WEYBRIDGE — “What has been most inspiring about Vermont is that I’ve been able to stay put here. Nothing is as good as stability for getting your work done.”
Julia Alvarez, a Weybridge writer who has also taught at Middlebury College for nearly 25 years, wrote those lines in her essay “A Vermont Writer from the Dominican Republic.”
Alvarez, who grew up under the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, will receive Vermont’s highest arts award this fall — the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. The distinction is presented annually to a Vermont artist with national or international stature in their art form.
“Julia has been an international presence for years,” said Alexander Aldrich, executive director if the Vermont Arts Council, which suggests candidates for the Governor’s Award. “To be honest, it was a really easy choice.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Vermont Arts Council will present the award on Nov. 4 at the Vermont Arts Gala at the Capitol Plaza in Montpelier.
“Arts councils like ours tend to be of service to artists in the earlier parts of their careers,” Aldrich said. “We don’t often interact with the artists who have ‘made it.’ So, we’re excited to have Julia come over to this side of the Green Mountains and rub elbows with her. The Governor’s Award is a great chance to show off some of the incredible talent here, and we love that we can accommodate this kind of diversity.”
Previous recipients have included writers Howard Frank Mosher and David Mamet; printmaker Sabra Field; and Rob Mermin, the founder of Circus Smirkus.
Alvarez has published several novels with Latino themes, including “How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents,” “In the Time of Butterflies,” “¡Yo! In the name of Salomé” and “Saving the World.” The final installment in her Tía Lola children’s series came out earlier this month. Her new non-fiction book, “A Wedding in Haiti,” will be published next spring by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Alvarez said she calls the Dominican Republic, or “DR,” her first home, “even though I only lived there for 10 years.”
The DR might be her native soil, but Alvarez has found an artistic home in Vermont. She and her family moved to New York when she was 10 years old, and she came to Middlebury College as an undergraduate. Alvarez returned to Middlebury as a professor in 1988, and remains with the college today as a writer-in-residence. She also advises Alianza, the campus Latino organization.
“I wasn’t a writer before coming to the States,” she said, “but the Dominican Republic was a storytelling culture, an oral culture. So I suppose the seed was planted then. I had to come to a new country and learn a new language when I was 10 to get me attuned to writing.”
Alvarez hasn’t left her homeland entirely behind. She and her husband, Bill Eichner, are involved in a coffee plantation and literacy program in the Dominican Republic called Alta Gracia. She based her book “A Cafecito Story,” which she calls a modern “green” fable, on the Alta Gracia project. Though fictional, the journey to owning a small, shade-grown coffee plantation in the Dominican Republic is touchingly autobiographical.
“Alta Gracia is up in the mountains,” she said. “They don’t look just like Vermont, but it’s similar. A rural life. You’re living with the rhythms of a community.”
“I started the teaching down there just to keep busy while Bill worked on the farm,” she joked. The Vermont Coffee Company of Middlebury roasts and sells Alta Gracia’s coffee beans, returning a part of the profits to educational work in the Dominican Republic.
When she’s not visiting the DR, Alvarez lives with her husband on a small farm in Weybridge. She considers writing her full-time job.
“Writing for me is all about the work,” Alvarez said. “The farmer next door has his sheep, and I do my writing. I’ve never liked the segregation of ‘being an artist.’ I’d rather have my work fit into the weave of the community. This is just my job. When something like (the Governor’s Award) happens, I’m always surprised.”
Aldrich, who oversaw the selection process for the Governor’s Award, said Alvarez does her job very well indeed.
“Whether writing for children, young adults, or a mature audience; whether writing poetry or prose, she has a distinct voice and a unique cultural perspective that distinguishes her from her peers here in Vermont and throughout the U.S.,” he said. “Vermont has more writers per capita than any other state in the country and you can be sure that we will be celebrating this award with her and many of her literary friends and admirers in November.”