Academic journal article MELUS

"Turning and Turning in the Widening Gyre": A Second Coming into Language in Julia Alvarez's "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents"

Academic journal article MELUS

"Turning and Turning in the Widening Gyre": A Second Coming into Language in Julia Alvarez's "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents"

Article excerpt

   "So between you, I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where
   do I belong, and why I was born at all."

   --Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

In "Discourse in the Novel" Mikhail Bakhtin describes language as more than words, more than syntax and grammar. Language is a mind-set, a cultural and historical expose, "a living, socio-ideological, concrete thing, a heteroglot opinion" (282). When individuals communicate they reach through words, across worlds, across the barriers of difference their pasts have created. In successful communication, participants "find newer ways to mean," words merge, new worlds are created. Language, asserts Bakhtin, "lies on the borderline between self and other" (282). It is on this borderline that Julia Alvarez situates her characters in her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.

In a review of Alvarez's second book, In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), Ilan Stavans recalls a story Alvarez told him about an "intriguing linguistic tic" of the Dominican people. "When you ask someone what's up and no easy reply can be found, people are likely to say `Entre Lucas and Juan Mejia.' Alvarez explains that this doesn't mean the speaker is caught between two bad alternatives, as in "between the devil and the deep blue sea," nor that things are "so-so." She explains, "It's much more intriguing than that. `How are you doing?' `I'm between Lucas and Juan Mejia.' And who are these guys? ... The very story that inspired the saying is gone. So ... you have to go on and tell the tale of why you feel the way you do. What forces are you caught between? How did you get there? And how does it feel to be there?" (552).

That is the story she tells about each of the four Garcia de la Torre girls caught between languages and cultures. Growing up is a trying enough task, but growing up caught between varying and conflicting cultural expectations is, of course, even more bewildering and alienating. Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria explains how this is especially difficult for Hispanic Americans today because they have

   old countries that are neither old nor remote. Even those born here often
   travel to their parents' homeland, and constantly face a flow of friends
   and relatives from `home' who keep the culture current. This constant
   cross-fertilization makes assimilation a more complicated process for them
   than for other minority groups. (28)

For the Garcia girls, the process is even more complicated because they are girls, and growing up is more difficult for girls as they mature and come face-to-face with the double standards and demeaning cultural myths about women's bodies and women's roles in a patriarchal society. Furthermore, the Garcia girls' assimilation is complicated by their wealth and social position in the Dominican Republic and their blindness to their privilege until they come to the States and face economic hard times.

To untangle these complications and to bridge the gap between the bilingual, immigrant Garcia family and the mostly monolingual, monocultural, English speaking reader who is her primary audience, Alvarez spins a narrative that spirals from the outside in, whirling backward through the Garcia's lives, highlighting in this spiral movement the centripetal and centrifugal forces which pull them toward and away from their island home, toward and away from the U. S., toward and away from an integrated adulthood. Her structural and narrative choices reverberate in her thematic material as she examines the different vocabularies the girls learn in their circulation between languages and cultures, struggling to find their identities.

The novel begins in 1989, twenty-nine years after the family has fled the Dominican Republic to avoid the father's arrest for his part in a scheme to oust the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. It concludes in 1956, thirty-three years earlier, in a series of island memories that haunt the Garcia women in their U. …

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