Story by Natasha Soto and Debralee Santos
Photos by Emmanuel Abreu | E. Abreu Visuals
“I think that’s a great attitude towards life,” she added. “I can be learning things all the time. When we read, we are like little children, we open up and we [exercise] our imagination.”
The intergenerational fans of the Dominican-American writer listened raptly as she read from and spoke about her new book, Where Do They Go?
Álvarez, who teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont, explained that she was inspired to write the book after the death of her beloved older sister Maury, who committed suicide.The book, intended for children of all ages, invites readers to contemplate what happens to the people they love after they die. It is illustrated by Vermont woodcut artist Sabra Field, and was translated into Spanish by award-winning poet and translator Rhina Espaillat (who is also the author’s distant cousin).
It was a devastating loss.
“I felt as if I’d been sliced open, and my guts poured out of me,” wrote Álvarez about the experience in a statement posted on her website. “Life, or the desire for it, was leaving me. Part of us dies with the death of people we love. All we can do is wait and see what is left when our grief is done with us—if it ever totally is.”
On Saturday, she said she had come to find solace in everyday moments that brought back Maury’s memory.
Word Up Community Bookshop, Seven Stories Press, and the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum sponsored the event.“One of the things that I wanted to suggest through this book is that it’s ok to have questions,” she explained. “And that one of the ways we can make ourselves feel better when we lose someone is to find them in what’s still there in our lives. In surprising new places.”
“Seven Stories Press published Julia’s book,” noted Veronica Liu, who serves as editor of the publishing house and also is a founder of the Word Up Community Bookshop. “The community really wanted her to come to Washington Heights, so we thought the children’s museum would be a perfect venue. We strive to give communities access to great books.”
After the reading, attendees lined up to meet and speak with the author.
The winding line of readers snaked its way through the main corridor, which was outfitted with small stations of puzzles and toys for the youngest in the group.
“I read her books dedicated to adults, but my daughter reads her children’s and young adult books,” said Cuban-born artist Nelson Álvarez (no relation) while he waited in line with his young preteen. “We got the Spanish version of Where Do They Go? for my daughter. My wife and I want to keep her plugged into Spanish. She is second-generation, part of a new generation.”Many in attendance clutched well-worn copies of many of Álvarez’s older books, including her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, which was published in 1991. Others held up her second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, which chronicled the lives of the Mirabal Sisters, who fought against the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, followed in 1994.
As he spoke, she smiled in acknowledgment while skimming through a Spanish-language entry in the “Tía Lola” series.
“My students read How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies,” said Rivera. “I typically teach Latino authors in my classes, so that the students can see themselves reflected on the page.”Rina Pichardo and Zacarías Rivera, two high school teachers, said they had wanted to hear from Álvarez, whose work they’ve incorporated in their classrooms.
And while it did not serve as a major plotline in the day’s events, some topical references were made.
“When immigrants come to this country, they bring more soul into it, they bring their stories, their cultures, their energy, their art. Look at this,” argued the author as she gestured directly at her audience. “All of that gets into the big treasure of the United States of Immigrant America. We have to leave many things behind, but what you carry in your imagination, you don’t have to leave behind. It’s very important for the new generation to be reminded of those treasures.”
The new books Where Do They Go? and ¿Donde Va a Parar? by Julia Álvarez are available at Word Up Community Bookshop (347.688.4456) and the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum (212.335.0004). For more information, please visit www.sevenstories.com.
In her own words
It was late autumn. I was jogging down our deserted country road. I found myself shouting the question in a whole range of emotions from fury to self-indulgence. The chill was in the air, the sky was grey with November clouds, the wind was edged with the chill of the coming winter.
When somebody dies, where do they go? When somebody dies, where do they go? When somebody dies, where do they go?
Who can I ask? Does anyone know?
I couldn’t yet muster the ambition, the animo, the whatever-it-takes to write a whole poem. Instead, every time I had a new version of the question, I’d jot it down. There were little pieces of paper strewn throughout the house, scribbles in the margins of grocery lists, indecipherable scrawls on the scrap paper on the bedside table when I woke up in the middle of another sleepless night.
Even now, I keep finding little scraps that I didn’t include in the final version of the poem.
Time passed. I finally did sit down and write down the poem/children’s book, Where Do They Go?
I wrote [artist] Sabra Field. I told her how her Demeter Suite had accompanied me in my grief. I had no idea if she would entertain such a project or feel it was below her standards to work on a book for children—though I called it a book about death for children of all ages.
She instantly responded that she would love to collaborate with me, but she would have to see the text first.
Now that the book is published, I look at Sabra’s intriguing cover art, and I feel the ascription should read “as told to Julia Álvarez ” by the wind, the rain, the flamingoes, the stars, the bits and pieces of all those I’ve loved and lost, and who come alive for me as I turn the pages of this book I wrote down to accompany those who grieve.