In the name of the Father and of the Son and of my mother, Salomé…
In her acclaimed new novel, prize-winning author Julia Alvarez explores the mystery and multiplicity of identity through the extraordinary journeys of two women—mother and daughter, iconic poet and expatriate teacher—who are embattled but not defeated by the parameters of life in a tumultuous world.
The common denominator connecting much of Julia Alvarez’s otherwise eclectic body of work is her shrewd exploration of the fragmentary nature of identity—that axis where lines of culture, ethnicity, politics, and gender intersect and blur. In 1994, Alvarez told The Nation magazine, “I am a Dominican, hyphen, American. As a fiction writer, I find that the most exciting things happen in the realm of that hyphen—the place where two worlds collide or blend together.”
This condition of “between-ness” is very much at work in Alvarez’s critically celebrated historical epic, In the Name of Salomé. In it, the author delivers her most intriguing cross-fertilization of language and cultures to date—and in her poignant characterization of Camila Ureña, she lays bare the implications and consequences of this cross-fertilization.
As she did in her 1995 novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, Alvarez opens a window in this book on actual lives and historical events in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the United States with which many English-language readers are unfamiliar. The book’s narrative mixes real events and historical figures with fictionalized details, characters, and dialogue. In the Name of Salomé disturbingly exposes government corruption as history’s rule rather than its exception, and subtly documents the ferocity of American xenophobia in the 19th and 20th centuries. And perhaps most pointedly, the novel offers an invaluable Caribbean perspective on the dubious motivations that have propelled United States foreign policy and intervention at different points in time.
Yet for all its political and ideological overtones, In the Name of Salomé is first and foremost the work of a joyfully talented chronicler of the human condition doing what she does best: telling a powerful story with rare insight and infectious passion.
In the Name of Salomé is set in the politically chaotic Dominican Republic of the late nineteenth century, on the campuses of three American universities, and in the idealistic Communist Cuba of the 1960s. Salomé Ureña Henríquez lived in the Dominican Republic in the second half of the 1800s, a time that saw no less than thirty Dominican governments rise and fall. By the time she was seventeen, Salomé had become the republic’s national icon on the strength of her fiercely patriotic poems for “la patria,” or the homeland. Her words sparked unprecedented passion, gave voice to countless disenfranchised countrymen, and assumed a central role in motivating the fight for independence, whether from Spain or Haiti. By stark contrast, her daughter, Camila, born three years before Salomé’s death, is shy and self-effacing, cowed by the immense legacy of a mother she never really knew, deeply conflicted about her own attraction to women, and weighed down by the demands of the men in her family (including her father, a one-time president of the D.R.; and her brothers, among them an ambassador and an international literary star).
The book opens in 1960, in Poughkeepsie, New York, where we meet Camila in her sixty-sixth year. Newly retired from her professorship at Vassar College, Camila is headed for Castro’s Cuba, the country where she spent much of her early life in exile from Trujillo’s dictatorship. As her story moves backward in time over eight chapters to her earliest childhood, we discover the complex motivations behind Camila’s return to Cuba, and we begin gradually to understand why she feels like “a bead unstrung from the necklace of generations.” Intertwined with Camila’s story is that of her mother’s, which also spans eight chapters, beginning with her girlhood and culminating with her death in 1897. Alvarez cuts through Salomé’s mythic persona and reveals her as an insecure teenage girl armed with a preternatural passion for language, an innate belief in the power of words to change hearts and, above all, a deep-seated love for her country. As the two threads of her novel converge upon each other in the volatile 1890s, Alvarez effects a complex and ingenious interplay between the two stories: the antecedents to Camila’s struggles prove to be deeply rooted in the life her mother lived, just as the legacy of Salomé’s choices and achievements deeply color her daughter’s life in the next century.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about Julia Alvarez’s In the Name of Salomé is that even in the midst of a saga of such ambitious temporal and thematic scope, the author manages to make this a bracingly intimate tale. With her trademark narrative finesse, she has fashioned a magical novel of great beauty, great ugliness, and great wisdom. As we follow Salomé and Camila through their respective lives, Alvarez’s writing—more generous, unflinching, and technically ambitious than ever—gives us love simultaneously delightful and painful, necessary and devastating.
ABOUT JULIA ALVAREZ
Shortly after her birth in New York City on March 27, 1950, Julia Alvarez moved with her family to the Dominican Republic, where she spent her first ten years. In 1960, amid the fallout of a failed coup involving Alvarez’s father against the Trujillo dictatorship, the family was forced to flee to the United States. As a high school student in New York, Alvarez set her sights on a writing career: “What made me into a writer was coming to this country,” Alvarez has said. “All of a sudden losing a culture, a homeland, a language, a family…. I wanted a portable homeland—and that’s the imagination.” After graduating with summa cum laude honors from Middlebury College, Alvarez earned her M.A. degree in creative writing from Syracuse University in 1975. Alvarez began her post-graduate career serving as Poet-in-the-Schools in Kentucky, Delaware, and North Carolina. Currently a professor of English at Middlebury College, she has previously taught at several institutions, including George Washington University, University of Illinois, and University of Vermont. She and her husband also run an organic coffee farm and a literacy project in the Dominican Republic.
The condition of exile Alvarez has known so intimately was the touchstone for her breakout novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991) and its sequel ¡Yo! (1997). Alvarez’s most celebrated work to date, In the Time of the Butterflies, was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1994. In 1998, Alvarez published Something to Declare, a collection of essays. Alvarez’s acclaimed volumes of poetry include The Housekeeping Book (1994), The Other Side / El Otro Lado(1995), and Homecoming: New and Selected Poems (1996). In 1997, Alvarez’s verse was featured in the New York Public Library’s exhibition “Original Manuscripts by 100 Masters, from John Donne to Julia Alvarez.”
Her books have been translated into nine languages and have won numerous prizes, including the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award and the American Library Association’s Notable Book of the Year honor. She is also the recipient of an honorary doctorate in humane letters from the City University of New York and an Alumni Achievement Award from Middlebury College. In 1997, the Dominican Republic dedicated its Annual Book Fair to the artistic and humanitarian contributions of Julia Alvarez.
“Original and illuminating.”—The New York Times Book Review
“-A delicate writer whose respect for the force of human love gives the novel its exquisite tension.”—Los Angeles Times
Reading group guide and author interview by Daniel Eshom.
“—We are all the same size, don’t you know? Just some of us stretch ourselves a little more….”
AN INTERVIEW WITH JULIA ALVAREZ
Several reviewers and readers have made it a point to emphasize the rich cultural and artistic bonds you share with your novel’s real-life heroines, Salomé Ureña and her daughter Camila. Has Salomé’s legacy been a source of inspiration to you throughout your career? What was the initial seed for this book? How long did the idea to tell this story germinate—and what did your research involve?
I think it is true that I share bonds with Salomé and Camila, in fact with all the characters I choose to write about. Novels are long meditations on a character or situation or set of questions, not because writers want answers, but because we want to understand. (One of my favorite quotes about the task of a writer comes from Chekhov: “the task of a writer is not to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly.”) The work has got to have some deeply personal meaning if we’re going to stay invested over the many years that it takes to write a novel.
So yes, I do have a lot in common with Salomé and with Camila, similarities which sometimes only became apparent to me as I was writing the novel.
(For instance, finding out that Camila had taught at Middlebury College where I am now on the faculty! Or that Salomé had died at age 47, the year I began to write the novel.) When any one of these little coincidences happened, I saw it as a serendipitous green light from the muses.
But it might be surprising to my readers that I did not grow up knowing a whole lot about Salomé Ureña or even Camila. As a child in the Dominican Republic, I had heard the famous name. Sometimes, when we drove to the center of the old city, my father found a parking spot on Salomé Ureña Street. On the way to mass at “la catedral” on Sundays, we passed el Instituto de Señoritas Salomé Ureña, which I thought of as a reform school because there were bars at the windows and a watchman at the door.
But I didn’t know that Salomé Ureña was one of the most revered poets of the Dominican Republic, “la musa de la patria.” I didn’t know that she gave up writing poetry to found her Instituto, the first school for females in the country.
Then, about six years ago, a Dominican friend, the poet Chiqui Vicioso, presented me with two books she thought I should read: a slender volume of poems by Salomé Ureña, and the other, a collection of the family’s correspondence. I don’t read Spanish easily, but I decided to struggle through both books, a dictionary in hand, and relearn my native tongue. After reading both books, I grew so curious that I began to read her contemporaries, to educate myself on Latin American literature and history in general, to travel to Cuba in order to understand Salomé’s daughter Camila a little better. The research took me over two years to conduct.
I have to smile when I think that one hundred years after her death in 1897, Salomé Ureña, the great educator of Dominican women, was teaching me my history and native language through her poems and her letters.
The only way to pay her back for that immense favor was to write her story down!
One of the most fascinating aspects of this novel is its narrative structure. Camila’s chapters are the mirror image of her mother’s, just as the arc of Camila’s life seems to reflect, in reverse, that of her mother’s. Tell us about the process involved in ‘building’ this novel. Did you write the chapters in the order they appear in the book?
You said the right word: process of building this novel! It reminded me very much of the words of the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado: Caminante, no hay camino, / se hace el camino al andar.
Traveler there is no path, the path is made by walking!
A novel doesn’t come with its pre-set structure. (I suppose some do!) You have to find the “right” structure for that particular story by writing it. That structure is the way you want your reader to travel through the story. . . left turn here, south there, and then west, and back up, and over there. . . . And of course, the journey to the last page is what the novel is all about.
As I began writing, I knew that this novel would have something of the elaborate structure of a 19th century and early 20th century poem. After all, I was writing about a poet. Not to mention that my own writing life had begun in poetry, early training which still affects the way I think about and hear my novels.
As you mentioned—while researching and writing this novel, I began to see how Camila’s life was a mirror image of her mother’s. I also found the “hinge” that connected them, so tenuously, was that moment when their lives came together and they were a “we”—those brief years between Camila’s birth—her mother’s death. How to get the structure of the novel to reflect this?
You’ve done more than perhaps any other author writing in English to raise the consciousness of United States readers about the rich culture of the Dominican Republic and to document the country’s tragic, exceptionally volatile history across the last two centuries. To be a teacher, a kind of custodian to memory—are these key motivations behind your writing, particularly your works of historical fiction? Do you take Salomé’s self-prescription in the novel—”Rather than write something pretty and useless, I would not write at all”—as your own?
You flatter me. I wish I were as single-minded as Salomé, never tempted by baubles!
I do strive to grow with everything I write, to challenge myself, to expand and work my allotment of talent to the utmost. I keep telling my friends, somewhat morbidly, that I want to use myself up before I die. I don’t want to repeat the old tricks or—as much as I love my readers and want to please them—just follow formulas that have pleased before. I figure that my readers have entrusted me to be one of their storytellers, to beat the dark bushes and flush out a bird or two of wonder . . .
As for the kinds of stories I tell, I don’t want to limit myself to one population or set of characters or themes. But I do think about something I heard Toni Morrison say when she was asked in an interview why she didn’t write more about white people. Toni Morrison drew herself up and shook her head—I couldn’t see her, this was over the radio, but I could hear that shake of the head and that squaring of her shoulders in her voice—“Why should I write the stories about white people? I got my own people’s stories to tell!”
I can’t agree with her more. I became a writer in part because I wanted to write down the stories I never found between the covers of books when I was growing up. Stories that would otherwise be lost when I came to the USA and into the English language, other points of view as I moved into this other, northern, “dominant” history and tradition. Those gaps and silences often do drive writers to write. We want to fill them up with our stories. Give voice. “Abrir caminos”—and not just for our own people. We expand as a human race when more stories are allowed in as the story of who we, human beings, are.
I like to think of those silences/gaps as not just about the Dominican Republic but about women, about the other half of the Americas that has often been left out of the picture. When I was growing up and going to college and reading the canon, these stories were—if present at all—considered “sociology,” not literature, never fully credentialed.
You mention in your Acknowledgments “una sorpresa” at José Israel Cuello’s house, during which Cuello handed over to you Pedro’s diary. What was Cuello’s connection to the Henríquez Ureña family? What surprised you most as you read the diary?
José Israel Cuello, a publisher in the Dominican Republic, had come across this diary years back. Some member of the Henríquez family in need of quick cash had approached him about buying it. And then, hearing that I was writing about Salomé, José Israel offered to lend me the diary. What was most amazing was to be in touch, physically, with poems that Salomé had written in her own hand and which her son Pedro had saved and pasted into his diary. Some of these poems were mere scraps, never published, never finished. I felt Salomé’s living hand moving across those papers.
Then, of course, the diary contained all those little family tidbits that often don’t make it into official biographies but which a teenage son might jot down. The issue of Salomé’s color, the age differential between Salomé and Pancho, Pancho’s own family background, his long absences, his attempts to micromanage his wife, the boy’s observation of his mother’s moods. . . .
Of the novel’s key players, Pancho Henríquez is most likely to elicit mixed emotions from readers. In Salomé’s later chapters, the post-Paris Dr. Henríquez comes across as quite the peacock, infected with what seems to be a bad case of megalomania. Did you struggle with his character? How has the public persona of Francisco Henríquez survived in Dominican history books?
To answer your first few comments: what can I say? Chickens coming home to roost?
Pancho Henríquez, like the rest of us human beings, was a mixed bag. For many years, he was lionized and revered because, let’s face it, he stood up to the American occupation, 1916-1924. He was president of the country during those crazed years. He refused to become a puppet president, so he was thrown out of his own country. For eight years, he hung in there, a president without a country, traveling throughout the Americas, trying to drum up support and get his country back. He needed a big ego to do this, an ego which was generous and complicated and made him in many ways a good doctor and politician, but a maybe not so great spouse. This difficult side of Pancho (his French family, his strutting about with his French credentials, his know-it-all character) came across to Dominicans when the Epistolario was published in 1996, a collection of family letters which included many of Pancho’s very cold-hearted letters to Salomé from France, and her impassioned, “cri de coeur” letters back to him. Pobrecita!
I didn’t want to make him into anything that he wasn’t. In a sense, I wanted to convey his full complexity and to let him as a historical character “dig his own hole” while at the same time demonstrating his resilience and courage and pathos.
To what degree, if at all, do you feel a special affinity with other writers whose work also manages to straddle and explore that “hyphenated” space between two cultures? Junot Díaz (Dominican Republic) and Jessica Hagedorn (Philippines) come to mind, among others.
I most especially feel an affinity with these writers, though any writer who writes a fine book that expands me as a human being has my love and allegiance!
I suppose my affinity is closest with those writers of my same generation—like Jessica Hagedorn with whom I “grew up” as a young writer. Besides Jessica, I am thinking of other “compañeras” whose support and mutual struggle were inspirations. In those early years no one was reading us—Rudolfo Anaya, Piri Thomas, Oscar Hijuelos, Sandra Cisneros, Denise Chavez, Ana Castillo, Cherríe Moraga, Lorna Dee Cervantes, as well as, Maxine Hong Kingston and Louise Erdrich and Bharati Mukherjee. The younger generation of incredible writers, Junot Díaz, Edwidge Danticat, Loida Maritza Pérez, Jhumpa Lahiri—to mention a few, give me a great sense of affirmation that we, now the older writers, were not just “abriendo caminos” for ourselves but for a whole new generation of writers who are now allowed entry into that varied, multicultural chorus of American literature.
Camila is sexually conflicted and ultimately unfulfilled in love. And it’s so poignant: she seems to be willfully containing her capacity for love, as if on some level she’s determined to reserve it all for the one person she knows she’ll never be able to give it to—her mother. Camila’s repression, sexual and otherwise, contrasts markedly with the exhilarating passion for life shared by so many of the characters you’ve created. Was she a challenge to write?
You must have the hindsight equivalent of a crystal ball! Camila was a difficult character for me to enter. She was so private. She preferred to be anonymous. When urged to write a book or at the very least to collect her lectures together, she refused. “Enough writers in the family.” So, she was a woman of silences, a listener, which is a very difficult character to try to convey through words, through talk!
Then, too, she was a kind of chameleon, surviving by disappearing among the big egos and the dominant culture of the USA in which she chose to live as a withdrawn and quiet Spanish teacher in a small college in upstate New York. But was amazing to me, and what kept me trying to track her down was that this very unlikely woman made a very passionate and courageous choice late in life: she gave up her safety and status—her pension and power—and headed for Cuba in 1960 when so many others were heading out—to do the work that connected her ultimately with the mother she had lost and loved.
Has Camila found redemption, or at least a greater connection to her mother, through her work in Cuba?
Absolutely. Just last night I had an email from a Latin Americanist who specializes in women’s literature and has traveled widely in Cuba saying how well known and beloved Camila is in Cuba. Camila’s work in literacy and literature helped form and inform a whole generation. One of the halls at the University of Havana is named after her. I think she found her voice finally by giving voice, which is exactly what her mother did a century earlier in the Dominican Republic with her poems and her Instituto for girls.
As I enter solid middle age, Camila’s story is a great inspiration in another way: the idea that we can always change and expand; we can find our mission or other missions at later points in our lives. In a culture that reveres youth and the adventures of the young, these other stories are very important! I’ve always loved the title of that Grace Paley collection,Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.
Is Salomé Ureña still held up as a national heroine in today’s Dominican Republic? Is there a particular English-language edition of Salomé’s poems you would recommend we pick up?
Salomé Ureña is even more popular today than she was for a long period after her death when she was mostly remembered for a few of her patriotic poems, not her best in my opinion. The canon was predominantly male, and so these poems, considered “varonil,” i.e. masculine, and weighty, were the ones that were celebrated. The poems about her family, her feelings for Pancho, were considered “trivial,” and were often not even anthologized. (I’m reminded of the “compliment” shouted out at the ceremony when Salomé was awarded the national medal—an incident, by the way, which I learned about in Pedro’s diary—“What a man that woman is!”)
The publication of the EPISTOLARIO in 1996 brought the living, suffering woman into the national consciousness. Right after that publication there was a renaissance of writing about Salomé, including a play by my friend, Chiqui Vicioso, “Cartas a Una Ausencia,” which won a prestigious national prize, and has been presented at the Spanish Repertory Theatre in New York. There have also been poems, novels, critical papers published about Salomé in recent years.
Unfortunately, Salomé ‘s poems have yet to be adequately translated into English. In part, they are very difficult to transport from that 19th century rather ornate Spanish into our post-modern Anglo-Saxon English! Daisy Cocco de Filippis has translated a few poems into English and is planning to do a wider selection soon.
Some of my readers have asked why I didn’t translate more of Salomé’s poems myself in my novel. First, I lack skill as a translator (the “translations” in my novel are very loose imitations, more than actual transcriptions), and secondly, I wanted to write a novel about the woman, not a biography of the poet.
Readers should note that on page 356 of the Acknowledgements in the novel, I gave information on the various editions that have appeared of Salomé’s poems.
Among your writing peers, whose work do you admire and draw inspiration from?
As I said above, any writer who writes a fine novel or fine book is my teacher! Some have consistently been teaching me over the years of my writing life. I’m thinking of J.M. Coetzee and Russell Banks, of Maxine Hong Kingston and Toni Morrison, of Barbara Kingsolver and Louise Erdrich, of Michael Cunningham and Grace Paley. But then, some of my most valued teachers have been poets. They get me back down into the very heartbeat of words: I’m thinking of Anna Akhmatova and Pablo Neruda and Elizabeth Bishop (I guess they aren’t contemporaries, but when I love a writer, I take in their words and they rise up from the page and enter my imagination, living and breathing.) I also love the work of Wislawa Szymborska, Seamus Heaney, Jane Kenyon, among others.
What are you working on these days? What can we look forward to reading next?
Perhaps because of my recent work in the Dominican Republic with literacy with non-readers of all ages, a project which has forced me to read a lot of books for children, I’ve become very involved in books for young readers of all ages. I’ve just finished two books, one a picture book for children and another for young readers 8-12 years old. My current project is a sort of Anne Frank book set in this hemisphere in the last century: that is, a fictionalized account by a young girl in a dictatorship about the tragic and frightening experience of living through such a time in history. The novel for readers 12 and up will be dedicated to “those who stayed.” Yes, I feel that incredible debt I owe to the many Dominicans, who unlike my family, stayed through the dictatorship years and suffered heavy losses. Why haven’t these stories been told, I wonder. It is a gap/a silence in the literature in English: those stories that grew out of the dictatorships and police states the United States endorsed and in many cases set up. Perhaps because of this USA involvement, those stories have been slow to enter the mainstream and be heard and acknowledged.
So, here we go. As we say, as we take the next and the next step:
- Discuss the way Julia Alvarez’s narrative establishes a dual meaning of “home”: as a physical, concrete place on one hand, and as a metaphor for a state of mind on the other. How does Camila’s notion of home compare to her mother’s? To her brother Pedro’s?
- What are the connections between “home” and “freedom” in the particular emotional, political, and cultural realms of this novel? And how do these connections shift and even redefine themselves over time, from Salomé’s birth in 1850 to Camila’s death in 1973?
- The quest for stability, for a home in a world of perpetual change and enduring political upheaval is one of the guiding themes in In the Name of Salomé. The novel’s characters reflect on the nature of home repeatedly through the course of the novel. And for Pedro, Camila, and their siblings, this quest becomes life’s central concern, the omnipresent burden of their parents’ ambivalent legacy. “We are the new Israelites,” the poet Jorge Guillén remarks to Camila about her nomadic plight. “We die if we forget. We die if we remember.” Explain Jorge’s allusion.
- How do Camila’s relationships with her familial and culture heritages evolve over the course of her life, from childhood on?
- In what specific ways have Alvarez’s distinct renderings of Western history—both in In the Name of Salomé as well as in her previous works—come to inform, challenge, or even contradict altogether your previous understandings of the history of United States foreign policy, particularly regarding Caribbean nations?
- What role does faith play in shaping the paths taken by Salomé and Camila? What does it mean, and what does it cost, to have faith in this novel?
- Take another look at “La llegada del invierno,” Salomé’s seventh chapter, which recounts the tumultuous night when Camila was presumably conceived. Discuss the metaphors (tuberculosis?) and the dark ironies, both personal and political, which seem to be at work in this chapter.
- “What a man that woman is!” an unnamed Dominican says of Salomé at one point in the novel. Alvarez vividly depicts the overwhelming “cultura machista” and the deep-seated racial bigotry of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Dominican society—in which the education of girls, particularly dark-skinned girls, was strongly discouraged—and by doing so, she emphasizes how very astonishing and revolutionary Salomé’s achievements were, given her environment. That said, Alvarez also complicates such an optimistic reading. After all, does Salomé ever wholly transcend her marginalized status as a woman? Consider Alvarez’s novel through the lens of gender: What specific examples can we cite from the novel to either refute or support the argument that women in this novel, in the end, come out on the losing end in their struggle against the strictures of men?
- “Deceiver, egotist, philanderer, liar, ‘sin vergüenza’, good for nothing, but I was still in love with him.” At different points in the novel, Pancho Henríquez rewrites Salomé’s poems, discourages and even censors all of her “feminine” or non-patriotic poems, and commissions a posthumous portrait of her that essentially erases her color and cultural identity. And of course, he presumes Salomé’s fidelity even as he betrays her in Paris. How does he justify his actions? What were your initial reactions to Pancho, and how did they change over the course of the novel?
- Unpack the layers of meaning behind Pedro’s diagnosis that his mother’s death was the result of “moral asphyxiation.”
- How does Alvarez’s deliberate, symmetrical narrative structure reinforce the tone and echo the central themes of In the Name of Salomé? What is the effect, for instance, of Alvarez’s decision to chart Salomé’s life from birth to death and Camila’s in reverse, from death to birth? Discuss also the significance of the chapter’s titles.
- “I was with child. I was dying of consumption.” Here, in Salomé’s final chapter, “Luz,” Alvarez illuminates the novel’s numerous collisions of paradoxical realities: of regeneration in the midst of stagnation, of love in the face of insidious betrayal, of faith coexisting with resignation, and especially, of Camila’s impending birth exacerbating Salomé’s imminent death. How do these opposing pairs resolve themselves in Alvarez’s quietly distilled Epilogue, “Arriving Santo Domingo”?
- Salomé is filled with the gift of clairvoyance on the turbulent night of Camila’s conception. What does she see ahead? And do Camila’s chapters prove the truth of these visions? Explain.
- Compare In the Name of Salomé to other historical novels you’ve read recently that are also built around real-life figures (e.g.: Darin Strauss’s Chang and Eng, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Rose Tremain’s Music & Silence, and so on). How does Alvarez’s novel—as simultaneously sweeping and intimate as it is—complement, complicate, and/or depart from the standard themes and trappings of the historical fiction genre?
- Imagine a companion volume to In the Name of Salomé: this one recounts essentially the same events as the original, but it is told in Pancho’s voice instead of Salomé’s, and follows Pedro’s life instead of Camila’s. How would this alternate novel be different in terms of perspective, language, and overall tone?
- What did you know about Salomé Ureña before reading Alvarez’s novel? About the history of the Dominican Republic? What surprised you most as you read?
- Consider In the Name of Salomé alongside Alvarez’s previous novels and poems, particularly In the Time of the Butterflies and The Other Side / El Otro Lado. What ideas, themes, metaphors, and/or recurrent imagery introduced by Alvarez in earlier works are echoed and further developed in this latest novel? And by contrast, in what ways can we read In the Name of Salomé as a departure, whether structurally, stylistically, or thematically?
- What were your feelings about Camila at different points in the novel? Would you say she’s been released from her sadness and fear in the Epilogue? Has she found her voice and realized her dream for the future, of “becoming Salomé Camila”? Is it accurate to say that Camila’s closeted-ness and repression affects much more than her sexuality alone? What else is Camila afraid of? By whom might she feel hemmed in?
- What significance can we take from the fact that Alvarez gives Camila a first-person voice in the Epilogue?
- In the year of her death, what has Camila apparently achieved or discovered about herself during her time in Cuba that gives her the strength to no longer hide, whether literally or figuratively—and to finally claim for herself, if only on a headstone, the name her mother gave her, and the name that has dwarfed her since girlhood, Salomé Camila?
- Discuss the bittersweet tone—the mixture of death and hope, tragedy and redemption, regret and contentment—underlying the final image in Alvarez’s novel, in which Camila uses the letters on her headstone to teach a young Dominican boy (pointedly named Duarte) how to read.
- In this final moment of In the Name of Salomé, what do you imagine Camila might have said in answer to the question her mother posed as a girl—“Father, what is a patria?”