Something to Declare: Essays [NOOK Book]

Overview

In her first book of nonfiction, Julia Alvarez takes us behind the scenes and shares the lessons she's learned on her way to becoming an internationally acclaimed novelist. In 1960, when Alvarez was ten years old, her family fled the Dominican Republic. Her father participated in a failed coup attempt against the dictator Rafael Trujillo, and exile to the United States was the only way to save his life. The family settled in New York City, where Dr. Alvarez set up a medical practice in the Bronx while his wife ...
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Something to Declare: Essays

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Overview

In her first book of nonfiction, Julia Alvarez takes us behind the scenes and shares the lessons she's learned on her way to becoming an internationally acclaimed novelist. In 1960, when Alvarez was ten years old, her family fled the Dominican Republic. Her father participated in a failed coup attempt against the dictator Rafael Trujillo, and exile to the United States was the only way to save his life. The family settled in New York City, where Dr. Alvarez set up a medical practice in the Bronx while his wife and four daughters set about the business of assimilation--a lifelong struggle. Loss of her native land, language, culture, and extended family formed the thematic basis for two of Julia Alvarez's three best-selling novels--HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS and its sequel, YO! Her father's revolutionary ties inspired IN THE TIME OF THE BUTTERFLIES, her historical novel about one of Trujillo's most infamous atrocities. SOMETHING TO DECLARE offers an extraordinary collection of essays that deal with the two big issues of Alvarez's life--growing up with one foot in each culture and writing. The twelve essays that make up "Customs," the first of two parts, examine the specific effects of exile on this writer. The essays are personal--how her maternal grandfather passed along his love of the arts, how the nuclear family-in-exile snuggled down every year to watch the Miss America contest from the parental bed, how Julia feared her family might disown her upon publication of her first novel. In the second half, "Declarations," are twelve essays about writing that range from confession of Alvarez's means of supporting her writing habit to the gritty details of her actual process. Every one of these essays is warm, open, honest, and generous. SOMETHING TO DECLARE will appeal not only to her many fans, but to students of writing at all levels.
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Editorial Reviews

Laura Jamison
Reading Julia Alvarez's new collection is like curling up with a glass of wine in one hand and the phone in the other, listening to a big-hearted, wisecracking friend share her hard-earned wisdom about family, identity and the art of writing. -- People
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Having transformed her tumultuous life story -- a passage from childhood in the Dominican Republic and Queens, New York, to a career as a celebrated author and creative writing teacher -- into a body of startlingly lyrical fiction and poetry, Alvarez here chronicles that journey in nonfiction form. These 24 autobiographical essays are meant to answer various questions her readers have posed about her life and her writing. For Alvarez, these questions ultimately can be summed up in one line: 'Do you have anything more to declare?' The first section of the book, 'Customs,' paints with vibrant, earthy clarity -- in classic Alvarez style -- the author's Dominican girlhood, surrounded by the rich cast of characters that made up her extended family and the constant menace of dictator Rafael Trujillo's police state. She also describes her escape to the U.S. with her parents and sisters, along with the assimilation that made her a 'hyphenated American.' The seeds of her writerly beginnings are picked out here and then further explored in the second part of her book, 'Declarations.' These essays examine the difficult balance between the writing life and 'real life'; the joys of teaching; the daily process of writing; and an unsuccessful trip to Necedeh, Wisconsin, to research a potential novel. Alvarez also includes her 'ten commandments' for writing, which consist of some of the author's favorite quotes (beginning with a Zen saying and ending with Samuel Johnson's well-known credo, 'If you want to be a writer, then write. Write every day!'). Taken together, the pieces are as open and lively as Alvarez's readers have come to expect from her work, although the inspiration and guidance they offer to aspiring writers are less striking.
Library Journal
This first collection of essays, some previously published, by award-winning Hispanic American author Alvarez, ranges freely between her life as a child displaced by her family's flight from the Dominican Republic and her development as a writer. In two sections, she explores childhood memories of trying to become part of American society, her developing interest in writing -- encountering encouragement from a teacher and some discouragement from her family -- and the road to becoming a full-time writer. Along the way, she offers comments on teaching -- repeating Roethke's saying that teaching is 'one of the few professions that permit love -- and some advice for young writers, including the idea that 'we are here to learn a craft that truly takes all of life to learn. -- Nancy Shires, East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina
School Library Journal
YA-The poet and novelist brings together two dozen pithy autobiographical essays that are by turn humorous, thoughtful, or frightening. The first third of the book follows Alvarez's early Dominican childhood-when she was one of the wild cousins who was seated between well-behaved ones at family gatherings-through her family's immigration to the United States and their assimilation. Later essays take up the author's college years, budding career as a writer, marriages, and return trips to the Dominican Republic. Alvarez presents her personal experiences with a literary skill that converts them into universal moments. This book will delight her fans, attract new readers to her previous work, and open the possibility for discussions about experiences with emigration, immigration, growing apart from one's family, and discovering one's own career path and status as an adult.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA
Megan Harlan
As demonstrated in spry, inviting pieces concerning her writing process and hectically nomadic teaching life, Alvarez has clearly made her second language her own. --Entertainment Weekly
The Nation
[Alvarez is] a writer on a different kind of edge . . . who uses language skillfully to depict complex inner lives.
Bookpage
An honest and enlightening story that chronicles the evolution of an inscure adolescent immigrant from the Dominican Republic into a best-selling American novelist. . . .Aspiring writers will find it particularly instructive to follow the journey.
Kirkus Reviews
The much-praised poet and novelist Alvarez (Yo!, 1997; How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, 1991) offers a set of essays and reminiscences, all previously published in magazines or anthologies. The first half of the book consists of short memoirs dealing mostly with her life as a cultural and ethnic hybrid: she was born in Trujillo's Dominican Republic but escaped that dictatorship with her family (her father opposed the government) and moved to the U.S. Appealingly, however, Alvarez wears her troubles lightly. For instance, as she tells it, in New York City she and her three sisters liked to watch the Miss America pageant, yet worried they'd never fit in here because they looked and spoke so differently from the supposed American ideal. Even so, pretty soon their own looks became fashionable. Gracious and urbane, the author doesn't whine about ethnic victimization in America, though she experienced her share of it. Her voice, that of a voluble friend full of experiences to confide, brings comfort; she persuades us that interethnic harmony may be possible. Her warm personality shines through and keeps one reading. The collection's second half, though also memoiristic, concerns more frontally her experiences as a feminist and a writer determined to succeed against the odds. Alvarez waxes pat on this theme. Seemingly caught up in the feminist movement's now-conventional rhetoric, she defines herself and her victories too narrowly. Why, for example, must Maxine Hong Kingston be the preferred role model, and not Gertrude Stein or Susan Sontag, Angela Carter or Christa Wolf? Why shouldn't Alvarez seek to establish her identity and place in the larger world of letters,too, rather than mainly in the paradoxically exclusive province of gender and ethnicity? At moments she almost addresses such issues but on the whole avoids asking herself hard questions. A pleasing but not probing foray by the author into herself and others.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565128392
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 8/1/1998
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 300
  • Sales rank: 609,023
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Julia  Alvarez
Julia Alvarez is the author of five books of fiction, including How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies, as well as a book of essays; five collections of poetry; and five books for children. She lives in Vermont, where she is a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College.

Biography

Julia Alvarez was born in New York City during her Dominican parents' "first and failed" stay in the United States. While she was still an infant, the family returned to the Dominican Republic -- where her father, a vehement opponent of the Trujillo dictatorship, resumed his activities with the resistance. In 1960, in fear for their safety, the Alvarezes fled the country, settling once more in New York.

Alvarez has often said that the immigrant experience was the crucible that turned her into a writer. Her struggle with the nuances of the English language made her deeply conscious of the power of words, and exposure to books and reading sharpened both her imagination and her storytelling skills. She graduated summa cum laude from Middlebury College in 1971, received her M.F.A. from Syracuse University, and spent the next two decades in the education field, traveling around the country with the poetry-in-the-schools program and teaching English and Creative Writing to elementary, high school, and college students.

Alvarez's verse began to appear in literary magazines and anthologies, and in 1984, she published her first poetry collection, Homecoming. She had less success marketing her novel -- a semiautobiographical story that traced the painful assimilation of a Dominican family over a period of more than 30 eventful years. A series of 15 interconnected stories that unfold in reverse chronological order, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents addresses, head-on, the obstacles and challenges immigrants face in adapting to life in a new country.

It took some time for "ethnic" literature to gain enough of a foothold in the literary establishment for Alvarez's agent, a tireless champion of minority authors, to find a publisher. But when the novel was released in 1991, it received strongly positive reviews. And so, at the tender age of 41, Alvarez became a star. Three years later, she proved herself more than a "one-hit wonder," when her second novel, In the Time of Butterflies was nominated for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award. Since then, she has made her name as a writer of remarkable versatility, juggling novels, poetry, children's books, and nonfiction with equal grace and aplomb. She lives in Vermont, where she serves as a writer in residence at her alma mater, Middlebury College. In addition, she and her husband run a coffee farm in the Dominican Republic that hosts a school to teach the local farmers and their families how to read and write.

Good To Know

From 1975 until 1978, Alvarez served as Poet-in-the-Schools in Kentucky, Delaware, and North Carolina.

She has held positions as a professor of creative writing and English at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts (1979-81), the University of Vermont (1981-83), and the University of Illinois (1985-88).

In 1984, Alvarez was the Jenny McKean Moore Visiting Writer at George Washington University. Currently, she is a professor of English at Middlebury College.

She and her husband run a coffee farm, Alta Gracia, in the Dominican Republic.

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    1. Hometown:
      Middlebury, Vermont
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 27, 1950
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Middlebury College, 1971; M.F.A., Syracuse University, 1975

Read an Excerpt

TEN OF MY WRITING COMMANDMENTS

I. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few.

--ZEN MASTERS

II. The obligation of the artist is not to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly.

--ANTON CHEKHOV

III. Do not be afraid!

--ANGELS APPEARING TO SHEPERDS TENDING THEIR FLOCKS BY NIGHT

IV. If you bring forth what is inside you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is inside you, what is inside you will destroy you.

--ST. THOMAS, GNOSTIC GOSPELS

V. Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.

--WEI T'AI

VI. One must write a poem the way one rules an empire, the way one cooks a small fish.

--AUTHOR UNKNOWN

VII. El papel lo aguanta todo. (Paper holds everything.)

--MAMI

VIII. You must change your life.

--RAINER MARIA RILKE

IX. The function of freedom is to free someone else.

--TONI MORRISON

X. If you want to be a writer, than write. Write every day!

--SAMUEL JOHNSON

Excerpted from Something to Declare Copyright (c) 1998 Julia Alvarez. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin.

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Table of Contents

Something to Declare to My Readers

Part One: Customs

Grandfather's Blessing

Our Papers

My English

My Second Opera

I Want to Be Miss Am,rica

El Doctor

La Gringuita

Picky Eater

Briefly, A Gardener

Imagining Motherhood

Genetics of Justice

Family Matters

Part Two: Declarations

First Muse

Of Maids and Other Muses

So Much Depends

Dona Aida, with Your Permission

Have Typewriter, Will Travel

A Vermont Writer from the Dominican Republic

Chasing the Butterflies

Goodbye, Ms. Chips

In the Name of the Novel

Ten of My Writing Commandments

Grounds for Fiction

Writing Matters

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

In her new book, Something to Declare, Julia Alvarez writes of the process by which truth becomes fiction and fiction becomes truthful. "Who knows," she writes, "what mystery (or madness) it is that drives us to our computers for two, three, four years, in pursuit of some sparkling possibility that looks like dull fact to everyone else's eyes." Indeed, it is the very collisions of art and reality, intellect and emotion that lie at the heart of Alvarez's entire body of work.

Her delightful, energetic novels, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and ¡Yo! tell the story of an immigrant's search for identity and a place in the world. Both feature the second of four sisters, a woman who finds her identity as a writer, an interpreter of her family's and her homeland's history, and as a lover of language itself. Something to Declare is Alvarez's first nonfiction book, in which she writes autobiographicallyñfor the first timeñof her life as an exile, a daughter, a teacher, a wife and even a gardener in Vermont. In so doing, Alvarez shows us the method behind her magic: how she has reshaped the experiences that have influenced her, how stories are born, and why, after all, writing really matters to our world and to our souls.

Alvarez's fiction, her tales of growing up, her portraits of women and men, of families and insurgencies domestic, political, and cultural, are reminiscent of authors as disparate as Jane Austen, Gabriel García Marquéz, and Toni Morrison. But like the Caribbean culture into which she was born, Alvarez's voice is a distinct, musical synthesis, and in her work she merges the two very different settings of her own life: the Dominican Republic and the United States.

Much of Alvarez's writing revolves around the drama of family, but politics is never far removed. In How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and ¡Yo!, and in Something to Declare she describes in often harrowing detail her family's hurried escape after an aborted coup against the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Alvarez's narratives can move seamlessly from the chatter of young girls to the terror of a father hiding from Trujillo's secret police in a hidden closet. A passage from The García Girls illustrates how the narrator's sensual connection to her homeland is accompanied by an awareness of its innate danger: "The rustling leaves of the guava trees echo the warnings of her old aunts: you will get lost, you will get kidnapped . . . you will get killed."

Alvarez began her career as a poet and has published a number of acclaimed volumes of poetry, including Homecoming (1984; expanded and reissued in 1996) and The Other Side/El Otro Lado (1995). In 1991 she received the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award for excellence in literature that reflects a multicultural viewpoint. That same year, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents was listed by both the ALA and The New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book. A national bestseller, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents paved the way for Alvarez's subsequent fiction, from the haunting In the Time of the Butterflies to the uproarious sequel to The García Girls, ¡Yo! It also positioned Alvarez as one of a pioneering group of Latina writers, including Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Denise Chavez, and Helena María Viramontes.

ABOUT THE BOOKS

Something to Declare

In this two-part collection of essays, Alvarez chronicles her abiding passions: the drama of family and history, and the art of writing. For Alvarez the two go hand-in-hand. In the first section ("Customs"), Alvarez describes first hearing the strains of the language that would become the lingua franca of her writing in her U.S.-educated diplomat grandfather's perfectly enunciated English. In the essay "My English," she describes how English went from being what her parents spoke to keep secrets from her to her ticket into a new world and a career. Conversely, in the essay, "Family Matters" Alvarez describes how Spanish remains a strong influence on her writing. She writes: "What surprises me is to discover how much of my verbal rhythm, my word choices, my attention to the sound of my prose comes from my native language as spoken by la familia." Alvarez's family is ever present in these essays. Few contemporary authors have written as keenly about the relationships between sisters, and between daughters and fathers and mothers as Alvarez does. Alvarez's doctor father is a lone, proud man among five women; at peace with his family and yet rooted in his culture's code of male privilege and domination. Alvarez's mother tries to keep her four girls from plunging headlong into a culture that mocks the rules of the old world and la familiaóa land of private schools, rebellion, boyfriends, bell-bottoms, marriages, divorces, and careers as farfetched as a that of a writer living in Vermont.

In the second half of Something to Declare ("Declarations"), Alvarez tackles the business of writing itself. She talks openly about the personal sacrifices she has made for writing. She describes how she chooses which story to tell, why some of her projects have been stillborn, and how her career as a well-known writer living in the United States has "played" (and not played) with her extended family in the Dominican Republic. Among the gems in here is a description of Alvarez making a keynote address to the Caribbean Studies Association in Santo Domingo only to receive a tongue lashing from an elderly Dominican writer for writing in English. Alvarez's response is a powerful proclamation of a writer's sense of identity, roots, and the need to live in many worlds at once.

In the essay, First Muse, Alvarez describes her discovery of The Arabian Nights and Scheherazade. Seeing herself reflected in the dark-haired, almond-eyed girl on the book's cover, Alvarez identified with the bright, ambitious girl stuck in a kingdom that didn't think females were very important. It was Scheherazade who gave Alvarez the courage to explore the cross currents of sexual politics in the Caribbean and introduced her to the power storytelling gave her within her culture and family. The title of Something to Declare captures with typical Alvarez wit the dual dramas she describes in the book's pages. While she often feels like a stranger, passing through customs of a strange world, her passport is the writer's voice: ringing out with clarity, commitment and the will to declare the truth as she sees it, wherever it is to be found. People magazine wrote of Something to Declare: "Reading Julia Alvarez's new collection of essays is like curling up with a glass of wine in one hand and the phone in the other, listening to a big-hearted, wisecracking friend share the hard-earned wisdom about family, identity, and the art of writing."

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents

This acclaimed novel begins in the present, as 39-year-old Yolanda returns to her native Dominican Republic, looking to her many tías and cousins "like one of those Peace Corps girls who have let themselves go." Basking in the familiarity of her homeland, with a craving for guava that leads her on an expedition into the island's interior, Yolanda journeys back in time and space to that moment when the García family was suddenly uprooted to the United States. With each of the four García sisters taking a turn on stage to play out their dramas of rebellion, self-discovery, partings and returnings, Alvarez creates a sensual tapestry of interlocking relationships set on the fault line of two very different cultures. Scenes built around carefully observed moments, a gesture or conversation, resonate powerfully against those that come before and afterward. The result is a novel that builds an almost rhythmic momentumóuntil we realize that through Yolanda we are experiencing what it means to carry within us those times and places that shape usóbut to which we can never return.

In the Time of the Butterflies

Based on the true story of the Mirabal sisters, three revered young activists murdered after visiting their jailed husbands in 1960 in the Dominican Republic, In the Time Of the Butterflies is a novel told primarily from the point of view of Dedé, the surviving sister. Nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, In the Time of the Butterflies has a tone and feel that is distinct from Alvarez's other work. As we watch the Mirabal sisters leave their innocent, upper class existence for the lives of revolutionaries, Alvarez weaves a hypnotic spell of politics, family, and a slowly unfolding tragedy. In the Time of the Butterflies is a novel infused not only with Alvarez's impeccable attention to physical and psychological detail, but with a powerful sense of outrage. Much of Alvarez's writing captures the small acts of courage that allow families and individuals to survive upheaval. In the Time of the Butterflies is about following one's passions in the face of death itself.

¡Yo!

¡Yo! picks up where How the García Girls leaves off, with Yolanda García having become a writer famous for the stories she tells about her family and friends who, to varying degrees, are outraged by seeing themselves in print. And in ¡Yo! these characters get their say, as Alvarez brilliantly weaves together 16 stories told from the point of view of sisters, mother, a frustrated lover, a lonely, freewheeling girlfriend, a former teacher and even the maid's daughter. Yolanda protests to them all: "All I did was write a book . . . It's fiction!" But on a visit back to the island she concedes: "It's all one big story down here . . . The aunts all know that their husbands have mistresses but act like they don't know. The president is blind but pretends he can see . . . It's like one of those Latin American novels that everyone thinks is magical realism in the States, but it's the way things really are down here."

Julia Alvarez has been hailed uniformly as a writer of strength and depth, whose warm, wise prose infuses an acute awareness of history with an insightful sense of contemporary life. Described as, "Potent and luminous . . . a writer of grace and power" (The Philadelphia Inquirer), critics have also praised Alvarez's work as: "Delightful . . . engaging" (The Chicago Tribune); "Ironic and brilliant" (San Francisco Chronicle); "Breathtaking" (The St. Petersburg Times); "Lucid . . . affecting and genuine . . . laced with wisdom and humor" (Miami Herald); and "A tour de force" (The New York Times Book Review).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Julia Alvarez was born in the Dominican Republic and migrated with her family to the United States in 1960. Her acclaimed first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, received the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award, was listed by Americas magazine as 1993's #1 bestseller in Latin America, and was named by both the ALA and The New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book of 1991. Her second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, was nominated for the 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award. Both books are available in Plume editions, along with her poetry collections, The Other Side and Homecoming. She lives in Middlebury, Vermont.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Something To Declare

  1. Something to Declare is divided into two parts: Customs, and Declarations. Why do you think she structured the book in this way? How are the two sections different from each other, and in what ways do they work together?
  2. Although Julia Alvarez writes in English and claims that she "is not a Dominican writer," can comparisons be made between her work and that of other Latin-American writers you have read? What authors come to mind?
  3. Throughout Something to Declare Julia Alvarez invokes the names of English language authors to whom she feels a kinship. Are there other English language writers whose influences you see in her work?
  4. In Something to Declare Julia Alvarez discusses her own writing techniques and methods of forming stories, as well as her belief in writing as a discipline that must be practiced every day. Do you find Alvarez's discussion of writing and the writing life inspiring, or daunting? What advice do you draw from this work?
  5. Alvarez finds the subjects of her poems and fiction in unusual places: the 1961 Better Homes & Garden Sewing Book, the kitchen of a writing colony, etc. How does this approach differ from what you were taught or have come to expect from other writers' descriptions of their writing process?
  6. Alvarez uses autobiographical information as a basis for the two essays, Family Matters and Grounds for Fiction. Specifically, how does she incorporate this material and use it to illustrate her points?
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2013

    Good book

    Alvarez writes with a kindness and wit that combined, make for a very nice read. Definitely a feel-gooder

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  • Posted November 13, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Amazing!

    Julia Alvarez lays it all out for those of us who love her writing...She is true to life and inspirational...

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