Honoring Julia Alvarez
President Barack Obama awards the 2013 National Medal of Arts to Julia Alvarez, a novelist, poet and essayist from Weybridge, during a ceremony last week in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
Julia Alvarez, my dear friend and neighbor in Weybridge, received the National Medal of Arts last week from Barack Obama at the White House — an award that recognizes her considerable achievement as a poet, novelist, and writer of nonfiction, one who has crossed national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries, and embodied the immigrant experience in the United States in poetic and inspiring ways.
This is, of course, a very special honor, and she deserves this recognition. Her friends are proud of her, and Vermont is proud of her. I know that Middlebury College, from which she graduated in 1971, and where she has taught and served as writer in residence for over two decades now, is also proud of her.
In a poem, “Exile,” from “The Other Side/El Otro Lado” (1995), Julia Alvarez once recalled:
The night we fled the country, Papi,
You told me we were going to the beach,
Hurried me to get dressed along with the others,
While posted at a window, you looked out
At a curfew-darkened Ciudad Trujillo.
That was in 1960, and Julia was 10 years old. Her family was packed into a car and fled to New York City, a successful escape from the tyrannies of Rafael Trujillo, the brutal dictator of the Dominican Republic, whom her father had tried to overthrow. It was a remarkable experience for a young girl, and her life would be changed forever.
Once in New York, she (and her three sisters) faced the realities of exile, which were complex. She found herself isolated, and — though a natural storyteller and outwardly expressive person — she sought consolation in books. She became a reader, then a writer.
In moving to the United States, she lost that precious contact with her native island in the Caribbean that had been such an important part of her childhood. Although she would often return for visits to her extended family there after Trujillo’s downfall, it was difficult to recapture the ease and intimacy with Dominican life that she had enjoyed in her earliest years.
She has by now, in her mid-60s, spent a lifetime negotiating the distances and crossings that have been such a large part of her life, her psychological makeup, her story. That story has been retold in many books, among them the linked stories of “How the García Girls Lost Their Accents” (1991), a brilliant sequence that closely mirrors the story of her own family. Three years later, she wrote “In the Time of the Butterflies” (1994), a haunting and poetic evocation of the lives of the brave Mirabal sisters, who defied Trujillo, working closely with revolutionaries to overthrow his regime.
Her work has crossed boundaries from the start, and she has found the appropriate form to express herself in several genres: poetry and novels, short stories, books for children of different ages, and intensely personal works of nonfiction, such as her very moving recent book about traveling to Haiti for the wedding of a friend: “A Wedding in Haiti” (2012), which is both the story of a friendship and a deeply political meditation on the long-standing and troubled relations between Haitians and Dominicans.
Julia and her husband, Bill Eichner, a retired eye surgeon, own a sustainable farm and literacy center in the hills of the Dominican Republic called Alta Gracia, where they grow coffee and have created a teaching community based on ideas of social justice that have been a continuing part of Julia’s ongoing project as a writer. Anyone who knows Julia personally, and Bill, understands that their commitment to justice and human equality and dignity have been a major aspect of their life. (Her book for children, “A Cafecito Story,” is a kind of fable based on this experience.)
My wife and I often dine with them, perhaps once a week. And we value this warm, loving friendship. Julia, and Bill as well, have been a gift to us, and they have been a gift to Vermont and to the larger world. It seems appropriate and touching that President Obama should have honored Julia in this way. In honoring her, he honors the community values, the drive for social justice, and the ideas that have animated her work for decades. May she continue to prosper!
Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, is Axinn Professor of English and Creative Writing at Middlebury College. His latest book is “Jesus: The Human Face of God,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.