Alvarez receives National Medal of ArtsBy PHOEBE LEWIS
WEYBRIDGE/WASHINGTON, D.C. — On the evening of July 28, as local writer Julia Alvarez sat chatting with Michelle Obama at the White House, she tried to snap a photo of the First Lady to send to her family.
“I felt like a little hick with my eager little iPhone,” Alvarez recalled with a laugh back at her Weybridge home on Tuesday.
But just as she snapped the picture, Mrs. Obama, President Obama, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the audience stood to applaud Alvarez as she was announced as one of the recipients of the National Medal of Arts.
The photo was hopelessly blurred.
The White House announced that Alvarez would receive the 2013 National Medal of Arts last week. Perhaps best known for her novels “How the García Girls Lost Their Accents” and “In the Time of Butterflies,” Alvarez is a writer in residence at Middlebury College.
The National Endowment for the Arts applauded Alvarez’s “extraordinary storytelling. In poetry and in prose, Ms. Alvarez explores themes of identity, family, and cultural divides. She illustrates the complexity of navigating two worlds and reveals the human capacity for strength in the face of oppression.”
Alvarez accepted the award from President Obama during the Monday evening award ceremony. While conferring the award, President Obama praised her accomplishments that “have enriched our lives and reveal something about ourselves and about our country.”
Despite missing the photo op, Alvarez described the ceremony as “thrilling,” and even gifted several of her books to Michelle Obama, who was reportedly quite pleased.
HELPED BY ‘INVISIBLE HANDS’
For Alvarez, who was born in New York City in 1950 but lived much of the first 10 years of her life in the Dominican Republic, the award was also in recognition of the community effort involved in her writing — what she described as the “invisible hands.” In fact, a newspaper in the Dominican Republic that broke the news of her national award called her “Nuestra Julia” — “Our Julia.”
“Being (an immigrant) was once seen as a handicap,” she said. “Now I’m being celebrated double time. Their pride that one of theirs is recognized — it’s sweet that I’m being claimed. It’s so much more when you’re being shared. It feels great.”
Alvarez and her family returned to the United States when she was 10 years old, due in part to her father’s political activity during the Trujillo dictatorship that lasted from 1930-1961. She left behind a huge extended family, and found herself alone in a city that, though the place of her birth, felt alien and uninviting.
“So suddenly instead of this really embracing family in which you were just loved for being there, you didn’t even have to do anything, I was suddenly out,” Alvarez said in a recent interview with the National Endowment for the Arts. “I felt unwelcome. And in a way that was the really the hardest moment definitely up to then in my life, because I knew by then that we couldn’t go back.”
Alvarez soon found a love of reading, which became an escape from the difficulties of adjusting to life in the city.
“Thank goodness that I found the public library,” she said. “I was thrown back on myself and then to discover that there were these worlds I could enter where everybody was welcome. No sign posted on the cover saying ‘no this, no that.’ You could enter and you became these other people, and you could be a prince, you could be a pauper.
“After a while you’ve been sitting there listening to all these stories, all these stories and there’s one missing: the one that only you can tell. And so in a way, you know, that immigration that was the toughest thing that ever happened to our family was what connected me to what I ended up doing with my life, what I think is my calling.”
Alvarez’s love for stories and writing only grew, and she attended Middlebury College after transferring from Connecticut College in 1967. She was initially drawn to Middlebury College through the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and was the first student of the college to write a creative writing thesis.
“Middlebury nurtures,” she said.
“They call it an alma mater, and it really did nurture what it was that I was meant to do,” she said in the interview. “I came back (as a writer in residence) be part of the community. This is my home in some ways — the people who said, ‘Don’t stop’ in the face of the moment — this is their prize, their medal. There is huge emotion with all the people there with you, and as I saw with the president as he talked, it was very moving.”
Now an official recipient of the National Medal of Arts, Alvarez aims to use her visibility to promote the voices of others that might not be heard.
“There is a quote from Toni Morrison: ‘The function of freedom is to free someone else,’” Alvarez said. “With power, people will listen to what you say. You must use that visibility. People struggled to make Obama president, people struggled to help Julia Alvarez become a writer. It’s important to remember that I get to keep the medal, but the mettle you pass on.”
After the ceremony the other medal recipients trickled into a reception, but Alvarez said she was drawn away by the press and was kept so long that she missed the entire reception. As she entered the room, she found it was empty save for some staff members cleaning up. Despite missing the opportunity to chat further with the Obamas and the other recipients, she was glad to have witnessed the work involved in the ceremony.
“I saw the staff eating leftovers,” she said. “I got to see all the invisible hands that made the ceremony possible.”
Phoebe Lewis works for The Addison Independent, which is an affiliate paper of The Essex Reporter, The Colchester Sun and a member of the Champlain Valley Newspaper Group.