Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Butterflies, Bones, and Our Place on the Planet

Last night, my spouse and I drove down to Books and Books in Coral Gables to see Julia Alvarez and Edwidge Danticat talk about In the Time of the Butterflies. It was an amazing evening, as I knew it would be. Tomorrow I'll post a compilation of choice quotes, but today, I want to think about Julia Alvarez and her books.

I first heard about Julia Alvarez at a conference on World Literature held at Appalachian State University in 1996. I was a last minute replacement on a panel presentation when the originally scheduled presenter had to undergo surgery. I went up with two other people from the community college where I was teaching in South Carolina--I still meet up with these two women periodically at Mepkin Abbey.

During that conference, we heard someone mention Julia Alvarez--it was the first time I'd heard her name. Of course, her first book, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, had only been out for a few years. The presenter spoke about a more recently published book, In the Time of the Butterflies, but frankly, the other books sounded more interesting to me. The first Alvarez book I ever read was Yo!, but my friend read In the Time of the Butterflies, and she raved about it.

I loved Yo!, but then again, I've always loved books that had a writer/artist/creator as the protagonist. If my friend hadn't been so enthusiastic about In the Time of the Butterflies, I might have never read it. I worried about the fact that it was a historical novel about a time and a country that I wasn't sure I understood. But then we moved to South Florida, and I wasn't working as much, and I didn't have any friends outside of my spouse, and I had a library card, and we were trying to conserve our money. And so, I read it, and I, too, was blown away.

I've read it several times since, and it still moves me. I'm rather staggered to think about how long this book has been part of my life. It's been 15 years since that conference, but I still remember so many aspects of that week-end. I remember being surrounded by all sorts of people, and I'd study all of them, looking for clues about my future and how to live it. I had a teaching-intensive community college job, and I wasn't sure it was a good fit. But I didn't want a research university job that would require me to write a lot of literary criticism. I met some administrators, and their lives also didn't inspire me to aspire to those positions. I wish I could say that 15 years later I've figured all this out, but I haven't. In a skinny minute, I would move to Boone, NC, home of Appalachian State U. At the time we were there, it was very white--even the cleaning staff at the university conference center was white, which was so unusual that we remarked upon it as we drove away. I wonder if the town and university is still that non-diverse.

I'm also staggered by how long we've lived down here, since 1998. I've met a lot of Dominicans and Haitians since moving here, and before we moved here, I'd never met one. Granted, I've met them primarily in a student-teacher relationship, so it's different than the friendship that Julia Alvarez and Edwidge Danticat have.

That's where literature can rush in to fill the gap. Through the books of Alvarez, I've learned more than I probably would have learned otherwise about the Dominican Republic. Likewise, through the writings of Danticat, I've learned about the other side of the island, Haiti. I can weep over the characters that they create, and perhaps that's better than making a spectacle of myself by weeping over the stories of my students or friends that I might make.

In this week where we commemorate the life and martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, I have repression and dictatorship on the brain. Last night was a wonderful antidote to the despair that can come from contemplating such things. More tomorrow.

No comments: