Julia Alvarez‘s 1991 debut novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents marked the introduction of an important new literary voice. It’s a lively, warm, embracing story of the immigrant experience in the form of a Dominican family finding their way in America as their country slips away from the dictatorship of Trujillo. Life in the United States proves an equally difficult transition for the Garcia family, but they do it with a universal liveliness and passion that makes their story relatable no matter the reader’s origins.
Her follow-up, 1994’s In the Time of the Butterflies, keeps the same format (a collection of sisters) but structures itself within the context of the martyred Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic, three of whom fell to Trujillo’s henchmen near the end of his regime and one who remained to tell the story. Alvarez has expanded her literary palette with poetry volumes, essay collections, and children’s books, all of which speak to her main themes: life as a woman, a bilingual person, an immigrant always being called upon to assimilate and accommodate no matter how long they’ve been in the United States.
¡Yo!, the 1997 sequel to How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, is the third of three major Alvarez novels to be given a 2019 re-release by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. While there is no additional material in this edition, the Reading and Discussion Guide (along with a recommended reading list from Alvarez) effectively contextualize Julia Alvarez as a writer whose initial releases nearly 30 years ago still deserve consideration. The introduction of any voices of “the other”, if you will, can come with mixed blessings. Will writers of color always be expected to stay in their lanes? Are women only capable of writing about life from the perspective of a daughter, sister, mother, aunt, or wife?
The reader coming upon Alvarez in 2019 will not find anything dynamic or revolutionary in these pages. The Garcia Girls are lively in their debut, and they embrace everything they encounter with a particularly enjoyable life force. There are problems with the structure of that novel, however. Alvarez’s tendency to be excessively generous by allowing various voices to take center stage with each chapter hurt the flow of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents simply because not all the girls made for consistently interesting narrators.
What hurts the structure of that novel, however, proves beneficial in ¡Yo! The reader should understand from the novel’s title that we are dealing with a story that can be seen through several levels. In English, ¡Yo! is an informal greeting. In Spanish, it’s the subject “I”. In this novel, it’s also the nickname of Yolanda, the third (and probably single most interesting) Garcia sister. She has written a novel that’s exposed some truths about her family, and this ability she has had to express herself better through the written word than spoken is getting her into trouble.
Wisely, Alvarez structures this story of a writer and her voice by allowing everybody but the writer herself to have a voice. Yolanda is here on every page, but only through the perspective of other people. Yolanda is an artist, woman, daughter, lover, and stepmother. The people in her world (sisters, cousins, parents, husbands, students and more) can bring her to life, but Yolanda remains elusive. She’s brought these people into her realm, and now it’s their turn to take center stage.
After a prologue spoken by the sisters, who complain “…her face is all over the place in a promo picture that makes her look prettier than she is”, three parts follow. Each speaker is offered a literary motivation. For example, “The Wedding Guests” provide “point of view”. “The Stalker” provides “tone”. Yolanda is seen as selfish and selfless, controlling and confusing, irresistibly adorable and exhausting. To her father, who takes the final chapter of Part Three (there are 16 speakers in all), Yolanda is a favorite.
At some level, ¡Yo! can be seen as a contrivance, a novel with no plot, a loose collection of anecdotes about a writer who has betrayed family confidences and failed at personal growth. She rises from the ashes of her second marriage and starts on a third, but we don’t really get to know her except through the eyes of others, and that’s fine. She does get to speak in some of these sections, and when she tells us that the “…old connections don’t work… We all have to figure out new ways of relating” we begin to understand Alvarez’s motivations. There are no plot developments or amazing story structures. There is only the larger interest of seeing how many varied ways a story can be told.
How far can Alvarez take this experiment? Will she need to immediately grab our attention with fully formed characters that exist beyond stereotypes? That’s where she meets some problems. There are too many people telling this story and as a result some of them will stumble. You can’t spin over a dozen plates on top of sticks and not expect some of them to come crashing down into shattered pieces of stereotypes.
Yo’s student, a college football star, expounds on great writers: “When that guy Updike or that Mailer guy wrote a book, it was a touchdown at the end of each chapter.” Her landlady opines about Yolanda: “I could be this person, all alone in this strange world where I’m not sure how to do things because things haven’t turned out the way they were supposed to.” The intelligence in her narrative doesn’t reflect the implication the reader gets that we are supposed to look down on this woman, and as a result she falls flat, even though as an obese woman prone to being judgmental she manages to stand up to her abusive husband.
It’s when we read the monologue from the stalker that we are hurtled dramatically into a very different mood. Alvarez wisely provides this monologue with the “tone” sub-heading, but the darkness here is too concentrated, too intense in 14 pages to be anything but a noble experiment gone wrong. “All I have to do is look into your bookjacket eyes and I can see all the way back,” he starts, without punctuation and control. “I’ve waited a long time for this moment…marking the numbers in the air with the knife- twenty-five years, ten since I last saw you…” The hasty sketch of his miserable childhood is not believable and hard to accept as justification for his pursuit of Yolanda. Where is Alvarez going here? How are we expected to feel about this? It’s in sections like this where the reader can’t help but feel that ¡Yo! is a loose collection of short sketches that would have been better served as small pieces that can exist on their own merit.
Indeed, readers might grow tired that many of these short chapters seem more quaint than revelatory. Could Alvarez have expanded the section where Yo teaches an impoverished Dominican farmer to write his own name? She certainly could have elevated that section and a handful of others. Readers impressed by what seems complex will have to settle for material that’s sometimes more precious than it needs to be. Still, taken as a celebration of perspective and the potential of narrative drive, ¡Yo! is a welcome addition to Alvarez’s tapestry of lively characterization. It won’t go as far as the reader might want, but going on the journey with Alvarez with is a trip worth taking.