The PEN Pod: Challenging Our Paradigms with Julia Alvarez
Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke with author Julia Alvarez, whose latest book, Afterlife, is her first text for adult readers in some 14 years. She’s been a path breaker for authors who’ve sought to break through into the mainstream with novels like How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies. Her work transcends category or stereotype, and that has made her a leading light in the literary canon. We spoke with Julia about her new book, the ways in which our current moment is shedding light on historic injustices, and how literature can provide new forms of resilience and resistance during times of crisis.
Tell me about Afterlife.
To put it as briefly as I can, it recounts the story of Antonia Vega. We meet her just as her world completely falls apart. She is widowed on the first page, she’s just retired from teaching, and so many losses are going on that she is desperate to survive them with careful self-management. She is pulled back into the fray by the appearance of an undocumented migrant teenage girl in her garage and by the disappearance of her sister who is a noble soul, but bipolar. As she meets up with these challenges, she tries to respond to them and seek direction with the literature that she’s taught, loved, and written, but she finds that life sometimes demands more of her than just words. So it’s following this journey of this character through a moment—very much like this moment—when our world just suddenly falls apart, not what we expected.
In this moment we’re in now, experiences of otherness, immigration, and migration are taking on new meanings. How do you think that folks might read this text in light of the ongoing pandemics of both COVID-19 and anti-Black violence?
I’m glad you said that, because there is more than one pandemic going on. I think that the current moment has changed what this experience looks like. I just think that it’s always been there, hidden in plain sight. We’ve known about climate change, we’ve known about what happens when you disrupt ecosystems and viral critters start not being under the control of certain environments. The violence against communities of color, the brutal treatment of the undocumented—whom we depend on to keep services in almost every area of our lives going—all of that has been going on. This moment, when we had to hit pause because of the pandemic—and because there is suddenly news coverage and outcry about what is an ongoing pandemic of violence against communities of color—we’re finally seeing it and acknowledging it and realizing that these are essential workers, that they are fellow citizens, brothers, and sisters. I think that it’s something that is a reckoning, which has been brewing for a long time.
“Because there is suddenly news coverage and outcry about what is an ongoing pandemic of violence against communities of color—we’re finally seeing it and acknowledging it and realizing that these are essential workers, that they are fellow citizens, brothers, and sisters.”
I just published a poem on LitHub about the Fourth of July, and I end with a question. Someone sent me a link of Frederick Douglass giving a Fourth of July speech in 1852, and the final question in my poem is one of the questions he was asking then. So it’s something that has been going on. And I think we’re seeing what was, as I said, hidden in plain sight. And I feel hopeful about it. It’s also painful because I see that Frederick Douglas in 1852 was addressing it. I just hope this is not a pandemic that we think we can cure with any easy vaccine.
How do you feel we can use literature, either as readers or as writers, to process some of what’s happening right now?
For me, reading really, really helps me to make meaning of the moments in my life when I’m baffled, when things have fallen apart. I don’t want to just, in a panic, do what Antonia tries to do and fit it all back together and hold it together the way I’m used to, and that I feel safe. But as I tell friends and I tell myself, we are living a deeply mythic moment. Let this moment not be lost on us.
I think that literature helps us to understand the moment and also helps with reframing. I went back about a week ago and reread Beloved. I had read it 30 years ago as a younger woman, at another moment in time, and now it opens up so much. Immediately, I went and got Toni Morrison’s latest book, the last one she published before she died, which is a collection of her essays called Mouthful of Blood. I don’t write because I have answers, but because I want to understand, muse, and ponder the questions. I think that’s their value.
You’ve also written for younger readers. How does your process differ when you’re writing for that audience? And how do you feel things change as you navigate among these audiences—younger readers and adult readers, or is it not that clear-cut in your mind?
It’s not that clear cut in my mind—maybe it’s because I’ve always been transgressive of borders. As an immigrant, I don’t like walls. I don’t like borders. I don’t want to be contained in the gated community of a certain genre, to tell you the truth. And certain stories call for certain audiences, especially, and since my writing has always been so integrated with my life, something happens in my life and it seems to be a question coming from a certain audience or a certain community within my community.
“For me, reading really, really helps me to make meaning of the moments in my life when I’m baffled, when things have fallen apart. I don’t want to just, in a panic, do what Antonia tries to do and fit it all back together and hold it together the way I’m used to, and that I feel safe. But as I tell friends and I tell myself, we are living a deeply mythic moment. Let this moment not be lost on us.”
You know, I think some of my writer friends who only write serious novels for adults, I think they think a little bit that when you write for kids, then you’re sort of letting yourself off the hook. You’re taking a break. But I’ll tell you something: All good writing, if you want to make it good, is hard work. And writing for kids has its own challenges. Keeping the story engaging, keeping the characters really vivid, a lot of background stuff and theorizing might not work. So you really learn to move in a different way with a different rhythm. And then you can bring that back into an adult novel. I think JK Rowling ruined it in some ways. She also did amazing things, because she created this whole huge reading population for her books.
The thing I really enjoy is that the writing is still as important, but the writing biz has lowered the temperature, the pressure. Because I think for kids, celebrity authors are not as important as it being a good book. I heard this story—I think it was either Eve Bunting or Judy Blume, who was on a ferry with her daughter, and her daughter looked over and saw a little kid reading one of her mom’s novels. So the author said, “You really like that book!” And he, kind of annoyed, said, “Yeah,” and just kind of waved her off. And she said, “Well, would you like to meet the author?” And he looked up at her and said, “What for?” And I love that, because writers know that who’s going to get attention is a lottery. But the main thing is the work, and the connection with the work, and the connection with your readers through the work. And of course it helps if you have a readership and your books get out there. But that’s the important thing, and not to lose sight of that, rather than the celebrities that we create, and talk shows for authors, and the glitz that sometimes can be very distracting, because it’s about the work.
Writing for kids keeps reminding me of that. It doesn’t matter if you’re a famous person on TV. If your book is no good, they’re not gonna read it.
I want to ask you about resilience. Many of your books, including Afterlife, tell stories of personal resilience and struggling with that—in particular, resistance in times of oppression. How can we draw from your body of work to fight back against these forces of dehumanization?
I think—not just from my body of work, but from all books that speak to us—one of the great things that we learn is to escape our own paradigm. And by escape, I don’t mean escape in terms of putting your head in the sand, but in that we see other possibilities, other paradigms, other worlds, other cultures, and other people. If you think about it, the amazing thing about reading is that what it asks of us is to become the other, to become someone else. And those are the same muscles that we use when we’re activists for social justice, compassionate about change, and creating a more beloved society. It’s about becoming the other, being inclusive, and having a diversity of possibilities. I think that’s what reading does. That’s what writing does. And I think certain books we read can remind us that we have to be vigilant. We have to be awake. We have to pay attention.
“If you think about it, the amazing thing about reading is that what it asks of us is to become the other, to become someone else. And those are the same muscles that we use when we’re activists for social justice, compassionate about change, and creating a more beloved society. It’s about becoming the other, being inclusive, and having a diversity of possibilities.”
You read In the Time of the Butterflies and you think, “Wow, that was a fascist thug in power!” Hello, what are we living through here? You see the military running out to clear Lafayette Square of a peaceful demonstration so this pompous, posturing guy can have a photo op. And furthermore, it’s not just ’cause it’s easy to just have one target. Look at all of those who surround him, those in the Senate. Dictatorships implant little dictators inside the citizenry, lackeys and yes men and people too afraid to contradict. This is how it works, and the kind of things that can happen—you’re just so enervated and so apathetic and you think it’s not going to make a difference, so you don’t go out and vote. To be able to have that right is so critical. So I think a good novel accompanies us, but it reminds us to stay awake, to be vigilant, to notice. We need that kind of citizenry going forward to address all the pandemics that you mentioned at the very beginning.
What are you reading right now?
Oh my gosh. Well, I just mentioned Beloved and Mouthful of Blood. I was also really blown away by Apeirogon by Colum McCann. I’m always reading poetry too—that’s my first read of the day. I just feel that it’s like the tuning—you know, that little note that the choir master sounds to get the choir to be on key? For me, poetry does that with language and its rhythms.
I just finished a book that my sister sent me as a gift called The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns. These were elder nuns who wrote poems 2,600 years ago. And boy, they’re amazing poems. They speak to this moment! I just finished John Freeman’s The Park, a wonderful collection of poems.
I read a really interesting book that a friend alerted me to called Reader, Come Home. I’ve been worrying about what the internet is doing to my brain, and Reader, Come Home is about the reading brain in a digital world. It’s about how we’re changing, how we read, and how we think, because of this interconnectedness. It really says that maybe sometimes we should turn our devices off and turn the pages of a book. She argues for slow reading and the kinds of integrations that can happen there that don’t happen on the fast screen.
And if any one title caught your interest, go out and support another essential institution, your independent bookstore, because many of them have been shuttered. It’s a very difficult moment, and I think they’re a critical institution. They’re like the art museums for books. They curate our reading for us. So, I can’t say that enough.
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