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In 'The Cemetery of Untold Stories' unfinished tales refuse to stay buried

The cover of "The Cemetery of Untold Stories" and author Julia Alvarez. (Courtesy of Hachette Book Group and Julia Alvarez for Middlebury College)
The cover of "The Cemetery of Untold Stories" and author Julia Alvarez. (Courtesy of Hachette Book Group and Julia Alvarez for Middlebury College)

Here & Now‘s Deepa Fernandes speaks with Julia Alvarez about her latest novel “The Cemetery of Untold Stories.” The book centers around Alma, a prolific author who retires from her teaching job and creates a cemetery for her unfinished manuscripts and notes.

Book excerpt: ‘The Cemetery of Untold Stories’

By Julia Alvarez

Let’s go to Alfa Calenda

Alma once had a friend, a writer, who for years before she died, relatively young, was always talking about this one story she had to write down.

Over the course of their thirty-plus-year friendship, Alma’s friend became quite famous, winning major prizes, garnering important interviews, awards left and right. A TV movie based on one of her novels was in the works with well-known names even Alma, not a big Hollywood person, had heard of. And yet her friend dismissed these achievements as “incidentals.” The real deal was this one story that would not be hurried.

The story possessed her. She could reel off its characters, complete with their names and histories. Periodically, they compelled her to go to one or another part of the world: a gravesite in Sweden, a fishing village in Liberia, the outer islands off South Carolina where she bought a house and lived for a spell. These characters had secrets she was listening for, and the reception was better in some places than others; their voices would break through, until she’d lose the connection and it was time to move on to some other place.

Alma had stopped counting her friend’s many addresses, switching to pencil in her address book. A migrant storyteller, to be sure, Alma told her. Her writer friend liked that description, and from then on, she used it for interviews and at readings, insisting she was not a writer, or a novelist, but a migrant storyteller.

Alma wasn’t so sure it was a great thing for her friend to be so rootless. A writer needs to be grounded or the force that through the green fuse drives the flower is going to incinerate it. But instead of pointing this out, Alma held back, celebrating her friend’s lilies-of-the-fields attitude. Her friend could be fierce, bristling at the slightest hint of criticism.

In one incident—and Alma was at the reading to verify it—a woman during the Q and A mentioned the difficulty of understanding some of the dialogue. Did the writer ever worry about her audience? Alma’s friend leveled one of those if-looks-could-kill looks at the woman. I’m not writing for white people, she said straight out. This before people were saying such things, except for Toni Morrison.

One of the protagonists in the unwritten story was a likeable white guy from Sweden (thus the trip to Sweden?), a sailor, with ropey arms like the rigging of a ship. Kristian, whose name changed over time— Kristofer, Anders, Nils—falls in love with the enslaved female protagonist, Clio—her name did not change over the many years her friend talked about the book.

Alma sometimes wondered if her friend had befriended her in part to find out more about white people. If so, Alma was not the best choice: she wasn’t 100 percent Caucasian, if such a critter even existed. Her family came from an island where, the popular saying goes, Everyone has a little Black behind the ears. Even the pale members of her mother’s clan who claimed their ancestors had come over on the Niña, Pinta, or Santa Maria would occasionally spawn a dark seed they blamed on the in-laws. Her father’s family couldn’t hide their racial mixture: the dark-skinned matriarch with the French surname, Rochet, meant roots in Haiti; probably a slave owner helping himself to his property.

Whatever her friend’s reasons for befriending her, Alma was flattered. Being the chosen one was something that rarely happened to her. It was as if a bad-tempered toddler who bawled when others approached had smiled and lifted their little arms to her. The two women spoke often by phone, exchanged long, thoughtful letters. After Alma moved to Vermont for a teaching job, her friend would take the train from the city every summer. Before one visit, Alma asked Luke, her then boyfriend, to plant some sunflowers, knowing her friend had a thing for them. He didn’t sow just one or two, but the whole back pasture—a bumper crop of yellow suns.

Alma took her friend out to the back deck and gestured grandly. Your welcome bouquet!

Her friend kept shaking her head with wonder. Did you do that? Alma gave credit where credit was due.

You keep this one, you hear, her friend said bossily.

Along with a green thumb, Luke also had cool tattoos. Her friend spent the afternoon sketching them in her journal. They’re perfect for my Kristian, she said.

But it takes more than a green thumb to keep love growing. Several months later, Alma discovered Luke was sowing his wild seed in other fields. When she broke up with him, her friend was pissed at Alma.

Over the years, Alma began to feel anxious before each visit. Her friend had fallen out with most of her friends as well as with her family. She was mistrustful, increasingly paranoid. She was being watched. The Feds were after her. Her sister was hitting her up for money for drugs. She had pulled all her titles from her publisher. She recounted angry scenes. Alma began to wonder when her own banishment would come.

Of course, her friend had reason to be wary. All sorts of people courted her, their motives never completely free of that pursuit of celebrities that her writer friend considered an affliction in the culture. Don’t ever forget, she often coached Alma, we’re just the literary flavor of the month or at most the year. More and more, publishing houses were being bought by huge conglomerates who also dealt in fossil fuels and breakfast cereals and pharmaceuticals. Like all their other assets, their writers had expiration dates.

Alma listened, but she was not yet ready to dismiss fame and fortune. Easy enough for her friend, already a big deal. Just you wait, she kept saying to Alma. But Alma didn’t want to wait. They were the same age, and Alma was still struggling. Her friend was super generous, inviting Alma along as her sidekick at conferences where she was giving the keynote, introducing her as “one of my favorite writers,” advising Alma about where to send her work and whom to trust, this latter a very short list, and getting shorter.

Finally, Alma’s writing started gaining some traction, but this caused fallout she hadn’t foreseen. Her mother took issue with her daughter’s “lies” and threatened to sue if Alma didn’t stop publishing her shameful stories, defaming the family name (naughty girls having sex, using drugs). She was going to disown Alma and write her own version of events. Since Mami was not speaking to her, these ultimatums were delivered to Alma via her sisters.

Alma was distraught. How could her own mother attack her? Even hardened criminals had mothers who said, He’s an axe murderer, but he’s my baby.

So, change your name, her writer friend suggested. You’re always talking about The Arabian Nights. You can be Scheherazade from now on.

No one will be able to spell it, Alma noted.

Their problem. You’re not writing for them, are you?

Who is them? Alma didn’t ask, for fear she’d get an earful.

It’s all settled, her friend said, ignoring Alma’s reluctance. Only two months older and her friend was bossier than Amparo, the eldest of Alma’s three sisters.

At a conference where her friend was giving the keynote, Alma overheard a writer on the staff describe her friend as “a piece of work.” Alma might have dismissed the comment as typical of what happens at these conferences—contributors and staff afloat in alcohol to get through all that contained intensity and ambition—but Alma was especially sensitive to the phrase. Both Luke and, before him, Philip, Alma’s former husband, had said the same thing about her. The idiom always sounded off. Didn’t anything worthwhile involve work?

A number of such expressions still eluded her. She knew their dictionary meanings, but she didn’t get that Ah ha! feeling that came from a word or idiom touching bottom inside her. Perhaps because English wasn’t her original language, its root system didn’t go deep enough in her psyche, a troubling thought for a writer.

Of course, Alma knew the term wasn’t intended as a compliment, especially when used by a man toward a woman he’s losing interest in. The end is nigh. Her friend had never met Philip, but she had a lot to say about men in general, not usually positive, which was why it had been unusual when she advised Alma to keep her sunflower fellow.

For her part, her friend never mentioned any passionate attachments, male or female. She did leave a message one time on Alma’s answering machine. She was in Paris, engaged to be married. By then, both women were in their mid-forties and single. I want you to be my maid of honor. I’ll send more details soon. The promised details never came. At their next meeting (another conference where this time they were both keynote speakers—Alma was coming up in the world) her friend never mentioned the fiancée. So, did you just elope with this guy? Alma asked. What guy? her friend batted back. Alma brought up the phone message from a few months ago. A fly-by-night, her friend waved the fly away. But what about the wedding band on her left hand? Just a protective measure, her friend replied. Protection against what? Again, Alma didn’t ask.

Her friend seemed to treat her life like drafts of a novel. This plot isn’t working. Okay, no problem. Let’s take out the marriage and rearrange the sequence, see what happens. Some troubling confusion between art and life.

At a subsequent reunion, her friend cornered her. Will you promise me something?

Depends on the promise, Alma answered in a jokey voice her friend did not appreciate.

This is serious. If something happens to me, promise you’ll tell Clio’s story.

Alma balked. I can’t. I wouldn’t be able to do it justice, she added, a compliment to mollify her refusal.

Of course, you can. You’ve heard me talking about her for years.

One thing is hearing a story, another is writing it down. Besides, it’s not for one person to tell another’s story. (Like Alma hadn’t been doing this left and right in her own writing.) And nothing’s going to happen to you, she assured her friend.

I guess you haven’t heard the news that none of us is getting out of here alive.

Ha, ha, Alma said the words, too uneasy for genuine laughter. Any moment now her friend might go off the deep end and drag Alma along with her.

From “The Cemetery of Untold Stories” by Julia Alvarez. Used with permission of the publisher, Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2024 by Julia Alvarez.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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