by Mel Wells
About fifty students from Ilsa Bruer’s classes at Benson High School gathered to hear renowned Latina author Julia Alvarez talk about her work and life as a writer. These students were reading her novel In the Time of the Butterflies and had lots of questions about Alvarez’s inspiration, process, and the real-life Mirabal sisters.
Alvarez explained that just as In the Time of the Butterflies is a work of historical fiction based on actual people, most of her ideas for her writing come from her community. She explained that she is part of “the circle of storytellers that is the human family,” and that her contribution is the stories from her own tribe. She said she felt a special connection to the Mirabal sisters and called them her “shadow sisters.” Students were amused when she talked about how her research didn’t involve Google; she had to use her contacts in the Dominican Republic to find people who had known the Mirabals.
One student asked whether the reporter in the beginning of the novel is based on Alvarez. She replied that no, this character is not her, but that it is “a bridge person.” She needed an average American for her readers to identify with as they were guided into a foreign culture. When Alvarez first began writing, before How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents became a success, she struggled against her work being categorized as “sociological” instead of literary. Now she is canonized.
However, she noted that she does not write her novels with the intention of putting in “an obscure message, that you have to tease out with the help of your English teacher.” The students laughed, and she continued. “What you get instead is an understanding of what it’s like to be that person. You do not get answers, but experience.”
We’re sure that Benson students will remember their experience with Julia Alvarez for a long time. Thanks so much to her, to Ms. Bruer, to the students, and to everyone’s work in helping us have a great author visit!