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Julia Alvarez ’71, left, and Edwidge Danticat share a laugh during their March 16 reading and discussion at Middlebury.

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Alvarez and Danticat Celebrate the Power of Story

March 18, 2016

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. -- In a conversation that ranged from Haiti to the Dominican Republic, from the role of women in storytelling to the roots of stories themselves, noted contemporary authors Julia Alvarez ’71 and Edwidge Danticat shared a stage in Middlebury on March 16.

For Alvarez, writer-in-residence at Middlebury College, the conversation was the culmination of her two-decade-long wish to bring Danticat to Middlebury. The event also served as a public recognition for Alvarez herself, who will retire as writer-in-residence at the end of the semester.

Seated in two armchairs on the stage in Dana Auditorium, Alvarez and Danticat clasped hands warmly as the evening kicked off. Following a brief reading from Danticat’s 2013 novel Claire of the Sea Light, the writers launched into a far-reaching dialogue — reflecting on the experience of immigrant artists in the United States, the ways dictatorships inform storytelling and art, and the imperative to tell stories.

“Reading and storytelling is not just academic. To me, it’s vital. It opens up the world,” said Alvarez, touching on the story of Scheherazade, the legendary storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights. In a kingdom not unlike a dictatorship, Scheherazade saved herself through storytelling, noted Alvarez.

Recent books by acclaimed authors Julia Alvarez ’71 and Edwidge Danticat include A Wedding in Haiti and Untwine.

The two writers first intersected in 1994, when Alvarez received a galley of Danticat’s debut novel Breath, Eyes, Memory to “blurb.” For Alvarez, a native of the Dominican Republic, Danticat’s novel about Haiti provided a glimpse into a neighboring country about which she’d always been fascinated.

“I had heard that [Haiti] was our enemy, that the bogey man lived there, but all these warnings made me more curious to find out more,” said Alvarez. “So in 1994, when I read that first novel, I felt as if I had discovered a long lost sister I had been searching for to tell me the stories of my neighbor nation next door.”

Since 2012, Alvarez and Danticat have also collaborated on the Border of Lights initiative, a now annual gathering meant to commemorate the 1937 massacre of Haitians living in the borderlands of the Dominican Republic — in its own way a kind of storytelling, Alvarez said, meant to bring to light atrocities buried and forgotten in the Dominican Republic.

Though Alvarez is a generation ahead of Danticat, the two share similar trajectories. Both immigrated to the United States as adolescents — Alvarez as a 10-year-old leaving the Dominican Republic, and Danticat at 12, from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Both turned to literature during their early years in the United States as a source of solace amid disorienting new surroundings and cultural upheaval.

Alvarez earned her bachelor’s degree at Middlebury College in 1971. She is the author of numerous novels, books of poetry, essays, and works for children, most notably How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies; she joined the Middlebury English department faculty in 1988.

Danticat is the recipient of the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a MacArthur “Genius” fellowship. A graduate of Barnard College, she earned her MFA at Brown University. In her introductory remarks, Alvarez praised Danticat as a writer and activist of “deep intuitive wisdom” whose stories “expand our spirits and refine our visions of people.”

“She is the author who does not avoid pain and suffering,” said Professor of History Darién J. Davis in introductory remarks. “She invites us to sit with them.”

The event was cosponsored by the Academic Enrichment Fund and more than 20 campus departments and organizations.

With reporting by Kathryn Flagg ’08. Photos by Yeager Anderson ’13.5.

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