Julia Alvarez and the Female Book of Job

Julia Alvarez likes to write about sisterhood. She made herself into a household name with two novels about tight kinships: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, published in 1991, about four Dominican sisters adjusting to life in the U.S., and 1994’s In the Time of the Butterflies, about the four Mirabal sisters, who sought to overthrow the former Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. While Afterlife, Alvarez’s first work for adults in nearly 15 years, focuses again on four Dominican sisters, it also stretches the definition of family, dramatizing the ways in which the demands of those we hold close sometimes conflict with the demands of the wider world.

Alvarez, 69, says Afterlife is in some ways a product of her age. Put another way, it’s the first novel she’s written as an “elder.”

“I don’t mean ‘elder’ in this poky, airbrushed way—the wise abuelita or anything like that,” Alvarez says. She means it in “the way we used to use the term: the elder of a tribe—having a long view behind me, having come through, being at a stage of life where you’re shedding identities, returning to more of a core self. What is that view? What is family here, at this point in life?”

Alvarez was born in New York City but spent much of her childhood in her family’s native Dominican Republic. They moved back to the U.S. and settled in New York when she was 10. (Her father, a doctor, became a persona non grata in the Dominican Republic when it was discovered that he was involved in a plot to overthrow Trujillo, the same ruler the Mirabal sisters organized against.)
After graduating from Middlebury College in 1971 and receiving a master’s degree in creative writing from Syracuse in 1975, Alvarez held instructor and writer-in-residency positions around the country. In 1988 she returned to Middlebury, where she worked as a professor. Later, after the success of her books enabled her to give up tenure, she became a writer in residence there. She retired from the college in 2016.
Alvarez published most of her oeuvre—in addition to novels, she has written poetry collections, nonfiction, and books for children and young adults—during her time in Vermont. She lives in the small town of Weybridge, near Middlebury, with her husband, Bill Eichner, a retired ophthalmologist. She told a PBS interviewer in 2002 that the region’s “silence and simplicity” allows her to focus. Over time, though, as Afterlife makes clear, the area has become less simple.
“When I first got here, I think, there were 5,400 people of Hispanic descent in all of Vermont,” Alvarez says. “That’s like a city block [in New York City]. It’s been astonishing, in the last 15 or 20 years, to watch this infusion of undocumented workers coming to work on all these little dairy farms that are struggling. Like many places that were once very homogenous, it’s starting to change.”
Afterlife captures this change through the story of Antonia Vega, a writer and retired professor of literature who lives in a small town in Vermont and who has recently lost her husband. Her neighbor Roger is a dairy farmer who employs undocumented workers. “He doesn’t relish breaking the law,” Antonia notes. “But sometimes even law-abiding citizens have to defy the authorities in order to survive. Desperate situations call for desperate moves. Not so different, after all, from the undocumented workers he employs.”
After one of Roger’s workers, Mario, seeks Antonia’s help in securing the passage of his girlfriend, Estela, from Colorado—where she landed after crossing the border—Antonia finds herself, at first reluctantly, drawn into their troubles. Meanwhile, one of her three sisters, an unstable but saintly psychologist named Izzy, has gone missing, and Antonia must work with her other siblings to locate her. At several junctures, Mario and Estela compete with Antonia’s sisters for her attention and loyalty, and the conflict between familial and extrafamilial demands—as well as the demands of the self—give rise to probing observations and unresolvable questions.
“What is the minimum one owes another?” Antonia asks. And is it reckless to neglect one’s health and security to rescue others? “The mantra of the First World,” she notes: “First your own oxygen mask, then everyone else’s.”
Eventually, the borders of Antonia’s responsibilities begin to blur. Mario’s and Estela’s burdens are “theirs, and hers is hers,” Alvarez writes. “But Antonia is having trouble keeping everybody separate.”
Alvarez, who in 2013 was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama, began working on Afterlife as a break of sorts from another novel that she’d been struggling with (and that she plans to return to in some form). In comparison to that novel, Afterlife came relatively quickly, she says, and the book has an immediate, propulsive quality that suggests the urgency of inspiration.
“I thought of it as a contemporary female Book of Job,” Alvarez explains, referring to the Old Testament figure whose faith is tested by a series of calamities. “Everything has fallen apart” for Antonia. Alvarez notes that the character is also anxiety ridden about larger issues, including mass shootings and climate change.
Amy Gash, Alvarez’s editor at Algonquin, says Afterlife was written in response to “some losses in Alvarez’s own life, but also the state of our country and the planet, really.” She adds, “From climate change to the way we are treating immigrants, these are all themes that press against the characters in Afterlife. I suspect that Julia turned to fiction to work through some of this—to try to see how things look from other perspectives, and to find hope. This book, to me, is particularly hopeful.”
One of the novel’s animating questions is how to live in, and negotiate, a world in distress. “I didn’t have an answer,” Alvarez says. “I still don’t have an answer. I don’t think that’s what novels do. But they help us travel the landscape and understand it in an integrated way.”
The novel frequently questions the usefulness of literature as a salve for society’s ills. “Even the beauties of language, of words rightly chosen, are riddled with who we are, class and race, and whatever else will keep us—so we think—safe on the narrow path,” Antonia notes. At another point, she wonders if, as a writer, she is “off the hook by writing her poems” or if that’s simply her way of “outsourcing her compassion.”
What sustains us—language, family, identity—may also be what distances us from others, the novel suggests. How, then, do you “honor those things, which have been important to others before you, and to you?” Alvarez asks.
Resistant to easy answers, she can’t say for sure. “The only way it can work,” she contends, and maybe the way literature works best, “is if you keep the question fresh.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Jenny Offill Exerts Herself

It’s a Friday afternoon, and Jenny Offill, author of the widely acclaimed 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation, is at her home in the Hudson Valley. She’s speaking via Skype, about to broach the subject of her new novel, Weather (Knopf, Feb.), when her internet goes down. The conversation switches to the telephone, but Offill isn’t flustered. In some ways the interruption seems fitting. Both Dept. of Speculation and Weather, with their fragmented structures, suggest that linearity is suspect, that connection is fragile, and that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our understanding.
Offill’s biography, like her novels, is haphazard. Her parents were boarding school teachers, and throughout her childhood she moved around the country, living in Massachusetts, California, Indiana, and, eventually, North Carolina, where she attended high school and college, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduating, she worked a number of odd jobs—waitress, bartender, caterer, cashier, medical transcriber, fact-checker, writer of “things for rich people who have a story to tell,” as she puts it.
She published her first novel, Last Things, in 2000, when she was 30. That book received critical acclaim but failed commercially. In the years that followed, Offill worked as an adjunct writing instructor at various universities and wrote children’s books. Like the writer-narrator of Dept. of Speculation, she struggled for years to produce a second novel.
When she did produce that second novel, it exceeded expectations. “I was hoping other writers would like it,” Offill, 51, says of Dept. of Speculation. “That was just a weird book. I didn’t think a novel that was structured like that would have a big audience.”
For all its unconventionality, Dept. of Speculation is propulsive and absorbing. Critic Elaine Blair, writing in the New York Review of Books, said it can be read “in about two hours.” She’s right. Perhaps this is why it didn’t remain some “weird book,” as Offill assumed it would. To date, Dept. of Speculation has sold about 57,000 print copies in hardcover and paperback, according to NPD BookScan; it has been acquired in 21 territories outside of North America; and it’s been optioned for film.
The novel tells the story of an unnamed woman who once aspired to be an “art monster” but, saddled with family and work commitments (including a gig as a ghostwriter for an egomaniacal “almost astronaut”), has thus far failed to realize her potential. The Wife, as she’s sometimes called, begins to question her devotion to her family when she discovers that her husband has had an affair with a younger woman. Proceeding in a series of frenzied fragments, separated by double paragraph breaks, the novel presents the narrator’s fearsome intellect as well as her changeable demeanor.
In a single brief chapter, the narrator alludes to Einstein, recounts the gruesome death of a Russian cosmonaut, quotes the explorer Frederick Cook, writes an imaginary and self-flagellating Christmas card to loved ones, describes her daughter swimming, and references the Stoics.
Dept. of Speculation’s success may also have been owed, in some small part, to its association with a style of writing, popular in the last decade, known as autofiction. The term has come to stand for a literary approach that does away with the conventions of fiction, such as plot and invented characters, and draws, or appears to draw, on the author’s lived experience.
Offill is often mentioned in the same breath as other practitioners of the form, such as Rachel Cusk and Ben Lerner, but she smarts at the label. “Autofiction has been around for so long,” she says. She also feels it’s gendered, asserting that women who write it are assumed to be pulling from their diaries. “I wouldn’t be a fiction writer if I didn’t believe that you could invent, and conflate, and add to things.” And Weather, while formally similar to Dept. of Speculation, certainly strays from the precepts of autofiction. Its narrator is named, for example, and its preoccupations are less insular.
The book centers on a librarian named Lizzie who is raising a son with her husband and caring for a brother with a history of drug addiction. Over the course of the novel, Lizzie, who begins working for a former mentor who operates a podcast about futurism, becomes increasingly fixated on the climate crisis and the doomsday preparation movement. Her anxieties only accelerate when Donald Trump (who is never named) is elected president.
Jordan Pavlin, Offill’s editor at Knopf, feels that Weather is “more ambitious in its themes” than Dept. of Speculation, and that “one of its most thrilling seductions is the way it uses the anxiety we are all experiencing in relation to the current climate—both literally and figuratively—as a plot engine.”
Offill says that with Weather she was looking to respond to the current moment more directly, to write a book that wasn’t “frozen in amber.” She was inspired to address climate change in part by her conversations with her best friend, novelist Lydia Millet, who has written about environmental issues for the New York Times and who addresses those themes in her fiction. “For years we’ve been talking, and at a certain point I thought, ‘I need to know more about this,’ ” Offill says.
At the same time, Offill worried about the pitfalls of political fiction, which she feels can be boring, didactic, and humorless. “I don’t love the language that’s available to talk about this stuff,” she says. “Do I like to say interconnectedness? No. Do I like to say web of life? Mm, no. If you’re not particularly drawn to earnestness, how do you make yourself be a more engaged person?”
Nonetheless, Offill thinks the central problems of our time—climate change, social justice—can’t be tackled individually. “It’s about getting more people—including people like me, who actually hate all group activities—to sign up for the messiness and frustration and occasional exhilaration of collective action. I’ve been to more marches and more meetings and I’ve written more postcards and called more people than I’ve ever done,” she says. “I don’t like to do any of that stuff.”
Weather, like Dept. of Speculation, is told through frenetic fragments. But where the fragments in Dept. of Speculation were meant to mimic the churning of the narrator’s mind, the fragments here are meant to mimic weather. “People always say, ‘It’s an atmospheric book,’ ” Offill explains. “I wanted to see what it would be like to try to write atmospherically.”
The book, she says, is “meant to swirl” as if its paragraphs were clouds. Its atomized form is intended to congeal into an uneasy whole, mirroring the challenge of political movements, in which individuals must find a way to act in concert.
If Offill arrived at any wisdom by the end of writing Weather, it’s the wisdom captured in a quote the protagonist’s husband posts above his desk: “You are not some disinterested bystander / Exert yourself.” With Weather, Offill hopes to do just that.
This story was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Homosexual Panic: The Millions Interviews James Polchin

We tend to use the word “homophobia” loosely, as if it were interchangeable with the term “anti-gay.” But the root of the word points something more specific: fear. Were the men who recently attacked a lesbian couple on a London bus simply anti-gay? Or did the women scare them?

In her 1972 essay “Gay Is Good,” queer activist and Gay Liberation Front founding member Martha Shelley writes, “The function of the homosexual is to make you uneasy.” And in the various forms of hatred and abuse against queer people, throughout history and continuing today, one can detect this unease. In Shelley’s view, it’s the unease of recognition. She continues, addressing a heteronormative readership: “We want to reach the homosexuals entombed in you, to liberate our brothers and sisters, locked in the prisons of your skulls.”

Before the Stonewall Uprising 50 years ago, fear of gay people surfaced mainly through subtext, often in reports of crimes and violent encounters. In Indecent Advances, James Polchin, a New York University professor and cultural historian, looks at true crime reports from the early- to mid-20th century, showing how newspapers from that era reflected society’s phobia of LGBTQ people and villainized victims. Here, Polchin talks about his research process and how Stonewall changed representations of queer people in the media.

The Millions: What led you to focus on representations of queer men in true crime?

James Polchin: Years ago I came across these scrapbooks by Carl Van Vechten at the Yale archive. He was a pretty big character of Modernism in the ’20s and ’30s in New York and Paris. He collected all sorts of books and records and ephemera. One of his scrapbooks was homoerotic material—photographs he’d taken, drag ball flyers. Interspersed with all these materials were true crime clippings. It was the first time I’d encountered small articles that were coded in their queer subtext. They were clearly important to Van Vechten as part of this world, and this period, that he wanted to memorialize. That started me thinking about how true crime played a role in, or was important to, queer sensibility.

TM: The title of your book is a term the media used to discussed crimes involving queer men. What did it imply?

JP: It’s one term I talk about in the books—there’s “improper advances” and sometimes just “homosexual advances.” They were employed by journalists and editors to suggest kinds of criminal behaviors that had sexual undertones. By the ’20s and ’30s we see them used more regularly with queer true crime stories. I think they were meant to signal, in a very opaque way, all the threats and fears that the queer victim posed to his assailant. The term “indecent advance” made the victim culpable in the violence or murder he experienced. It had a powerful resonance in the newspapers and also, increasingly, in the courtroom, for defendants who used that language and claimed, “I was protecting myself.”

TM: How, if at all, did Stonewall affect these cultural attitudes?

JP: After Stonewall happens, there’s a change in consciousness about queer criminality from activists. Queer people pushed back against the criminalizing of them in the press and in the courtroom. By the late 1970s, after the killing of Harvey Milk in San Francisco, you have a movement around violence. Violence becomes central to the way queer activism pushes for change—in terms of the way the police handle these crimes, the way the media reports on them, the ways laws are set up either to criminalize queer people or protect them.

TM: True crime reportage from this era says a lot about how society viewed queer men. How did it shape how queer men saw themselves?

JP: If I go back to Van Vechten’s scrapbooks, I think gay men were reading these newspaper articles, and reading between their lines, as a protective measure. They would understand the dangers that were out there. Particularly by the ’40s and postwar period, the ways in which newspapers took these crimes stories and amplified them into fears of homosexuals on the home front—they became something queer people had to push against.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.