Something to Declare: Essays
Julia Alvarez. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $20.95 (300pp) ISBN 978-1-56512-193-5
Having transformed her tumultuous life story--a passage from childhood in the Dominican Republic and Queens, N.Y., to a career as a celebrated author and creative writing teacher--into a body of startlingly lyrical fiction and poetry ( Yo!, etc.), Alvarez here chronicles that journey in nonfiction form. These 24 autobiographical essays are meant to answer various questions her readers have posed about her life and her writing. For Alvarez, these questions ultimately can be summed up in one line: ""Do you have anything more to declare?"" The first section of the book, ""Customs,"" paints with vibrant, earthy clarity--in classic Alvarez style--the author's Dominican girlhood, surrounded by the rich cast of characters that made up her extended family and the constant menace of dictator Rafael Trujillo's police state. She also describes her escape to the U.S. with her parents and sisters, along with the assimilation that made her a ""hyphenated American."" The seeds of her writerly beginnings are picked out here and then further explored in the second part of her book, ""Declarations."" These essays examine the difficult balance between the writing life and ""real life""; the joys of teaching; the daily process of writing; and an unsuccessful trip to Necedeh, Wis., to research a potential novel. Alvarez also includes her ""ten commandments"" for writing, which consist of some of the author's favorite quotes (beginning with a Zen saying and ending with Samuel Johnson's well-known credo, ""If you want to be a writer, then write. Write every day!""). Taken together, the pieces are as open and lively as Alvarez's readers have come to expect from her work, although the inspiration and guidance they offer to aspiring writers are less striking. (Sept.) FYI: Plume has just published the Spanish-language edition of Alvarez's second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies; Plume's Spanish edition of Yo! will be out in 1999.
Reviewed on: 08/03/1998