This is the way in which I feel writing matters. It clarifies and intensifies, it deepens and connects me to others. . .it challenges me. . .to pass it on.
Something to Declare, by Julia Alvarez, is a collection of autobiographical essays describing the life of a Dominican writer living in the United States. It is divided into two parts: Customs, and Declarations, a play on words referring to her family's leaving the Dominican Republic and immigrating to the United States in the 1960s. The book itself is made up of insightful, well-crafted essays that reflect not only a multicultural American's experiences, but also the experiences of a woman writer struggling to be published and come to terms with her life in the post-feminist revolution era. It is an interesting retelling of the events in Alvarez's life that made her who she is today, and it is told from the viewpoint of someone who is comfortable with reflecting on who that person is: the second oldest daughter in an affluent Latino family, a self-doubting, twice-divorced woman living in Vermont, and a successful writer of Dominican origin.
Alvarez begins with "Grandfather's Blessing," an essay that discusses her Dominican origins and the first messages she received regarding her gender and strict societal views on what she should do with her life. It is here that the reader gets a sense of just how important Alvarez's family was and is in shaping who she is as a person. The granddaughter of a United Nations representative, Alvarez was brought up with a certain amount of privilege that not all children receive. She was educated in an American school, and her parents always strongly encouraged her to speak English. When her family was forced to flee the dictatorship in the Dominican Republic because of her father's underground activities, Alvarez shows just how strongly she was tied to her family. In "Our Papers" the reader gets a sense of the close knit community that is the Dominican family when Alvarez describes her family's vacations on the beach with all of her aunts and cousins: "Our lives, which were communal during the rest of the year, since we all lived in neighboring houses, grew even more communal when we were all under the same roof. " In "Imagining Motherhood" Alvarez reveals the closeness she had with her sisters growing up, and how that closeness still exists: "we all got married within the space of a few years-we all had the same sensible short haircut-we all seemed to find silk one Christmas. "
Although Alvarez admits that the transition to becoming an American citizen was difficult (especially as a child who got teased incessantly on the playground for her accent), she also points out the good things about her new country and culture, like the idea of self-invention. In "La Gringuita" Alvarez says of her environment at the time, "if the world was suddenly less friendly, it was also more exciting. " In "I Want to Be Miss America" she discusses the fascination she and her sisters had with the Miss America pageant. The fact that each of the young contestants had personal goals and college educations in their futures awakened possibilities in Alvarez's mind: possibilities of a life beyond wife and mother, which she had always been taught was the proper role for a Dominican woman. Alvarez definitely sees both the good and the bad in her life experiences, and acknowledges that all of her life experiences were key in shaping the writer she is today.
And while she touches on insecurities that she felt as a child learning English and adapting to a new culture, she also discusses insecurities that she feels as a fairly Americanized adult woman who has mastered the language and lived in more states than the average American-born citizen. In "Have Typewriter, Will Travel" Alvarez confronts her ever present self-doubt and how she works constantly to combat it, and to validate herself. In "Imagining Motherhood" Alvarez confronts motherhood and her own desires to fulfill her goals as a writer instead of being a mother. She writes perceptively about the social stigmas attached to childless career women, a stigma that all women in modern society must confront, regardless of culture or upbringing: "For all our talk of feminism and pro-choice, willful childlessness continues to have a bad reputation. " Alvarez wisely muses that in life, there is always a loss, always something that one gives up or sacrifices, but in its place is a life lived. She accepts her life and her choice not to have children. And later, in "A Vermont Writer from the Dominican Republic," she explains why she considers Vermont to be her home state and how she feels at comfortable amongst the community there. Through her insightful essays Alvarez makes it clear that despite all of the difficulties she has experienced both as a foreigner and as a non-traditional woman, she has found a place for herself in the United States, and has learned to use her life experiences as benefits rather than hindrances.
While many autobiographies are written in a linear, chapter-by-chapter format, Alvarez forms her life story in short musings that encompass many time periods and often overlap. This makes the book easy to read, and far less of a commitment than many heavy, weighted autobiographies. I believe Alvarez wants you to take her book lightly. Her opinions, her life experiences, and her conclusions are all present in each essay, but the point of the essays is not to persuade the reader to feel sorry, to be angry, or to even share the same viewpoints. The point of her essays is that they are to reflect a life well-lived, and her mission is simply to share this life with her readers.
Something to Declare is a thoughtful and well-rounded reflection of a life influenced by more than one culture and more than one ideal. It reflects not only a specific Dominican writer's experience, but also reflects the experiences of the feminine writer, an ever growing category not only in the United States, but also in the world. In her essays Alvarez tells the story of her life, and shows that one can retain the best from all worlds and experiences and not lose oneself, but rather reinvent oneself along the way.