RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Author Julia Alvarez has been straddling two worlds for a long time. She was born in New York City, but raised in the Dominican Republic. And that personal experience - being of two places - has shaped much of her writing. A couple of her most celebrated works of fiction are "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents" and "In the Time of the Butterflies." Both stories address issues of belonging and cultural identity.
Her newest book, though, is a memoir. It's called "A Wedding in Haiti." And again, Alvarez writes about place and culture. But this time, she's the outsider looking in; trying to make sense of a country so close to her, but so foreign.
Author Julia Alvarez joins us from Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. Ms. Alvarez, thanks so much for being with us.
JULIA ALVAREZ: Thank you for inviting me.
MARTIN: So this story begins with a promise that you and your husband made to a young Haitian man named Piti. Describe that promise.
ALVAREZ: Well, he was a young boy - as many Haitians come across the border, undocumented, to work in the Dominican Republic. And he showed up at this farm project that my husband, Bill, and I have in the Dominican Republic. And he looked so young and I felt like, oh, my gosh, he should be with his mother. So I declared myself his distant mother.
And so, you know, we would go down to Alta Gracia - that's the name of the farm project. And nights, after supper, we would sit around and sing and talk. And one night, he just seemed so forlorn and sad, you know; just a boy, far from home. And so to cheer him up, I told him that I could see that in his future, he would meet the love of his life and get married. And he just kind of giggled.
And I said no, no, no, no; you have to believe me, Piti. One day, you're going to get married to this love of your life. And you know what? I'm going to be at the wedding, and I'm the godmother.
OK, fast forward eight years later. We get a call in Vermont. Piti is getting married - are we coming to the wedding? So we decided, we made a promise - we're going to keep it.
MARTIN: We should note that this trip you made was before the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January 2010. You made this trip in 2009.
ALVAREZ: Originally, I didn't set out to write a book about this journey. But when the earthquake happened, I took out the journal as a way of being close to a Haiti that wasn't being shown on the news - the richest, warmest culture; lots of solidarity, lots of community, hanging in there together; which are things that they're rich in, and that maybe we have lost. But I needed one story, one little point of light. And so in reading the journal was when I said well, maybe there's a story to tell here.
MARTIN: I want to ask you about the earthquake, in a moment. But first, you and your husband attend the wedding. But your return journey takes a little bit of a twist when Piti asks you if you will take him, and his new wife and baby, out of Haiti into the Dominican Republic. He has papers; they don't. Did you consider saying no? You knew this was going to be risky.
ALVAREZ: He didn't ask if he could go back with us. He just said he was.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: So after a lot of wrangling and negotiating, you managed to get Piti and his family back into the Dominican Republic. Time passes. When the earthquake happened, where were you?
ALVAREZ: I was in Vermont. And when I turned on the news, I realized it was really bad. And it was overwhelming - overwhelming. So that very evening, I called Piti and...
MARTIN: We should say, he was living in the Dominican Republic.
ALVAREZ: Oh, he was living in the Dominican Republic, yes, with Eseline, his wife; and his little girl, Ludy. And they couldn't reach family. They didn't know what had happened. Basically, they needed to go back and see that their families were all right.
MARTIN: You decide that you need to take them. Why?
ALVAREZ: So I guess - I don't know. They're like our kids now. You're not going to put your kid on the back of a pickup with a baby.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ALVAREZ: You're going to go. So it just felt like something we would do in solidarity. We weren't in Port-au-Prince. We weren't volunteering at a hospital. But maybe we could just be with one, young Haitian and his wife and kid, and their family. It was, I guess - I don't know. These movements of the heart, how do you explain them?
MARTIN: If you wanted to focus on Haiti as a country, why not address it in ways that you have other issues in your writing? Why put yourself in it? Why make it this memoir?
ALVAREZ: Why tell it this way? I'm just following this friendship. It's the story of a friendship. And it's just one friendship. Haiti's a big country. It has many problems; there's a lot of people there. But - you know, there's a wonderful haiku that I love, by the Japanese poet Issa. And he says: I look in the dragonfly's eye, and I see the mountains over my shoulder.
That sometimes through the lens of one, little story; one friendship; you really can talk about the bigger problems. The story finds the form that best fits it.
MARTIN: Author Julia Alvarez - her new memoir is called "A Wedding in Haiti." She spoke with us from the studios at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. Julia, thanks so much.
ALVAREZ: Thank you for having me.