True Story: I starting reading Julia Alvarez just after I graduated from college and started working at Waterstone’s in Boston. A colleague was raving about How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, but the Exeter Street store where we worked hadn’t yet opened for business. So, despite being grimy from unpacking cartons and relaying shelves, I took myself down to the Barnes & Noble at Downtown Crossing to buy a copy, where I found it in the Discover Great New Writers display.
Alvarez’s vibrant prose, warm humor, and vivid characters were a revelation to me, a gal from the South Shore of Massachusetts (albeit one with not-quite-the-standard-background), recently sprung from life on a small campus in the woods of Maine, starving for the wider world. “So, this,” I remember thinking, “is what’s it’s like to become American.” I’m half-immigrant Japanese, half-Anglo-American, and it was the Garcia girls that helped me understand my mother’s experience all the better; we were the only family like ours on the block, but we were not the only family with a story like ours.
Alvarez’s compassion, humor, and eye for the telling detail are on full display in her new book, the memoir A Wedding in Haiti, my copy of which is now as dog-eared and splattered with marginalia as my copies of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and its sequel of sorts, ¡Yo!.
After purchasing a coffee farm in her native Dominican Republic, Alvarez and her husband meet a young Haitian man named Piti, and Alvarez promises him that they will attend the young man’s wedding — “One of those big-hearted promises you make that you never think you’ll be called on to deliver someday,” she writes. Alvarez not only makes good on her promise to Piti, but also makes a return trip to Haiti after the devastating earthquake. A Wedding in Haiti is at once an intimate meditation on love and family and a compelling commentary on poverty, history, and survival: “Sometimes having a conscience is an inconvenient thing to have, and costly. But not to follow it exacts an even greater cost, having to live with the hobbled person you become when you ignore it.”
Reading A Wedding in Haiti brought me back to Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, a 1994 Discover Great New Writers selection — which I dipped into briefly, only to be immediately caught by her luminous prose.
I have some reading to do this weekend.
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.