Obsessed by human stories, Latina novelist Yolanda Garcia has managed to put herself at the center of many lives. Thrice married, she's also managed to remain childless while giving very public birth to her highly autobiographical writing. She's famous for it. Now her characters want a chance to tell their side of it. And tell it they do! Everybody who's ever been caught in Yo's web from her sisters to her third husband can hardly wait to talk. The stories they tell on celebrated writer Yolanda Garcia (known to her intimates as Yo) deliver delicious insight into the very nature of artistic creation and the material from which it is built.
Yo! is a novel about what happens when an author really does write what she knows. At once funny and poignant, intellectual and gossipy, lighthearted and layered in meaning, Yo! is, above all, the portrait of an artist. And with its bright colors, passion, and penchant for controversy, it's a portrait that could come only from the palette of Julia Alvarez.
1. The one word title, Yo!, has three definitions: the first person singular pronoun, I, in Spanish; an exclamation used as a greeting, to express excitement, or to attract attention; and a nickname, short for Yolanda, the character on whom all of the other characters' stories are focused. It seems a particularly intriguing title, especially since Yolanda herself never has the opportunity to use the personal pronoun. Discuss this ironic nature of the title. Why doesn't Yo ever have a chance to speak for herself?
2. From time to time, Yolanda Garcia makes a big deal about being Latina. How important do you think her ethnicity is to her sense ofherself as a person and writer? Do you think she uses this ethnicity to protect herself from accountability in either culture? Does she use her calling as a writer in the same way?
3. What is the significance of each of the literary terms in the titles of the sixteen narratives? Why do you think the author chose to include them?
4. Expatriated from the Dominican Republic at the age of ten, Yolanda Garcia, daughter of upper-class exiles, finds herself driven to improve the circumstances of the servant and peasant classes back on the island. She goes to extremes, trying to share her U.S. education and ideals with those who are hired as her servants. How does this impulse fit with her sisters' notions of her personality? With the way her stepdaughter sees her? And the way her stalker imagines her? Which of these visions of Yolanda do you think she would most resent? Most appreciate?
5. Yo claims that men don't understand her bicultural self, that they prevent her from being a writer. Do you agree with her analysis? Half of the stories in this book are from the points of view of men. How successful is Alvarez in presenting the points of view of male characters?
6. Why do you think Yolanda, unlike her sisters, has never had children?
7. The various images of womanhood Yolanda Garcia embodies in the minds of her various biographers range from aggressive competitor to sexy glamour puss to frightened prey. Having read all sixteen versions of Yo, how would you characterize her? Which of the storytellers do you believe sees her most clearly as she really is? What do you think Julia Alvarez believes is truest of Yolanda Garcia?
8. Her various biographers accuse Yo of many transgressions in her pursuit of a writing career from her sisters who claim that she has exposed their personal lives to the public eye to her former student who believes she has plagiarized his work. What do these accusations say about where a writer's real life stops and her fiction begins? Is truth what really happened? Or is it something else altogether? What's the use of fiction, anyway?
9. Julia Alvarez has defined truth as all the points around the circle and plot as a quilt, which is a way that I think a lot of women experience plot, as opposed to the hero directed on his adventure . . . against all odds, doing what he needs to do. How does the form of this character novel illustrate her image of plot direction as relational as opposed to directional?
10. How do the various portraits of Yolanda Garcia and their different layers of meaning add to one another? How do they build to a crescendo in her father's narrative?
Recommended Reading from Julia Alvarez
I'm always reading a book, and I usually fall in love with something about that book if it's any good at all. I keep a diary of all the books I read, with notes to myself of what I liked or didn't like about each one. When asked what books I would recommend to readers of Yo!, I looked at the last five years of my reading list and picked a dozen fiction titles by my contemporaries, keystone books for me, books that taught me something about writing, and about the human heart.
Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams
Kingsolver writes about post-sixties people (like me), still trying to live out promises we made to ourselves back then. There's an intimacy and genuineness to her style I truly admire.
Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina
A remarkable example of how to write about the most painful and devastating circumstances without self-indulgence, and with such accuracy of tone that the reader cannot shake the character's tragedy.
Russell Banks, Continental Drift
As for how to be a political and still tell a good story, this book gets that balance perfectly. It also taught me a lot about achieving irony by the juxtoposition of two different "plots."
Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
Plotting a novel is not just about charting a series of actions but about plunging your reader into the rhythms of a character's being. I love this strange, lyrical book.
Gloria Naylor, Mama Day
This one taught me how to work a larger canvas. Naylor tells history, she tells a love story, a grandmother-granddaughter story, the story of an island, a community, and keeps all the parts stirring inside her readers.
Ron Hansen, Mariette in Ecstasy
With lyricism that weaves a spiritual spell, this novel taught me so much about tone and about the magic of naming and the power of precise details.
Elena Castedo, Paradise
A novel presenting the complex adult world from the fresh and delightful point of view of a young girl, it taught me about voice, and about the humor of hearing a story "out of the mouths of babes."
William Trevor, Reading Turgenev
This beautiful book made me want to create characters as sharply and fully realized as Trevor does. I even went back and reread some of Turgenev's stories so I could feel even closer to Trevor's characters.
E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News
An author who knows everything. Among her many other gifts, I love her prickly, brisk, felicitous prose style. I kep a dictionary handy and learned a lot of new words.
Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries
I admired the way Carol Shields plays with truth and fiction, how the different traditional avenues of women's expression (from recipes to newspaper clippings) are used to convey the depth and passion of a woman's psyche.
Merch Rodoreda, translated by David Rosenthal, The Time of the Doves
This book is exquisite; a simple soul given voice with such freshness the reader believes she is feeling, not reading. It reminded me of Buson's secret to writing haiku: "Use the commonplace to escape the commonplace."
Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek
With her absolute brilliance of language and detail, Cisneros opened up doors for me by making me hear the music of Spanish in my English and by showing me ways of presenting characters who are also of two worlds.