You don't have to read the essays in Something to Declare, Julia Alvarez's first book of nonfiction, in any particular order. Each essay stands perfectly well on its own. Many of them, in fact, originally appeared in other publications such as Latina, Allure, and Washington Post Magazine. But if you start with the first essay called Grandfather's Blessing and work your way through to Writing Matters, you'll be treated to an honest and enlightening story that chronicles the evolution of an insecure adolescent immigrant from the Dominican Republic into a best-selling American novelist.
Alvarez was ten years old when her parents fled the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo to settle in New York City. The essays in the book's first section, called Customs, focus on the difficult and disorienting process of integrating two disparate cultures. The tradition of storytelling is deeply rooted in Dominican culture, Alvarez writes, and she credits her Latino roots for her faith that stories can save you. She also acknowledges that if she had stayed in the Dominican Republic it would have been much more difficult for her to establish her independence and make her way as a teacher and writer. In LaGringuita, she both mourns and defends the inevitable distance that she and her sisters created between themselves and the Spanish language. While breaking free from the old world limitations imposed on women, they also lost the ability to speak their native language without an accent.
The second section of the collection, called Declarations, revolves around Alvarez's discovery that she could bridge the two worlds of America and the Dominican Republic by writing. In essays such as So Much Depends and Grounds for Fiction, she describes her writing life with a frank clarity that will glue would-be writers to the page. You can learn how Alvarez chooses a topic, how she does her research, what writing commandments she follows (for example, You must change your life, a quote from Rainier Maria Rilke), and what her typical writing day is like. Perhaps most inspiring is the essay called Have Typewriter Will Travel in which Alvarez describes her years as a struggling writer. With no major publications, no steady job in sight, no money to maintain her car, and eighteen new addresses in fifteen years, she continued to write every day and her commitment eventually paid off. Her oft-rejected manuscript, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,finally found a publisher and has since won many honors.
All readers will enjoy Alvarez's touching and detailed descriptions of her immigrant family. Aspiring writers will find it particularly instructive to follow the journey that connects the young Alvarez who told her grandfather she wanted to be a poet with the middle-aged woman at a book reading who tells her audience why writing matters.
Connie Miller lives and writes in Seattle, WA.