Julia Alvarez: Biography, Books & Poems

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

Looking at Julia Alvarez's life, we see how the flavors of the Dominican Republic, her nomadic teaching experiences, and her creation of colorful characters and images bring power and vividness to her writing. Her poetry and books bring the voices of Latina women to life.

Her Early Life Sets the Stage

Julia Alvarez
Julia Alvarez

When she was ten, Julia Alvarez, along with her parents and three sisters, fled the Dominican Republic in 1960 and emigrated to New York. They were fleeing the regime of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who was terrorizing the citizens.

As a young child in the Dominican Republic, Julia didn't read because it was an oral culture. She hated books and school. In this new world, young Julia found that she had much to learn. There was a new language, new ways of doing things, and the the opportunity for a life without fear.

Because her parents were afraid of the public school system, they insisted she go to boarding school at the age of thirteen. They had grown up in a country ruled by fear, and they brought that fear with them to America. Alvarez was far more comfortable in her new surroundings, and as a result, she lived on her own from the moment they sent her to school.

High School Brings Revelations

As a high school student, Alvarez found a love for the English language and for books that had escaped her in her homeland. In writing, she found her voice and was able to alleviate the pain of not fitting into the new culture. When she was writing, she felt like she belonged, something she had not felt since moving to the United States.

She found her true calling, and after high school enrolled in Connecticut College. There, she won the school's poetry contest, and that was all she needed to make the move to the Breadloaf School of English at Middlebury College, where she earned her BA in 1971. The last stop on her educational trail was at Syracuse University, where she enrolled in the MFA program to work on her craft.

The Teacher Finds Her Poetic Voice

With school behind her, Julia traveled the country introducing poetry to students in varying parts of America. She offered workshops and readings, and for the next ten years she drove and taught all over the country. She lived a nomadic life, but she enjoyed spreading her love of poetry to people who would take her classes or workshops.

While she was traveling and teaching she was also writing, and during that time she put together her first collection of poems. In 1984, her collection titled, Homecomings was published, but she feared that it would not be read. She was afraid to allow her voice to go public, to open up and share personal parts of herself. This collection was expanded and reissued in 1996, to excellent reviews.

Her second book of poetry, The Other Side was published in 1995, and consists primarily of two longer narrative poems. In 2005, she brought out The Woman I Kept to Myself, which is a collection of poems spanning decades, where the writer looks to the past through the present. Her poetry is real and visual, and it shows the reader who she is, where she comes from, and what she has brought to the party.

Fiction Takes Center Stage

Poetry took a backseat to the stories swirling in her head. In 1991 she published her first book of fiction, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, a story about adjustment. The Garcia girls, Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia, must learn to live in a new culture with new ways of doing things; in short, they are learning to assimilate. Alvarez uses humor when she shows the difficulties and missteps that happen with language barriers, as we watch them try to become American. But the girls are also totally aware of their Dominican roots.

In the Time of the Butterflies was published in 1994. This piece of historical fiction was based on the true story of the Marabel sisters and their determination to overthrow the Trujillo regime. The reader is brought into the lives of four sisters, Patria, Dede, Minerva, and Marie Theresa, who will stop at nothing to achieve their goal and save their country from ruination at the hands of a ruthless dictator.

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