Julia Alvarez: Finding home in the America of ‘many rooms’

National Endowment for the Arts Photo
Vermont author Julia Alvarez receives the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony July 28, 2014. Alvarez speaks Feb. 13 at UVM to debut an anthology supporting the American Civil Liberties Union.

By Kevin O’Connor

Vermont author Julia Alvarez values her roots in the Dominican Republic, homeland of her parents and the place where she grew up until age 10. But she was born in New York City, which wasn’t so welcoming when her family returned upon fleeing a dictatorship in 1960.

“Spik!” she recalls her classmates greeting her on the playground.

Her Spanish-speaking Papi didn’t know the word. Her Mami, schooled in the United States, disregarded the slur and told her daughter they were saying, “Speak!”

Alvarez would, be it as a best-selling author, Middlebury College writer-in-residence, 2013 National Medal of Arts recipient — and now contributor to the new book “It Occurs to Me That I Am America.”

Alvarez is scheduled to join the book’s editor, Jonathan Santlofer, and fellow contributors Jane Kent and Shahzia Sikander for a free public program Feb. 13 at 6 p.m. at the University of Vermont’s Dudley H. Davis Center in Burlington.

Flip open the 400-page Simon & Schuster hardcover and you’ll find Alvarez is the first of 30 national writers — including Michael Cunningham, Richard Russo and Alice Walker — sharing original short stories in an anthology benefiting the American Civil Liberties Union.

Invited to participate, Alvarez thought back to her introduction to the English language. As classmates told her to “go back to where you came from,” not knowing her birthplace or background, “I found a world that was welcoming — the world of books, of stories,” she said. “That land of the imagination turned out to be the land of the free and the home of the brave I’d been searching for.”

As a young reader, Alvarez soon discovered the Langston Hughes poem “I, Too (Am America).”

“That poem meant the world to me, affirming that America had many rooms, including a cozy back kitchen where the likes of Hughes were gathered, laughing and eating and growing strong and preparing for the day when they’d be at the big table of American literature.”

Through the new anthology, Alvarez is sitting in good company.

“As I grew older and read and studied the culture and history of this country, it did occur to me, to use the title’s phrase, that I, too, am America,” she said. “I hope readers find a gathering that represents and maybe even stretches their idea of who we all are as Americans. I hope the book reopens conversations among us, we, the people, about who we are in all our diversity and rich histories and cultures.”

And the timing, she said, couldn’t be better. “It’s a critical time for an anthology like this,” the author said. “We’ve grown so divided as a nation and our rhetoric so divisive. We need to reconnect with each other. Rather than outsourcing our conversations to politicians and pundits, we go deeper as readers and creators. We enter each other’s reality and points of view. I can’t think of a better antidote to the present moment.”

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