Julia Alvarez likes to write about sisterhood. She made herself into a household name with two novels about tight kinships: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, published in 1991, about four Dominican sisters adjusting to life in the U.S., and 1994’s In the Time of the Butterflies, about the four Mirabal sisters, who sought to overthrow the former Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. While Afterlife (Algonquin, Apr.), Alvarez’s first work for adults in nearly 15 years, focuses again on four Dominican sisters, it also stretches the definition of family, dramatizing the ways in which the demands of those we hold close sometimes conflict with the demands of the wider world.
Alvarez, 69, is speaking via Skype from her home in Vermont. Afterlife, she says, is in some ways a product of her age. Put another way, it’s the first novel she’s written as an “elder.”
“I don’t mean ‘elder’ in this poky, airbrushed way—the wise abuelita or anything like that,” Alvarez says. She means it in “the way we used to use the term: the elder of a tribe—having a long view behind me, having come through, being at a stage of life where you’re shedding identities, returning to more of a core self. What is that view? What is family here, at this point in life?”
Alvarez was born in New York City but spent much of her childhood in her family’s native Dominican Republic. They moved back to the U.S. and settled in New York when she was 10. (Her father, a doctor, became a persona non grata in the Dominican Republic when it was discovered that he was involved in a plot to overthrow Trujillo, the same ruler the Mirabal sisters organized against.)
After graduating from Middlebury College in 1971 and receiving a master’s degree in creative writing from Syracuse in 1975, Alvarez held instructor and writer-in-residency positions around the country. In 1988 she returned to Middlebury, where she worked as a professor. Later, after the success of her books enabled her to give up tenure, she became a writer in residence there. She retired from the college in 2016.
Alvarez published most of her oeuvre—in addition to novels, she has written poetry collections, nonfiction, and books for children and young adults—during her time in Vermont. She lives in the small town of Weybridge, near Middlebury, with her husband, Bill Eichner, a retired ophthalmologist. She told a PBS interviewer in 2002 that the region’s “silence and simplicity” allows her to focus. Over time, though, as Afterlife makes clear, the area has become less simple.
“When I first got here, I think, there were 5,400 people of Hispanic descent in all of Vermont,” Alvarez says. “That’s like a city block [in New York City]. It’s been astonishing, in the last 15 or 20 years, to watch this infusion of undocumented workers coming to work on all these little dairy farms that are struggling. Like many places that were once very homogenous, it’s starting to change.”
Afterlife captures this change through the story of Antonia Vega, a writer and retired professor of literature who lives in a small town in Vermont and who has recently lost her husband. Her neighbor, Roger, is a dairy farmer who employs undocumented workers. “He doesn’t relish breaking the law,” Antonia notes. “But sometimes even law-abiding citizens have to defy the authorities in order to survive. Desperate situations call for desperate moves. Not so different, after all, from the undocumented workers he employs.”
After one of Roger’s workers, Mario, seeks Antonia’s help in securing the passage of his girlfriend, Estela, from Colorado—where she landed after crossing the border—Antonia finds herself, at first reluctantly, drawn into their troubles. Meanwhile, one of her three sisters, an unstable but saintly psychologist named Izzy, has gone missing, and Antonia must work with her other siblings to locate her. At several junctures, Mario and Estela compete with Antonia’s sisters for her attention and loyalty, and the conflict between familial and extrafamilial demands—as well as the demands of the self—give rise to probing observations and unresolvable questions.
“What is the minimum one owes another?” Antonia asks. And is it reckless to neglect one’s health and security to rescue others? “The mantra of the First World,” she notes: “First your own oxygen mask, then everyone else’s.”
Eventually, the borders of Antonia’s responsibilities begin to blur. Mario’s and Estela’s burdens are “theirs, and hers is hers,” Alvarez writes. “But Antonia is having trouble keeping everybody separate.”
Alvarez, who in 2013 was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama, began working on Afterlife as a break of sorts from another novel that she’d been struggling with (and that she plans to return to in some form). In comparison to that novel, Afterlife came relatively quickly, she says, and the book has an immediate, propulsive quality that suggests the urgency of inspiration.
“I thought of it as a contemporary female Book of Job,” Alvarez explains, referring to the Old Testament figure whose faith is tested by a series of calamities. “Everything has fallen apart” for Antonia. Alvarez notes that the character is also anxiety ridden about larger issues, including mass shootings and climate change.
Amy Gash, Alvarez’s editor at Algonquin, says Afterlife was written in response to “some losses in Alvarez’s own life, but also the state of our country and the planet, really.” She adds, “From climate change to the way we are treating immigrants, these are all themes that press against the characters in Afterlife. I suspect that Julia turned to fiction to work through some of this—to try to see how things look from other perspectives, and to find hope. This book, to me, is particularly hopeful.”
One of the novel’s animating questions is how to live in, and negotiate, a world in distress. “I didn’t have an answer,” Alvarez says. “I still don’t have an answer. I don’t think that’s what novels do. But they help us travel the landscape and understand it in an integrated way.”
The novel frequently questions the usefulness of literature as a salve for society’s ills. “Even the beauties of language, of words rightly chosen, are riddled with who we are, class and race, and whatever else will keep us—so we think—safe on the narrow path,” Antonia notes. At another point, she wonders if, as a writer, she is “off the hook by writing her poems” or if that’s simply her way of “outsourcing her compassion.”
What sustains us—language, family, identity—may also be what distances us from others, the novel suggests. How, then, do you “honor those things, which have been important to others before you, and to you?” Alvarez asks.
Resistant to easy answers, she can’t say for sure. “The only way it can work,” she contends, and maybe the way literature works best, “is if you keep the question fresh.”
Daniel Lefferts is a writer living in New York City.