Julia Alvarez © Todd Balfour for Middlebury College
April 2024

Julia Alvarez: Writing to the gaps on the bookshelf

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In her enchanting seventh novel, Julia Alvarez explores the perspective of a writer in the late stages of her career.
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Julia Alvarez’s work is inspired by what she feels is missing in the world: “I write very much to gaps on my bookshelf.” When Alvarez conceived her 1991 debut novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, “the few immigrant stories that were out there like [those] by Oscar Hijuelos, Piri Thomas and Edward Rivera” were all by male authors. That glaring lack spurred the Dominican American author to action. She thought deeply about what the immigrant experience was for women and how to depict it for her characters, even as, having moved from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. when she was 10, she was living a version of that reality herself.

Three decades later, Alvarez’s seventh novel, The Cemetery of Untold Stories, beautifully illuminates the experience of an artist’s twilight years. Writer Alma Cruz feels worn down by her cherished vocation, like she has “run out of stories and creative stamina.” When she inherits a piece of land in a poor barrio next to a town dump in her homeland of the Dominican Republic, she seizes the opportunity to push what torments her away. She decides to make “a cemetery for all her failed manuscripts, her rough drafts, her never fully realized characters and lay them to rest there.” What happens next is magical. Alma’s characters refuse to be discarded. Alvarez likens the events that ensue to a famous aphorism: “They tried to bury us; they did not know we were seeds.”

Instead of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, why not a portrait of the artist as an older woman?

If writing to fill the gaps on her shelf is how Alvarez makes sense of her work, with this novel, the hole Alvarez is trying to fill is the universal yet neglected topic of growing older yet remaining vital and productive as an artist and human being. As she so perfectly puts it, instead of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, why not a portrait of the artist as an older woman? Intrigued by the evolution involved in aging and what critic Constance Rooke called the Vollendungsroman—“a novel of completion” or “winding up” in contrast to a Bildungsroman— Alvarez uses the supernatural metaphor of a graveyard of stories to bring the issue of aging and art to life on the page. In the abstract, envisioning the creative process as a metaphorical haunting sounds wonderfully fanciful and inventive. From a reader’s experience, the effect is simply genius. Alvarez invites the reader to enter her novel as if they are at the gates of that island cemetery.

The choice to focus on an older artist comes from Alvarez’s soul and experience, but it’s also well-timed. As the large cohort of baby boomers grow older, this phase of life is increasingly salient. Despite the size and influence of the boomer generation, in books, as in much of American culture, the dominant preference for youth remains overwhelming. Alvarez calls out literature’s persistent ageism, which is resistant and slow to change. This bias manifests in a multitude of ways, but Alvarez particularly notes that older characters, especially older women, usually play supporting roles to the protagonist. “When older women do appear as characters, we’re their mothers and their abuelitas,” says Alvarez, a fact that the 73-year-old novelist finds discomfiting and unsatisfactory.

In The Cemetery of Untold Stories, Alvarez turns that marginalization on its head, putting older main character energy on every page. Conjuring a material metaphor of burial for the tangled psychological process of moving on from unfinished business proves a brilliant starting point. And for Alvarez, who began her writing life as a poet, putting ideas into metaphor is a necessary, vital process. “That’s what stories are,” Alvarez says. Her protagonist Alma wants to get beyond the “groomed lawns of once upon a time, she wants to break out of her life as a writer, but what is a life beyond narrative?” What Alma discovers is that “there is no life beyond narrative,” explains Alvarez. In this territory, Alvarez is also inspired by literary critic Edward Said, who wrote about the particular “late style” of older storytellers, which he characterized by a feeling of displacement, running out of time and being preoccupied with things that are unresolved—much in keeping with what Alma and her writer friend go through in The Cemetery of Untold Stories.

Read our starred review of The Cemetery of Untold Stories.

Alvarez has long been a professor of creative writing and literature at Middlebury College (now emeritus, but she’ll teach the occasional workshop for those lucky few students). Her writing is infused with lyricism and metaphor, but it’s also engrossing and accessible. It has the appeal of someone with great respect for the universality of storytelling and the oral tradition. The Dominican American writer is also bilingual, and that too shapes her style and expression. She remembers once being asked at a reading, “When are you going to start writing shorter sentences?” and wondering whether the questioner was right. But Alvarez now knows that what that reader considered flaws are part of what makes her style distinctive. “I’m writing my Spanish in English,” Alvarez says. “The structure is Spanish. The syntax, the floridness of it is the way I hear and understand and construct English. They’re all enmeshed.”

In conversation, Alvarez is an exuberant and fluid communicator of both ideas and process, yet she’s also clear that the transformation of ideas into stories isn’t easy. She likens this beautiful struggle of creation to exploring uncharted territory; there is no road map and no recipe. “When we talk, I have this abstraction, but really, when you’re writing, you’re sort of in the dark, you know, you’re discovering as you go along. You go down the wrong alley, and you have to start over.”

Finding a book that does something new and speaks to your experience is a revelation. Early in Alvarez’s career, these moments were so rare that the pleasure of recognition still resonates today; when she talks about them now it sounds as though she’s experiencing the awakening all over again. “I loved Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior because it was the first book that I read that was by a Chinese American woman, but it could well have been written by a Dominican woman,” says Alvarez. She remembers the first line as one “that I think any Latina of my generation could start her novel with.” The line is “‘You must not tell anyone,’ my mother said, ‘what I am about to tell you’”—then Hong tells the story. Alvarez related because her own mother taught her that family secrets were to be fiercely guarded. Though she respects her family, she has reveled in the freedom of transgressing that taboo throughout her working life.

Alvarez continues to take great pleasure in exposing and exploring life’s great truths in her fiction. Not teaching means more time for travel and for writing from wherever in the world she and her partner land in. As she proves in The Cemetery of Untold Stories, there’s nothing retiring about this phase of life.

Julia Alvarez author photo © Todd Balfour for Middlebury College.

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