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Vermont's Big Three

02/18/02 12:00AM

Who is Vermont's leading adult fiction author? Let's define leading as most renowned, most acclaimed, most internationally known and respected.

And you can't count Annie Proulx. We had our moment of reflected glory, but she's been gone so long we can't honestly call her a Vermonter.

So here's my answer: three writers share the glory spot, the top step on the podium. All three are women. None are native to Vermont. And two are from islands in the Caribbean. The third is from closer, geographically, but so distant in most other ways, it might as well be a tropical island.

My picks for Vermont's leading adult fiction author are: Jamaica Kincaid from Antigua, Julia Alvarez from the Dominican Republic, and Grace Paley from de Bronx.

Jamaica Kincaid is the darkest of the three, and I don't mean skin color. Many of her characters are without illusion, without mirth, without optimism. Here's how the title character of LUCY describes herself: I did not have position, I did not have money at my disposal. I had memory, I had anger, I had despair.

Julia Alvarez paints from a broader emotional palette. Her characters fight and moan and despair, but they also love and laugh and meet life head-on. In her novel, YO, here's how Yo's mother describes her American experience: To tell you the truth, the hardest thing coming to this country wasn't the winter everyone warned me about it was the language. If you had to choose the most tongue-twisting way of saying you love somebody, then say it in English. For the longest time I thought Americans must be smarter than us Latins because how else could they speak such a difficult language. After a while, it struck me the other way. Given the choice of languages, only a fool would choose to speak English on purpose.

And here, in a story called THE LOUDEST VOICE, Grace Paley's young lead character describes her voice and her surroundings: There is a certain place where dumb-waiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother s mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest.

So what does it say about them that these three star writers chose to live in Vermont, far from palm trees and loud city streets? To me it says that they were bold enough, ruthless enough, curious enough to leave family and the familiar to create a new life for themselves. That boldness is brilliantly reflected in their writing.

And what does it say about Vermont? To me it says several things. That, despite our cold climate, we are a desirable resting place for writers. That we accept the unusual, the different, the creative, and make them feel something approximating at home. It says that we appreciate accomplishment but give the accomplisher enough room to go to the store and grow her garden in peace.

Our reward is living next door to some of the world's finest writers.

This is Jules Older in Albany, Vermont, the Soul of the Kingdom.

--Jules Older is the author of more than 20 books for children and adults and is a passionate outdoors enthusiast. You can reach him at older@vpr.net.

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