CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (24): Julia Alvarez, The Woman I Kept to Myself

Dominican-American Julia Alvarez (b. 1950), novelist, essayist, poet, educator, a prominent critically and commercially successful literary Latina
Dominican-American Julia Alvarez (b. 1950), novelist, essayist, poet, educator, a prominent critically and commercially successful Latina

“Even I, childless one, intend to write
New Yorker fiction in the Cheever style
but all my stories tell where I came from.”
Family Tree

It’s always a special pleasure to explore the work of those who dance on the hyphen, who don’t quite fit here or there and have to make something new out of their life circumstance. Unique qualities of clarity and color seem to come from the richness inspired by bilingual skills and from that uncomfortable hyphenated place with its singular view. It leads as it must for any observant person to the rigorous exploration of the human condition and of cultural and gender-based stereotypes.

” … definitely, still, there is a glass ceiling in terms of female novelists. If we have a female character, she might be engaging in something monumental but she’s also changing the diapers and doing the cooking, still doing things which get it called a woman’s novel. You know, a man’s novel is universal; a woman’s novel is for women.”

UnknownFrom the hyphen the Dominican-American Julia Alvarez birthed her first gift to us, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (Algonquin Books, 1991), a semi-autobiographical young adult work followed three years later with In the Time of  the Butterflies (Algonquin Books, 1994). The first book gave us the immigrant experience. The second established Julia as a writer who wanted to go a step beyond to bring to light and bare witness to the events – tragic, liberating and inspiring – of las hermanas Mirabal (the sisters Mirabal), known as Las Miraposas, the Butterflies. They were four sisters at the heart of the fight against the rule of the Dominican despot, Rafael Leonidas Truillo. He had three of the four sisters murdered along with some 50,000 other Dominicans and Haitians.



It’s not surprising that Julia Alvarez chose to write about Las Mariposas. She was born in New York in 1950 when her parents first attempted to establish themselves in the U.S., but she lived her early years in the Dominican Republic. She lived there until she was ten years old when her family was forced to leave the country after Julia’s father participated in a failed attempt to overthrow Truillo.


I think that one of the reasons I began as a poet, and poetry was my first love, in English, was because … I especially like cadenced, rhymed poetry, and poetry in English was a way of still speaking Spanish. Because it made language more musical, more cadenced…rhyme, of course, because every other word in Spanish rhymes with an “a” or an “o” ending, so there was a way in which, to me, English poetry was a way to speak Spanish in English.

Over the past twenty-five years, Julia Alvarez prolific pen has poured out fiction for adults and young adults, collections of essays and, of course, poetry.  The Woman I Kept to Myself (Algonquin, 2004) is a collection in which she explores her life from the perspective of middle age …

We learn through what we love to love the world —
which might be all that we are here to do.

There are seventy-five poems, each composed of three ten-line stanzas, a consistency that has inspired some mixed reviews. I find this style rather sophisticated and it lends cohesiveness to the work, which is certainly a celebration of the quotidian. Sometimes the conclusions are what is to be expected … nothing exciting, just life as usual; something accepted, not fought against. There’s a certain virtue in that.

We make our art
out of ourselves and what we make makes us.

© 2016, Jamie Dedes; portrait is from Julia’s Amazon page.