An Amazing Grace: Julia Alvarez on Becoming a Writer

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In the closing keynote at last month’s ABC Children’s Institute (Ci4), Dominican-American author Julia Alvarez inspired booksellers with the story of her journey from her childhood as a poor student and reluctant reader to become a prolific author and humanitarian.

Alvarez was born in the U.S. but spent her childhood in the Dominican Republic before moving back at the age of 10. At 66, she is the author of five adult novels, including How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies, and several books for children and young adults, include the Tia Lola series. On Thursday, June 23, at Ci4, Alvarez recalled her lifelong experience of the power of stories to transform, encourage empathy, and spur the imagination.

“Stories teach us that we are each other, sharing similar if not the same challenges, joys, and sorrows as we live out our time on this vulnerable, beautiful, terribly tender earth,” said Alvarez. One of those challenges is dealing with the stark reality of death, and in her newest book for children, Where Do They Go? (Triangle Square), Alvarez has written a meditation on death to help kids process what happens when a loved one passes away.

Alvarez said she titled her talk “Amazing Grace” because “looking back on my own childhood, it seems an amazing grace I became a writer invited to address a children’s institute filled with experts and aficionados of children’s literature.” In her speech, Alvarez told the story of her genesis as a writer and the different moments of “amazing grace” that helped her find her way to being the person she is today.

Alvarez grew up in the Dominican Republic under the repressive rule of the dictator Rafael Trujillo and was a reluctant reader and poor student who failed every grade. That is, until she fell in love with a book and, more specifically, the character of Scheherazade from The Arabian Nights, one of the first characters she had ever seen who looked like her and who was strong and brave enough to triumph over a cruel sultan.

In 1960, Alvarez and her family were forced to flee the Dominican Republic and return to New York. Although she experienced prejudice on her return due to her Hispanic background, Alvarez said she was able to find freedom and new life in books, which stoked her dream of becoming a writer herself.

“I entered and found a portable homeland, the table set for all. I found what we had come looking for in the United States of America in between the covers of books, the grand democracy of books,” she said. Books were places where she could travel anywhere, live in any time, be anyone. “Between the covers of books,” Alvarz said, ‘I landed in the land of the free and the home of the brave. The more I read, the more I wanted to be a part of this big circle of storytellers.”

Alvarez said she felt unwelcome as a Hispanic person in the U.S. because she did not see books about people like her, written by people like her. This isolation and pain was only highlighted by the ongoing civil rights struggles in the ’60s.

But it was a poem by the African American poet Langston Hughes — “I, Too, Sing America” — in a school textbook that instilled in Alvarez the feeling, for the first time, that she too could claim her place in America, even if it had not yet been freely given her. The boldness of Hughes’ words and his message, she said, “planted in me faith in the potential of self-expression.”

Since then, Alvarez has made it her life’s work to uplift others through education and literature. This includes her work on Café Alta Gracia, a coffee farming project in the Dominican Republic that she started with her husband, Bill Eichner, in the 1990s. Alvarez founded a literacy center on the farm, where she taught night classes for parents and kids. It was there she started writing for children, creating stories for them based on local Dominican legends. Her books for kids, published in both English and Spanish, now include The Secret Footprints, The Best Gift of All: The Legend of the La Vieja Belen, and A Gift of Gracias: The Legend of Altagracia.

Alvarez is also the founder of Border of Lights, a project that aims to foster connection and conquer division through the power of stories. In an annual commemoration ceremony, artists, activists, students, teachers, and parents gather every October to light up the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic to draw attention to a forgotten tragedy, the 1937 Haitian Massacre, in which thousands of Haitians and their Dominican-born descendants were murdered by Trujillo’s army.

“Reading might not be central to all cultures, but stories are,” said Alvarez. “Our ancestors have sat around campfire circles, dinner tables, where they shared what it means to be human. We are the only creature that uses narrative to arrange and give meaning to the experience of being alive…Our songs, our stories give us a structure and language that help us understand who we are.”

Stories also help us connect with each other and create a community, she said. Reluctance to connect can be overcome, but solving this challenge begins with the literary community of booksellers and authors. Readers, writers, and purveyors of stories, Alvarez said, “have an important role to play in bringing about the changes that must happen if we’re going to survive on this small planet of diminishing resources, where violence threatens to divide us into us and those alien to us.”