Thursday, September 16, 2010

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents

Julia Alvarez runs a risk opposite the one causing the problems with Acosta I discussed some weeks ago: rather than offending for the wrong reasons, she comes very close to being too subdued, and even grateful to the American dream in a way that might not challenge her middle class readership enough. And a couple of the individual chapters in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents do perhaps come across as a little too composed, with too much closure and pat metaphorical significance. Nonetheless, as a whole I came away from the book having enjoyed it, largely because as it continues Alvarez increasingly interrogates the García family’s privilege in contrast to many immigrants (or others who cannot immigrate). The novel moves back in time to the family’s beginnings in the Dominican Republic, and the family’s treatment of their servants in that context is not always laudible. I didn’t always like the extent to which the novel focused on Yolanda/Yoyo, perhaps a too transparent stand-in for Alvarez (emphasized by her name’s Yo/I equivalence). However, the contrast between her relatively ignorant privilege in the first chapter when she returns to the D.R. as a grown-up and her comments on what she owes to the D.R. from her childhood in the final chapter create an interesting tension in the book: narratively, she progresses to an understanding that who she has grown up to be has a good deal of privilege due to her class and her move to the U.S., even as the most grown up version of her we see does not exhibit much of that understanding.

This makes for an interesting rough edge to the novel’s portrayal of the immigrant move. She does, perhaps, push back against any readers who would complain, like I do above, about the “American dream” aspect to novel, by showing how substantial the differences of freedom are for women. Yolanda’s mother, in a chapter that takes place just a couple of years after the family’s move, already does not want to move back even after the political situation improves: “But Laura had gotten used to the life here. She did not want to go back to the old country where, de la Torre or not, she was only a wife and a mother (and a failed one at that, since she had never provided the required son). Better an independent nobody than a high-class houseslave.” Even if she is sometimes ashamed of what her daughters do with their freedom, Mami does ultimately want it for them. Still, Alvarez acknowledges that this freedom, while desirable, allows for a certain kind of ignorance to develop in those that have it. The introductory story, in which Yolanda returns with her family to the D.R. portrays her as having a confidence she wouldn’t have developed otherwise, but it leads her to behave in ways that betray a unthinking class superiority with consequences for the people she runs across (she manages to get one little kid beaten up). Unfortunately, I’m guessing the individual episodes of the novel seem extractable enough that they get published as individual stories for classroom collections, and perhaps also were to market the book in magazines—fine for marketing, but bad in that I think a lot of the critique that develops through the novel’s organization gets lost if you just read some of the earlier stories on their own.

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