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Meet Beth Alvarado, 2020 Oregon Literary Fellow

We’re thrilled to introduce the 2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients with individual features on our blog! Out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 400+ applications we received, and selected eleven writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each. For the first time, Literary Arts also awarded two Oregon Literary Career Fellowships of $10,000 each. The 2021 OLF applications will be posted in May 2020, and the deadline to apply will be in August 2020. All of the 2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients will be honored at the 2020 Oregon Book Awards Ceremony.

Beth Alvarado

2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient
Beth Alvarado (she/her/hers)

Career Fellowship, Nonfiction

Beth Alvarado is the author of four books. Anxious Attachments is a finalist for the 2020 Oregon Book Awards and was long-listed for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Art of the Essay Award.  Jillian in the Borderlands: A Cycle of Rather Dark Tales is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2020. Her earlier books are Anthropologies and Not a Matter of Love. For much of her life, Beth lived in Tucson where she taught for the University of Arizona; she now lives in Bend, Oregon, where she is core faculty at OSU-Cascades Low Residency MFA Program. Three of her essays have been chosen as Notable in Best American Essays.

Q&A with Literary Arts
What are your sources of inspiration?
The things that have profoundly shaped who I am are often what I’m drawn to write about. I think this is true of most writers. My touchstones include being raised by a grieving mother; being the apple of my often-absent father’s eye; using heroin as a teenager and then quitting with my husband when I got pregnant at nineteen; living with Fernando’s large working-class family; learning to see the injustices in our culture and my own privilege through his family’s eyes; raising two children and many of their friends; going to college at twenty-six because I’d started writing fiction; teaching as an adjunct for thirty years; not publishing my first book until I was fifty-two; taking care of my mother at the end of her life; losing Fernando to liver cancer after forty years together; helping take care of my daughter’s twins.

I am inspired by current writers who are transforming the everyday of their lives in artful and distinctive ways and who, at the same time, are questioning dominant cultural narratives: Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Arianne Zwartjes, Yuri Herrera, Monica Drake, Jennifer Tseng, TC Tolbert, Natalie Diaz, and Ru Freeman. I dip into and reread Karen Brennan’s Monsters, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side over and over—as I do work by writers who shaped my aesthetic years ago, Grace Paley, James Baldwin, Jean Rhys, and Juan Rulfo. All of these writers help us see “anew,” which is what my aspiration is and why I list them here. Much of my inspiration also comes from reading work-in-progress by friends and students, especially when we can read aloud to one another. There is something vital about work where the ink is not quite dry.

Lately, the news is an almost daily horror—and inspiration. Much of what I’m writing is triggered by the news. One of Grace Paley’s characters said, in response to a bigoted character, “Worry yourself with reality for once!” I worry myself with reality. I try to see, like she always did, what is extraordinary in the ordinary, and then I try to find a voice to embody it. Once I get a title or the first sentence, I can begin.

How would you describe your creative process?
My life is divided among three things, each of which requires undivided attention: writing, teaching, child-rearing. This is why I write in shorter forms, stories and essays, and even those tend to be written in segments or in shifting voices, so I can finish one short segment and then jump to another on another day. Once an editor told me to write the word FOCUS on a sheet of paper and put it above my desk, but I had been forcing myself to focus on one project for years, castigating myself when I couldn’t. I suddenly realized that, if writing is the “mind on the page,” then I would never write the way he thought I should and that, in fact, I didn’t want to. I quit being dutiful. I looked for patterns in the bits and pieces I had produced, and I started puzzling them together. As I wrote more and more, the bits and pieces began to accrue their own momentum and shape—and I started publishing. Now when I get stuck on one project, I switch to another and, in doing so, I invariably free my imagination. Because of this process, I have two books coming out in two years—but I’d been working on both of them, back and forth, for at least a decade. Besides honoring my own predilections, what helps? Going for a walk. Eavesdropping. Having a dedicated time and place for writing. Putting on an essential oil that I use only while writing.

What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?
The star of riches is shining upon me. That’s how I feel. To actually be awarded a fellowship based on “literary excellence” – what a gift! And even more than the money, which will allow me to take months off from teaching to devote to my work, the recognition is invaluable and validating. I feel humbled and lifted. The list of other award winners and their work is impressive. And there are those who didn’t win but whom, I know, also deserve to have their work recognized, so I feel very lucky, like my persistence and faithful writing practice have finally paid off in tangible, in-the-world ways.

What are you currently working on?
I’m in the final revision stages of Jillian in the Borderlands: A Cycle of Rather Dark Tales, which is coming out in September 2020 from Black Lawrence Press. I started writing the tales in 2010 in response, at least partly, to the murders of four girls in Tucson and to SB1070, the Arizona law that caused the profiling of migrants and anyone who didn’t look “American” or white. Looking back, the project was prompted by an intersectional anxiety. The last few stories were triggered by the separation of children from their parents at the border, so it’s responding to current injustices. Its inspiration was Candide: I wanted the political events and the underlying philosophies, like Dominionism, to be questioned by the fiction. Jillian is a young mute girl at the beginning, and she and her mother go on a series of adventures in the borderlands where they encounter, among many others, the faith-healer Juana of God and her channeling Chihuahua. Fantastic things happen: we see, through the eyes of recurring characters, both the horrors and absurdities. By the end, Jillian is a young woman, an artist, who gets lost in the desert while leaving water with the Samaritans and is led by the spirits of dead migrants to safety in Mexico. All in all, people who have written blurbs feel that, although the tales include the inhumane things people do to one another, the book’s final vision is hopeful.

What advice do you have for future applicants?
The obvious: Read widely. Keep writing. Keep sending your work out.  Keep applying. Persistence. Persistence. Persistence. Have faith in your process. Listen deeply to others to nurture empathy. Keep your eyes and your mind and your heart open. The key, I think, is not so much to believe in yourself as to believe in your project, and to trust that you will find “the right way of approach” because, according to the I Ching, in that way lies success.

Excerpt from “Water in the Desert” in  Anxious Attachments
One of the first dreams I had about Fernando after he died was about water. I dreamed that I was washing his body. I had the huge aluminum bowl, the one that I used to mix masa for tamales. It was the same bowl that we put near the bedside when someone felt sick. I had filled it with warm soapy water and dipped the cloth in the water, then rang it out.  I washed his face first, just like I had done in the hospital after his surgery. When he closed his eyes, I washed his forehead and eyelids, and then the rest of his face, his mouth, his neck. I ran the cloth down over his arms, which were still strong in the dream, and his wrists, which had always been as thin as mine. I washed his hands, then his chest, still firm from all that hard work, and his stomach, which had more hair than I remembered but not much at all. I washed his penis, and his thighs, which were so white, and which also hardly had any hair on them. Finally, I ran the cloth over his calves, which had so much hair that it looked like he had black socks on, and last, his feet. In the dream, it was Fernando’s bony feet that I saw most clearly: He had black hairs on his knobby toes. His little sisters used to joke that his feet looked like Jesus’s feet and even in the dream I remembered that and knew there was some kind of Christian symbolism going on. But what struck me was that I had not paid more attention to his body while he was alive, for it was his body I missed most.

Judge’s Comments
“I’m struck by both the lyricism of Beth Alvarado’s writing and her commitment to bringing critical social issues to light—all while weaving in a moving personal narrative. “Water in the Desert” chronicles toxic water pollution on Tucson’s south side and her husband’s related death from liver cancer. Alvarado writes with clean, unflinching prose, and the reader is left with the chilling reality that this issue will persist for generations of families living on the wrong side of town.” – Patricia Park

“Beth Alvarado’s writing does a wonderful job fusing specific and lyrical descriptive passages with larger historical and thematic framework in her writing. In her first essay “Water in the Desert,” Alvarado tells the very moving story of her husband’s death from liver cancer and connects it to larger questions about the dumping of toxic waste, thus creating an effective commentary on environmental justice. In the excerpt from her nonfiction novel, meanwhile, Alvarado draws us in with vivid descriptions of a fire breaking out near a convent on an island in Greece, creating drama and tension as she describes how “the trucks with the nuns fly down the narrow winding road, fires blazing on either side.” It’s a compelling opening to a larger story, with writing that leaps off the page in its lifelike detail.” – Aatif Rashid

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