A long time ago, before blogging was invented, I was talked into doing a website. I was spending far too much of my time, and so was my agent, answering the same questions from readers and correcting fictions that had spread about my life (that I was born in the Dominican Republic, that I had a Ph.D. from Harvard). Being a novelist, I didn't mind. But certain members of my family and certain gatekeepers of facts objected. A website seemed a convenient place to park the truth about myself.
But in setting up the website, I wanted to add a little salsita, a dash of spice. So, after my webmistress (I love having a mistress!), Sienna Potts, set up the usual pages: BIO, PUBLICATIONS, APPEARANCES, NEWS, I suggested we offer my web visitors a ñapa. "A what?" she wanted to know. I explained that in Dominican Spanish a ñapa is that little extra thrown in after you've gotten your portion. In English, I guess you'd say "a baker's dozen," but ñapa has a more friendly feel to it. The world, the word suggests, is a generous place. There's always a little bit more if you ask nicely.
On that ñapa page, I told my readers about any fancy that came into my head. Maybe something that had happened that day, maybe some insight on a topic, a poem, and so on. That's a blog, I was later told. Actually, since I didn't change my entry sometimes for months, my ñapa was a slog, a blog that you only infrequently refresh with a new entry.
But now I am an official blogger for five days at Powell's. Every day you will get a fresh blog entry, promise. And since I'm on tour with my new nonfiction book, A Wedding in Haiti: The Story of a Friendship, I thought I'd share a few of the little back stories that went into writing this book.
One of the things people want to know about a new book is what inspired it. Every book is different, and inspiration can come from the most unusual places.
My novel, Saving the World, was inspired by a footnote in a history book I was reading as research for my previous novel, In the Name of Salomé. It was a brief mention of an expedition that went around the world in 1804 with 22 boys taken from an orphanage to serve as "carriers" for the newly discovered smallpox vaccine. Whoa! I almost abandoned ship on Salomé to follow this intriguing story
A Wedding in Haiti did not start out as a book idea.One of the things I always do when I travel is keep a journal. I find I get easily lost when I'm not following my practice of writing, when I'm unstrung from my rituals, from the rhythms of my day. I need the string of narrative to find my way through the labyrinth of experience. So when I went on this trip to Haiti to attend the wedding of my young friend, Piti, I kept my usual travel journal. And I really needed it on this trip. I was venturing into "enemy territory" (the Dominican Republic and Haiti have had a troubled history); I was feeling profoundly moved by the connections we were making, and transformed by what I was seeing. Keeping a journal helped me to understand and "digest" what was happening to me.
Six months after that first trip, Haiti suffered its devastating earthquake. The casualties were overwhelming: 300,000 dead, the same number injured, over a million homeless. I wanted to be with Haiti, to walk with Haiti, to feel with Haiti. And for me solidarity begins with one person at a time, one friendship at a time, one story at a time. So I took down the journal I had kept on the trip and read it over. I realized I had a small, hopeful tale to tell. "After the final no, there comes a yes," Wallace Stevens writes in "A Well Dressed Man With A Beard," "And on that yes the future world depends."
So that is how the book began: as the scribblings in a journal during a journey. But many things happened on the way to turning this journal into a book, including a second post-earthquake trip to Haiti with Piti and his new family.
Anyhow, I'm over my blog-dread. I have crossed my Rubicon into the future and become a real life blogger with a ñapa attitude!
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Books mentioned in this post
Julia Alvarez is the author of A Wedding in Haiti