University of Bristol
The terms 'exile' and 'diaspora' are commonly restricted to cases of enforced individual or collective emigration, usually for fear of political persecution. Therefore, those leaving their country for economic or other reasons should be designated as 'emigrants', and not as exiles or diaspora people. Yet arguably, such a distinction is problematic. The borderline between economic and political emigration is often blurred, since economic hardship usually increases for the poor under oppressive regimes. Also, for many people the economic motives for emigration can be just as pressing as political ones: it could be a matter of survival - witness the desperation of the boat people. In these cases, economic emigration is virtually enforced.
But the main objection to such a distinction between economic and political emigration is that, ever since the 1960s, this has supported the application of a discriminatory (namely, racist) US immigration policy towards Caribbean nationals. This is nowhere as evident as in the different categorisation of Cubans and Haitians. As a result of the Cold War, the former have generally been granted political asylum, even in the many cases where the motives for emigration were in fact more economic than ideological. The almost systematic classification of the Haitians as economic emigrants, on the other hand, has meant that the hopes of many of those seeking a refuge from political tyranny as well as poverty have been frustrated. Given that up until the 1990s, the great majority of Cubans leaving for the United States came from the wealthy, white sector of the population, while of course virtually all Haitians are black or mulatto, it seems that racial discrimination is at the basis of such policy.
There is also a semantic dimension in support of a broader acceptation of the terms 'exile' and 'diaspora'. Unlike the word emigration, they connote some nostalgia for the homeland, heightened by the impossibility of return. All these motives call for a redefinition of these terms and their extension to all cases of enforced emigration, whether grounded in political, economic, or social factors.
In a Caribbean context, the notion of exile generally evokes the confinement of Cuban, Dominican and Haitian writers who have invariably been subject to the persecution of successive dictatorial regimes. Yet even liberal Caribbean democracies remain limiting to many regional literati. George Lamming suggests in The Pleasures of Exile (1960) that the predicament of local writers - especially in the French and Anglophone Caribbean, much smaller societies than the Hispanic area and Haiti - is such that for many, only a 'chosen exile' can remove the constraints hampering their literary activity. Lamming is referring to the generation of writers who left for London between 1948 and 1958, mostly because they felt that they could never achieve recognition at home where they 'suffered the active discouragement of [their] own community' (The Pleasures of Exile, p. 41). Of course, the situation has changed since then and several authors of subsequent generations have not found their society so stifling and preferred to remain at home. Yet, still today, most of the major Anglophone and Francophone authors, generally those born in the 1950s or before, have spent at least their formative years abroad, generally in metropolitan institutions.
Such home constraints particularly affect women writers who must face gender prejudice in addition to the difficulties experienced by their male counterparts. Edwidge Danticat's story, 'Women Like Us' (1995), reveals how little consideration women writers have received in Haiti until recently:
Belinda Edmondson (1993) argues in her doctoral thesis that diaspora women writers describe themselves as 'immigrants', as against their male counterparts, who regard themselves as 'exiles'. Despite her use of a terminology questioned at the beginning of this paper, Edmondson has a point here in emphasising that diaspora women usually entertain a more positive relation to their adoptive land than men. Although exile often brings about a strong sense of dislocation, it is true that for women the experience hardly ever turns out to be entirely negative. Indeed, the societies to which they emigrate are often seen as being less sexist than those they come from. For many, exile offers positive aspects, in that it removes some of the social pressures found at home.
Dominican-American Julia Alvarez is one of the first among the younger generation of writers to have written on exile and the Caribbean diaspora. Her work is representative of a new kind of diaspora writing which centres on the notion of hyphenated identity, or the idea that exiles truly inhabit a space between two cultures. Although most of the younger diaspora writers from the Caribbean grew up at least partly outside the archipelago, which has facilitated their integration into the adoptive country, the progress of transport has meant the possibility of frequent visits to the island (the guagua aérea phenomenon) which has kept tight the bond with the native culture.
The various chapters of Alvarez's 1991 How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, just like those of the 1997 sequel to the novel, ¡Yo!, can be read as independent stories. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents opens with the story 'Antojos', where middle-aged Yolanda, who has left her native Dominican Republic as a child, makes her first visit to the island in five years. A craving for guavas leads her to the remote countryside, where her car breaks down. Here the craving for guavas stands for Yolanda's nostalgia for the homeland. The story reveals the mechanisms at play in the idealisation process. Due to her prolonged absence and her determination to integrate back into the Dominican Republic, Yolanda re-invents the island. She selects her positive recollections of the country (the guavas), dismissing the negative aspects, in particular the subordination of Dominican upper-class women.
This however is gradually disclosed in the story. Throughout the text, modern, middle-class Yolanda is contrasted with her traditional (not to say conservative), aristocratic female relatives. The injustice based on gender in the Dominican elite is patent. Thus Yolanda's female cousins, unlike their brothers, have received no university education, due to the belief among the Dominican elite that too much education spoils a woman's chances of a good marriage. In this circle, male marital infidelity is acceptable and something to boast of: 'Once a male cousin bragged that this pre-dinner hour should be called Whore Hour. [T]his is the hour during which a Dominican male of a certain class stops in on his mistress on his way home to his wife' (p. 7). By contrast, female sexuality is repressed, as revealed in 'The cousin' and 'The suitor', from the novel ¡Yo! (1997). In 'The cousin', insubordinate, sixteen year-old Lucinda is sent to the United States lest she should 'go behind the palm trees and ruin her chances of a good marriage' by staying on the island. But at the time the United States are undergoing the social revolution of the Sixties. When her parents discover her relationship with a classmate, Lucinda is immediately taken back to the Dominican Republic. This control of female sexuality is pushed to the extreme in 'The suitor', where Yolanda (already married and divorced twice and in her forties) cannot disclose her relationship with her partner to her island relatives because 'down there women don't have lovers out in the open' (¡Yo!, p. 187).
Alvarez further examines the social code for Dominican women in another chapter of her first novel, 'A Regular Revolution'. As a punishment for her rebelliousness, fifteen-year old Sofía is sent back to the island so that she can learn the manners that befit her class. When her sisters come to visit her after six months, Sofía (Fifi) has undergone a complete metamorphosis: she has turned into a 'hair and nails cousin', whose major preoccupations are appearance and social status. She is also engaged to a distant cousin Manuel, who turns out to be a 'tyrant': 'Fifi can't wear pants in public. Fifi can't talk to another man. Fifi can't leave the house without his permission. And what's most disturbing is that Fifi [...] is letting this man tell her what she can and cannot do' (p. 120).
Yo and Fifí are not the only ones in the novel to break free from the limiting life expected of upper-class women in the Dominican Republic. Their mother Laura also undergoes a complete transformation and liberation in the United States: 'Laura had gotten used to the life here. She did not want to go back to the old country where, de la Torre or not, she was only a wife and a mother (and a failed one at that, since she had never provided the required son). Better an independent nobody than a high-class houseslave' (How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, pp. 143-144).
The lot of elite Dominican women is therefore not a totally enviable one. Yet at the beginning of 'Antojos', Yolanda, wishing to settle permanently in the island, is prepared to renounce the more liberal upbringing she has received as a Dominican exile in the United States: 'She has sat back quietly, hoping she has learned, at last, to let the mighty wave of tradition roll on through her life and break on some other female shore' (p. 9). However, the story progressively discloses the gap between Yolanda and Dominican society. Initially the gap is cultural: Yolanda is quite different from her cousins who stayed back in the Dominican Republic. Hence the aunts' and cousins' reaction to Yolanda's crazy idea of going to the countryside on her own: 'This is not the States [...]. A woman just doesn't travel alone in this country. Especially these days' (p. 9). And Yolanda's suggestion of using public transport meets with general laughter: 'Can't you see it!? [...] Yoyo climbing into an old camioneta with all the campesinos and their fighting cocks and their goats and their pigs!' (p. 9). Thus Yolanda has forgotten the daily realities of the Dominican Republic: she clearly reasons as if she were in the United States.
In the second part of the story, the gap is not only cultural, but also social. In particular, there is a huge class difference between Yolanda and the villagers she meets. Everywhere she receives deferential treatment and encounters an attitude of submission. As the story progresses, the gap between Yolanda and the Dominicans increases. Alone on a country road with a flat tyre and the night about to fall, Yolanda meets two local peasants. Petrified, she remains speechless at first. Eventually she finds an escape by pretending to be a US tourist. With this ironic ending, Alvarez indicates that the gulf separating Yolanda from her fellow Dominicans cannot be bridged.
Yolanda fails in her attempts to fit into the Dominican Republic because, although she is not unaware of some realities, she under-estimates their significance: the Dominican Republic is divided by class, race and sex, to the extent that she feels she no longer belongs. None of the Dominicans she meets recognises her as one of theirs: the two peasants mistake her for a foreigner, and a guard does not believe that '[a] dominicana with a car [c]ould be out at this hour getting guayabas. (p. 22). Therefore, if on the one hand 'she believes she has never felt at home in the States, never' (p. 12), on the other hand Yolanda is no longer Dominican, which truly makes her an exile, between two homes, two cultures and two languages. The tension between two homes is reflected in the title and structure of the novel. Whereas the title seems to indicate a perfect integration of the García girls to the United States (they have lost their accents), the order of the stories, which go back in time instead of following the usual chronological progression, mirrors the attitude of the exiles looking back on their homeland and their past.
The tension between two languages manifests itself in Yolanda's constant hesitation between English and Spanish. In 'Antojos', her aunts insist that she speak in her mother-tongue: 'When she reverts to English, she is scolded, "¡En español!". The more she practices, the sooner she'll be back into her native tongue' (p. 7). Thus she has forgotten the meaning of the word antojo and it is no coincidence that this is precisely the word chosen to entitle the story. Here Alvarez emphasises Yolanda's situation as exile. Finally, when faced with the two peasants, Yolanda finds herself incapable of communicating in her mother-tongue. Her linguistic paralysis ceases as soon as she acknowledges herself as North American, however: 'as if the admission itself loosens her tongue, she begins to speak, English, a few words, of apology at first, then a great flood of explanation' (p. 20).
The conception that language is 'the only homeland' is a leitmotiv in Alvarez. Yet this notion is always tainted with irony. In 'Antojos', for instance, it is debunked by a young poet's innuendo that 'in the midst of some profound emotion, one would revert to one's mother tongue' (p. 13), and his subsequent enquiry about the language Yolanda loves in. The question of language is of course essential to Yolanda as a writer. But if she writes and finds it easier to express herself in English, Yolanda never completely forgets her mother tongue, and Spanish words and interjections such as 'Ay' constantly punctuate her language. Yolanda is not the only character to whom the question of language is important. Her mother Laura, a truly native Spanish speaker, comments in ¡Yo!: 'To tell you the truth, the hardest thing coming to this country wasn't the winter that everyone had warned me about - it was the language' (p. 21).
Nostalgia, symbolised by the guavas, is not absent from Alvarez's 'Antojos'; however it is always played down by irony. In another chapter of the novel, 'A Regular Revolution', it is no longer Yolanda but her younger sister Sofía who constructs the Dominican Republic as her home. In 'The suitor' from ¡Yo!, the gaze on the island of the outsider Dexter counterbalances Yolanda's somewhat idyllic vision. The same technique is repeated with Doug in 'The third husband'. Alvarez thereby avoids the trap of idealisation, even when her protagonist does not. Thus, for instance, while Yolanda blames Dexter, a Southerner, for all the ills of slavery in the United States, the latter reflects: 'Only recently, he read about slave wages on sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic' (¡Yo!, p. 191). Dominican estate owners like the de la Torre, Yolanda's maternal family, are of course the first beneficiaries of such exploitation. Similarly, while travelling by plane, Dexter hears that Yolanda's Uncle is running for President in 'democratic' elections: elections with tanks patrolling the streets! (p. 198).
Here too there is a tension between the home to which Yolanda aspires, a Caribbean paradise constantly contrasting with the United States and the actual Dominican Republic. She claims to Dexter, 'This is my home', referring to the island and Dexter notices that 'her English has already picked up the lilt of an accent' as she talks (p. 192). Upon this he muses:
Alvarez shows that, although her protagonist is much more politically conscious than her relatives who stayed behind, she has indeed 'given birth' to a fantasised homeland 'out of the womb of her memory', not only because she idealises her native island, but, more importantly, because she clings to it as her homeland, whereas, if anything, her new home is the States. As Dexter puts it:
In 'The third husband' it is Doug who deconstructs Yolanda's mythical island. While she claims that her belief in spiritualism is part of her Caribbean cultural heritage, Doug reflects: 'to this day he has yet to hear one of her aristocratic old aunts talk about evil eyes or the spirits' (p. 260). This comment is revealing: Yolanda's Dominicanness is indeed a construct which, as noted above in connection with 'Antojos', plays down the significance of racial and social inequalities in the Dominican Republic. What is implied here is that, had she been brought up on the island, Yolanda, given her social background, would certainly not have openly adhered to such Afro-Antillean beliefs, which are derided by the Eurocentric elite.
But perhaps Yolanda's construct is best unveiled by the gaze of an insider, her cousin Lucinda. Like her fellow countrymen, Lucinda does not consider Yolanda and her sisters Dominican: she calls them her gringa cousins. While Lucinda recognises the racism, sexism, or class prejudices of Dominican society, as she comments: 'still, I spread my arms wide and gave myself to this island [upon her return from the States], which is more than the García girls ever did for their so-called homeland' (p. 36). She adds: 'They came every summer and were out of here by September. [...] it seemed right in keeping that they should make their exit just as hurricane season was about to start' (p. 36). Lucinda's bitter remarks are not devoid of lucidity: her cousins, especially Yolanda, get the best of both worlds: it is easy for them to claim their Dominicanness without having to live up to the consequences. But if Alvarez reveals the falsity of their construct, she does not condemn her protagonists: being between two homes, two cultures and two languages, they have no choice but to invent their own identity.
Unlike How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, there are chapters in ¡Yo! which do not focus on the García de la Torre family, but on 'average', humble Dominicans around them. This is the case in 'The maid's daughter', 'The stranger', 'The caretakers' and 'The night watchman'. The first two are stories of ordinary Dominican emigrants. If the first is a success story, in the second Ruth undergoes the hardships of illegal immigration: in order to obtain US citizenship she marries an abusive man whom she cannot divorce. The picture that emerges from these chapters, notably the revelation of the harsh living conditions of ordinary Dominicans both at home and abroad, contrasts radically with the world of the de la Torres. This multiplicity of voices provides a more complex view of Dominican society and allows Alvarez to avoid idealisation.
Exile necessarily brings about some cultural adjustment, an adaptation process that leads to a redefinition of identity. The issues put forward by Julia Alvarez in her fiction also appear in the work of other women writers from the Caribbean and its diaspora. Guadeloupean Maryse Condé, for example, touches on the same themes in Desirada (1997), where island-born but metropolitan-bred Marie-Noëlle returns to a mystical Guadeloupe in search of her past and origins, only to discover that there, she is no longer considered as 'one of theirs'. After initial disillusionment, Marie-Noëlle finds consolation in the realisation that many people are, like her, exiles. People in the diaspora generate a new culture which enriches the original Caribbean culture. As Condé puts it:
Yo's journey to freedom is no exceptional case in Alvarez's novel: this is also the story of Fifí, Laura and Lucinda. For women in particular, exile often permits a self-fulfilment (whether personal or professional) otherwise impossible to achieve in small, traditional, sexist societies like those of the Caribbean archipelago. Once abroad many undertake a self-definition, selecting among their cultural inheritance the aspects they wish to preserve and rejecting those they find burdensome, thereby undergoing a process of liberation. Thus if exile provides a certain dislocation, it can also be extremely empowering. Today the Caribbean diaspora virtually equals the number of Caribbean residents: this is bound to have an effect on the cultural identity of the region. It may not be unreasonable to argue therefore, that the diaspora will generate a redefinition of Caribbeanness and notably, of female Caribbeanness.
 Her collection of poems Homecoming was published in 1984, while the various chapters of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents first appeared as independent short stories between 1983 and 1989.
 Puerto Rican writer Luis Rafael Sánchez calls guagua aérea ('air bus' or 'flying bus') the particular kind of diaspora in which Puerto Ricans have been increasingly involved since the 1960s, which consists of incessant switching back and forth between the island and the United States. Thus, quite unlike the Cuban or Haitian diaspora, the ties are never completely severed. This phenomenon is increasingly found among the Dominicans too, especially those residing in Puerto Rico.
 Interview by Pierre Maury, Le Soir (Brussels), 17 September 1997, p. 6.
Alvarez, Julia. How the García girls lost their accents. Plume Books, 1992 (originally published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991).
---. ¡Yo! Plume Books, 1997 (originally published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1997).
Danticat, Edwidge. Krik? Krak! London: Abacus, 1996 (originally published in 1995).
Edmondson, Belinda. 'The Canon, the Female Writer, and the West Indian Novel', Ph.D dissertation, University of Evanston, Illinois, June 1993.
Lamming, George. The Pleasures of Exile. London and New York: Allison & Busby Ltd, 1984 (originally published by Michael Joseph, 1960).
Maury, Pierre. 'Destin antillais: un roman et des nouvelles de Maryse Condé', Le Soir (Brussels), 17 September 1997, MAD Supplement, p.6.
Sánchez, Luis Rafael. 'La guagua aérea', Imágenes e identidades: el puertorriqueño en la literatura. ed. Asela Rodríguez de Laguna. San Juan: Huracán, 1985, pp.23-30.
Odile Ferly is currently completing her Ph.D. at the University of Bristol, UK, in the departments of Hispanic Studies and French. The paper included here is part of her thesis, entitled 'Women Writers from the Francophone and Hispanic Caribbean at the Close of the Twentieth Century: Carving a Tradition', which focuses on women's fiction in the 1990s and its relationship to the literary canons of these areas. She has also obtained a maîtrise (MA by research), from the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, with a dissertation on two women writers from the English-speaking Caribbean. She has taught Francophone and contemporary Latin American literatures in British universities.