Julia Alvarez: What We Believe About Identity

I was left wondering what it meant to have survived all these changes in the zeitgeist and in myself? What core principle of being had come through the fires of rejection, neglect and erasure? The triumph I most want to claim as I move into old age is surviving with that core intact.

One of the gratifications of growing older is hearing from younger Latinas that reading my work and that of my fellow contemporary Latina writers helped them understand their lives in all their complexity and variety. We all needed vocabularies, stories and testimonials, and over the 50-year stretch of my writing and publishing life, I’ve increasingly seen those needs satisfied. The borders have opened, at least on paper, for many of us.

But now as I enter my 71st year, I find myself in a shifting relationship with the identities I’ve spent a lifetime fighting for, shaping and claiming. Call it old age — or the result of years of practicing meditation, where the focus has been on letting go of the ego and embracing emptiness — but these days I’m more interested in shedding selves. In returning to a core self, the mother root.

More and more I’m drawn to the aesthetic of Japanese haiku, in which the extraneous and unnecessary is stripped away, leaving behind something charged and vital. I’m in awe of short, poetic novels that reside in the borderlands and liminal spaces of genre. I ache for fictional companions, older characters, especially older Latinas, accurately portrayed, not airbrushed into clichés (the wise abuelita, the once-beautiful señora of the autumnal patriarch, the red-hat-purple-shawl viuda alegre, the cantankerous gruñona — all the lite inhabitants of crone lit). How to report accurately on this stage of the journey, on the selves left behind, on what identity looks and feels like at this later stage of life?

The struggles are still necessary to fight. The layers still have to be lived through. You can’t shed an identity you never had the chance to claim and live out. As the gentle and brilliant Ocean Vuong writes, “Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are.” We have to go back and help those who cannot get out, as my veteran compañera Sandra Cisneros reminds us at the end of “The House on Mango Street.” Nobody gets to be excused from the transforming work of love.

In one of his later poems, “The Layers,” Stanley Kunitz writes of the many lives and layers he has lived and left behind. And yet, “some principle of being / abides, from which I struggle / not to stray.”

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