Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Writer's Self-Identity: Something to Declare by Julia Alvarez

I am posting the following excerpt from Julia Alvarez's essay, "Family Matters," in Something to Declare (pp. 113-116) as an offering of affirmation to one of my best friends, who is forging her own path as a writer and yearns for her career to be accepted by her family. Here's to blessings and success!

Ever since I became a published writer, my family has been trying to figure out where the writing talent came from....

It's nice to have the family finally arguing over who can lay claim to me.... For so many years, I was an embarrassment that my parents had to explain to the rest of the Dominican family. Those were knockabout years of sporadic employment, failed marriages, eccentric lifestyles. ...The thing that had gone wrong with my sisters and myself, according to the extended family back home, was that we had settled in the United States of America where people got lost because they didn't have their family around to tell them who they were. Instead, they spent their lives, wandering around, doing crazy things trying 'to find themselves.'

...By twenty-five, many [of my female cousins] were leading settled lives with children, households, a battalion of maids to do their bidding. They knew who they were; Alvarez or Tavares, Bermudez or Espaillat. But in America, you didn't go by what your family had been in the past, you created yourself anew. This was part of the excitement as well as the confusing challenge of America.

Well, at long last, after almost thirty years of self-creation, I began publishing novels, which were well received. Now my family saw those endless years of struggle in an whole new light. I had shown this poetic talent from the beginning, and they had always known it. I had never let mishaps or misfortunes and unemployment get in my way.

The change in their attitude proves, if nothing else, how even our memories favor the classic Aristotelian structure of narrative--with a beginning, middle, and end. If the ending is 'happy,' then the events that precede it suddenly light up with meaningful significance.

...It gratifies me that whatever talent I do have might have come from somewhere else. For on thing, it clears me of blame for upsetting some of those same members of my family when they actually sit down and read what I've written. But also it reminds me that I am just one more embodiment of that force for expression and clarity and comprehension which has nothing specifically to do with me, or just with me. As Jean Rhys, another writer with a strong connection to the Caribbean, once said to a young writer wanting some advice, 'Feed the sea, feed the sea. The little rivers dry up, but the sea continues.' All that we write and achieve as individuals means finally very little compared to the great body of work--books, music, dance, art, inventions, ideas--that forms the culture and context of our human family.

But as we droplets head for the sea, the tributary that forms the channel in which we travel, the current that thrusts us forward, the very composition of the water that makes up our droplets are our history, our families and neighborhoods and countries of origin, all of the forces that have shaped us and continue to shape us as persons and, therefore, as writers.

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