On Monday night, Julia Alvarez and Edwidge Danticat met to discuss In the Time of the Butterflies. It was an amazing conversation. I scribbled down the choice bits in my notebook, and I can’t resist sharing them here.
I’ll follow the journalist’s dictate to put the strongest material first. Edwidge Danticat asked Julia Alvarez about her writing routines and rituals. She said she starts each day with the Mayan weaver’s prayer. She explained that Mayan weavers begin the day with whatever is on hand, whatever thread, whatever dye—but with no pattern.
Here’s the prayer: “Grant me the intelligence and the patience to find the true pattern.”
With both women coming from an island which has seen such violence at the hands of dictators, and with the novel dealing with the brave resistance of Dominicans (including the Mirabal sisters, the protagonists), it was inevitable that the discussion turned to social justice. Edwidge Danticat said that memory can save us, that memory can be a powerful tool in our quest for justice.
Julia Alvarez talked about the slow, incremental pace of change, but she reminded us that social change does happen—often this change begins in our every day relationships. She quoted a Seamus Heaney poem, “The Cure at Troy”:
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
Alvarez went on to say that testimonial is a way that so many Latin American cultures have coped with what has been dealt to them by the dictators who ruled them—something to think about as we mark the death of Archbishop Romero tomorrow.
Even though the talk turned to social justice and the miscarriage of social justice, the discussion ended on an upbeat note, with the reminder that any one of us could be the one that helps usher in the change. If you went back in time and suggested that 4 sisters could bring down the entrenched Trujillo regime, people would scoff. Yet that’s exactly what happened.
We might say, “Yes, but we don’t want to have to sacrifice our lives.” The evening’s discussion didn’t go this route, but I would point out that martyrdom is not the only route of resistance. There’s a long tradition of artists working for, and achieving, social change. Likewise mothers and workers and all sorts of others—choose your favorite oppressed group.
During the question and answer period, I asked Julia Alvarez if she still writes poetry, since I still love her 2 volumes of poetry. Her face softened, she smiled, and she said that poetry is still her first love. She said that after she finishes each novel, she returns to a period of poetry writing, and she’s always reading the poetry of others. In fact, she begins every day reading poetry, which she compared to a choir that sings and holds the same note at a perfect pitch.
The event was webcast, and at some point, I expect you'll be able to see it here.
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