Julia Alvarez joins us today for a stay at home edition of Nashville Public Television’s A Word on Words to talk about her new novel, Afterlife.
Alvarez is the author of numerous novels, poems, and stories both for adults and young readers including How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and Once Upon A Quinceañera. Alvarez’s awards include the Pura Belpré and Américas Awards for her books for young readers, the Hispanic Heritage Award, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award. In 2013, she received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama.
J.T. Ellison: Julia, thank you so much for joining us on A Word On Words. I am thrilled to have you here today.
Julia Alvarez: I’m really very happy to be with you too. Virtually.
Ellison: Virtually. It’s lovely to meet you. I’m a huge fan. I’m so excited to be able to talk to you today. How are you doing? How are you handling releasing a book and a pandemic?
Alvarez: It’s been a learning curve. For one thing, a few weeks ago I didn’t know what Zoom was. We live out in the countryside with not the greatest connection and all of a sudden I’m learning platforms and digital this and digital that. So it’s been a huge learning curve. It’s been kind of wrenching because I don’t really think a book is done until a reader completes it in their imagination.
And so not being able to be out there and have that connection with the readers… It’s strange but given what’s going on for so many people, it feels like a small disappointment. It does feel like a very strange time to be coming out with a book and to be “promoting” it to readers. But it’s very prescient of the times we’re living in, because it’s a book about what happens when the worst that can happen happens to my character. How does she survive? So I feel like I didn’t intend it, but there it is.
Ellison: It was very comforting. I’m finding that books about grief and books about growth are incredibly comforting in this time that we are able to see, okay, people have dealt with horrible things in the past and this horrible thing might just be a little bit bigger than what we’re used to, but we do find our way through it.
Alvarez: Exactly. Someone just recently wrote me that he was getting this novel for a sister who was widowed. He wanted to know how to encourage her to read it. And I thought, “I don’t know what to tell him,” but I said, “I don’t know about your sister, but when I’m going through a difficult time, I feel one of the comforts is in my reading life if I feel accompanied.” Not that I’m going to read a book and it’s going to solve my problems or take away the pain. But I feel like I’m accompanied at that deep hurting place and that makes me feel better. That makes me feel that I’m in the community. Reading has done that for me a number of times in my life. I hope that it does that for my readers and readers in general, whatever they’re reading.
Ellison: What brought you to this story right now?
Alvarez: It’s funny because nobody knew… this is something that everybody is shocked and learning how to deal with this pandemic. I feel like the writers have a certain kind of sensibility in the way they move through the world. Henry James said that his advice to the young writer was to be him, and I’m going to add “or her,” on whom nothing is lost. We’re constantly picking up things. One of the things that writers who live connected to community, to the larger community of the world and their country, you’re picking up things, you’re picking up all sorts of things that aren’t just intellectual, just a sensibility of the times you’re living in.
I’ve been saying for a while, we’re living in elegiac times, we’re living in times where we’re seeing the ends of species go extinct, climate change, huge storms in our civil life. We’re seeing the end of it being a civil community, divisiveness, draconian immigration laws being passed, gun violence. It’s as if we’re living in a world where there are so many things that we’re losing. Part of the reason to write the novel was writers don’t write because they have solutions, but because they’re interested in the questions. How do we move and act with the bigger angels of our nature at times like this? How can we not shut down? How do we take care of ourselves and our human family? These are questions I don’t answer theoretically, but my character is engaged in.
The losses that are out there come personally into her life. There’s an undocumented girl in her garage. What is she going to do? She just lost her husband. Doesn’t she get some exemption from having to be a helper or a moral human being? But life doesn’t work that way.
Ellison: I loved the idea of Antonia as this reluctant activist. Her Anglo husband was a strong social activist and she’s helping Mario and Estella. She doesn’t want to, but she is because this is the reality around her. She’s already been so involved in all of this, even though she is being reluctant now. She does find a new version of herself on the other side, in her afterlife. What is the message there for all of us?
Alvarez: Thank you for also noting that. Part of the reason there’s that title, which my publisher was a little worried about people thinking this was going to be like a religious tract or something. There are many little deaths in our lives. We all die many little deaths to our old selves, to our certainties, but there is an afterlife after that. But what kind of an afterlife? That we can help shape. How did we come through things with a larger version of ourselves? How does that happen? How do we stay open? Part of it is to be honest with ourselves. She is a reluctant activist, as are many of us. We’d rather not be bothered.
Having all of her complicated selves at play, while engaging with a life that comes into her life and not shutting down any part of herself, not just shutting down. To be the diverse person you are, that’s what you can bring to the larger community. Being who you are because no one else is going to be you. And that means you have to honor and respect the parts of yourself. That’s one of the ways that you survive as a bigger version of yourself.
Ellison: I was really interested in the title of Afterlife. It is metaphorical. There are so many layers to that and I’m interested that your publisher pushed back on it? That’s amazing.
Alvarez: They said, “can you sort of send a little hint to the readers that this isn’t going to be some sort of conversion?” And I said, “no, I want it to be intriguing.” I respect my readers. I think readers are smart. They will give you the benefit of the doubt if they open it up and they get engaged by the writing and the characters. I just thought it really worked. Afterlife also refers to what you were talking about before with Sam. Everybody thinks that Sam has gotten to be such an activist because he married this Latina woman. She’s an activist, no, no, no, no, not so fast.
So again, the stereotypes, the ways that we put people in these little boxes. He’s a white male, Anglo, he must be this. She’s a Latina, she must be this hot brand revolutionary –– not at all. And so the reversal of that, part of the thing that she discovers is that when you lose people, you don’t want to lose the things you loved in them, because then you lose the whole thing. You lose them completely. So how do you give an afterlife to the best qualities in the people you love and you’ve lost? How do you make sure that beauty that they gave to you and to the world doesn’t get diminished by their absence? She’s constantly challenging herself by thinking, okay, what would Sam do now?
She has to find a balance between this kind of a legacy. That is something that comes from our Latino cultures is that we have a sense of Familia and our antepasados, our ancestors, and that they also live through us. And not just in the biological sense of their DNA, but in what they gave us and how we can pass it on. She feels very much compelled by that at the same moment that part of her nature resists being the activist that Sam was. She has to find a balance between the two.
Ellison: You tackle mental illness in this head on, and you do sisterhood. I want you to talk a little bit about how she doesn’t want to be with her sisters and this horrific thing happens. And then she is the one who is calling them every day. It changes her as it has to. Talk to me a little bit about sisters and sisterhood and why you chose to bring mental illness into this and how you put the story together.
Alvarez: I’ve always been interested in sisters. I come from a family of all girls. Sisterhood, as I was saying before, we understand ourselves traditionally in my culture. And so I always thought of me as part of these sisters that happens in the novel. I’ve been interested in sisters, in the Garcia girls, in the Mirabal sisters [from] In The Time of The Butterflies. How women who have traditionally not been the main characters and their struggles, they’re more on the sidelines, how they deal with some of the same issues that male protagonists have, historically, in literature that we’re used to.
I’m interested in the sisterhood. I’m interested not just in airbrushing it, but sisterhood in the sense of its complications. These are people that she just…they drive her bananas. She just wants out sometimes when she’s with them, because the intensity is just too much. On the other hand, she loves them to death. She’d do anything for them. Blood is very, very strong. That dynamic of how they tussle, I was also interested in sisterhood in a later time in our lives. We know about young sisters and sisters growing up and sisters and girlfriends. Usually they’re younger and I’m interested in how sisterhood works as you become an elder, how that plays out.
I was interested in mental illness because one of the things that happens is that when there is a lot of loss and trauma, and there is all the things we spoke about with grieving, that some people don’t put it together. The fragmentation that happens to Antonia at the start…. Through a combination of resilience, community service, Sam, luckiness, plain luckiness, she’s able to come through in a way that her sister with mental illness cannot put it together. By the same token, one of the things that is complicated about this character, and mental illness, is that sometimes the sister with mental illness shows aspects of her personality that are really noble and beautiful and big hearted. All you can think of is you are not going to make it in this world. Not unless you start protecting yourself or setting up some boundaries. Not to minimize that.
Mental illness is an illness, but some of the aspects of those people, some of the places in their psyches, they open up, reveal some interesting, complicated and beautiful parts of a soul. Antonia is aware of that and sees it, and it makes it hard therefore to intervene and put her sister in a box: mental illness.
Ellison: The labels and the politically correct terms and the way that we have to put these passions that people have in a box, and we have to give them medication. We have to stop that, we have to strip them of life. We have to strip them of their personalities in many ways. That really struck me. I feel very protective of Antonia. I’m very protective of her and I was worried about her through the whole story, how she was going to be. So that was wonderful. I really connected with her. Who is she to you?
Alvarez: I was very interested when I was writing the novel, when I read the PR from my publisher, “her first adult novel in 15 years,” I thought, “Oh my gosh, really?” I’ve been writing all along and writing other books, but I think part of it is that this is my first novel as an elder, as someone who’s older. As someone who has lived a long life and is aware of all the complications that are out there. I wanted to write from that complexity. I wanted Antonia not to be my character that I pushed around in a plot for the purposes of the story. I wanted her to outsmart me every step of the way. I wanted her to be smarter than me. I wanted to learn things from her and I didn’t want to shut her down into what was convenient.
For me, Antonia is a character where I allow a full psyche to come into play in the story rather than a character that is, “Oh, she’s going to be the revolutionary, she’s going to be the spark. Oh, she’s going to be the funny one.” I wanted her. There’s a lot of action and a lot of things happening out there, but I wanted also for it to be a very interior novel as you go through these actions. So that you’re very aware of all the things we hide from each other, all our mixed bag of purposes when we do things and all our little quirks and all our little judgments. I wanted all of that to be part of her character.
Ellison: Do you like writing for adults more than writing for children? Which do you prefer?
Alvarez: I don’t have a preference. Many of my friends who are novelists only write for adults. They have a little bit of a bias. They think, “Julia’s been taking it easy writing for younger readers.” Are you kidding? Younger readers are very tough. Whereas sometimes I think adult readers, we can be swayed by somebody. Oh, this is a novel by Cutsi, or this is the new novel by the big name and we’re impressed. Kids, they won’t keep reading if they’re bored. If a passage goes on too long, they will let you know it.
Writing for younger readers teaches you a kind of efficiency in the writing. It’s sometimes a relief because sometimes it feels like publishing in the adult world, there’s so much nastiness and competition. There’s something about taking the attention off the writer and making the writer a celebrity and just delving into the book. Because kids are really into the book. J.K. Rowling changed that a little by making it glamorous to be J.K. Rowling, but most kids are going to read a book because they like it, or they don’t like it. And they don’t care about the name of the author or how famous they are or what their advance was or anything of the sort.
Ellison: That’s definitely an adult phenomenon, isn’t it?
Alvarez: Right. Right. Children’s books and books for young readers, maybe that’s changing a little now, but in the past that wouldn’t even be an author’s picture on it. It would just be the book, you know? That was what kids were for, instead of airbrushed pictures of us looking a lot more glamorous than we are or anything like that. It’s comforting and kids are fun. It’s hard to write for them. It is difficult. Good writing is hard. J.T., you know, writing is hard.
Ellison: For whatever age, I agree.
Alvarez: There isn’t an easy way to do it. It’s a craft and you have to work hard at it.
Ellison: You have a meditation group, I read. When I think of meditation, I think of.. I go into my yoga room and I sit down by myself with my thoughts. I try to process and try to keep my monkey mind from going crazy. And then I walk away from that. How does sitting with a group change you as a writer and how you approach the page?
Alvarez: Wow. I haven’t analyzed it because partly, as you know, when we’re meditating, we’re not supposed to be analyzing.
I don’t sit with a group every day. I have a practice. I meditate in the morning and then I meditate at the end of the writing day. I joined the group––now with a pandemic they’re meeting more often with Zooms––I join it at least once a week. Usually at Thursday at four. It just helps. We don’t talk a lot. Maybe it starts with a little chit chat, but then we just sit and enjoy the sense of a community. It could be very bolstering. Like we’ve talked about in reading, you feel accompanied and that’s part of what reinforces your practice, how it’s helped me. One of the things I was finding is that there’s so much accessibility now, emails and phones and texts. The mind gets encouraged in its monkey mindedness.
It’s hard sometimes even to sit down and focus on writing. Focus and not to be distracted left and right. You go online just to do a little research, something you need to find out. It’s half an hour later and you’re finding out about growing Brazil nuts. The practice has a practical aspect of teaching you to return to your focus. When I started meditating at first, it’s hard every day. It’s like good writing. Meditating is hard because we do have these monkey minds. But when I did start to meditate, and I had never done it before, I thought, “why is this so familiar?” And I thought, “hey, you’ve been writing now for three decades. You know about this.” When you sit down, you lose yourself, your ego, you become focused and you kind of disappear into the others, your characters, your story, the sound of the language, that is really a kind of meditation.
The same thing they’re saying in this pandemic. We all have to be together apart. And I thought, well, that feels familiar. Reading has always been about being together apart. You’re with these characters, maybe written by an author centuries ago, and you don’t feel apart, you feel together with them, but you are apart. So in part, reading and writing prepare me for meditating and has helped me with certain skills for this pandemic and being quarantined and sheltering in place.
Ellison: This was meant for the writers. We can respond to it. We can be by ourselves. We can write about it. It’s amazing.
We’ve mentioned the societal changes. You came up as a writer when multiculturalism was not having the heyday that it’s starting to have. I don’t even think it’s quite there yet. We’re on the edges of that. You paved the way for so many young Latin writers, so many young writers in general. How do we make sure that young writers following in your footsteps are assured that all of their stories are heard and have value and need to be in the marketplace?
Alvarez: Thank you for noting that. I know that you had Gish Jen on, a wonderful writer. We’ve done a couple of programs together and we were laughing, saying we came up before it was a multicultural world. We’re pre-multiculturals. And so we have seen change. This is the thing I was talking about being an elder. We do see that there has been progress. Oh my goodness, compared to how it was? But it’s not fast enough, especially if this is your moment as a multicultural writer, as a writer from different origin cultures. And so the impatience and the anger and the feeling that you are able to get in, I totally understand. The battle is never over, except I don’t want to use the terminology of battle because I think we all need to be, at the same time, that we’re fighting in our struggles, thinking about how to deal with that struggle, how to create a more beloved community.
One of them is to allow people in. Allow their stories in. Because people want to close it down, thinking it’ll diminish it. It will only make it richer. It will only make our culture more vibrant and more viable with all of these different stories, all of these different inflections and vocabularies that infuse our English with richness and variety. And that helps all of us. Even writers that are mainstream writers, whatever that term means.
The other thing is by being readers and supporting these writers, buying their books, asking for them in the bookstore, going up to your libraries and saying, “Where’s Ocean Vuong? Where’s Jaquira Díaz? Where is Que Mai’s amazing Vietnam novel The Mountains Sing?”
Asking for them helps because then the activism isn’t left for the editors and the publishing houses only. Or the agents or whatever you’re going to say, they should be doing better. You are contributing to that by the simple act of supporting the author yourself. Getting the word out there. That’s one way that we can make, ensure and be literary activists, by doing that.
Ellison: I love that: literary activists. That’s exactly what we need.
Alvarez: Activist readers, yeah.
Ellison: I haven’t even gotten into any of my crazy questions about how you structure your work. This book doesn’t have quotation marks, which made it feel like this beautiful stream of consciousness. There was never a moment, until almost to the very end when Izzy is doing her air quotes and I was like, “Oh, now we’re going back into rules again.” Interesting. Did you write this as a stream of consciousness? What was that choice?
Alvarez: When you talk about these things that you do stylistically, it sounds as if you had this brilliant idea from the start. You try things and you work with things. One of the things I was learning from younger writers who are, many of them not using quotation marks. They’re sort of throwing that out the window for dialogue, as well as italicizing foreign words, almost as if they want to erase these artificialities that say: this is a narrative, that separate the narrative texts from the reader. Especially for this novel, where we’re so much inside Antonia, the interiority of the narrative voice, I wanted it to be kind of seamless that way.
At the same time, it was more work because I had to make sure that it was clear to the reader in every little way I could. When it was spoken dialogue and when it was the ongoing dialogue in our head. As she moves through, even as she’s in conversation, what she’s thinking. I had to work to create those kinds of fine distinctions, but it was very much to reflect that and to make the text so much closer to the reader, so much more intimate. Do away with the apparatus of the fabrication of what a fiction is, a fabrication. Do as much away with that as I could.
Ellison: It worked. The intimacy of this was absolutely fabulous. What would you want readers to take away from your body of work?
Alvarez: Oh, all of it. Wow.
Ellison: You can do this book or you can do the whole body. I’m curious about the body of work but we can stick with this book if you’d like.
Alvarez: What do I want them to take away from it? We were talking just now about living in a world of variety, of diversity, multiculturalism. I feel because of my hybridity and the combinations of my history that I’m really an all-American writer in the sense of America hemispherically, rather than just America as the United States. My roots, my rhythms, my origin language, my histories come from the Southern part of the Americas and my training and my adult life and my work has happened in the Northern part. These combinations add new little fingerprints in how narrative is constructed.
I want my readers, no matter who they are––whether they’re Latinx, whether they’re of another multicultural group, whether they’re American, North Americans from way back––I want them to feel accompanied. I want them to feel the vibrancy and intensity of narrative that touches bottom in their hearts and souls and in their psyches. That’s what I’m after, that kind of storytelling that feeds the imagination and the spirit. And also is fun, delights, because I think that’s important with readers that they also feel engaged and having fun and accompanied in this journey of being a human being.
Ellison: What’s next for you?
Alvarez: There’s always something next. Are you taking a break? Am I taking a break from breathing? To me, as we mentioned earlier, writing is a practice, like meditation. If I don’t do it, I feel in pieces. I feel like I’m all over the place and writing is how I integrate things and understand things. And even how I know what I’m thinking.
Right now, I’m really working on the novel that I’ve been working on for very long and put aside, because I just felt like I didn’t know where it was going. Afterlife came fairly quickly, as a kind of break from that larger novel, but I’m going back not to the novel itself, but to the material. And working on it and trying to figure out again. Eager to find out, to learn some new things. One of the books I’m reading now, which I’m going to recommend to your listeners is Apeirogon by Colum McCann. An amazing book told through bits and pieces and history, memoir. It’s just a beautiful book, telling a story in a way that I’ve never seen before.
I’m trying to figure out how to tell the material that I have to tell in a way that does it justice. This is Robert Frost country here in Vermont. And so Frost said, “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I like to be learning and be surprised. Then that energy gets into the writing.
Ellison: This has been wonderful. It’s an honor to have you and to speak with you. And I really appreciate your time today.
Alvarez: Thank you so much, J.T., for having me virtually there. And I hope someday to go back to Nashville to go visit Ann Patchett’s bookstore, which wasn’t there when I went there in 1994. Thank you so much for taking the time to give life to Afterlife.
Ellison: Thank you. And thank you for watching A Word On Words. I’m J.T. Ellison. Keep reading.
Julia Alvarez Recommends:
Apeirogon, Colum McCann
The Mountains Sing, Nguyen Pheun Que Moi
The Resisters, Gish Jen
Sum: Tales from the Afterlife, David Eagleman
The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo
The Dutch House, Ann Patchett
Beloved, Toni Morrison
The Dictionary of Undoing, John Freeman