Julia Alvarez is a Dominican American novelist, poet, and recipient of a National Medal of Arts award. Her latest novel, Afterlife, came out in April, and her latest children’s book, Already a Butterfly: A Meditation Story, will be released in June. “A Glimpse of the Garden,” an essay by Alvarez on centering prayer, appears in the June issue of Sojourners magazine. Alvarez spoke with editorial assistant, Hannah Conklin, about her newly released books, the connection between her work and spiritual practices, and finding hope during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Hannah Conklin, Sojourners: Afterlife is your first novel for adults in almost 15 years. What should readers expect?
Julia Alvarez: Afterlife is about a woman, recently retired from a lifetime of teaching literature, who suddenly loses her husband and in short order is confronted by an undocumented refugee seeking shelter as well as by the disappearance of her sister who suffers from bipolar disorder. I also think of it as a contemporary Book of Job with a sense of humor and a woman, instead of a patriarch, at its center. In the way that stories embody problems in situation and character, I was also reflecting upon how we survive — and not close down — when “the worst that can happen” happens.
Conklin: How does your character manage to do that? I think many people are wrestling with that right now as trauma and grief emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alvarez: My novel does not have the almighty coming in as literal deus-ex-machina to settle matters. Instead, my character has to find a way to live through the losses with resilience, love, compassion, and even joy! How do we stay open-hearted in the face of huge personal, national, environmental challenges and not bury our heads in the sand or retreat to self-protective, me-and-mine-only measures? As grim as it all sounds, I think the novel has humor and laughter woven into the darkest moments.
Conklin: In the same vein, your new children’s book also has themes of reflection and connection during hard times. What inspired Already a Butterfly: A Meditation Story?
Alvarez: Already a Butterfly — which has amazing art by Raúl Colón — grew out of a volunteer visit to the Mariposa DR Foundation, an organization in my native country that educates and empowers young girls in an effort to help them escape generational cycles of poverty. While volunteering there with my two young granddaughters, I realized that in addition to being educated and empowered in outside disciplines, the Mariposas needed to develop focus, integration, the discipline of self-management. After convincing Mariposa’s founder, Tricia Thorndike de Suriel, to institute meditation into their daily curriculum, I decided to write a picture book for young people of all ages that dramatizes the need to quiet down and connect with ourselves, our breaths, our surroundings, our home deep inside us. This connection is what we need to survive the many challenges and pressures we all — yes, even grownup children — face. We are already butterflies, but we need to be reminded, which I think is something a story does: remind us of what we might otherwise forget or ignore.
Conklin: It seems especially important these days that hope is not forgotten. How do you envision both of your newly released books offering hope to a world that desperately needs it?
Alvarez: Not that I ever planned it — or would want it— but both books seem now to have been prescient of the present moment. I am hoping that both stories will be useful to readers of different ages and will serve to accompany them and reassure them that there will be life after the life we are living in these dark days is over. As Wendell Berry wrote in a poem, “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.” That poem ends with the line, “Practice Resurrection.” Both my books live in the glow of that light.
Conklin: As a deep thinker and writer, what spiritual practices keep you grounded during dark days?
Alvarez: My meditation practice, now going on for over a decade — a sitting in the early morning, another in the evening — didn’t seem to be “accomplishing” anything. My essay in the magazine, of course, highlights the problem with that verb. Over time, my practice has helped me stay focused and rooted in what matters most. The weathers pass, and many huge storms have blown through my life in the last few years, but I sit and let them unfold, staying with my breath and being present. And that is the same trajectory a story travels — we sit through the weather of the characters' different dramas and challenges, and through the reading experience, we somehow tap the beauty and the mystery of those lives and feel deeply connected and accompanied.
Conklin: Where do you experience those connections between your work and meditation practices?
Alvarez: Though I still feel like a “total beginner” at meditation, I’ve realized after a lifetime of writing that it’s not all that dissimilar to the practice of meditation. In both disciplines, you lose yourself in the present moment — of your breath, of sentences, of the story, of your characters — and you tap something much deeper, fuller, and timeless. Not every day, and not every moment even of a “good day,” but the practice, the “ongoingness” of the work is really what matters. Not publication, not achievements, not awards. The practice itself.
Conklin: If the practice of something — whether writing or meditation — is more important than the accomplishment, how do you view success and recognition?
Alvarez: I think our culture has gotten so caught up in “celebritydom,” focusing too much on the maker of the work rather than the work itself. All of the consumer culture idols distract us and often totally obscure and mislead us from what can nourish our spirits and our lives. I often think of myself as a laborer in the vineyards, cultivating my small plot, and not privileging my work over anybody else's. We are all workers in the vineyard — and thank God that not everyone is writing novels or making movies or going on tours, but that some “anonymous” and “invisible” people are busily making cheese, building houses, raising babies, feeding the hungry, and yes, growing grapes for our wine.
Conklin: Where is your ‘vineyard’? How does your sense of home impact the way you see the world?
Alvarez: I grew up in the Dominican Republic and then suddenly, when I was 10, we were forced to flee the country in a hurry because of my father’s involvement in a plot against the dictatorship. That early disruption of the sense of “home” made me forever wary of any singular attachment to a specific place and circle of people as the space in which I was safe or belonged. As I’ve matured in my work and my meditation practice, I think my sense of home has become more profound, rooted in the mystery of being, which wondrously connects me with everyone else and with everything else. This last piece is important as we face the disastrous consequences of thinking that natural resources and the natural world are separate from us — or that we can build walls and separate from each other! Just think of how this virus is reminding us that we are so interwoven with each other and with microbes out there we can’t even see. “Home” changes minute by minute, and in a strange and holy way, it also remains the same.