The might of imagination
Julia Alvarez told members of the campus community that she often asks herself, "What are the stories I can tell that will make that small shift in the way someone sees the world?"
When the rainy season came to the Alta Gracia organic coffee farm, high in the mountains of the Dominican Republic, the road to the free school next door inevitably turned to mud.
The owners of the farm and school — Dominican-American novelist Julia Alvarez and her husband, Bill Eichner — decided the answer was to begin charging tuition, but not the kind of tuition familiar to most parents. Students were instructed to bring a river pebble to school. The stones would be used to pave the road to keep it passable year round.
Alvarez, who studied writing at Connecticut College for two years in the late ’60s, told the pebble story during a talk and book signing on campus Nov. 5. During the talk, titled “Sustainability and Storytelling,” she frequently referred to the power of small acts – including the act of storytelling – to change the world over time.
A poet, essayist and author of 14 novels for adults and children, including “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” (1991), Alvarez described how she and her husband founded the coffee farm in 1997. A writer-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, she said she had been asked by the Nature Conservancy to visit the mountains of the Dominican Republic and write about anything that caught her interest.
The couple noticed that short-sighted farming practices reliant on chemicals had deforested much of the mountain slopes on the isle of Hispaniola, especially across the border in the impoverished country of Haiti. Although they had no knowledge of coffee farming, they decided to purchase some of the damaged land and try to bring it back to productive use. The organic techniques they employed included planting trees to shade the young coffee plants.
The farm, which she said they are in the process of selling, has inspired several of Alvarez’s books, including her recent memoir “A Wedding in Haiti.” The book is about a promise she made to attend the wedding of an undocumented Haitian laborer who came to work at the farm and became a close friend.
Alvarez, 63, was born in the United States but left with her parents when she was 3 months old to return to their native Dominican Republic. The family hurriedly left the Dominican Republic in 1960 because of her father’s involvement in the underground movement against the country’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo. Four months after they left, three of the underground movement’s founders — the Mirabal sisters — were murdered by the dictatorship.
Alvarez’s 1994 novel “In the Time of the Butterflies” tells the story of the three young women, nicknamed Las Mariposas or The Butterflies. She says the story of their struggle for freedom in a small island nation spread around the world and has spurred many other women to action.
During the question-and-answer session that followed the prepared remarks, an audience member asked how writers can convince people to think differently about issues such as sustainability.
Alvarez said storytelling can change people from the inside out, and she mentioned that her literary heroine is Scheherazade, the storyteller of the folktale collection “One Thousand and One Nights.”
Married against her will to an evil sultan who kills his wives the morning after the wedding night, Scheherazade saves herself by continuing to tell him stories at night with cliff-hanger endings that she promises to finish in the morning.
“Over the course of a thousand and one nights she saved herself, but she also changed the sultan’s mind and heart so he repented his evil ways,” she said. “I ask myself, in the time left me, what are the stories I can tell that will make that small shift in the way someone sees the world?”