursue creative writing, graduating in 1971 • Masters degree in creative writing from Syracuse University in 1975 • So far, she was writing only poetry, as well as translating Spanish-language poetry into English

  9. Education and Jobs • Spent two years traveling Kentucky backroads as “writer-in-residence” • Holds a number of transitory jobs in various states • After a position as Assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois, she returns to teach at Middlebury College in Vermont

  10. Development of her Writing • Poetry writing gains her some national recognition and prizes, but hardly allows her to make a living • She begins to write fiction (short stories) in the late 1970s • Since she first gained a voice as a poet, it still takes her years to write and publish her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (publ. 1991) • The novel was a success among critics as well as the larger public, winning several fiction prizes

  11. Development of her Writing • Novel began one of her trademarks: drawing from personal experience • Most of the characters and incidents in the novel were inspired by actual people and events (like the Garcia girls in the book, she is one of four sisters) • After the novel appeared in print, her mother refused to speak to her for several months and her sisters first disdained her for her open treatment of the family in the book. • Eventually, however, her family came to embrace and be proud of her work.

  12. Her Work and the Literary Landscape • Alvarez becomes spokesperson of a growing group of Latina writers, although she resents such a role, saying that “There is no spokesperson! There are many realities, different shades and classes.” • Thus, she also doesn’t fit into neat categories of American literary landscapes. • She is neither a mainstream American writer nor a Dominican in the traditional sense. • She rejects being placed into the margins or understood only as if she was writing exclusively for Latinos/as • Claims that a writer coming from outside of the mainstream can make a unique contribution to writing about the American experience

  13. Other works • In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) • She also continues to write and publish poetry • Yo! (about her alter ego, Yolanda, who is the main narrator of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent) • Fourth novel: In the Name of Salome • Eventually also publishes a children’s book, a book for young adults, and a cook book

  14. Motivation for Writing • She claims in interviews that she writes to discover what she is thinking, to discover who she is, and to understand the world in general. • Her role model: Scheherazade, the story teller of Thousand and One Nights • “My heroine of all times is Scheherazade, who by the telling of stories gains her life, saves the other women in the kingdom, and transforms the sultan’s hatred to love.”

  15. How the García Girls Lost Their Accent • Divided into 3 sections that work backwards (chronologically): I: 1989-1972 II: 1970-1960 III: 1960-1956 • Alvarez provides a genealogical graph up front (Try to detect the humor in it!) • The García girls: Carla, Sandra (Sandi), Yolanda (Yo, YoYo, Joe), Sofía (Fifi).

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