Julia Alvarez ’67 Captures Kemper

“Writing is when you lock yourself in a room for five to seven hours a day in your pajamas,” said acclaimed author Julia Alvarez, eliciting laughs from a packed Kemper Auditorium. Alvarez, a member of the class of 1967, who spoke at an All-School Meeting last fall, returned to campus for an intimate reading of her work and a congenial question and answer session. A writer-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont and former PA faculty member, Alvarez breathes with her love of literature. With her personable presence and entertaining and sincere speech characteristic of her writing, Alvarez enveloped the audience in the story of her life. “It’s great to be here again at Abbot/Andover – I will always think of it that way – my old stomping grounds. I came here as a young girl, not knowing who I was, and I found myself [here],” she said. Alvarez did not always dance in the world of the written word. Although born in New York City, she lived in the Dominican Republic under the Trujillo dictatorship until the age of 10, when her family fled to America in 1960 to escape political persecution. Even though she could speak some English, the face-paced speech and stereotypical misconceptions of her new American peers made the transition difficult. Alvarez missed the emotional, oral Latin culture – “I knew the language… but not the body language – I wanted to speak coolly, [like an American] and would lock myself in a bathroom and practice looking American.” She read one of her poems, “All American Girl,” that expressed her young self’s desire to fit in. “I wanted the world and words to match again,” she said. When Alvarez arrived at Abbot in 1964, she immigrated again to what seemed like another new country. She and her sister were the only two Hispanic girls at the school, sent to “learn to act like blondes, to have my edges rounded off, my roots repotted in American soil,” Alvarez read from a poem. “I came not feeling like I belonged… from an oral culture, not a reading culture,” she said. However, once she became accustomed to the lifestyle of Abbot, her alien feeling soon disappeared. “At Abbot, I was surrounded by people passionate about books, and literature was this table set for all – everyone could take part in it. Abbot was a tiny little place, in some ways a limited, strict school, but it opened up my world. I felt like I belonged… I didn’t know it then, but it saved my butt.” Although her interest in writing originated at Abbot, Alvarez did not achieve literary acclaim until 1991, with her celebrated book How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. Chelsea Woods ’07 asked, “What advice do you have for a young writer who wants to get her stories out into the world?” Alvarez recommended to “find feedback – other writers, a writing group, a class… what I write isn’t alive until it’s inside a reader. Read – you learn from books.” She also read from her latest “baby,” Finding Miracles, the story of 16-year-old Millie, a girl adopted by two American Peace Corps volunteers from a politically unstable Latin American country. At her Vermont high school, Millie strives to fit in with her American peers. Everything changes when a boy from her home country arrives and she embarks on a quest to find her origins, in a tale that explores both that quest and the phenomenon of the “babies left behind.” A young girl in the front row asked, “How did you become interested in adoption?” Alvarez replied, “adoption was… a metaphor – we’re all trying to find who we are, find our parents – sometimes teachers feel more like parents than “Mom and Dad” – it’s the people that nurture you.” She continued, “Miracles is a story [referring to the “lost babies”] that hasn’t been told yet and needs telling.” An open question and answer forum brought forth more of Alvarez’s charismatic responses: Q: Why do you write in English? A: All of my education was in English. When you become a writer, you have to relearn your language; how to craft it; hone an idea; it’s in English that I know how to do that – I can’t create in Spanish. Q: How do you identify yourself? A: How do you put the story together? Each person has to braid strands together to make their story important – to not get cubby-holed by other people’s definitions. The best story has a larger number of pieces, you don’t leave [any parts of] yourself out. It’s a constant process; life is always changing. Who I am is something that I work on in writing.” Q: How do you write something and not get tired of it? A: When you write a novel, you spend three years in your pajamas. It’s a very complex relationship; ones I get tired with I put away in a box… and got divorced from. Their taproots didn’t go down deep enough… to continually draw up water. I think of them not as failures, but that I had to write them to get to the next thing. It has to be something that obsesses you. It’s an act of faith. Frost once said: “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” [In the good ones, you think you’re getting bored, then something comes up;] all of a sudden, you get drawn in.” In response to the question, “Why do you write?” Alvarez quoted Maya Angelou: “A bird doesn’t sing because he has a question, he sings because he has a song.” She continued, “I wouldn’t know what I thought if I didn’t write. The world is a blur, which each word, in a sense, focuses. I don’t know I’m alive unless I’m writing.” Indeed, the life that Alvarez brought to Kemper Friday night left the audience in awe. She was truly an inspiration to students, and it was evident that her alma mater is incredibly proud of her work.