Academic journal article MELUS

"That Story about the Gun": Pseudo-Memory in Julia Alvarez's Autobiographical Novels

Academic journal article MELUS

"That Story about the Gun": Pseudo-Memory in Julia Alvarez's Autobiographical Novels

Article excerpt

This never happened and yet I want the memory so much I have made it true, recalling

--Julia Alvarez, The Other Side/El Otro Lado (55)

In the poem "Making Up the Past," the opening lines of which are quoted above, Julia Alvarez describes a memory that never happened:

   The memory or rather pseudo memory
   is of my mother in a bathrobe at the window
   watching my progress down the block
   and around the corner until I am out of sight (56)

This "made-up" moment becomes shorthand throughout the poem for the loss associated with growing up in the context of immigration. While the speaker continually reminds the reader of its fictitious nature, even pausing once in the middle of the poem to ask "what could possess me to invent this?" (57), the pseudo-memory represents this emotional truth better than any factual memory. In the last line of the poem, the speaker alludes to the significance she has assigned to this particular moment: it is both her last instance of childhood and her first step toward becoming American. She describes her refusal to turn around and look back at "what I am leaving behind, what I must know / I will keep coming back to all my imagined life" (58). In using the term "pseudo memory" to describe this experience that lies somewhere between fiction and memory, Alvarez provides a useful idiom for understanding the ethos of her autobiographical novels.

In How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991) and [??]Yo! (1997), Alvarez crafts a pseudo-family and an alter ego named Yolanda Garcia, whose stories draw from Alvarez's own life and imagination to depict the experiences of growing up under the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, immigrating to the United States, and becoming a writer.: Although the moment Alvarez describes in the poem is never repeated in any of her other works, in Garcia Girls and [??]Yo! she experiments with the representation of a different pseudo-memory in Yolanda's life--a foundational moment that reappears in different guises throughout each of the texts and comes to act as shorthand for the trauma of dictatorship and the imperative of storytelling. "That story about the gun" (Garcia Girls 217), what I refer to as the gun episode, becomes a central subtext of each of the novels, a scene that Alvarez keeps coming back to, and a moment that prompts her readers to echo her own question and ask, "What could possess her to invent this?" (2) Its constant presence in the texts, particularly in the first and last chapters of !Yo!, where Yolanda's parents retell, revise, and reimagine the episode, and also in a pivotal chapter of Garcia Girls, begs another question: Why is it so significant--why does Alvarez keep coming back to it, and why do we as readers tolerate its narrative reoccurrence and inconsistency?

"The Blood of the Conquistadores," the chapter of Garcia Girls in which the gun episode first appears, opens with Yolanda's father, Carlos, rushing into a secret chamber as guardias (secret police) approach the house. On the way to his hideout, he passes the children playing a game. Yoyo (Yolanda) sees him, and "he puts his finger to his lips" as he disappears from view (196). The rest of the chapter details the visit from the guardias as the catalyst for the Garcias' immigration to the United States; this becomes their "last-day-on-the-Island" (Garcia Girls 217). After Yoyo sees her father flee, a memory is triggered:

   This must be serious, like the time Yoyo told their neighbor, the
   old general, a made-up story about Papi having a gun, a story which
   turned out to be true because Papi did really have a gun for some
   reason. The nursemaid Milagros told on Yoyo telling the general
   that story, and her parents hit her very hard with a belt in the
   bathroom, with the shower on so no one could hear her screams. Then
   Mami had to meet Tio Vic in the middle of the night with the gun
   hidden under her raincoat so it wouldn't be on the premises in case
   the police came. … 
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