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'A little piece of luminous information': Julia Alvarez reflects on the power of stories to save us

Dominican writer Julia Alvarez visits with members of the audience following a talk she gave at Creighton University, Sept. 13, 2018.Julia Alvarez, an award-winning writer whose family fled to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1960 to escape the dictatorial regime of Rafael Trujillo, told an audience at Creighton Thursday night that stories have the power to change the world.

Alvarez’s address, in front of a full Hixson-Lied Auditorium, was part of the Creighton 140 Presidential Lecture Series, presented in collaboration with the Institute for Latin American Concern (ILAC) program at Creighton. More than 4,300 Creighton undergraduate and professional students have participated in service-learning immersion experiences in the Dominican Republic through ILAC since its founding in 1972.

Alvarez focused her talk on activism and storytelling – weaving together stories from her own life.

She recalled a time when a book “fell into her hands” at a critical moment.

Alvarez and her family were still living in the Dominican Republic – under the oppression of Trujillo.

“It was a nightmare world, a world of terror and monitoring and secret police,” Alvarez said.

Just a young girl, she found encouragement in a book given to her by an aunt – an edition of a centuries-old tale, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

“Instead of the usual pale blonde, blue-eyed princess, the cover showed a brown girl with dark eyes and hair, a girl who could have been Dominican,” Alvarez said. “Inside I discovered the most amazing story – a plucky girl with a wily imagination and great storytelling skill.”

Scheherazade, the tale’s storyteller living under the shadow of a sultan’s death sentence, loved books and would enthrall the murderous sultan with stories filled with enchanting characters such as Aladdin and Ali Baba. But the storyteller always ended her narratives at a key moment, allowing her to allay her daybreak execution for one more night. Over the course of 1,001 nights, the sultan fell in love with Scheherazade, repented of his evil ways, and made her his queen.

“This was a really important story for me to read,” Alvarez said. “It put in my head a little piece of luminous information: that stories have power. They can transform us and save us.”

Alvarez remembers fleeing the Dominican Republic with her family when she was 10, leaving everything behind except what she could fit into a small suitcase.

“But I brought this liberating story of Scheherazade in my head,” she said.

She found the transition to the United States neither easy nor welcoming. Alvarez recalls being bullied in school in New York because of her accent. She felt homesick and lost. But then her sixth-grade teacher gave her a list of books to check out at the library.

Julia Alvarez, a writer and native of the Dominican Republic, delivers a lecture at Creighton University, Sept. 13, 2018, as part of the Creighton 140 celebration.“A sixth-grade teacher. A librarian. They put books in my hands,” Alvarez said. “What an amazing world this was. What freedom. What’s more, the world of stories was a truly welcoming place. ‘Come on in,’ my favorite writers seemed to be saying to me. I found what we had come looking for in the United States of America in between the covers of books.”

Alvarez’s passion became sharing stories of her own – stories that shed light on injustice and uplifted our shared humanity.

“As storytellers, we have an important role to play in bringing about the changes that must happen if we’re going to survive as a human family on this small planet of diminishing resources,” she said.

“What kinds of stories can I and others tell that might help us navigate our way forward? Large-hearted stories that exercise the imagination and enlarge our vision of the world and our version of ourselves – making us a more just, compassionate, humane human family, a truly beloved community.”

Alvarez’s work spans genres. Her novels include How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies. She has also published poetry, nonfiction and books for younger audiences.

Her work has earned her numerous awards, including the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award and the Hispanic Heritage Award. In 2013, she received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.

Alvarez and her husband, Bill Eichner, a native of Papillion, Nebraska, have also been active in humanitarian projects in the Dominican Republic.

The couple, who live in Vermont, joined local campesinos in the Dominican Republic, pushing back against large, corporate coffee growers, which she said were eroding the country’s natural landscape. In response, Alvarez and Eichner purchased land and started growing their own coffee, with an organic and fair-trade label. They named their farm Alta Gracia (or “high grace”) and used proceeds from coffee sales to start Foundation Alta Gracia – funding local literacy projects.

They have also been involved in Border of Lights, which commemorates the 1937 Haitian Massacre, in which thousands of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic were systematically murdered by government soldiers.

In a case of life intertwining with art, Alvarez’s A Cafecito Story and A Wedding for Haiti intersect with their outreach.

“People say, ‘Where do your stories come from?’ I don’t go thinking them up; they come to my door and knock,” Alvarez said. “The reason I write is there is a pebble in my shoe. I learn about something, and it bothers me. It hurts me. It’s a pebble in my shoe.

“Everybody has a different way of getting the pebble in their shoe out, and my way is when I write about it, when I story-tell about it.”

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