A Writer's Journey to a New Land and a New Language

SOMETHING TO DECLARE

By Julia Alvarez

Algonquin Books

312 pp., $20.95

In "Something to Declare," Julia Alvarez peels away the layers of her life as a writer. The rhythms, sights, and sounds of a girlhood in the Dominican Republic meet the strangeness of a new life in America like a bizarre stew where the familiar bumps up against exotic flavors of another place.

Alvarez's family arrived in the United States as immigrants escaping a failed coup in the Dominican Republic in 1960. She was 10 years old when she entered a country and culture that forced her to master a new language.

"In this new culture, my sisters and I had to find new ways to be, new ways to see, and - with the change in language - new ways to speak," writes Alvarez. "It was this opportunity to create ourselves from scratch that led me to become a writer."

The book divides into two sections of personal essays. The first section, "Customs," lays the groundwork for discovery as Alvarez searches for a homeland between Caribbean islands and New York skyscrapers.

In the second half of the book, "Declarations," Alvarez describes the nuts and bolts of becoming a teacher, a writer, and finding the Latina voice that carries the lyrical rhythm of her words.

With gentle grace and wit, Alvarez tackles some sometimes difficult issues facing women in the US: food, family, marriage, and standards of beauty. She writes of the freedom she had to find, first from a country under oppressive rule, and then as she learned to embrace her own Latina voice, distinctly different from white male models, such as Yeats, Shakespeare, and Whitman.

For Alvarez, writing unites hard-won lessons with the simple poetry of everyday into a life on paper. It is a life balanced amid the tensions of family, community, and self.

"What do I mean by the writing life?" she asks. "For me the writing life doesn't just happen when I sit at the writing desk. I mean a life lived with a centering principle, and mine is this, that I will pay close attention to this world I find myself in."

Alvarez attracted a large following with three previous novels. In this valuable collection of essays, the vibrant activity of her childhood meets the subdued thoughtfulness of a Vermont writer in a way that introduces writing as a craft full of awareness. And this awareness gives Alvarez a Dominican-American voice that promises to continue to declare itself.

A WRITER'S WORK IS NEVER DONE

The fact that you've written one good book or one successful book does not guarantee that you've got the craft "in the bag." The apprenticeship continues and continues and continues from your first poem on the plywood-plank table in a one-room attic apartment to a sixth book in a large, sunny study about the size of that whole first apartment. Recently, a friend noted that although I have achieved the success and security I was looking for as a writer with published books, I am still full of the same self-doubts I had when we first became friends, and I was living in her attic as a boarder. "The past is over. Time to do a little housecleaning," she urged me, nodding gently.... This essay is meant to be that housecleaning, a coming to terms and setting to rights of some of the fears that haunted me when I was a struggling writer. - From 'Something to Declare'

* Kendra Nordin is a freelance writer in Boston.

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