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Home / Articles / Arts / Theater & Stage Reviews /  Telling Stories

Telling Stories

May 3, 2006, 12:00 am
By
Julia Alvarez' new novel wrestles history.


***image1***Julia Alvarez is the author of the novels How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of Butterflies as well as many other books of fiction, essay, poetry and children's stories. Her new novel, Saving the World, is about the 1803 expedition of Francisco Xavier Balmis to "save the world" with the smallpox vaccine. The narration shifts between the journal of the Balmis fleet's matron, Isabel Gomez y Cendala, and the modern-day drama of a Latina author Alma Huebner, researching the expedition. SFR spoke with Alvarez one day after April 10, the national day of action in support of undocumented immigrants. She will read from the book at 7 pm, Wednesday, May 3 at El Museo Cultural.

SFR: It strikes me that it takes courage to write a novel within a novel about a novelist researching a novel-especially when the novel's novelist is having trouble finishing the novel within.
JA: I really originally was going to write Isabel's story of the smallpox expedition, which I felt was an incredible historical story to run up against. There are so many luminous parallels to our own times. There's something about storytellers…when we find a great story we salivate over it.

As I was getting involved in the story, 9.11 happened and the war got started. There were so many things that were troubling to me. What was originally going to be a historical novel, I wanted to pull it into the present. Not just the 1800s, but what does this story mean to us now? That's how the story of a contemporary, parallel story came about.

What becomes of us in the present? Where is Alma at this point in her life? What does it mean that the story is inside her? Why would this story upset her? I could have made her a college professor or a dental hygienist, but I made her a storyteller ***image2***who's enchanted with storytelling. I saw it more as a sort of disenchantment. I think of her going through a dark night of the soul. The first sentence of her story is an echo of Dante's Divina Commedia. Maybe there's something to be learned about going through a dark period. It makes you question everything.

Did the criss-crossing of historical periods make for some puzzling while drafting? Was there much tentative copy-pasting in your process of discovering where to break between 19th and 21st centuries?
I didn't want the two stories to match. I wanted them to rhyme. I wanted them to resonate off each other, to sound off each other, to create a bigger story in the way they were coming together.

There's a keen social-political debate when Alma confronts Emerson, her husband's boss, about his international aid organization's assistance of pharmaceutical company research in Third World countries. Does the author more-or-less concur with the protagonist's decision to support such research?
I don't think as an author that I have one point of view. That's why I have so many characters. I think the thing even with the small pox expedition is how complex it all is.

This small pox vaccination saved literally hundreds of thousands of lives. They went down the leg of South America, to the Philippines, Macau and into China. These 22 boys were the carriers. How often do we make these strides riding on the backs-or in this case the arms-of small people?

The same thing with clinical testing of vaccines. They wouldn't be getting any medical care. The issue comes up of the ones who are the control group getting the placebo. That would be an issue that the Helsinki agreement is coming down on.

Alma writes to her husband Richard about her decision to abandon the manuscript for one of her typical family sagas in order to write about Balmis, Isabel and the orphans: "I guess I'm trying to save the world on paper." Do you think this is one of literature's functions, and do you think there could be something especially effective about hybrid, historical-contemporary novels like this one?
I share Alma's concerns, but I also see the complexity of it. That's why I couldn't write an essay about these concerns, but instead a story. I agree with Chekhov that the task of the writer is not to solve the problem, but to state it correctly, to make all the variety and complexity clear to the readers. It's not spin, not sound-bytes. Stories help us see, help us feel, help us really clarify our experiences. Nothing else does that. William Carlos Williams says one cannot get the news from poems, but men die daily for lack of what is found there.

Is there anybody you admire-artist, activist, or otherwise-for their role in helping to "save the world" today?
If you look in the back of the book, one of the people I mention is Dr. Ellen Kernick. She's an American who went to ***image3***medical school in the Dominican Republic, where she now runs an excellent facility for AIDS patients. Most of the doctors don't want to treat AIDS patients because it's the poor who get AIDS.

In the spirit of that, the people I admire are these invisible people who carry the weight of so many of the privileges, so many of the advantages we're able to enjoy. They carry it forward. They're the anonymous. In terms of any great thing that we see, some huge accomplishment, some great cathedral, think of the people who carried those stones. They were not the architect. They were not the powerful people to whom a plaque in front of the altar is dedicated. Those are the people I admire.

Have you been affected by the recent movement in support of Hispanic immigrants?
Vermont's Latino pop is less than 5,500. In our little county, we have 400 undocumented workers doing all the milking on all the farms. They don't have rights. They could be rounded up. It's a felony to help them. But they're the ones who get the stuff done. All those small farmers who are trying to stay viable in an agro-business world would go under without them.

One of the people I'm helping, she's a girl who came with her boyfriend. She got pregnant. I was going on a trip, and I said, 'Juliana, hold having your baby until I come back.' And she did. I wept when I saw this new little creature. The local hospital was wonderful with them. The mother was so scared, her family so far away. I brought her baby to her: 'Tu mama te cuidó a ti, and now its your responsibility. This is how you pass it on. Es un Americanito. It's your future.' A whole community in Vermont has rallied around these 400 people, and we're all felonious together. We'll all be in prison writing our novels. It will be like an NEA grant.

 

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