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Exile into the Pages

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Reading and writing may be her most vital sources of nourishment, but author Julia Alvarez says in terms of the chicken or the egg, reading definitely comes first.


Alvarez has won fellowships and awards for her writing and teaches creative writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. But before she found her calling with the pen, she followed her passion to read.


“You get enthralled by the world of the imagination,” Alvarez says. “You're reading Tolstoy, Chekov, Toni Morrison and then you try your voice in this great big circle of storytellers. That's how I became a writer — first I became a reader. When my reading life isn't going well, my writing life isn't going well.”


Born in New York City in 1950, her family moved to its native Dominican Republic when she was 3 weeks old, living under the regime of Rafael Trujillo until August 1960 when the family returned to the United States for permanent exile.


“It wasn't a literary culture, it was a dictatorship,” Alvarez says of the Dominican Republic. “Intellectuals were scoffed at. It was an oral culture, full of the world's best storytellers. They knew intuitively what I try to teach to my college students now. I had that seed in me from my childhood.”


As a 10-year-old in New York, Alvarez found cruelty on the playground, but connection and comfort in books, thus beginning her love affair with literature in English. “In the U.S., I was so lonely and homesick and lost, and it wasn't a particularly friendly neighborhood, I was forced to learn a language,” she says. “Why did they say ‘amiable’ instead of ‘friendly’ or ‘slender’ instead of ‘skinny’? Even if it's your native language, you have to relearn it for the texture. It was training for writing, but I never thought of it then.”


Later in school, she clung to Langston Hughes' poem, “I, Too, Sing America” and Maxine Hong Kingston's memoir, “Woman Warrior,” as the scant few examples of accepted and successful minority writing, discovering that a bicultural experience can be literature, not just sociology.


“It's a literature that has always been here, but it's been an underclass literature published only by the small presses,” Alvarez says. “Finally the grand democracy of political principles became a reality in the canon of literature.”


Alvarez turned down the commission to write her most recent book, “Once Upon a QuinceaAƱera,” but after going to several of the celebrations for Latin-American girls turning 15, she changed her mind. “This is a book about a party that is more than a book about a party,” she says. “It gave me a lens to see what is becoming to the Latino community in this country. We are creating the culture here out of a combination, a mixture of our different home cultures, but also from what we find here.”


Alvarez says that as a pan-Hispanic group, the Latino culture faces big challenges, especially with teenage pregnancy, high-school dropouts and the high suicide attempt rate among young people. “We need more communities, leaders and mentors,” says Alvarez, who adds that her book doesn't offer a solution, but at least highlights the questions that need to be asked.


“If we're going to survive as a human family, what can we give these young people that will nurture them, inspire them and get them thinking in a larger-hearted way?” she asks.


Bilingual, multicultural, visionary and prolific, Alvarez's life and body of work have served to link the bridge over the closing gap of American letters. “Maybe language is the vehicle that takes us to the homeland,” she says — “the world of stories and how we connect with each other as human beings. For me, that's rock bottom: that we are a human family. We are the only human creature that uses narrative to make sense of our lives. We don't spin silk, we tell stories.” S

The Henrico County Public Library is host to Julia Alvarez Tuesday, Oct. 7, 7-8 p.m., at Deep Run High School, 4801 Twin Hickory Road. Selected titles will be available for sale and the author will autograph her books. Free. Call 652-3200 or go to www.henricolibrary.org.

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