Study Guide

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents Literature and Writing

By Julia Alvarez

Literature and Writing

For although the mother confused their names or called them all by the generic pet name, "Cuquita," and switched their birthdates and their careers, and sometimes forgot which husband or boyfriend went with which daughter, she had a favorite story she liked to tell about each one as a way of celebrating that daughter on special occasions. (1.3.7)

Mami is an epic storyteller, and yet she never writes anything down! Hm... maybe you don't have to be a writer to participate in literature. She's a reminder that the oral tradition is really important—maybe more important for this family than writing.

Yolanda often read poems addressed to lovers, sonnets set in bedrooms, and she knew her mother did not believe in sex for girls. But the mother seemed not to notice the subject of the poems, or if she did, to ascribe the love scenes to her Yoyo's great imagination. (1.3.38)

Okay, literature isn't necessarily based on facts. But come on! It's pretty hard to write about sex if you've never experienced it before. Mami is being really naive here.

"If she read all the great books, maybe she'd remember something important from having been human."

"Freud," the doctor said, listing names on his pad. "Darwin, Nietzsche, Erikson."

"Dante," the father mused. "Homer, Cervantes, Calderón de la Barca." (1.3.100-102)

When the doctor thinks of "great books," he thinks of scientific works written by German and English philosophers. When the father thinks of "great books," he thinks of works of literature written in Greek, Italian and Spanish. No matter how many of these books Sandra manages to read, though, she never seems to have all the answers. In fact, all this reading seems to be ruining her life. It's literally driving her crazy.

"Otto says we probably met in a New Jersey Greyhound Station, but we've heard all these exciting stories about how we met in Brazil or Colombia or Perú that we got to believing them." (1.3.173)

Have you noticed that there are multiple versions of the same stories floating around in this book? The stories get told over and over again, and some of the details get changed along the way.

Since Clive left, Yolanda is addicted to love stories with happy endings, as if there were a stitch she missed, a mistake she made way back when she fell in love with her first man, and if only she could find it, maybe she could undo it, unravel John, Brad, Steven, Rudy, and start over. (1.3.178)

Life is like a knitted baby blanket. And also like a love story. Whoa... these mixed metaphors are getting confusing. Yoyo turns to this analogy of unraveling the knitted tapestry of her life as a form of therapy—if she can just find her first mistake and fix it, all the other stitches will line up properly.

"Tears, tears," Joe said, reciting again, "tears from the depths of some profound despair." 

"Don't worry," the doctor said, coaching the alarmed parents. "It's just a poem." (1.4.121-122)

Ha! The doctor says that like poems ain't no big thing. If there's one thing Yolanda tries to explain to her (ex) husband John in this chapter, it's that words are a big deal. They're powerful.

She gains faith as she says each word, and dares further: "World... squirrel... rough... tough... love... enough..." [...] Yo continues: "Doc, rock, smock, luck," so many words. There is no end to what can be said about the world. (1.4.172-173)

How do we know Yolanda is getting better? She's able to start writing again. (Hooray!) Words have meaning again, and Yolanda feels confident about using them to describe the world around her.

It was the first pornographic poem I'd ever co-written; of course I didn't know it was pornographic until Rudy explained to me all the word plays and double meanings. [...] That anyone should put all of this into a poem, a place I'd reserved for deep feelings and lofty sentiments! (1.5.17)

Whoa. You mean poetry can be about sex? We're going to have to look into this. But seriously, Yoyo's experience with Rudy teaches us that sometimes, literature can have two meanings at the same time. And in order to understand all of its meanings, it requires interpretation, which is kind of like code-breaking. We read this paragraph as a license to go around interpreting our socks off.

That night, at last, she started to write, recklessly, three, five pages, looking up once only to see her father passing by the hall on tiptoe. When Yoyo was done, she read over her words, and her eyes filled. She finally sounded like herself in English! (2.2.40)

Ah, yes, the elusive breakthrough. Writer's block is the worst. We think it's a key moment when Yoyo says she "sounded like herself" in English. Earlier, we saw how an adult Yolanda didn't feel like she sounded like herself in Spanish anymore. Bilingualism seems really fluid in this novel—sometimes Yolanda feels more fluent as an English-speaker, and other times more fluent as a Spanish-speaker.

At that hour and in that loneliness, I hear her, a black furred thing lurking in the corners of my life, her magenta mouth opening, wailing over some violation that lies at the center of my art. (3.5.60)

Wow. Alvarez really knows how to end a novel! Yolanda is making a huge claim here—that the reason she writes now is because of a trauma that happened way back when she was a little kid. Check out our more in-depth discussion of this in the section "What's Up with the Ending?".

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