A Conversation with Julia Alvarez on Before We Were Free:
Q. We learn in your author's note that this story was inspired by your own and your family's experience in the Dominican Republic. How much of a role did your own memories and the true stories you heard play in the writing of the book?
A. My father was involved in the underground against the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. When members of his immediate “cell” were rounded up, we had to leave in a hurry for the United States. But my uncle, who was also involved in the underground, and his family remained. Some members of the group who assassinated the dictator went to my uncle’s house to hide. When they were caught, my uncle was also taken away. My aunt and cousins lived under house arrest for nine months, not knowing if my uncle was dead or alive. He survived, but the members who had hidden in his house were killed by the dictator's son. These men were very close friends of my family. In fact, growing up, I called them tíos, uncles; their kids were my playmates. So you see, I had some connection to what actually happened. In writing the book, I conducted interviews with survivors, and I also read a lot of the history. I was particularly interested in the sons and daughters of those who had been tortured, imprisoned, or murdered–kids like my cousins and my childhood playmates. So it was a composite both of doing research and of remembering family stories.
Q. In what ways did having a real, historical context make the writing process more difficult, and in what ways did it make it easier?
A. When people ask me about writing historical fiction or writing fiction–what do I prefer? which is harder?–I think each kind of book presents its own type of challenges. Certainly knowing the general landscape of what has happened gives you a story that has already somehow been charted. The challenge becomes how to tell the story within that charted landscape. But in a story that is mostly fictionalized, you have to map out that landscape in your head. In actual fact, these two categories are often mixtures: what you've read, what you know of history, and what has happened help structure the totally fictionalized story; and what you imagine and invent and embellish helps fictionalize the historical story–otherwise you'd be a historian instead of a novelist.
Q. What is the political situation in the Dominican Republic today, in 2003?
A. We now have a working democracy with all the ills attendant to the fact that it's a young democracy. We don't have a long and tested tradition of civic participation and public service. Enfranchisement takes time; it’s not just a revolution happening, and then, okay: we’re free! You have to build that habit of freedom over generations, that sense of empowerment that comes with believing that your vote counts; that you, the citizens, are the ones in charge of your country; that politicians are serving you, not themselves. We're still trying to make it work, but I think that the dedication to making it work is what makes a democracy. So in some ways you can say the sacrifice that these men and women and their families made to bring about this freedom has been successful.
Q. In the book Anita's parents insist on staying in the country to fight for change. Have you continued to be committed to and involved in the future of the Dominican Republic? Do you view the writing of this book as a part of that commitment?
A. Definitely. My husband and I now have an organic coffee farm [in the Dominican Republic that is] part of a cooperative of small farmers trying to save the land from erosion and pesticides. We set it up as a foundation so that the proceeds from the sale of our coffee go to fund a school on the farm. We did this when we realized that none of our neighbors could read or write: ninety-five percent illiteracy in that area! I feel so very lucky to have the opportunities we have in this country. But we can’t stop there. We have a responsibility to those who are less lucky. I know I feel a special commitment to those who stayed behind in my native country, fighting for freedom and opportunities. The other way I'm still involved in my native land is by writing. I think of myself very much as an all-American writer: my roots, my rhythms, my history, my background come from the southern part of the Americas. The language that I've learned to craft and the life that I've constructed, by historical accident because of my parents’ emigration, come from the northern part of the Americas. I combine both of those traditions. In fact, you might notice how sometimes in answering these questions, I’ll say “we,” meaning the Dominican Republic, or “we,” meaning the United States! But ultimately, the commitment is to all of us in the human family. I really feel that as a writer, my “job” is to add to that treasure box of all our stories and poems and songs, which belongs to all of us.
Q. We often forget that through all major historical and political events, ordinary people, including children, are living their lives. What do you think is the effect on children who live in places that are politically unstable, or marked by violence and strife?
A. We often think of the victims of oppression as the actual martyrs and heroes–grown men and women who might form part of a freedom-fighting group or who are forced into hiding. But there are invisible victims and casualties: the children who are growing up in these repressive and terrifying and violent situations, who are robbed of their childhood. They don’t ever get the opportunity to be children, to be nurtured, to have faith in freedom and trust in goodness, to enjoy that innocent sense of possibility and promise. And, of course, many of these children endure immediate losses: fatherless and motherless and auntless and uncleless children left behind when we destroy families, the fabric of a society.
As Americans, I think we’re very aware of the genocide and destruction that happened in Europe, the young casualties of the Holocaust, all those World War II children for whom UNICEF was originally created. But we’re less knowledgeable about what happened in our own hemisphere in the second half of the last century: the dozens of dictatorships and repressive regimes that afflicted the South American countries. In 1972 there were only three democracies in all of Latin America. That’s not so long ago, you know! In reviewing historical fiction for young readers, I found many powerful narratives on the Holocaust, on slavery in this country, but I could find very little for young people about our own hemisphere’s recent history. That was what really pushed me to write Before We Were Free. I wanted to tell the story of our Anne Frank on this side of the Atlantic.
Q. As the situation in the story becomes increasingly grave, Anita becomes almost silent. As you wrote this, did you view Anita's reaction as typical, as well as symbolic?
A. You do things sometimes as you write out of a writerly instinct–something will feel right or seem in character, but you don't think about it analytically. I remember reading memoirs by survivors and reports of children who have suffered trauma–I remember being struck by how some of these victims responded with silence. I have a sister who works in Boston with Latin American refugees, many of whom have survived the burning of their villages, the torture and death of family members. My sister tells me that she knows that her patients are going to get better when they can tell the story of what happened to them. So the silencing of those who have lived in terror is not just an external thing; it's also a way in which the whole self shuts down. Anita’s silence is symbolic of what is happening to her country.
Q. Obviously, the actions taken by Anita's father and uncle and their group are controversial and extreme. Assassination is a frightening form of political action. What do you hope readers learn from the events in the book?
A. It's very interesting that in the Dominican Republic, we don’t use the word assassination in referring to Trujillo’s death. We use a word you don't have in English: ajusticiamento, which means "bringing to justice." Dominicans feel that Trujillo’s death was not murder; murder suggests that he was the victim of a crime. Dominicans believe that Trujillo was the criminal and the act of his removal was a just act. You have to remember that after thirty-one years of repression, there was no court of law or other institution not ruled by the dictator and his secret police to which Dominicans could go to address injustices. So assassination was the last and only resort. Of course, Anita is horrified because she has been taught murder is wrong, and here her own father and uncle are going to kill someone. And in a way, Anita is right. One of the reasons that I wanted to tell the story from a young person's view is that young people often bring a freshness and clarity to historical events. We might give assassination another name, but it's still violence. But what do you do when a situation becomes that intolerable, that extreme? Historically, people have had to take up arms in order to be free. Think of the United States, the patriots of the American revolution, that's what they did: they took up arms against the oppressor England. But now, taking up arms can mean destroying thousands of innocents, if not the whole planet. I’m becoming more and more of a pacifist. We’ve got to evolve other ways of addressing our differences and of taking care of our human family. One way to avoid violence is to be informed, to read stories that awaken us to problems before they become unbearable realities.
Q. At first, Anita is ignorant of the political strife in her country. In the small world of her family and friends, everything is fine, and she assumes everything is fine everywhere else as well. Is this a common assumption among young people?
A. Often, we can be informed about some problem, but it’s only when it begins to touch us in a personal way that we become impassioned and convinced about the rightness or wrongness of a situation. In a dictatorship, for instance, where all media are controlled, the news is often suppressed. So until oppression affects your own family, you might not even know that things are “that bad.” That’s what societies that aren’t free do: they separate us from each other’s stories. That great American motto comes to mind: United we stand, divided we fall. Of course, now with the amazing technology we have, we can know things even if we aren’t affected personally. Think of the war in Iraq, where we had embedded journalists–we were right there. It’s a real challenge for all of us, not just young people: to look beyond our own self-interest. Robert Desnos, a French poet who died in a concentration camp, once said that the task of being a human being was “not only to be one’s self, but to become each one.” That’s what compassion and freedom are all about.
Q. Can learning about others and becoming more politically aware really make a difference? Where do we start?
A. I touched on this in my response to your last question. I often think of that biblical phrase: "The truth shall make you free,” and also that wonderful quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Young people as well as older people need to know the stories of their families, their communities, their countries, each other, because it's a way to be aware and experience the realities of others. In dictatorships, there is always only one story: the official story no one can contradict. All other stories are silenced. It's the knowing of each other’s stories and the feeling and compassion created by knowing these stories that connect us as individuals to each other and make a humane human family out of different populations and countries and ethnicities.