In December, the Johnston County School Board voted to ban How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, an account of sisters who immigrate to America from the Dominican Republic, from school libraries and classrooms, citing several scenes that acknowledged the imperfect, and sometimes explicit, existence of sex. According to The News & Observer, school administrators are "scouring library shelves for other potentially offensive books to remove." In a column, the newspaper later described book banning as a "touchy subject" with "strong feelings on both sides." Recently, the Indy interviewed Julia Alvarez about her critically acclaimed book and the touchy subjects of civil liberties, censorship and immigration. (Read our related Dec. 19, 2007, editorial, "Banned books, blank minds.")
One of the major themes of García Girls is censorship. The García family, like yours, lived under the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic before immigrating to the United States. In one scene, Carlos García disapproves of an incendiary speech his daughter wrote for class in New York "as if secret microphones or informers were all about." Do you find it ironic that in 2007, a public school district in North Carolina has banned your book for profanity?
If you have a character who swears, what are you going to do? If you have Falstaff in Shakespeare, who is a rabble-rouser and drinks, and uses foul language, that's the character he is, and he serves a function in the plot. What are you going to do—not let him be a human being? Literature is about being a human being, in all of its complexity.
I was raised in a dictatorship where you never told stories. It was dangerous to be a reader because the ones who were intellectual were the ones who were suspect. I had to reeducate myself to be a free citizen, to learn what that meant. That's part of the reason why for someone like me to have an interview with you—it's not about me. It's really a bigger story than the individual thing. It's a way of behaving that's really troubling.
Does the book banning in Johnston Country reflect a trend toward discrediting free expression?
When we see our leaders lie—when we go into a war that has cost so many lives with the misinformation that there were weapons of mass destruction—you're modeling it also at that level.
You mentioned you had to reeducate yourself after living under a dictatorship.
When we first got here, I felt like I had lost everything. At school, the kids called us names and made fun of our accents. We had come to this land of the free and home of the brave, and it wasn't very welcoming to us. I turned inward, and thank goodness I ran into some wonderful teachers and librarians who put books in my hand. Suddenly, there was a world that I could join where no one was left out. There was no sign in front of the books that said, "Whites Only" or "Go back to where you came from, spic."
I thought, "I love this world." This is a deep, abiding democracy, the world of stories. When you read, you become someone else and understand them deeply. When they read what you write, the same thing happens: You get connected in this deep, humanistic way. I didn't have these words for it then. I was only 10. But there was something deeply affirming and spiritually enriching about what I found in reading.
The character of Yoyo, a poet, feels the same power of words. By banning books, it feels like we're dumbing down that power and returning to anti-intellectualism.
I always wondered, in the Dominican Republic, "How could it have happened to a whole country? It was a whole country, and then it was just one man." You think of Nazi Germany and wonder, "How could you have let that happen?" It's isolated incidents. You think, "It's just because that book was problematic," or "It's just because that person was troublesome," and then one day you wake up, and the shelves are empty of many books. Or, a whole group of people are gone, because they didn't belong. Suddenly, you live in a world that you allowed to happen.
We're taking steps toward that now, with the USA PATRIOT Act and FISA.
Under the name of safety and security and patriotism—you use these huge banner words that cause a response. Under the cloak of that, you really are doing things that are bringing down those very values you say you're defending.
Right now, if you look at the economy, a lot of the people in the United States are hurting. All of a sudden, illegal immigration becomes the leading issue among the Republican candidates.
It's part of the same thing. It's sort of an us-versus-them. There are certain books, and certain people, we do not want to allow. We don't want to think of how we have created the situation that makes them come here, or what ways we ourselves are here only because someone gave us a chance.
In terms of books and curriculum, we have problems with drugs and teenage delinquency and people falling away from religion. What in our society is causing that, rather than going on a witch hunt? Maybe there are certain things in society that are making people feel disenfranchised and lost, and how wonderful to read books about people who feel that, and bring about a certain kind of discussion and understanding among young people.