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Julia Alvarez on Finding Her Origin As a Writer Through ‘The Cemetery of Untold Stories’

Updated: Apr 5

By Amaris Castillo



The idea to bury the story-filled boxes arrives in her sleep. Alma Cruz, the writer at the heart of Julia Alvarez’s forthcoming novel, The Cemetery of Untold Stories, dreams of her friend – a fellow novelist so possessed by an unfinished project that it seemingly killed her.


Alma vows that she wouldn’t let the same thing happen to her. Then the ground beneath her shifts after her father dies, orphaning her and her three sisters. He left behind a dozen or so parcels of real estate in the Dominican Republic. Alma chooses the worst lot – a small plot of land in a barrio, near a dump.


It is in this parcela that Alma embarks on a new project: to bury her unfinished manuscripts and short stories. “The boxes of unfinished novels and stories are stacked in discrete piles covered with plastic tarps throughout the cemetery,” Alvarez writes. “Alma’s original idea was to bury them intact, but she decides to burn them instead. More final that way: a period, not an iffy ellipsis, at the end of her writing career.”


Alma hires a local woman named Filomena to watch over the graveyard. The novelist hopes that, in burying her stories, they will finally rest. But that’s the furthest from the truth. The characters’ voices instead break ground and begin to share bits of their life with Filomena. They include Bienvenida, the second wife of dictator Rafael Trujillo, and Alma’s own father – Dr. Manuel Cruz. Their stories launch a spellbinding, unforgettable ride for readers. In The Cemetery of Untold Stories, Alvarez deftly weaves magical realism, pieces of forgotten history, and existential questions many writers face. This multi-layered, rich novel about storytelling and the stories we tell ourselves to cope with life’s many struggles is a feat the acclaimed Alvarez has rightfully mastered.


Ahead of her book’s release, Alvarez spoke with the Dominican Writers Association about the inspiration behind The Cemetery of Untold Stories, how she was forced to approach this novel differently, and more.


This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


Congratulations on a beautiful story. This novel is unlike anything I’ve read. You beautifully weave bits of Dominican history, magical realism and real-life questions many writers face – one of which is whose stories get to be told? What inspired this novel?

Since it’s not yet born – it’s officially going to be born April 2nd – not that many people have asked me yet about this novel. So you’re one of the first. What inspired it? I think one of the things is that as I enter this new landscape of growing old, I’m really curious about what that experience is about. And especially growing old in a craft as a writer/storyteller that I’ve been practicing all my life. It’s a novel that comes out of those concerns, meditations, thinkings, and questions about what happens at this stage of life and at this stage in the craft. That’s initially what inspired it.


To bring it even more personal: It was during the pandemic (when) I had started to work on this story of this older writer. I didn’t yet know where it was going, and then I suffered a huge crisis for a writer: I lost vision in one eye. I had two major surgeries. I couldn’t see. The other eye was maybe going to go in the same direction. I have to watch it for the rest of my life. But I thought, Oh my gosh, what if I can’t write anymore? What do I do with all the characters that I promised I’m going to put down on paper? What happens to the ones that are in boxes that I’ve never been able to finish? That I was stuck on? What will happen? This concern came to my head. And when I was able to slowly – with a magnifying glass – work on the manuscript, I now had so much personal experience to put into it, of what would she do with these stories? How will she lay them to rest so that they don’t haunt her? And that’s when the idea came up of The Cemetery of Untold Stories


Then I entered into that landscape of the imagination. Alma, my main character, decides to go lay them (the stories) to rest in her homeland on una parcela, a little piece of property she inherited. She hopes that that’s going to put them to rest. She wants to take them back to the homeland because that’s where most of these stories and characters sprung from. She thinks that will be a fitting rest for them. But oh, no! Just like the protest saying (goes).... ‘They tried to bury us. They did not know we were seeds,’ her stories could say, ‘She tried to bury us. She did not know we were stories.’ Because, of course, they come to life when they find listeners in the barrio that surrounds the cemetery. They tell their secret stories that they withheld from her.


That’s incredible. And I did read in Publisher’s Weekly’s EndNotes that when your vision was compromised, you had to learn a new way to work. You were forced to approach this novel under difficult circumstances. What was that like for you?

I didn’t even know this was going to be a novel that was going to be put out there. I was so slowed in work, and I had to stop when there was strain. My body was saying, ‘Ya. No puedo.’ It felt, actually, a great relief because I felt like any hour I could get, any few hours I could get, any day that I could get, was a gift. And when you’ve been long in a craft, you get worn out. You complain about things. It sometimes becomes too professional – too much careerism. And that was gone. I was forced, in a way, to come back to the reason I had started writing (and) the way I had started writing in the first place, which was out of sheer joy in this new ability to tell stories and express myself on paper. It felt every day that there was a special and almost original energy to it. 


I just had to be patient. My characters taught me. (From) Filomena, one of my main characters in the novel, I learned how to listen carefully instead of wanting to get it done, get it published, on to the next book, book tour – all these things that have become part of the writing life – which I call ‘writing biz and busyness.’


The main little seed is that you love this world that can be created in the imagination, and that can enrich and enlarge your way of seeing the world. So I was back to my origin as a writer, here at the end of my life as a writer. And also, of course, it was terrifying to feel like you’re losing the one sense that you need in your art. I said, Why couldn’t it be my hearing? But you don’t get to cherry-pick your life story, unlike the way that you can construct the stories of your characters, unfortunately. Or as we say in Dominican, lamentablemente.


Alma is an older writer who is haunted by her unfinished manuscript drafts, short stories and revisions. So she decides to build a cemetery for them in a plot of land she inherited from her late father in the Dominican Republic. She buries them. But then some of the characters come alive and begin telling their stories. It’s fascinating. What follows made me question, as a reader, whether you can truly silence a story. What point do you hope readers draw from this?

I hope my readers enter this world of The Cemetery of Untold Stories, and that they joy. They connect. They celebrate the multitude of stories – the richness of them. And not just the ones we pick out in the so-called “First World” and call the bestsellers, the important ones, the classics, the canons. But the grassroots richness that comes from many of our cultures that are oral cultures, of the storytelling. 


In a way, you might think it’s kind of magical, so it’s mystifying... No, it’s a demystifying, in a way. It’s a sense of: This is something that we do as a critter. We tell stories. We don’t spin silk like a silkworm. We don’t make honey like a honeybee. We tell stories. So it’s a celebration of that, but also a recognition of its limitations. How stories – unless you have a multiplicity of them – can become just like ‘the danger of a single story,’ to quote (Chimamanda Ngozi) Adichie. That is just one story, the official story, the allowable story, and so it’s limited – but that it’s bigger than all that. And that one of the ways that we can access story is not just by telling them, but by listening to them. 


Everybody, I feel, is walking around with a huge library in their heads, a huge compendium of stories. Some people don’t feel they have the language or, frankly, the audience, the listener, the reader, because they’ve been left out of who is going to be privileged in that gated community. So that’s why it’s untold stories – untold in the sense that we don’t hear them because they’re not broadcast out there. They’re not celebrated. They’re put in a barrio of literature. And I wanted to explode that idea in The Cemetery of Untold Stories.


I think you broke that open, definitely. Let’s talk about the cemetery Alma builds in the novel – which is itself a character. The graveyard has sculptures and a little box at the entrance where locals wanting to enter need to tell a story. What was it like for you to build this cemetery on the page?

It was fun because I really got to explore what story is all about. Once I set the cemetery in this barrio near the town dump, and my primo took me to a cemetery in the Dominican Republic when I visited, there were people doing ceremonias, barón del cementerio. So I got a sense of it. There’s a whole culture and richness there. 


You stop by any grave and look at a sculpture, and you try to imagine: What was that life? Some are famous graves, and you try to think of the story of the person that’s buried there. So all of that history that you mentioned – Dominican history, Dominican culture and lore, and Santería – all of that came to play because that’s what surrounds the cemetery and invades the cemetery. They make the cemetery their own. That’s what was wonderful. And exploring the role of that vecindario that surrounds the cementerio de cuentos nunca contados – what it’s like and how they understand.


Let’s talk about Filomena, a local woman in your novel. Alma hires her to work as the groundskeeper for the cemetery. In the novel you describe her as “una alma de Dios.” Filomena has been dealt a difficult card in life, and becomes a sympathetic ear to the characters in the cemetery. I grew up going to the Dominican Republic every summer, and this character reminded me vaguely of the girls and women who are frequently hired for housework, cooking or cleaning. What or who inspired this character?

Oh, I’ve known so many Filomenas. I’ve known so many Filomenas, so many Perlas, from my own childhood, as you say: people that were hired to clean. And it was actually the people we spent the most time with. Papi was off working. Mami was involved with the tías, this that and the other. The niñeras, la cocinera, la que venía a lavar la ropa, el jardinero – whoever came, that’s who you hung out with. Their stories were what you listened to – stories of el cuco and la ciguapa. They were my first muses. They were the people that if you fell down, picked you up and gave you a little healing rhyme: Sana sana, colita de rana. Si no te sanas hoy, te sanas mañana. They were the culture. 


When I went off to an MFA program and I was being taught the classics and the canons back then, we didn’t read multicultural literature. We didn’t read many women writers… And I always thought, Where’s my inspiration? And then I thought: My inspiration came from mostly women of my childhood, many of whom couldn’t read or write. But everything I was learning in graduate school about story construction, humor, pacing, dialogue, I had learned in mi niñez from these women who hadn’t even finished primaria. And so I realized these were really my first muses.


The characters in your novel resist the control of their creator. They talk to each other, even. Is this something you have felt in your own writing life – that your characters and stories can sometimes become unwieldy?

Oh, absolutely. And they know more about the story than I do. That’s something that’s very humbling, if you think about it as a writer. You think that you’re the one in control. And you are. You have control of the craft because you’re the one that knows how to use those sentences and metaphors... But you’re telling their story, and they’re really the ones that know that story. They’re the ones that know the secrets. If they’re a character that is keeping a secret, you don’t know it as a writer because it’s a secret. But they’re the ones who know it. 


That’s why you can learn something from someone like Filomena, to really listen. You’re listening because, in a sense, your life depends on connecting with a story to feel less alone, and to feel like you understand it a little better. That is, for me, the best reader of my work: someone that you feel needs to hear this story. It’s not just entertainment or something to post about. No, it’s someone who is reading this book and it is like stringing their labyrinth. To read with that kind of connection to a story makes the story come alive because, remember, I only do half the work. I get the story down. Then I depend on my readers to pick it up and give it life in their imagination. That second part is critical. 


So when you get a reader that connects the way Filomena connects with listening to these characters’ stories, she finds renewed life, a bigger life, because now it’s connected to a bigger story than just her secret own story. I think that kind of a reader, and that kind of a relationship, is something that is so important in the reading process.


I want to talk about Bienvenida Inocencia Ricardo de Trujillo – the second wife of the late Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo. Dominicans know who Trujillo was, but much less is known about Bienvenida as a historical figure. As a reader, I was fascinated by your choice to breathe life and fullness into who Bienvenida was. What inspired you to fictionalize her story for your novel?

She is a curious character. She was Trujillo’s second wife. And then he married a woman that was very much like him, Doña Maria, who basically had Bienvenida’s name taken down from everything and pulled out of any description of First Ladies. She did not want Bienvenida to be known anywhere. And so Bienvenida virtually was erased. She was exiled from her country. Her marriage was eventually annulled by the Pope. 


You have to put it in perspective: She was not like a dissident that was tortured and the family eliminated. But she was one of the casualties of the dictatorship. She was an emotional and romantic casualty… When I learned about her, I thought: Wow, why didn’t we ever know about her? Who was this person? And with a name like… Bienvenida Inocencia, I thought, to marry the devil himself – Trujillo. And as I researched her, so many people came forward and said she was such a good woman. She tried to soften his sharp edges. Dissidents would go to her and she would help them escape – while she was First Lady.


She was, in some ways, una masa de pan – obedient and subservient to “mi jefe.” The story she told herself is that, ‘He was a great man, and sometimes he had to be like a really tough parent because we were such an unruly people.’ So she used story to blind herself. That’s part of the novel, too, because stories are powerful and you could use them for good or for ill. I wondered a lot about who she was, and how could a good woman fall in love with this guy? And then how over the years – because she continued a relationship with him – she understood who he was, and who she was. What kind of awareness did she have? Because she suffered at his hands and she, as I said, was one of his casualties.


If you think of it, the Dominican people – many of them were not dissidents and did not stand up to Trujillo. They just wanted to be good people and live a good life, but let this monster take over their country, their psyches, their freedoms for 31 years. How does that happen to “good people”? It’s not as rare as we’d like to think.


Your novel at its heart is about storytelling. For decades now you have been bringing stories forth to readers. You have also taught. While working on The Cemetery of Untold Stories, did you learn anything new about storytelling itself?

Oh no, no, Amaris. That’s what I meant, too, about going back to the origin of why I started writing when I didn’t think I would even finish this novel… But then I discovered the sheer joy of storytelling. 


Part of it is, each time, there has to be a radical innocence when you start a book. Sure, you learn a ton of things from the last book, and the last book, and the last book. And when you’re as old as me and as long in the craft, there’s been a lot of ‘and the book before, and the book before.’ But that’s the thing: you have to recover that innocence, what the Zen masters called ‘beginner’s mind’ because that new book you’re writing is its own critter. You have to learn what that book wants to be, because otherwise you’re just going with a cookie cutter that worked last time and imposing it on your material. And I don’t get any enjoyment out of not learning when I’m writing a book. If I’m not surprised, my reader won’t be surprised. I’m constantly discovering. And sometimes I take a wrong turn because I want to impose my will on the story, and it starts to go flat. And I have to go back and listen harder again. 


In some ways, a celebration of storytelling, a celebration of a life lived was the privilege of practicing something that I think is my calling – what I was put on this earth to do. But also, an understanding that I’m learning. I’m constantly learning, and that’s what keeps me interested. If I already knew everything that was going to go in a book, I’d get bored and I think my reader would, too. It has to have the juice of discovery and learning.


You dedicate this book to Anon – to people who are unknown to you who have given you help, love and support throughout your life. It made me think about you and the legacy you have built in this global world of literature. I am sure you have met only a portion of your readers at this point. Why was it important for you to dedicate this book to Anon?

Anon represents so many invisible people – some also invisible to me, but invisible in the sense that down the ages, women could not publish or be out in public. And whenever something of theirs got into the mainstream, it was ‘By Anonymous.’ So who were those anonymous? All those mothers and abuelitas and storytellers of the past. All the sisters of Shakespeare, or daughters of Milton. All those anons. So I’m thinking about them, and I’m thinking of all the many people: From la tía that sewed your dress when you did your first recitation in school, and gave you your robes to wear in public; everybody that contributed; the teacher who stayed a little extra time so that you would understand the difference between a noun and a verb, or learn your English when you came to Nueva York. All those people.


There’s a wonderful Native American story that I just love. It’s about a woman that wants to touch the stars. All her life she reaches, and reaches, and reaches, and she can’t yet reach the stars. And then when she’s an old woman, she finally touches the star. Father Sky looks down and says, ‘How did you get to be so tall?’ And she says, ‘I’m standing on a lot of shoulders.’ And that’s the way I feel.

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Visit our Bookshop to preorder a copy of The Cemetery of Untold Stories.

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About the Author:

Julia Alvarez left the Dominican Republic for the United States in 1960 at the age of ten. She is the author of six novels, three books of nonfiction, three collections of poetry, and eleven books for children and young adults. She has taught and mentored writers in schools and communities across America and, until her retirement in 2016, was a writer in residence at Middlebury College. Her work has garnered wide recognition, including a Latina Leader Award in Literature from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, the Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature, the Woman of the Year by Latina magazine, and inclusion in the New York Public Library’s program “The Hand of the Poet: Original Manuscripts by 100 Masters, from John Donne to Julia Alvarez.” In the Time of the Butterflies, with over one million copies in print, was selected by the National Endowment for the Arts for its national Big Read program, and in 2013 President Obama awarded Alvarez the National Medal of Arts in recognition of her extraordinary storytelling.

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Amaris Castillo is a journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Lowell Sun, the Bradenton Herald, Remezcla, Latina Magazine, Parents Latina Magazine, and elsewhere. Her creative writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, Dominican Moms be Like..., and most recently in Quislaona: A Dominican Fantasy Anthology. Her short story, "El Don," was a finalist for the 2022 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival. Amaris lives in Florida with her family. You can follow her work at amariscastillo.com.



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