¡Yo!

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347

Families and friends of story-tellers face a major hazard: details of their lives that the story-tellers know will likely turn up eventually as part of their published work. Such is the fate of Yolanda Garcia’s parents, three sisters, assorted aunts, uncles, cousins, countless friends, and assorted associates.

Sixteen of these...

(The entire section contains 2222 words.)

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Families and friends of story-tellers face a major hazard: details of their lives that the story-tellers know will likely turn up eventually as part of their published work. Such is the fate of Yolanda Garcia’s parents, three sisters, assorted aunts, uncles, cousins, countless friends, and assorted associates.

Sixteen of these people, each in a separate vignette, reveal Yolanda as they know her. Each vignette can stand alone, but the sum of them constitutes a tightly-constructed novel in which Julia Alvarez, with consummate skill, in writing that frequently dazzles, creates a protagonist who never tells her own story, yet one who comes to life vibrantly through the miscellany of impressions and observations that people make about her.

Alvarez’s narrative technique, reminiscent of that used effectively by Rolando Hinojosa in DEAR RAFE (1985) and BECKY AND HER FRIENDS (1990), is a model of expertly presented point-of-view. From the combination of sixteen vignettes, which average about twenty pages in length, emerges a carefully constructed well-rounded protagonist.

The major appeared in Alvarez’s first novel, HOW THE GARCIA— GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS (1991), will be familiar to readers of her work. The political memories of her more recent novel, IN THE TIME OF THE BUTTERFLIES (1995), a stinging commentary on the despotic regime of the Dominican Republic’s strongman dictator, Rafael Trure than novelist Yolanda Garcia. It is a novel about the pitfalls of being creative, the effects of tyrannical political bureaucracies upon citizens, differences in human perception of people, family interactions, immigration, homosexuality, AIDS, marriage, divorce, and the life and career of Julia Alvarez herself, as is suggested by the author’s choice of title, a shortened form of Yolanda and the Spanish word for “I.”

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXXIX, February, 1997, p. 110.

Booklist. XCIII, September 15, 1996, p. 180.

Chicago Tribune. January 26 1997, XIV, p. 2.

Hispanic. X, March, 1997, p. 68.

Library Journal. CXXI, October 1, 1996, p. 124.

Los Angeles Times. March 23, 1997, p. E1.

Ms. VII, March, 1997, p. 82.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, February 9, 1997, p. 19.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, December 16, 1996, p. 38.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXIII, Summer, 1997, p. 95.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, January 19, 1997, p. 9.

¡Yo!

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1875

What readers learn about Yolanda García, the protagonist of this novel, they glean through sixteen discrete sections, all of which directly concern Yolanda. Many of these sections are interconnected. People who have known Yolanda reveal facets of her personality as they relate their encounters with her. From their revelations emerges a well-developed and complex portrayal of a multifaceted creative artist.

The arrangement of the separate portions, each about twenty pages long, is vital to the cohesiveness of the book. Although any of the sections might be read meaningfully as separate entities, it is their placement that justifies identifying the book as a novel rather than a collection of character sketches or short stories.

Yolanda is permitted to tell her own story only in the dialogue she has with the characters of each section, identified by such designations as “The Sisters,” “The Mother,” “The Caretakers,” “The Maid’s Daughter,” and “The Third Husband.” The result is a carefully structured novel from which the protagonist emerges as one of the best developed protagonists in recent literature. Alvarez’s structure, perfect for the telling of her highly autobiographical tale, allows for the presentation of a central character more complex and diverse than she would have seemed had any other method of presentation been used.

The clue to the novel’s autobiographical nature lurks in the title itself. Yo is both a shortened form of Yolanda and the Spanish word for “I.” Readers, however, must be cautioned to remember that ¡Yo! is a work of fiction and cannot be read as an autobiography presumed to be accurate in all of its details.

Each of the sketches in this novel, along with presenting one or more characters as they interact with Yo, deals with some global theme. A political current relating to the despotic dictatorship of strongman Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic underlies many of the individual sketches, in which Alvarez also deals with such broad and compelling matters as political oppression, spousal abuse, homosexuality, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), poverty and exploitation in the Third World, the problems faced by immigrants trying to reestablish themselves in alien cultures, and the effects of the creative temperament on those whose lives intersect with the life of an artist.

Alvarez has already dealt chillingly with the Trujillo regime in her novel In the Time of the Butterflies (1995). She returns to this theme, although somewhat less stridently, in ¡Yo!. She also presented the García family in some detail in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991).

The first section of ¡Yo!, called “Prologue,” consists of one sketch, “The Sisters.” It, like each sketch in the book, is identified with a descriptor, in this case “fiction.” Other sections have such descriptors as “nonfiction,” “poetry,” “revelation,” “confrontation,” “characterization,” and “tone,” suggesting that Alvarez, a professor who was teaching writing at Middlebury College in Vermont when she wrote this book, perhaps composed along with her students, producing a sketch for each week of a sixteen-week semester, each sketch reflecting some major aspect of composition and contributing to an overall piece of creative writing, in this case a compelling novel.

The prologue is central to the novel as a whole. Yolanda García’s sisters are uneasy about the liberties their sister takes in her writing with bits of private information she possesses about members of the family. They are concerned, as is Yolanda’s mother in the first sketch in part 1, with what they regard as a violation of their privacy by a sister and daughter who, as the novel continues, is shown to be a natural storyteller but whose stories have sometimes created threatening situations.

The very last sketch, “The Father,” touches on this subject as Carlos García, a member of the Dominican underground during the early years of his marriage, recalls how Yolanda, as a small child in Trujillo’s Dominican Republic, placed the family in grave danger. Watching a movie with the family’s neighbor General Molino, she boasted that her father—living in a dictatorial society where the possession of firearms by civilians was strictly banned—had a bigger gun that the one carried by the cowboy in the film.

This sketch is particularly telling because it contains the veiled suggestion that Molino took some sexual liberties with the small child. Bouncing Yolanda on his knee and tickling her from time to time, the general says, watching the television screen, “Ay, look at that big gun, Yoyo!” to which she replies, “My papi has a bigger gun!” The sexual implications here are inescapable.

These sexual implications relate to various aspects of Yolanda’s sexual development and possibly suggest why she has married three times. The book’s sexual undercurrent is handled discreetly and well, with the most direct and obvious sexual revelations being made in the sections entitled “The Stalker,” whose descriptor is “tone,” “The Suitor,” whose descriptor is “resolution,” and “The Night Watchman,” whose descriptor is “setting.”

Each section carries its own specific theme that relates to a prevailing social or political crosscurrent. “The Landlady,” whose descriptor is “confrontation,” makes a strong feminist statement about spousal abuse. Marie Beaudry, who becomes Yolanda’s landlady, suffers frequent beatings from a brutish husband who drinks too much. Like many abused wives, she denies that she is being abused, while blaming herself for motivating her husband’s beatings. Yolanda finally confronts Clair Beaudry, the abusive husband, then forces Marie to confront him and to turn her life around.

This section reveals Yolanda striving for tenure at the college in which she teaches. She needs a quiet place in which to work, but having signed a lease on the apartment the Beaudrys own, located above their own home, she finds that she cannot work there because their noise as they fight intrudes on her space, upsetting her greatly.

Also, when the first rains come, she realizes that Clair Beaudry has, quite without conscience, rented her an apartment that floods in wet weather. The first flood destroys much of the material she has been working on in preparation for writing the book that she hopes will assure her being granted tenure.

Clair’s reluctance to release Yolanda from her lease precipitates the confrontation that results, at Yolanda’s instigation, in Marie’s liberating herself from her abusive marriage. Clair Beaudry has reached the conclusion that Yolanda is a lesbian, although she is not, and accuses his wife of being drawn into Yolanda’s web.

Yolanda does have a close lesbian friend, Tammy Rosen, but the two are no more than friends. Yolanda also has been close to a male homosexual, Jordan Garfield, her college English professor, with whom she has maintained contact through the years. Garfield, married for more than thirty years, finally leaves his wife, Helena. He soon enters into a homosexual relationship with a much younger colleague, Matthews, who eventually takes a teaching job in San Diego, putting the two a continent apart.

Their relationship, nevertheless, continues on a long-distance basis, with Garfield counting the time until he can retire, which will enable him to live with Matthews. Before this dream can be realized, however, Matthews reveals that he is dying of AIDS. Garfield, ever the caregiver, takes him in and tends him throughout what remains of his life.

Alvarez is particularly sensitive in presenting the details of relationships that skirt the fringe of what society regards as normal and usual. She also retains a great consistency in developing her characters. Garfield, for example, is ever the caring person, fully aware of his commitment and responsibility to others.

A major concern in this novel is the Dominican Republic. Carlos García has immigrated with his wife and four daughters to the United States, giving up his profession, medicine, to do so. Only after years of doing menial work is he finally able to be certified to practice medicine in his adopted country.

The family brings Primitiva, who worked for Laura García’s family in the Dominican Republic, to the United States to be their maid. She eventually is able, with their help, to bring her daughter, Sarita, to live with her. The entire Primitiva/Sarita episode is intriguing in that it deals with a problem common in societies where large numbers of people are oppressed and live in grinding poverty. Primitiva, apparently, was impregnated by the husband of the family for whom she worked in the Dominican Republic, the well-to-do de la Torre family, from which Laura García comes. Primitiva’s illegitimate daughter is, in all probability, the cousin of the García girls, although her social position is quite different from that of their cousin Lucinda, who also appears in the novel.

Sarita is bright and is not bound by the social constraints that keep Lucinda from obtaining a college education, so, ironically, Sarita becomes a physician while Lucinda, brought back to the Dominican Republic before she has finished her formal education, is never able to have a career. The message is clear: Immigration to the United States places enormous hurdles before Third World people, but as both Carlos and Sarita demonstrate, the United States is also a land of great opportunity in which immigrants of any social class can ultimately succeed and become contributing members of society.

Alvarez’s technical experiments in this novel are noteworthy. Whereas most of the sketches focus on a central character who has in one way or another been a part of Yolanda García’s life, two of the sketches, “The Sisters” and “The Caretakers,” present two central characters who have had some crucial contact with the protagonist. Alvarez’s most daring section, however, is “The Wedding Guests,” in which the author experiments with the presentation of her narrative through the eyes of several characters, presented in brief segments, to whom she has introduced her readers earlier in the novel. This section, for all of its technical complexity, succeeds admirably and helps achieve a unity that adds an overall coherence to the larger work.

In ¡Yo!, Alvarez consistently addresses the question of what it is to be a sensitive creative artist in the modern context and to be dissociated from one’s native society. In this regard, ¡Yo! is similar in its nostalgic tone to Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban (1992) and The Agüero Sisters (1997).

The sensitivity that Yolanda García demonstrates, while in all likelihood part of her birthright, also has to do with her day-to-day encounters, many of them sexually based, although the author does not write in prurient detail about such encounters. In many of the sketches she touches on the subject of sexuality. Sexuality is emphasized in such sketches as “The Stalker,” “The Suitor,” “The Watchman,” and “The Caretakers,” but nearly all the book’s pieces suggest through some subtle innuendo a sexual undercurrent skillfully but arcanely planted.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXXIX, February, 1997, p. 110.

Booklist. XCIII, September 15, 1996, p. 180.

Chicago Tribune. January 26 1997, XIV, p. 2.

Hispanic. X, March, 1997, p. 68.

Library Journal. CXXI, October 1, 1996, p. 124.

Los Angeles Times. March 23, 1997, p. E1.

Ms. VII, March, 1997, p. 82.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, February 9, 1997, p. 19.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, December 16, 1996, p. 38.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXIII, Summer, 1997, p. 95.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, January 19, 1997, p. 9.

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