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Celebrated Latina author Julia Alvarez on her new novel 'Afterlife,' isolation and sisterhood

“When I wrote it, I felt like we were living in these elegiac times, where we’re seeing the end of so many things that we cherished."
Julia Alvarez, author of "Afterlife."
Julia Alvarez, author of "Afterlife."Brandon Cruz Gonzalez / El Vocero de Puerto Rico

Like most Americans, author Julia Alvarez has seen her life disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. She was supposed to be on a national tour, promoting her latest book. Instead she is sheltering in place with her husband at their Vermont farm.

“I am isolated, but busier than ever," the 70-year-old Dominican American literary pioneer said. "I have learned to Zoom, Facebook Live, and use Crowdcast. But I miss the community spirit of meeting readers in person. Talking with them, taking selfies, hugging. It is not happening.”

The acclaimed writer is now out with “Afterlife,” her first adult novel in nearly 15 years. Ironically, it deals with isolation and how the world can sometimes feel like it is coming apart.

“One of the best chroniclers of sisterhood returns with a funny, moving novel of loss and love," Kirkus Reviews wrote.

Image: "Afterlife," by Julia Alvarez.
"Afterlife," by Julia Alvarez.Algonquin Books

Alvarez is a prolific author of novels, nonfiction, poetry and books for children. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of the Arts in recognition of her “extraordinary storytelling.”

Alvarez gained prominence in 1991 with “How The García Girls Lost Their Accents,” a novel that helped bring the immigrant experience into the literary mainstream. She followed that up in with “In The Time of the Butterflies," which was made into a movie starring Salma Hayek and Edward James Olmos. Until Alvarez retired in 2016, she was a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College.

For the broader public, Alvarez has achieved an elite status (along with Junot Diaz) as the foremost chronicler of the Dominican American experience.

“Julia Alvarez will always be known for bringing Dominican people to center stage in the literary world,” said Ramona Hernandez, director of the Dominican Studies Institute at the City College of New York, “because her work highlights the realities of Dominicans at home and in the U.S.”

The 1980s, Hernandez explained, saw the largest number of Dominicans arriving in the U.S. compared to past decades. “Alvarez achieved success as the community was maturing and trying to figure out their place here. Her characters are situated in Dominican culture, but in a very accessible, universal way.”

"What does it mean to be an elder?"

“Afterlife” tells the story of Antonia, a recently widowed, retired writing professor facing the challenges that life (literally) brings to her doorstep. It offers readers a thoughtful exploration of grief; Antonia has an epiphany when she realizes that “the only way not to let the people she loves die forever is to embody what she loved about them.”

Alvarez is surprised at how prescient her novel’s themes turned out to be. “When I wrote it, I felt like we were living in these elegiac times, where we’re seeing the end of so many things that we cherished. It is very much about a person facing a broken society.”

Antonia’s sisters, described as “the Dominican Greek chorus” are key characters, and “Afterlife” spells out the unwritten rules of sisterhood: “Always act pleased to see them ... Never say an outright no to a sister … Never remain dry-eyed when a sister is crying.”

While the book touches on everything from migration to identity, “Afterlife” has its lighter moments. One sister is known for mangling common expressions, voicing sentiments like, "We'll burn that bridge when we come to it.”

Alvarez said that she wrote “Afterlife” because she wanted to tell a different kind of story. “What does it mean to be an elder? An older Latina woman? With Antonia, I wanted a character that was smarter than me, and not just the cliché of the wise old viejita.” She hopes that, through Antonia’s experiences, readers will feel insights that enlarge their understanding of their own lives.

Alvarez likes to remind younger writers that she did not achieve commercial success until age 41, and that she came of age when there were virtually no contemporary Latina writers. “So much of my struggle as a younger writer was to feel like I belonged, to create a place for my people, my stories, and our traditions in literature,” she said. “This was when publishing was pre-multicultural; Sandra (Cisneros) and I, we had no role models, we just had each other.”

'We can't afford to divide ourselves'

Alvarez is familiar with the controversy earlier this year over “American Dirt,“ a book seen by many Latinx writers as inauthentic and opportunistic. “We need to keep pressuring publishers, we need to keep pressuring the culture, that we are here and need to be more abundantly represented,” said Alvarez. “But we can’t afford to divide ourselves. We can’t afford to let conversations degenerate into combativeness and aggressiveness.”

Alvarez was an early source of inspiration to award-winning author and poet Elizabeth Acevedo. “I remember being in middle school, when I discovered the book (by Alvarez) “Before We Were Free,” she recalled. “Here was a book about the Dominican Republic, about life under (former president) Trujillo, in English – I had never seen a Dominican author in my classroom before.” Acevedo praised Alvarez as a trailblazer who, for younger Latinx writers, is like “everyone’s tía (aunt)."

Acevedo believes that Alvarez has much to offer her generation. “On a level of craft, her text never feels rushed, she (Alvarez) gives you information as you need it, as if she were saying ‘I want you to sit with me for a bit.” Acevedo admires that Alvarez works on her own timetable. “We are in a moment where artists and writers feel like they have to produce content all the time, and Julia still appreciates the patience of good storytelling.”

In Alvarez’ books, women are typically the central figures, which mirrors reality as well. “Dominican migration has been historically driven by women,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez credits Alvarez for writing about life under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, and for showing the country’s history of resistance during this time. Alvarez’ “Butterflies” book was based on the real-life story of the Mirabal sisters, Dominican dissidents whose murder by the state triggered outrage that led, in part, to Trujillo’s assassination.

"It is important to remain vigilant"

Although Alvarez’ family left the Dominican Republic in 1960, she is still attuned to the dangers of authoritarianism. “With this current administration and its autocratic pronouncements, it is important to remain vigilant. Things are happening, subtly, that are dangerous — like the draconian immigration laws and lawmakers being afraid to stand up to the leader of our country.”

Alvarez hopes that people will come through the current health crisis safely, and with greater understanding of one another.

“When we get through this pandemic, there will be an afterlife,” she said, referencing her book title. “We just have to figure out how inclusive and loving it will be – and hopefully we will come through it with a more beloved community than we had before.”

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