Julia Alvarez discusses her radically different novel, ‘Afterlife’ (and defends ‘American Dirt’)
Ask the novelist Julia Alvarez whether to address her as “HOO-lee-uh” or “JEWEL-yuh”; she’ll tell you she doesn’t care.
“There are so many bigger things,” Alvarez says, speaking by telephone from her home in “the tropical Champlain Valley” of Vermont, where she and her husband, Bill Eichner, live on 11 acres that he farms. “The way I feel is, I’ve always been a hybrid. Fluidity is part of what you learn and do as a writer. You become the other all the time.”
That certainly describes the protagonist of her new novel, “Afterlife.” Antonia Vega is, like her creator, an immigrant to the United States from the Dominican Republic and, also like Alvarez, a retired professor of literature. “Antonia is trying not to be trapped, trying not to have to choose to go down into a certain bunker of ethnicity and identity,” says Alvarez. “She’s aware of the diversity within herself and the complicated feelings that people around her have about it, even people she chooses to admire.”
Renowned for meaty, polyphonic fictions like “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” and “In the Time of the Butterflies,” Alvarez wanted to write “a short, lyrical novel” because she’s always admired the form. “My tendency has been, for so long, to write these very big stories,” she says. “But here I wanted to use a sensibility where you strip more and more away until what remains becomes more charged.”
In the first chapter of “Afterlife,” Antonia’s husband, Sam, dies of a heart attack while driving to meet her for a romantic dinner; it’s short and lyrical in a completely different way from the rest of the book — a tone poem of grief that sets the stage.
“Many of my novels have a soundtrack that no one else ever hears,” says Alvarez. “In this case, it was Leonard Cohen’s song [“Anthem”] with the line ‘There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.’ … In that brokenness and fragmentation that happens when the life you had falls apart, you hope that you end up with a larger version of yourself.”
Now 70, Alvarez recently retired from full-time teaching at Middlebury College. It’s been 15 years since she published a novel for adults. “It’s not that I haven’t written for 15 years,” she says. “I wasn’t satisfied with what I was writing — so I wasn’t publishing. This is the first novel I’ve written as an elder. What does it mean to tell a story at this stage of life?”
Alvarez was in the news earlier this year — not for her writing or teaching, but because she blurbed a debut novel by Jeanine Cummins titled “American Dirt.” For those unfamiliar with the controversy, “American Dirt” follows a Mexican woman and her son fleeing to the United States after the rest of their family is killed. The book has been roundly criticized for its portrayal of the journey and the culture, especially as author Cummins (who has a Puerto Rican grandmother) is not personally familiar with Mexico or the hurdles faced by migrants. Alvarez was criticized in turn for calling it a “dazzling accomplishment” she hoped would “change hearts and transform policies.“
“First of all, I’m not going to renege on what I wrote,” says Alvarez. “I didn’t read with any warning signs or caution, because I read the editor’s letter in front. The author had an Anglo name. So do a lot of Latinos … ‘How’s the book?’ I mean, that’s where my mind went.”
She thought it succeeded. “It pulled me in,” she says. “I felt physically like I was inside this woman’s body as she tried to protect her child. I actually thought the fact that she was … in a different economic situation from a typical refugee was interesting because it might draw in readers who would normally be completely disconnected.”
Alvarez compares it to “In the Time of the Butterflies,” in which there’s a “very American” character. “I thought, my North American reader often is not interested in the history south of the border, but if I create a kind of bridge character to bring that reader along, maybe I can get that reader inside that world.”
She considers the outcry “an ideological conflict,” in which anger overcame any opportunities for “thinking about what we have in common,” for becoming what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “a beloved community.” She cites something activist Ruby Sales used to say at angry meetings between white supremacists and black-power leaders: “Where does it hurt?”
Silent for a moment, Alvarez continues. “People are hurting, and in this case, we see that the Latino community, their stories sidelined and marginalized and not published for years, finds work about their culture by an outsider. It was so painful and it rubbed it in, the lack of representation. It needs to be addressed, but I didn’t want to become one more reactive voice.”
“Afterlife” reflects Alvarez’s desire to define the chasms between us and then help her characters leap across. Already mourning her husband’s death, Antonia Varga faces two further struggles that drive the novel. For one, her neighbor’s undocumented farmhand Mario asks her to help him assist his fiancée, Estela, to travel from Colorado to Vermont. Antonia finds the hugely pregnant Estela sleeping in her garage.
“There are moments when somebody is passed out in your garage and you have to do something,” says Alvarez. “You can’t just say ‘This isn’t my business.’ On the other hand, there is a sort of moral condescension that happens when you think you are going to manage the salvation of a person. It’s a balance, and not always an easy one.”
Alvarez cannily highlights the differences among people within the Latinx community — in this case immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Mexico — in an early scene in which Antonia asks Estella, “Dar a luz?” in Dominican Spanish, meaning “When are you due?” Estela doesn’t immediately understand her. They need to work toward a common tongue, even in the same language.
At the same time, Antonia attempts to communicate with one of her sisters, Izzy, who suffers from severe mental illness. Sadly, she and the other Vega sisters are unable to put ground beneath Izzy’s feet; sometimes even the hardest work cannot keep a person from breaking. The final chapter of “Afterlife” is titled “Japanese repair technique,” after the kintsugi practice of repairing shattered porcelain with veins of gold, thereby creating new beauty from the broken.
It’s a difficult business, creating gorgeous hybrids out of broken shards, but it’s what Alvarez has done by delving into the deepest kinds of loss — and forced Antonia to do. “She has to heal what happens, to live it and grieve it. But she does, because she wants to end up in a place that is openhearted. It doesn’t have to be happy — just a place with the possibility of beauty and redemption and love and hope.”
Again, Alvarez takes a silent pause. “The only way not to lose a person, to give them an afterlife, is not to let the things that you loved in them that were beautiful die.”
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
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