I guess the first thing I should say is that I was not born in the Dominican Republic. The flap bio on García Girls mentioned I was raised in the D.R., and a lot of bios after that changed raised to born, and soon I was getting calls from my mother.
I was born in New York City during my parents' first and failed stay in the United States. When I was three months old, my parents, both native Dominicans, decided to return to their homeland, preferring the dictatorship of Trujillo to the U.S.A. of the early 50s. Once again, my father got involved in the underground and soon my family was in deep trouble. We left hurriedly in 1960, four months before the founders of that underground, the Mirabal sisters, were brutally murdered by the dictatorship (see In the Time of the Butterflies).
It's not like I didn't know some English at ten when we landed in New York City. But classroom English, heavily laced with Spanish, did not prepare me for the "barbaric yawp" of American English -- as Whitman calls it. I couldn't tell where one word ended and another began. I did pick up enough English to understand that some classmates were not very welcoming. Spic! a group of bullies yelled at me in the playground. Mami insisted that the kids were saying, Speak! And then she wonders where my storytelling genes come from.
When I'm asked what made me into a writer, I point to the watershed experience of coming to this country. Not understanding the language, I had to pay close attention to each word -- great training for a writer. I also discovered the welcoming world of the imagination and books. There, I sunk my new roots. Of course, autobiographies are written afterwards. Talk to my tías in the D.R. and they'll tell you I was making up stuff way before I ever set foot in the United States of America. (And getting punished for it, too. Lying, they called it back then.) But they're right. As a kid, I loved stories, hearing them, telling them. Since ours was an oral culture, stories were not written down. It took coming to this country for reading and writing to become allied in my mind with storytelling.
All through high school and college and then a graduate program in creative writing -- you can get all the dry facts in my attached resume -- I was a driven soul. I knew that I wanted to be a writer. But it was the late sixties, early seventies. Afro-American writers were just beginning to gain admission into the canon. Latino literature or writers were unheard of. Writing which focused on the lives of non-white, non mainstream characters was considered of ethnic interest only, the province of sociology. But I kept writing, knowing that this was what was in me to do.
Of course, I had to earn a living. That's how I fell into teaching, mostly creative writing, which I loved doing. For years, I traveled across the country with poetry-in-the-schools programs, working until the funds dried up in one district, and then I'd move on to the next gig. After five years of being a migrant writer, I decided to put down roots and began teaching at the high school level, moving on to college teaching, and finally, on the strength of some publications in small magazines and a couple of writing prizes, I landed a tenure-track job.
1991 was a big year. I earned tenure at Middlebury College and published my first novel, How The García Girls Lost Their Accents. My gutsy agent, Susan Bergholz, found a small press, Algonquin Books, and a wonderful editor, Shannon Ravenel, willing to give "a new voice" a chance. I was forty-one with twenty-plus years of writing behind me. I often mention this to student writers who are discouraged at nineteen when they don't have a book contract!
With the success of García Girls, I suddenly had the chance to be what I always wanted to be: a writer who earned her living at writing. But I'd also fallen in love with the classroom. I toiled and troubled about what to do. After several years of asking for semester leaves, I gave up my tenured post. Middlebury College kindly invited me to stay on as a writer-in-residence, advising students, teaching a course from time to time, giving readings.
So here I am living in the tropical Champlain Valley. (That's the way folks in the Northeast Kingdom refer to this part of Vermont!) I'm happily settled down with my compañero, Bill Eichner, on eleven acres which Bill farms, growing most of our vegetables and greens and apples and potatoes and even Asian pears organically, haying the back pasture, and planting so many berry-bearing trees and bushes we now have enough birdsong around here to keep me humble. Recently, he has added animals: cows, calves, rabbits, chickens. As a vegetarian, it is an odd adventure helping raise somebody else's meat. But if you are going to be a carnivore (or wear shoes or carry a handbag) this is the way to do it: conscionably with affection and care and abiding gratitude to the creatures who provide for us.
The other reason I am in Vermont is Middlebury College. Now too many years ago to count, I came here as a transfer student after spending two weeks at the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, which is run by the college. Here on this campus, I found my calling as a young writer. Excellent teachers taught me my craft, and friends and classmates encouraged me by listening to me read my poems late at night in our dorm rooms or more formally at campus readings. Years later, after teaching all around the country, I was offered a job here. I came back and have never left. After I gave up tenure to devote myself to full-time writing, the college offered me a post as a writer in residence. I teach occasionally, give readings often, visit classes, advise young writers by reading their creative writing assignments and theses, and -- one of my greatest honors -- serve as the godmother/madrina to our Latino students' organization ALIANZA. I've now spent more years at this place than I have anywhere else on this planet. It truly is my Alma Mater, the mother of my soul.
One last thing I should mention is the closing down of our project in the Dominican Republic. About eleven years ago, Bill and I started a sustainable farm-literacy center called Alta Gracia. I wrote a "green fable," A Cafecito Story, inspired by our adventure. In the afterword, Bill described our actual project -- how and why we got together with a group of small farmers who were trying to continue their old way of planting coffee under shade trees, organic, by default -- who could afford fertilizers? The literacy center was run by fabulous volunteer teachers, recent graduates of Middlebury College. We also teamed up with a stateside roaster and distributor, Vermont Coffee Company®. They roasted and sold Tres Mariposas and Café Altagracia and helped with funding our volunteer program. But given age and living in Vermont, Bill and I could not sustain the Dominican side of our project. If anyone is interested, we have 260 acres in a cloud forest, it is for sale.
I'll let the three-part resume (below) fill you in on the blow by blow details: publications, presentations, teaching experience, awards. Actually, the best place to find out about me and my writing life is to read my book of essays, Something to Declare. I wrote that book for readers who were always asking me about writing and about my life. I haven't changed my mind all that much since 1998 when it was published, which is kind of gratifying, to think that certain things remain true, like that Frost quote from "Into My Own," in which he says that, even after death, those who meet him won't find him much changed from him they knew, "only more sure of all I thought was true." Nice when poems tell the truth, even when we writers are known for making things up.
A more recent nonfiction book, Once Upon A Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA, also gives autobiographical information on my own coming of age in the United States and on finding my voice as a woman and as an American writer.
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