By: Sarah Hicks
Today is the 67th birthday of pioneering and influential author, poet, and essayist Julia Alvarez. Born in 1950 in New York City, she spent much of her childhood in the Dominican Republic, where her father was involved with the underground resistance against the dictator Rafael Trujillo. This led to the family ultimately immigrating back to the U.S. in 1960 (a year before Trujillo was assassinated). Upon her return to the States, Alvarez became a voracious reader. She says she “loved how books belonged to everyone, how everyone was welcomed at the table of literature. It seemed a much better world to settle into than the United States of America of 1960, before the civil-rights movement, the women’s movement, multiculturalism.”
Enamored with words, she began writing in the late ’60s and early ’70s, though, like many (if not most) writers, she had to get a day job, too. She began teaching creative writing, eventually accepting a tenure track position at Middlebury College in Vermont.
That same year, her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, was published. Since then, she has published an additional four novels, 11 children’s and young adult books, three volumes of poetry, and three nonfiction works.
Like many important authors, Alvarez is no stranger to controversy. Her two most famous books, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of Butterflies, have both faced multiple challenges. The former is most often challenged for sexuality, while the latter was once apparently challenged “because it was a considered a ‘security risk’ because one of the characters drew a diagram of a bomb.”
Due to her long career as an educator and her childhood under a brutal dictatorship, Alvarez is especially concerned by attempts at censorship. Discussing her views on censorship in relation to her childhood, she says, “I grew up in a dictatorship, where you couldn’t talk about difficult situations – there was this culture of silence. We would run into a problem and have no one to talk to. What’s modeled there by banning the book is what I find most upsetting: that it is appropriate behavior in a free country when someone is expressing something we don’t want to hear, to silence them.”
Like any true teacher, she often seems to view challenges to her books as learning opportunities, wondering just how much of the challenged book has really been read by the challenger. Her explanations of the scenes she’s written underscore that often calls to pull books come from people who haven’t actually read the book, and they usually take scenes deeply out of context, which is almost certainly true of a great majority of book challenges.
Instead of banning books, Alvarez said she thinks educators should use book challenges as an opportunity to discuss the power of stories, especially for those who are facing true hardship and struggle, in whichever form it takes. This is something we should all take to heart — encouraging dialogue with those who challenge books and trying our best to foster understanding.
And, instead of feeling despondent, she encourages writers who have faced challenges or bans of their books to “feel this evidence of small-mindedness or hard-heartedness is more of a reason to keep writing, to keep widening the circle.” Widening the circle and encouraging more people to share their stories is a crucial goal, not just for writers but for librarians. We are certainly lucky to have someone like Julia Alvarez to help light our way.
Sarah Hicks is a current MLIS student at the University of Pittsburgh, and works in a local public library. She has long been passionate about issues regarding intellectual freedom, and believes that these issues are becoming increasingly important worldwide, especially those related to privacy, surveillance, and censorship. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as certain stereotypes about librarians are not wholly untrue, she is both an avid reader (of many genres) and a total cat lady. Sarah can sometimes be found @exactlibrarian.