“I was embarassed by my ethnicity, which rendered me colorful and an object of derisioin to those who would not have me be a part of this culture…and so I started to have a secret life, which perhaps is what started me on the road to becoming a writer.”
–Julia Alvarez “On Finding a Latino Voice” from The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work
I am not a Latino writer, I’m a white girl raised as an Army brat. I have never been ridiculed or teased for the color of my skin (perhaps for the color of my hair…). I have never had to reconcile living in two different cultures–though you can make the argument that a military base is a different culture, even though it does create its own community–but something resonates with me when Alvarez says that her differences forced her to create a secret life.
I think all writers experience this to one extent or another. Without our secret worlds, with our secret friends, we couldn’t come up with our stories, our settings, our characters, or our own, original voices.
When I was little, I didn’t feel pretty enough (even when I was really little–like four or five) or smart enough or cool enough. I felt like an outsider. Books became my love. If I was told to clean my room, I insisted that I had to ‘organize my books’, which took all day because I stopped to read every single one before I put them away. My head was filled with happy little fairy tales, and later with some wonderfully horror-inducing plotlines and my room was never clean.
These little worlds/mental stories helped me when I was teased, or when I felt left out. I think this is a defense mechanism that helps to build and develop a writer. It’s something that’s done automatically in our brains. And you could never speak about what you came up with in your head because people would 1. think you were insane, or 2. make fun of you. It was necessary to keep that space private.
Now I put a lot of those secret pieces onto paper and I’ve discovered that I don’t need to hide it, I don’t need to be afraid that people will make fun of it. As I grow as a writer, I grow more confident because I understand that there’s a whole lot of people that think the same way I do. Later on in the essay, Alvarez explains that through her writing, or her desire to write, she finds more people like herself. She doesn’t say so in the essay, but you can tell from the writing that, by meeting these other people and doing the writing work, she grew in confidence too. And let me tell you, if I ever write anything close to what Alvarez or Maxine Hong Kingston or Sandra Cisneros writes, I will die a happy, happy writer.