Apr 2, 2024 - World

Author Julia Alvarez on book bans and her latest work

On the left is the cover art for a new boo by Julia Alvarez called "the Cemetery of Untold Stories," which features green leaves all around and an illustration of a woman laying on the ground. on the right is a portrait of the author.

Julia Alvarez. Photo: Todd Balfour for Middlebury College, courtesy of Hachette Book Group. Book cover: Courtesy of Algonquin Books.

Diverse stories must prevail over the staggering rise in attempted book bans, Dominican American author Julia Alvarez tells Axios Latino.

Why it matters: Attempted book bans in public libraries in the U.S. increased by 92% in 2023, per the most recent annual review from the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom.

  • Almost half (47%) of those attempts were against books about or by people of color or belonging to LGBTQ+ communities, the report found.
  • Two of Alvarez's novels — the coming-of-age tale "How the García Girls Lost their Accents" and the historical fiction "In the Time of the Butterflies," about the sisters who helped topple Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo — have at different points been banned, removed from reading lists or contested in schools over mentions of sex.

What she's saying: Alvarez likens anti-immigrant sentiment to book bans, saying that "attempts to exclude those seen as 'others' at the border " are akin to what "happens sometimes on the bookshelves."

  • But she adds that "stories are irrepressible."

What to know: Alvarez's newest novel, "The Cemetery of Untold Stories," published Tuesday, begins with Alma Cruz, a celebrated novelist who decides to use an inherited plot of land in the Dominican Republic to physically bury the stories she wasn't able to write into books.

  • But they do not stay underground for long.
  • What emerges are the stories of Alma's neighbors and father, as well as of former Dominican first lady Bienvenida Ricardo Martínez, who was directly affected by the bloody dictatorship of her husband, Trujillo. Trujillo ruled from the 1930s through 1961.
  • "There's such a richness to these varied stories, and to who listens in, and these issues of what stories get told and whose get silenced haunt the (novel)," Alvarez says.
  • The book was published concurrently in Spanish, which Alvarez says is an acknowledgment that even if some novels are originally written in English, as hers was, "they are American literature in the sense of a hemispheric America."

While some of Alvarez's works have faced attempted book bans in the U.S., globally they've been instrumental in bringing light to women's issues.

  • The popularity of "In the Time of the Butterflies" helped propel a campaign for the UN to declare Nov. 25, the day three of the four sisters were killed, as International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

What to watch: Alvarez tells Axios Latino that she originally planned for "The Cemetery of Untold Stories" to be her last novel, but now feels there are more stories she needs to tell.

  • She's working on a book of poems and has started writing a new novel.

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