In Dominican Spanish la ñapa refers to "the little extra" added on at the end. Just when you thought you'd gotten all that you would get, along comes your ñapa, like a baker's dozen, with one more kiss, one more pastelito, one more mango at the mercado.
Julia Alvarez presents Afterlife at Algonquin Sales Conference, August 8, 2019 New York City
Thanks to Michael MacKenzie, Amy Gash, Elisabeth Scharlatt, and the whole team at Algonquin Books for your enthusiasm and efforts on behalf of my new novel, Afterlife. I feel resurrected after a long silence (my last novel, Saving the World was published in 2006; A Wedding in Haiti in 2012).
It's been thirty years since Shannon Ravenel signed up my first novel, clunkily titled Daughters of Invention. The caveat was that I had to be willing to work hard at revising it. (I recall her voice over the phone saying, "It's a mess . . . nothing holding it together but chicken wire.") Two years later, in 1991, Algonquin published How the García Girls Lost Their Accents with its sassy new title and all traces of chicken wire gone.
Back then there wasn't much interest in multicultural writers. Our stories were considered part of sociology, not literature. But a small independent publisher and an unlikely southern editor gave this writer the opportunity to bring down that wall separating ethnic writers from American mainstream writers. I feel immense gratitude to Algonquin, the publisher of all my adult fiction, and to all of you, booksellers, selling my books and those of other writers like me across America. You have been unacknowledged agents of change: transforming the complexion and content of American literature. We're all the richer for this infusion of diversity. I can't thank you enough.
Afterlife recounts the story of Antonia, recently widowed, retired from teaching, and trying to survive her losses through careful self-management. She is pulled back into the fray by the appearance of an undocumented migrant girl in her garage and by the disappearance of her sister, a wild and big-hearted personality who might be bipolar. In responding to these crises, Antonia seeks direction in the literature she has taught, loved, written, but she finds that life demands more of her than words.
What inspired me to write Afterlife? In the last decade, I've lost so many family members. It's what happens in large, extended Latino families: you lose not one of each relation but dozens upon dozens of tíos, tías, abuelos, madrinas, padrinos, primos, primas. I also lost both my parents after a decade of losing them gradually to Alzheimer's (a loss I write about in A Wedding in Haiti). More recently, the loss of my "Irish twin" sister, eleven months older, to bipolar illness and suicide, a grand soul whose death and life haunt Afterlife. Beyond these personal losses, the losses we're all experiencing, due to climate change, extinct species, cities and towns leveled by tornadoes and storms, coastlines going underwater; the loss of civility, increasing gun violence, divisiveness, Draconian immigration laws. How do we live in a broken world without losing faith in each other or ourselves?
It all sounds grim, but the novel actually has a good deal of humor from the tussles of the sisterhood, the antics of the crazed, small town personalities and strangers colliding with each other.
In terms of formal inspiration: I've always wanted to write a short, lyrical novel. I'm an admirer of that Japanese sensibility of taking more and more away to charge the few things that remain. That sensibility reflects the themes of the novel—how to live in a diminished world and not succumb to the smaller version of ourselves.
I want my readers to feel the full impact and force of the losses that surround us all but also to find within that brokenness the possibility of beauty and redemption, love and hope.
In the end it is open-heartedness that points the way forward, an idea whose time has most definitely come.
August 8, 2019
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