Julia Alvarez:

“Our Lives of Privilege Here are Built upon Poverty Somewhere Else”


By Marie-Elise Wheatwind


I spoke to Julia Alvarez by phone on two separate spring mornings. Alvarez first spoke to me from her hotel room in Portland, Oregon, where she read later that evening to an audience of more than 100 people at Powell’s City of Books. The follow-up took place after she had returned home to Vermont and was about to dash out the door to teach a class at Middlebury College.


Marie-Elise Wheatwind: The international AIDS crisis is an important part of the contemporary half of your novel. Can you talk a little bit about the research you did on smallpox and AIDS for Saving the World?


Julia Alvarez: For smallpox, I just had to learn everything I could about nineteenth-century medicine and the disease. I learned about an incredible smallpox [vaccination] expedition that had gone around the world in 1803-1806. The voyage was the first attempt to eradicate this deadly disease. The first 22 carriers of the vaccine were little orphan boys between the ages of three and nine. The smallpox epidemic was a horrible, devastating disease, and the cure depended on these little guys.

 My research was bringing together so many different, complex strands, about humanitarian efforts and noble deeds. Often great breakthroughs for humanity get carried on the backs—or in this case, on the vaccinated arms—of little people, who never get much credit and who often don’t even benefit from the scientific developments. That got me thinking “What is our contemporary plague?” Of course it’s AIDS, especially in third world countries and sub-Saharan Africa, where it’s taking a devastating toll.

 Medications have made AIDS a somewhat manageable disease in the first world, at least for people who can afford the drugs. But many of these pharmaceuticals were tested in clinics in other countries; the breakthroughs were made, again, on the backs of the indigenous people.

 About AIDS, my husband reminded me that we knew somebody in the Dominican Republic (DR), Ellen Koenig, who was working on the disease. She had gone to medical school in her fifties, after she saw the horrible condition of AIDS victims in the DR. Very few doctors wanted to “sully” their practices by attending to these victims, because many of them were not people of the upper classes—although some of those were victims as well. Dr. Koenig started her own clinic. She was a great source of information and inspiration. She took me to clinics other than her own—state-run clinics and others that were basically holding cells for people who were dying. There I saw not very conscionable or caring treatment of these patients. Through her, and through reading, I found out about AIDS in the third world.

 As for my research about the expedition, which was incorporated into the novel, one thing, ironically, is that we don’t know Isabel’s last name. It keeps changing in all the documents. I refer to her as Isabel Sendales y Gomez. It seems incredible that she somehow got herself invited [on the voyage] to take care of the initial 22 orphans, whom she had released [from the orphanage]. Once they were overseas, she was asked to stay on and do all the vaccinations in New Spain, which is what Mexico was then called. She went with the expedition to New Spain and then continued to the Philippines.

We know very little about Isabel, but we do know about Dr. Francisco Xavier Balmis, the organizer of the expedition. He fell out with everybody, including members of the expedition and people in places where he stopped. Balmis was the only one who made it back to Spain—except for his nephews who returned later—and he tried to make amends at the end of his life. Documents show that he tried to get a pension for Isabel. This was uncommon but necessary, because Isabel was the soul of the expedition and really the star and the hero of the story.

A group of people—most of them from Spain, but some from other parts of the world—came together for the bicentennial of the Balmis expedition in 2004 at a conference in Madrid. Catherine Mark, the conference organizer, an American medical editor who works out of Madrid, calls the participants “Balmaniacs.” We know that along with the letters Balmis sent back, he kept journal of the expedition. When he got back to Spain, the French, under Napoleon, were overrunning the country. The Spanish court fled to Seville, and because Balmis was one of the royal surgeons, his house was sacked, and he had to flee as well. His journal was lost. The Balmaniacs are still hoping that one day this journal will turn up—maybe on eBay. And we’re all dying to know who Isabel really was!

 That’s the Balmaniacs’ lament, but I’m secretly pleased. These mysteries are wonderful for a writer of historical fiction writer. You have the main outline, you know this person existed, but you get to create a character.


MEW: Why, as Isabel observes, did people at some ports resist the smallpox vaccine?

JA: When the vaccine was discovered, the Church felt that there was something sacrilegious about intervening with God’s destiny. If you got smallpox, the illness was a form of punishment. The book of Job, for example, says something like “this is what God wants for you.” Human beings shouldn’t meddle with fate.

In many places, the authorities, church or government officials, could not understand that although the vaccine would infect you with a form of smallpox, it would protect you from getting the disease. You could see how that would be a riddle. People had to be convinced; sometimes the vaccine had to be administered by force.

 Some of the resistance was not well meaning. The viceroy of Mexico, for example, didn’t want anyone else to get the credit for bringing medical salvation to his country. Some people who got hold of the vaccine would try to sell it and make a profit. The Balmis expedition established that the vaccine should be totally free and accessible to everybody.

When the viceroy decreed that everybody was to be vaccinated, in certain areas this created problems, because then there would be no carriers. Balmis set up “las juntas de vacunaciones” [the board of vaccinations]—the first public health system. This infrastructure mandated sequential vaccination over time, so that some vaccine would always be preserved for the next generation and the next. That was tricky. Wealthy people who were vaccinated didn’t want to give “public funds” to a system from which they would gain nothing


MEW: Except maybe a healthy nation.

JA: Yes. This is what we’re seeing today with AIDS clinics in sub-Saharan Africa. Our lives of privilege here are built upon poverty somewhere else. Humanitarian efforts are sometimes in bed with the devil.


MEW: Saving the World mirrors the structure of your previous novel In the Name of Salome. In both books you create a novel within a novel, an alternative universe. Readers journey back and forth between narratives, and in time, voice, and culture. Did you write these stories within stories in conversation with one another, or did you work on separate novels and then collate the pages into the final whole?


JA: I thought I was writing Isabel’s story, and then the events of September 11 happened. Many of my writer friends were reeling with grief and mourning. I thought, “This could be an opportunity for the nation to become integrated and compassionate about the rest of the world. There are all these desperate people out there who don’t wish us well—why not? That could be a very important question for us to start asking ourselves!”

 I wanted to bring the historical story of Isabel forward. Alma finds out about her story, and she is taken with it and moved by it. She becomes a carrier. She comes to understand the story of Isabel as her own world starts to fall apart.


MEW: The epigraph to your book, by Seamus Heaney, ends, “once in a lifetime / the longed-for tidal wave / of justice can rise up, / and hope and history rhyme.”


JA: An off-rhyme, not even a straight rhyme. The stories are not supposed to be woven tight, an alternating “tic-tac-toe.” Isabel tells Balmis, “We must not live primarily for our own time. The soul exceeds it circumstances.”

 From the beginning we see Isabel reaching toward the future, as when she tells the boys stories to get them across the ocean. Before that, she told herself stories as an escape from the imprisoned life she led in the orphanage, after she became victim of smallpox. She yearns for some future carrier of her story, some future person who will understand it.


MEW: For me, Alma demonstrates her courage when she disposes of her prescription drugs. You can’t turn on a TV or ride public transit without seeing ads from pharmaceutical companies tempting us, offering soothing “solutions” to our problems. How and why did you choose Alma’s ridding herself of these drugs as an opening to the novel?


JA: I’m always a little taken aback when asked how I chose to write something. I move through a novel like an animal—intuitively and instinctively, trying to track something down. I go off in some wrong directions and then revisit and revise and try to articulate a sense, a vision.

 In our first world culture we tend to medicate ourselves with antidepressants and all kinds of drugs. I’m not talking about the illness of depression, which is a terrible condition that requires attention and may need chemical intervention. I’m talking about that real, timeless experience called “the dark night of the soul,” through which we come to terms with our human experience and the things happening around us. It is a venerable states of being—which we now medicate and pathologize and call depression. So many of us are medicated out of awareness and insight.

As a writer, I want to test the alternatives, to see what happens. That’s what we do when we tell stories. We try to embody and envision alternative realities and choices, and if we’re too drugged up, we enter a sort of chemical gated community that keeps us locked within our own minds and souls.

Part of being a storyteller is being a reader. Through reading, we can become other people and feel for them and fully engage in other lives. People who read my books and become my characters are becoming people whom they would not otherwise see or know. For myself as a reader, researcher, and writer this is an exercise of the soul—becoming other people and feeling compassion for them. In writing, you must stretch your imagination to make characters come alive to yourself and to others.

 Chekhov said the writer’s task is not to solve the problem but to state it correctly. I don’t have any solutions, and I don’t have an “ogre” to blame, either. I dislike divisive thinking—it’s not helpful. Yet we see a lot of that these days: the good vs. the bad, you’re with us or against us, you’re the enemy or the hero.

Mostly I just want to see the rich, painful complexity of the problem. I think right seeing is the beginning of real possibility for change. The task of the writer is not to take sides or reduce things to one point of view. Instead, the task is to layer it and show its intricacy, and enable readers to see more clearly when they lift their eyes from the page.




Marie-Elise Wheatwind is a freelance writer who has contributed to Women’s Review of Books for over a decade. She is currently in transition from Portland, Oregon, to Tucson, Arizona.




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