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SOMETHING TO DECLARE.\o7 By Julia Alvarez (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: 300 pp., $20.95)\f7

October 11, 1998|BRYCE MILLIGAN | Bryce Milligan is the primary editor of "Daughters of the Fifth Sun: A Collection of Latina Fiction and Poetry" and "Floricanto Si!: A Collection of Latina Poetry."

When novelist Sylvia Lopez-Medina died in a car accident last spring, there were few if any obituaries. So little information was available on Lopez-Medina that her agent was reduced to sending out book jackets and reviews in lieu of biographical summaries.

Perhaps that was the way the sometimes reclusive author would have wanted it, but it was a pointed reminder--in the current glut of mainstream literary memoirs--that there is a paucity of autobiographical works by contemporary Latina writers. A few such works have begun to appear: Mary Helen Ponce's "Hoyt Street" (1993), Pat Mora's "House of Houses"(1997) and Norma Elia Cantu's "Canicula"(1995). But there is so much more to document.

We are in the midst of a true literary phenomenon: the sudden rise to national prominence of a whole body of ethnic writing. Less than a decade ago, only scholars and small press aficionados had heard of writers like Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Denise Chavez and Julia Alvarez. These women are now staples of contemporary American letters.

That is a socio-literary development worth documenting; we need to know how these writers came to creative consciousness in this English-dominant society with their ethnic identities intact. These women bring truly new insights to the American literary experience. Thus it is no surprise that each new autobiographical work by a major Latina writer is treated with something akin to veneration by younger Latina readers and aspiring writers--as well as earning the attention of a broad-spectrum audience.

The latest title in this very small list is Alvarez's "Something to Declare." The author of such bestselling, critically acclaimed novels as "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents," "In the Time of the Butterflies" and "Yo!" has brought together a collection of essays dealing with her life, her struggle to become a writer and her own standards of creative excellence.

"Something to Declare" is an extended response to all those questions every writer must field after giving a reading; metaphorically, it is a response to the custom official's inquiry, "Do you have anything to declare?" Alvarez does; she has suitcases full of history (public and private), trunks full of insights into what it means to be a Latina in the United States, bags full of literary wisdom.

The 24 essays in "Something to Declare" are divided into two sections. "Customs" covers personal experiences growing up in the Dominican Republic and then fleeing the Trujillo dictatorship, going to school in New York and learning to love English. "Declarations" includes her nuts-and-bolts comments on writing and the writing life. Alvarez concludes with "Ten Commandments of Writing," a quirky list of quotations and a powerful essay, "Writing Matters."

"Something to Declare" credits an English teacher, Sister Maria Generosa, for stimulating the young Spanish-speaking Alvarez by using creative writing exercises rather than sentence diagramming and workbooks to teach basic English skills. By the end of her first year in the United States, Alvarez writes, "I was no longer a foreigner with no ground to stand on. I had landed in the English language."

Alvarez's reminiscences are charming. Her insider's view of four immigrant sisters watching the Miss America pageant is hilarious and instructive; that shopworn parade of hype taught them it was OK to excel in this country, to attend college and become something other than "dutiful wives with hymens intact." Alvarez's essays, full of valuable observations, captivate and delight and deepen our understanding of the process of acculturation.

She writes that when her first novel was published, "I had been writing and publishing in small magazines for over 20 years. If I belonged to any school of writers, it was to the fringe-school writers who 'prided themselves' on never having been published in The New Yorker." Her first novel took 10 years to complete; she considered it the book that would gain her tenure at Middlebury College in Vermont. Ironically, the book (and her formidable teaching skills) did gain her tenure even as it granted her the financial freedom to give up teaching and finally become a "full time writer."

For Alvarez, however, having this brass ring in her hands did not mean what it does for native-born writer-teachers. For this first-generation immigrant, tenure was like a permanent green card: "I know no other way of explaining it but that the academy has always been my home in the United States. Leaving it is my second big emigration into the blank sheet of paper."

"Something to Declare" has much to teach. Here is an American writer, a Vermonter no less, of the highest caliber, almost all of whose work reflects her Caribbean heritage, yet who is firmly rooted on the mainland. This is the American Dream in its purest state. It is an excellent book for aspiring writers to ponder, a deeply honest rumination on the writing life in America.

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