After 25 Years, “In the Time of the Butterflies” Is More Relevant Than Ever
Julia Alvarez on paving the way for a new generation of Latinx writers
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“‘For the girls,’ I always tell myself.”
Julia Alvarez was reading a short excerpt from her novel In the Time of the Butterflies. The speaker is Dedé, the sole Mirabal sister who survived the ordeal that inspired Alvarez’s 1994 novel about the lives and deaths of three revolutionary women in her home country of the Dominican Republic. In the brief scene Alvarez sketched out for the audience gathered at the Proshansky Auditorium in the CUNY Graduate Center, Dedé is bemoaning needing to attend all the celebratory events that greet every anniversary of her sister’s deaths. She does it, alas, for the girls.
One couldn’t help but hear in that line Alvarez’s own drive towards celebrating her novel’s 25th year in print. As she told Elizabeth Acevedo, author of The Poet X, who led the PEN Out Loud conversation between the two that night, the Mirabal sisters always haunted her. As in her own family, there were four girls. But where the Mirabals fell victim to the Trujillo regime, Alvarez and her sisters made it safely to the United States. They were ghosts to her, she shared, who beckoned her to tell their story. Twenty-five years later, Alvarez’s novel remains a timely and touching ode to that earlier generation of Dominicans who wouldn’t stand for the injustices — especially against young women — that were so rampant around them. They have since become symbols of that fight, with Alvarez’s novel serving as document.
I phoned Julia Alvarez the morning after her spirited conversation with Acevedo, intent on getting her to expound on various snippets of wisdom she’d doled out all too casually the night before. During our chat, we discussed how it feels to revisit In the Time of the Butterflies on its silver anniversary, why the Mirabal sisters continue to enthrall readers and activists alike, and how books can serve as a kind of literary homeland for those in need of one.
Manuel Betancourt: One of the things you said last night that I wanted to pick up on was how surreal it feels to see your own books getting older and growing up on their own, in a way. And I wondered if, like kids who are now turning 25, if your relationship with In the Time of the Butterflies had changed over the years?
Julia Alvarez: I think it gave me a really deep political understanding. You know, Garcia Girls was kind of my immigration novel, a kind of Bildungsroman. It wasn’t an autobiography but a lot of it dealt with my particular family’s experience. Of the transit over. It was very focused on that generation—our generation, the sort of “bridge” generation. Once we were part of the American scene, and I was protesting against the Vietnam War in the ’60s and so forth, I didn’t get why and how a country went through a 31-year dictatorship. Or why my parents were a certain way. Even though they’d been politicized there, I didn’t know what trauma that they had gone through that made it hard for them to understand why we were protesting the war. They were afraid we were turning into radicals and hippies.
Writing In the Time of the Butterflies helped me to understand that generation, the country I had come from, the kinds of forces that had come to play in the generation of my parents, and its effect going forward in their behavior and in the Dominican Republic, too. Because we got rid of the dictator but we had a long, I call it, democratic dictatorship with [Joaquín] Balaguer. So it helped me to understand the history and the complexity of where I come from. I had left as a 10 year old. I didn’t have that understanding.
A lot of it was that this was a history that had not been written down. It was an oral history. And so in writing Butterflies and doing all the research, it was like reading the history books that weren’t books yet. These were four beautiful women, three of whom had been politicized and had lost their lives in a way that eventually did mobilize the country and inspire them to topple the dictator. In the end they were very very effective: but they had lost their lives so that the rest of us could be free! They were like the shadow sisters that haunted me and my sisters: these other four young women that hadn’t made it. I felt like what they talk about when it comes to war survivors and concentration camp survivors: survivor’s guilt. Except I’m not sure I would exactly call it “guilt.” There’s a wonderful word in Spanish: “inquietud.”
MB: That sense of unease.
JA: Yes, it was like a survivor’s uneasiness that I just kind of felt. I felt this need, as a survivor of that dictatorship, to tell that story. Last night I talked about Scheherazade being my hero: a woman who tells a story and saves herself and the women in her kingdom and changes the Sultan’s mind so he’s no longer a misogynist killing women. Well, the idea with this book, over time, has moved and inspired other people to do their work. That has confirmed for me my mission statement of the power of story: how art and activism are related. Not in the obvious ways—writing polemics and such. But in the ways that a story can shift our way of seeing the world and inspire us to change it.
You know, in 1999 the United Nations declared November 25th—the day of their murder—International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. I mean! There have been millions of deaths of women. But the fact that the story of these three women who got slaughtered in this tiny country (a lot of people didn’t even know where it was!) became the inspiration for a worldwide movement—I mean it’s amazing! I didn’t set out to do that. I can’t say I did it. I surrendered to that story. But it’s not my story. That other people have access to it because of what I wrote just confirms so many things that I believe about the power of art. I can get very teary about it because it’s thrilling to think that we are all connected and that art has the power to make community, to unite us, and to transform.
MB: That is something that struck me about last night. Every single young woman who went on to ask you guys a question was Dominican. And they weren’t just asking questions. We got to witness these sort of confessional moments they were sharing.
JA: Yes, yes! It was almost like being down South in a black Baptist Church with people testifying, with people clapping their hands and snapping their fingers, supporting each other and confirming what one was saying. They were like testimonials. And also, someone noted: a lot of craft talk. Obviously the audience was stacked with young writers wanted to tell the story so it was almost kind of like a craft talk. That was interesting. It was a very engaged audience, and passionate. That’s beautiful.
MB: One of the things you two talked about in terms of craft is dealing with the burden that sometimes other people will put on your stories. You know, what the Dominican American writer can talk about or what they can write about. You phrased it beautifully, talking about not wanting to “colonize” your characters. I wondered if you could expand on that.
JA: Oh yeah, colonizing them with your politics. Or with what will promote them to readers. Or writing by poll: What’s going to win hearts and have everybody love you? That’s not what the work is about. It’s to allow the full, complex and sometimes troubling personalities and opinions. It’s a way of respecting and loving people, by seeing them accurately. And granting them the full complexity and humanity, which includes their flaws.
As a community you sort of want to pull in the wagon to one side. On the other, you know, they’re saying we’re rapists and drug dealers and that we’re invading this country and we need to get out. You don’t want to give those people any ammunition! So, you know, if outside of this wagon pulling, we tell the story, airbrushed and clean, then you’re just stereotyping and diminishing the possibilities and your full entry into the whole complexity of being part of a human family by doing that. It’s just another kind of oppression. Even if it’s morally inspired, it’s still not allowing the full complexity of each person, individually within any ethnicity or race or group.
MB: Do you think those conversations have gotten more nuanced in the last two decades or so?
JA: Remember, when Sandra [Cisneros] published [The House on] Mango Street and when I published Garcia Girls, it was the first — it began, I think, with Maxine Hong Kingston and The Woman Warrior. This kind of “ethnic” literature. We were kind of a little marginal group. And now we’re part of the big table, you know?
I don’t know if you know that Langston Hughes poem, “I, Too, am America?” It’s a poem about how he was sent to the kitchen to eat, and not invited to the big table as an African-American writer in the 20s and 30s. But he says in the poem that someday, I’ll be at the table, Someday, I won’t be sent to the kitchen. There was even a press that used to publish our writings called Kitchen Table Press. We were kind of a marginal group, an interesting little sort of glitch over there. And now it’s like, we’re full storm at the table! We’ve infused that with our energies, with our stories, with our syntax, our vocabularies. As Elizabeth said last night, I don’t have to have my Spanish in italics anymore! I mean, we did feel we had to do that back then. We can sit at the big table. We are part of this literature, and we’ve changed it. So-called “American writers” have felt that energy and inspiration and it’s changed their work. It’s changed American literature.
Now I see that my little offering—I was writing basically for my sisters and other Latina writers like Sandra, like Ana Castillo, like Denise Chavez, like Norma Alarcón. I had my little group and now to see that they’re still there, but that we’re now a part of something bigger. We’re in the curriculum and our work is taught. And we go to a library and there we are besides Dickinson and all those other writers. It’s been amazing. We’re all impatient for it to go quicker. And we’re all disheartened by what we see is a kind of falling back on so many levels politically right now. But we also have to remember that some of us who have been here for a while, there has been a change. Never as fast as we wanted, and never as inclusive as it should be. But it has gotten better.
MB: I actually encountered Butterflies in a Women’s Studies course in college. This was in the mid-2000s—in Canada, no less!—which is what got me thinking about how far the book has traveled.
JA: Like last night when people were coming to me to sign their books: some people were coming with a brand new cover—the 25th anniversary edition. And some people came with the first edition. Some young women were coming to tell me it’s their grandmother’s copy. Or their mother’s copy. And I was just thinking, Wow. That it has traveled in that way, but also that it’s traveled within families and within the community.
MB: That sense of community was very much palpable last night and it brings me to something else I wanted to hear you talk more about. You mentioned that sometimes, whether because of the community we’re in or the family we’re born into, we’re led to reading and writing to find our own homeland. I wanted to hear you talk a bit more about that and to ask you who else belongs to that literary homeland you’ve created?
JA: Well, you know, I think I didn’t create it, I think I joined it. And it’s a homeland that stretches down generations. To all of us in the human family. I think of Terence, the Roman slave, who freed himself with his writings. He was a playwright and he said something: I am a human being, nothing human is alien to me. And I think that’s the motto of the writer, of the storyteller. Nothing human is alien to you. You come out of your particular tribe, your particular roots, your particular histories. You’re a storyteller that has gotten energized by those roots. But the root system connects us all. So I didn’t create a homeland so much as I joined it.
I’m part of that whole need in the human creature, to create meaning out of experience. To create narratives and stories. To understand the experience of being alive. So I feel like I joined that whole line. And when people read me, or they read Elizabeth [Acevedo], or they read Sandra Cisneros, they’re not just joining the little homeland of Latinx writers or the homeland of North American writers, or the homeland of American writers. They’re joining the human experience.
But, of course the way we enter that huge homeland is through particular doors; writers that have inspired us, and many times, it means writers that what they’re writing about links with what we’re living, as, let’s say, a Dominican American in Washington Heights. Last night quite a few people said, It was so wonderful that when I opened Garcia Girls it was the first time I got to see the Dominican Republic in print! So that’s the door that they needed. And that’s why it’s so important to have a diversity of books and authors in the classroom. Because that’s how we come inside that homeland. That’s our little passport, the way we got enticed.
MB: To bring us back to Butterflies. For this anniversary edition, you wrote a note from the author which speaks to why it remains depressingly timely. Thinking of that I wanted to hear what you think this 1994 novel can teach readers in 2019.
JA: It is, as you say, depressingly still relevant. Violence against women is still rampant. The #MeToo movement is bringing to the surface so many ways in which it’s been obfuscated in this country. So it remains relevant. Given the times we are living in, and the work that remains to be done, really the cumulative power of change that gets inspired by story to make a difference.
Here’s a story about why people are massing at our borders, political refugees, people fleeing violence. I hope that the story and the book gives an understanding of what it means to live in an oppressive situation where violence is rampant, and where you just have to get out. My hope is also that the book helps those who talk about political refugee and people fleeing violent. That maybe it gives stories in the news ever more credibility, and that the plight of those people that are needing asylum becomes ever more vivid. I think, if you read a story that engages you, and involves you in the drama, it becomes closer to home. It becomes something that you feel with the Scheherazade model we talked about, that a story can transform us and, and save us.