What Do We Owe Our Community in a Time of Crisis?
Julia Alvarez on her new novel "Afterlife" and storytelling as a means of protest
In her first novel published in 14 years, author Julia Alvarez explores grief, isolation, and sisterhood.
Afterlife follows Antonia, a writer and retiring English professor, who has just lost her husband Sam. As she reimagines what her life will be without her husband, Antonia also struggles with considering who she wants to be in his absence, as he was often the one pushing her to be more open, more considerate, and more caring of others. She takes it upon herself to provide aid to Mario, an undocumented worker who works for her neighbor on a dairy farm in rural Vermont, so he can bring his pregnant girlfriend to live with him. On top of this, she must navigate her relationship with her three sisters who are both pushing her to be more social during this time of upheaval, but must also contend another blow when their sister Izzy goes missing.
I recently spoke with Julia Alvarez about being an elder storyteller, not knowing what our new lives are going to be after the pandemic, and her creative protest project.
Leticia Urieta: Why was this the book you needed to write right now?
Julia Alvarez: By the time the book comes out there will be a time lag, so who knows what I would write right now. It has struck me how prescient the book is to the present situation. I felt like I was living in elegiac times even before this (the pandemic). We were seeing the extinction of species from climate change, whole coastal areas under water, terrible storms, gun violence in schools, violence against communities of color (which of course did not begin with George Floyd), divisiveness, draconian immigration laws; this felt like the end of so many things.
I come from a Latina family, my father is the youngest of 25 kids, so I grew up with a clan. I grew up with all of these storytellers and cuentos, with all of these other mothers and fathers, abuelitas, godmothers, and cousins. The bad part of this is that when a generation starts dying, you don’t just lose one uncle or your grandparents, you’re losing a whole phalanx of people. And so I felt that I was living in some kind of end time. For me, narrative is a way to navigate a situation using story and make meaning, not so much searching for answers but in understanding the questions that I am asking. This was also the first novel that I feel like I’ve written as an elder storyteller. I was no longer interested in repeating things I knew how to do; I could tell a certain kind of story at different points of my life. Writing is a calling for me, and I had to understand this period in my life as an elder and to integrate it to create a character that was as complex as this stage of life asks of us. I was asking myself as an elder storyteller, “what are the stories left in me to tell before I go?”
LU: I appreciate that because I know that when a book comes out is not necessarily when it began for you.
JA: It’s interesting because this book is about a character who we meet when her life has just come completely apart. Everything that she had put together was secure, she had her way of life and her certainties, and we meet her just as everything comes apart. And that is what it feels like has happened to us in the last few months—a way of life that we knew is over and we don’t yet know what our new lives are going to be like, and neither does Antonia.
LU: Would this book look different if you had written it in quarantine?
JA: We really are living in a mythic time. I know a lot of writer friends who are getting down on themselves for not being productive and I tell them, be gentle with yourself. Let this moment not be lost on us. We need to be present to it. The novels after the Vietnam war came a decade later because people needed time to write about it successfully. My neighbors were farmers and they were acutely aware of the weather, and I do think that writers and artists have an attunement to the zeitgeist and to what is out there that is present but yet unnamed and beyond the borders of our words. They pick it up and it finds its way into the work.
I have friends who have books coming out that they wrote a year ago and are realizing how their work speaks to this moment. But then I also think that the best writing can be picked up and understood at any time. Czesław Miłosz was asked if he was a political poet, and he said that it isn’t that you have to write to address a particular political issue or paradigm, but that writers cannot think below a certain level of awareness of their times, or the work they make is not useful to us. I’ve started to keep a journal again after a long time for this reason. A journal allows for that scatteredness of recording luminous pieces to connect these pieces.
LU: There is a line towards the beginning of the book where Antonia thinks about grief: ”The landscape of grief is not very inviting.” Antonia is living in the isolation of grief but is also not afforded the peace of this isolation because of her familial obligations. Right now, we are all searching for a way to connect and create in a time of extreme disconnection and extreme grief. And even though Antonio is not living in our current situation, like you said, she is experiencing that upheaval.
JA: One thing that I found challenging with this narrative was asking, how do we live in a broken time and not shut down? How do we keep faith in the people we’ve loved and the things that we believe in? How do you give them an afterlife when the life that grew them is over?
I have said about this book that it is a spin on the Book of Job story with a sense of humor, because everything hits Antonia all at once. By that I mean, how can you have a Latina woman with three sisters in full manic mode, and not have humor in it? Instead of a biblical patriarch, we have a Latina sisterhood. Many times I think of my novels as having a soundtrack and for me the song for this novel was Leonard Cohen’s song (“Anthem”) when he says “There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” That is a feeling I was trying to embody. People say that when you read a book that you are changed by it, but I think that when you write a book, you are changed by it too. This book was the hard work I was doing that prepared me, as much as we can be prepared for this moment.
LU: Do you carry the voices and stories of people you have lost that inform who you are now?
JA: Definitely. The cultura I come from contains a lot of connections to your antepasados. They are always present and a part of you. You are not just an “I,” you’re a “we.” Sometimes I say something and I think, oh my abuelita would have said that, I must be channeling her. There is always a sense that you are not just a single bead, you are a part of the entire necklace of the generations. When you get to my age at 70, you’ve already died a lot of little deaths. You’ve died from being a ten-year-old, you died when you lost certain certainties, you died when you didn’t realize your dream of being a dancer. When I started losing loved ones as I got older, I struggled not just with losing that person but what they brought into the world. And I thought, the only way to not lose someone completely is to give them an afterlife inside yourself. That is why the title for this book meant so much to me. The thing that I wanted to emphasize is that if you remain open and don’t shut down, there are afterlives after the specific life that you imagined is over.
LU: I would argue that you are a part of this too, as an elder, but I like to call them “creative ancestors,” and I love the idea of honoring the people that inform us and speak to us over time.
JA: Right! We just lost Rudolfo Anaya, who was really a literary grandfather. Sometimes we don’t even know whose shoulders we have stood on but we have ancestors who have helped us.
LU: I appreciated that Antonia’s character, as an English professor who is also bilingual, is often preoccupied with finding the right words to name her experiences. Why did this feel important for her as a character navigating grief, to name things in her particular way?
JA: It’s interesting because I have two sisters who are therapists and one of them worked with refugees from Central America in the ’70s and ’80s who had witnessed horrible things and were traumatized. She started a Latino practice because she found that a lot of therapy was Eurocentric. She informs one of the characters in the novel, Izzy. But one of the things that she told me is that some of her patients were so traumatized that they came in and were wordless. And she said that she knew that they were beginning to heal when they could tell the stories of what happened to them. The testimonio is part of our Latin American tradition, that after something horrible happens, the story must be told. At first, grief takes all of your words. Once you find the right words, you can communicate and feel less alone and can return to community and love.
LU: One of the things that Antonia struggles with most in the book is her feeling of responsibility: to her sisters, to Mario, and to other undocumented people in need while also navigating her own needs in grief. This is a struggle that I think many people have, especially in the U.S. capitalist system where people are encouraged to take what they can for themselves, while others, who have had to struggle the most, see the need to aid others. Antonia is a Domincan woman who is working with undocumented immigrants who are Mexican and Central American.
Was there a solidarity that you were hoping to capture among Latinos or in the immigrant experience?
JA: There is a sense of responsibility to your community if you have any measure of success. To quote Toni Morrison, “the function of freedom is to free someone else.” If you have had that privilege, and often luck, there is that need to pay it back, but you can’t pay it back, you can only pay it forward. When you come from these communities, there is a kind of bond because you can’t forget that that was you. It’s why I wrote about the Mirabal sisters because I felt like my sisters and I were the lucky ones who got out, and here were the Mirabal sisters who did not get out, who were slaughtered. It was part of my work to tell that story. And for those people that believe that “I’ve got mine” mentality, well, hello virus! No one is going to survive unless we take care of each other. Viruses know no borders, no desperation, no indignation and frustration. It behooves people who believe that they can stay in their gated communities of privilege and power to understand that that ain’t the way it works. If everything is falling apart, can we find a way to put it back together in a way that is just? Rebecca Solnit writes, “out of the word emergency comes the word ‘emerge.’”
LU: Absolutely. That speaks to the interconnectedness, that grief comes for all of us. There are certain things you can’t protect yourself from no matter how much power and privilege you have.
JA: Yes, and we have to push against our own borders and our own walls.
LU: I wondered how your view of sisterhood and connection looks different now as you are in a different place in your life than how you have written about it in your previous novels?
JA: One of the reasons that I wrote How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is because there weren’t those books on the shelves and I wrote those books for myself and my sisters to understand the world from our points of view. One of the reasons that I wanted to write this novel is because I was longing for more work about an elder, and an elder Latina that is not just an abuelita or a wise old woman or other stereotypes or cliches like that. And I wanted to explore sisterhood as an adult where the sisters no longer live in a nuclear family and sometimes have very divergent lives from each other and who may have had horrible conflicts and don’t always talk with one another. I am interested in the sisterhood that comes with blood, but also the sisterhood of women. I was interested in exploring how women come together and nurture each other.
As a matter of fact, one of the projects that I started with some of my friends and other women artists is inspired by my love of Scherezade from One Thousand and One Nights, who survived by telling stories. It’s not often highlighted that she asks if she can bring her sister Dunyazad, who is the one who sets up the whole trick. It’s always inspiring to think about women who are storytellers who tell stories to help other women. We are actually starting a project where one woman artist will perform in front of the White House from July until the November election as a creative protest in front of “the Sultan’s palace.” This has had to change to become virtual performances, but I am excited by all of the wonderful poets, writers, dancers, and artists who have signed up to perform in a creative sisterhood. The arts have the power to nurture our souls and have the power to save us as a people.