Nothing human is alien to us … Babel’s Julia Alvarez

The last installment of Just Buffalo Literary Center‘s sixth season of Babel made for an intriguing night. From the Talking Leaves Books counter being moved farther from the parking lot doors for the first time since being at Kleinhans to the playing of a Christmas song while waiting for Barbara Cole to take the stage to the electronic painting over of the Buffalo News logo on one slide of a completely overhauled PowerPoint presentation with the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library logo prominently placed throughout—things were slightly askew. But once the audience began to pack in like it did for Alexandra Fuller, the thought this once little event had blown up into a bona fide cultural rock show crossed my mind.

Even Mayor Byron Brown attended to give a loudly rushed summary of guest Julia Alvarez‘s accomplishments—many Cole had already stated more eloquently and without a bunch of “whereas” sentence starters—in order to officially declare April 3rd her day in Buffalo. It seemed an odd and completely unnecessary gesture despite its subject proclaiming herself “flabbergasted” and turned utterly patronizing once learning Alvarez helped usher in a day with real historic meaning courtesy of her fictionalized account of the Mirabal sisters and their heroism in the Dominican Republic. The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25th is a rarified accomplishment; our “honoring” of it merely came off tacky and glaringly odd with nothing to compare it to throughout the series’ past.

More oddity came when the announcement of next season’s authors was censored so The Buffalo News—they are still a sponsor if not the largest—could have an exclusive in their paper the next day. It’s this sort of commercialization of a beautifully orchestrated event that you hate to see. I understand concessions must be made so coffers can be filled to continue enjoying these wonderfully esteemed guests, but the night simply couldn’t help appearing staged and audited by the moneymen who knowingly hold a vice grip on Babel‘s life. The punchline, however, is that the News didn’t end up revealing the fourth author’s identity anyway. Their “… director Barbara Cole is trying to sign a journalist who is both a Pulitzer Prize winner and National Book Award winner” was priceless to read.

Alas, a lecture was also held and its orator did seem a bit of a rock star to the audience on hand. Grateful to be in town to speak to so many people—even joking how she wished her home state of Vermont was closer to Buffalo—Julia Alvarez read from a prepared essay about her life, career, and the novel responsible for the aforementioned International Day, In the Time of the Butterflies. Complete with a slideshow of her own to mark the first time a Babel author came with a multimedia presentation, we learned how “imagination can save us” and how it did just that for her. If not for the heroine of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), Scheherazade, Alvarez never would have understood the transformative quality of story.

Her life began in the midst of a vicious dictatorship in the Dominican Republic and the arrest of her father’s friends sparked their retreat to New York at the age of ten. The fact she and her three sisters survived while Las Mariposas (the Mirabals) perished in opposition to the totalitarian regime carried with her through the years until finally able to put their story to paper. This was her debt to pay—embodying each girl so fully that she made an altar to each when writing their chapters—and the first example of her ability to create change. From here she wrote children’s books to educate about alienation in immigration, built a coffee farm in Haiti with her husband that expanded into a school and library, and assisted the orchestration of the Border of Lights to honor the 20,000 who died during the 1937 Parsley Massacre.

Being prepared, the talk did labor in its lack of spontaneity despite her unique life. Insight into the research of oral histories to understand the Mirabals was the most intriguing while anecdotes about Haitian friend Piti and the story she told him about finding a bride the most enjoyable. Until the Q&A, however, little of her affable personality and unabashed willingness to answer any question was apparent. Laughing and calling herself crazy so we wouldn’t when explaining how she buried the altars to the Mirabals to be able to write about other subjects, these moments of candid humility resonated the most. She only needed to tell how her family began recalling stories she wrote as real life memories to explain their power to “lead our way back home”. Now that’s some real life Inception.

Babel 2013/2014 Season:
Richard Blanco (Cuba/USA) – October 22, 2013 – Directions to The Beach of the Dead
Amy Tan (USA) – November 22, 2013 – The Joy Luck Club
Abraham Verghese (Ethiopia) – April 8, 2014 – My Own Country
The fourth author is still to be announced.
Buy your tickets today by clicking here.

Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.

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