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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz is considered one of the most important voices in contemporary fiction. His best-known work is his novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Diaz first got attention 20 years ago for a series of heart-breaking short stories. The tales capture the painful, violent, and sometimes beautiful realities of a fragmented family. Like Diaz himself, the characters are from the Dominican Republic, struggling to make their way in New York and New Jersey in the 1980s. For this month’s Readers’ Review, Diane Rehm and a panel of guests take a look back at the story collection “Drown.”
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Pulitzer Prizewinning author, Junot Diaz' debut collection of fiction appeared 20 years ago. The stories are often a critical look at his own Dominican immigrant culture, laying bare the realities of child abuse, sexuality and addiction. Joining me to talk about "Drown" for this months' Reader's Review, Ricardo Ortiz from Georgetown University, book critic and journalist Marcela Valdes and author and poet, E. Ethelbert Miller.
MS. DIANE REHMI do invite you to join us, 800-433-8850. Send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you.
MS. MARCELA VALDESThank you.
MR. RICARDO ORTIZNice to be here.
MR. E. ETHELBERT MILLERThank you, Diane.
REHMRicardo Ortiz, these are not easy stories. I know you've taught this book, "Drown," in your class for years. Tell us about them.
ORTIZWell, the stories are, as you've described them, difficult and challenging and in some ways, upsetting. They're also gems. They're also really beautiful composed, effective, evocative representations of the slice of American immigrant Latino life that Junot wants us to -- that Diaz wants us to encounter with him and encounter through his perspective and encountered through the minds of the -- and the hearts of the characters that he's invented and that he's elaborated as well as he has and as subtly as he has through these stories.
ORTIZStudents really respond extraordinarily, profoundly well to these stories. I hear from many students and I hear anecdotes from people who have read his stories and met him in the world, that they're grateful for the fact that he's actually sort of represented people like them and experiences like theirs across these remarkable works of fiction. They are works of fiction so that's always sort of on the table. But no, I think that there was a kind of gap in the representation of American reality.
ORTIZThat there wasn't really yet this kind of representation of the lives of this kind of marginalized and vulnerable population and especially the part of young men of color, young immigrant men of color going through the kinds of experiences that most of his main characters do and encountering a world that's deeply patriarchal and yet deeply hostile to them and that, you know, enlist them in some ways in a deeper sort of power structure and hostility toward the women and the female characters, the girls, the young girls that inhabit these stories as well.
REHMExactly. Marcela Valdes, how did you read and feel and experience these stories?
VALDESI was in college when one of the stories in the book, "How To Date A Brown Girl," came out in The New Yorker. That was where I first encountered Diaz' writing and to me, it was like a kick in the teeth. I mean, it was really this incredibly powerful story, kind of brutal, as you say, definitely disturbing, but also masterfully written and really heartbreaking and poignant. It totally blew me away. I finished that story thinking I have to read whatever else this person has written.
VALDESAnd certainly, you know, not that long afterwards, this collection of stories came out and that's when I read it.
REHMAnd for you, Ethelbert Miller?
MILLERWell, this book takes you beyond the news headlines. We know that immigration's a very important topic. To me, this gives a face to the people. You know, when you read about how someone comes to this country, you know, not knowing the language, not having any money and actually experiencing that, you know, when you're coming to Miami, coming to New York. That's very, very important. Many of us now, I have -- what I say, breathe two ears, you know, an ear in this country and an ear in another country.
MILLERWe relate to two levels of gravity, you know, being pulled two different ways. And this is where I look at the odds and I have a lot of respect for him, the same why I have a lot of respect for Edwidge Danticat and what she's done for the Haitian community. For me, I grew up close to the Puerto Rican community so when I looked at some of the Nuyoricans, you know, Miguel Algarin, Pedro Pietri, you know, these are the writers, I saw what they were dealing with.
ORTIZAnd I respected them very much because it's very difficult to tell true stories.
REHMUp until now, many people encountering a different kind of presentation of, say, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Hispanic, have been given the joy, the happiness of family life, the intertwining of lives and family. This is very different.
MILLERIt is very different. I think one of the things that you're sort of describing here is what we call, in literary, critical circles, right, the burden of representation, right? The burden of being true, but also sort of honorable to your community when you represent them in your work, but that can sometimes sort of, you know, tilt toward only doing kind of, you know, cheerleading and positive representations and not really getting the fuller and the deeper and the more complex picture, right?
MILLERAnd so there are different ways to honor your community. There are different ways to honor their past and their history and their experience and both their accomplishments, but also their suffering, their oppression and also the ways that that suffering, that that impression can lead to behaviors that aren't honorable and that aren't admirable and that absolutely tells you something about the more profound and exact reality that they're living in.
VALDESYeah, I would just like to add to that, one of the things that really helped me understand what Diaz was doing was an interview he did, I believe it was with the Black Issues Book Review, in which he talked about one of the biggest influences on his writing was Toni Morrison. And the thing that he said that affected him about Toni Morrison was that he felt that she was writing for the African American community, not for anyone else.
VALDESAnd when you write for your family, when the doors are closed, you say different things than when you are carrying the burden of representation as Ricardo says. And so I feel like that's part of what made this collection so powerful. He talks a lot about -- in interviews that he gave around the time this book was published about the love he feels for his community. But it's a really scorching love. It's a love that a lot of people would be happy not to feel, I think.
REHMYeah, that's an interesting way to put it, Ethelbert.
MILLERYeah, and I think the other thing we have to give Diaz credit for, and we see this evolution, we don't read the words in Spanish in italics. I think that's very, very important. You know, sometimes you have an editor and then you have a publishing company that doesn't want you to use the Spanish at all. But I felt this was coming after what I saw, at least, along the Puerto Rican community, the Spanglish, you know, where what all of a sudden would happen, you're speaking English and then you go into your Spanish and back and forth.
MILLERBut now, if you're putting something on the text, certain words don't have to be in English, you know, the same way we're teaching, you know, some of other literature, if we don't understand a word, we look it up, you know. And as Americans now, you know, the same way we're -- his hummus and his, you know, enchilada, here if you can identify all of the food groups, identify all the words on the page.
REHMEthelbert, tells us about Yunior.
MILLERWell, you know, Yunior, when I looked in the first story where we -- what I find interesting is when a story about a father is told by the youngest child, okay, because that makes a big difference. You know, it's not from a male, it's not from his brother. It's from the youngest because we see the father differently. And that was why I felt it was very important. Also what happens in between the father and the young one is a brother. So you begin to become -- to ask yourself, okay, if I'm Yunior, to what extent am I like my father and different from my father?
MILLERAnd that's why when you deal with the naming, you know, I was very much aware I was naming my children after myself.
REHMYeah, my husband felt the same way. Absolutely. Go ahead, Ricardo.
ORTIZSure. No, this is one of those moments when I'm sort of grateful that I forgot to have children. But so, yeah, the Yunior name is really important, right? And I think it's one of the ways to see just how subtly Diaz is sort of constructing the world, that Yunior, in a sense, is kind of an anchor for, right? So Yunior doesn't name him. It's a name you give to a son who's been named after his father.
ORTIZAnd here it's Yunior with a Y, which I guess is sort of the way it would be pronounced in a particular kind of Spanish, but it's -- it just means that Yunior is always sort of marked by what I call his Yuniority, right, as opposed to his seniority. We know his name must be Ramon because in the last story, "Negocios," right, we -- he names father, and in naming his father, he names himself.
REHMHimself, of course.
ORTIZRight. And then, he also sort of breaks that naming in that sort of patrilineal line because Ramon De Las Casas, Sr. has a different family with another woman in the states when he comes and they have a son together and they name that son, Ramon as well. So that sort of splitting, which we finally discover at the end of "Negocios," really at the end of this collection is a very strange sort of place for that sense of, like, what can we assume about patriarchy, what can we assume about the authority of the father and that inheritance of the son is really kind of just displayed in a beautifully ambiguous and complicated way.
REHMRicardo Ortiz, he's associate professor of U.S. Latino literature and culture, chair of the Department of English at Georgetown University. Marcela Valdes is a journalist specializing in Latin American and Latino literature, E. Ethelbert Miller is author and poet. Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back, we're talking this month for our readers' review about Junot Diaz' book of short stories. It's titled "Drown." And many, if not all, of them first appeared in The New Yorker and in other publications. Just before the break we were talking about Yunior and I'm just wondering about his relationship, Ethelbert, to his father. His father is absent from his early life. Later on he abuses Yunior. I mean, what kind...
MILLERWell, there's a reference in one of the stores about how the mother keeps a picture of his father in a plastic bag under the bed. And let's look into that very closely. You put things in plastic bags that are sometimes leftovers, okay, but sometimes considering the situation in terms of weather, you might something in plastic to prevent it from being destroyed. But then I also grew up with that generation of young women who had these little secret diaries that they put under their bed, you know, and if you discovered it with a little lock, you'd say, ooh, you were in love with somebody.
MILLERAnd so there was always those secrets, you know, that I find a son discovers. You know, I always tell people, you know, I grew up in my house, I was the kid who would always take the cookies, but my mother hid the cookies in her bedroom. And so I discovered the bra. I didn't even know what a bra was. I was looking for cookies, you know. And all of a sudden were these secrets. And I find how the person discovers about their father in this little plastic bag that the mother's keeping the picture, that's very interesting because it shows a sense of closeness, a sense of intimacy, but then it's also something that's hidden, okay.
MILLERAnd we wonder what is the mother hiding from the son.
REHMWhat is the mother hiding?
ORTIZWell, she's hiding a lot. And I have to say that in terms of the way that the family sort of operates and the way the family sort of survives in these stories, the moment of break, right, the moment of departure, the moment of disappearance of the father for the many years that he goes to the U.S., that he comes to North America, and that the family has to live without him, right, and...
REHMAnd how they manage.
ORTIZYes, and that's what "Aguantando," which is the title of one of the stories, means in Spanish. It means to hang on. It means to manage, right. And so this -- the early stories, the chronologically early stories that take place in the DR are mostly in the absence of the father, and then the beautiful, long story at the end, "Negocios," is mostly his experience, the father's experience in the U.S. without that first family, without his sort of, I guess his real family, right, that he leaves behind in the Dominican Republic.
ORTIZAnd, you know, for me as an immigrant myself and knowing how the moment of break, the moment of departure and the moment of arrival, this sense of negotiating again a new reality and a new world, just does a really, a really serious number on the family, even if the family comes over intact. But if it doesn't, it's even more challenging, and that puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on both parents but differently on the father than the mother, and I think that's something you get in these stories all the way through.
REHMMarcela, read for us, if you would, from this first story, "Israel," starting at the bottom of Page 3, and if you can set this up for us.
VALDESSure, so this is the first story in the collection. It's the first time that we meet Yunior and his mother and his brother Rafa. They are out in the countryside. We find out later on in the book that they get sent out to their tios in the countryside when their mother is really low on cash.
VALDESYeah, the tios, the uncles or the -- or when they're on summer break. So it says here, mommy shipped me and Rafa out to the campo every summer. She worked long hours at the chocolate factory and didn't have the time or the energy to look after us during the months school was out. Rafa and I stayed with our tios in a small, wooden house just outside Ocoa. Rose bushes blazed around the yard like compass points, and the mango trees spread out deep blankets of shade where we could rest and play dominos.
VALDESBut the campo was nothing like our barrio in Santo Domingo. In the campo there was nothing to do, no one to see. You didn't get television or electricity, and Rafa, who was older and expected more, woke up every morning pissy and dissatisfied. He looked out on the patio in his shorts -- sorry, he stood out on the patio in his shorts and looked out over the mountains at the mist that gathered like water, at the brucal trees that blazed like fires on the mountain. This, he said, is -- there's a piece of profanity there.
REHMNothing to do for young people.
VALDESNo, and I...
REHMJust boring, devastating.
VALDESAnd I love that tension between the profane word that we won't say and the sort of lyrical passage that comes before that.
VALDESThis is something that really impressed me when I first read.
REHMIt sort of hits you that way.
VALDESIt hits you. He's balancing a kind of lyricism with a kind of brutal grittiness. And the fact that he's deploying both gives him this tremendous emotional range throughout the book. If there was only the lyricism, we would get closer to the sort of immigration Disney story of noble hardship and survival, and we come here. And if it was only the grittiness, then we'd get something closer to street lit, right.
VALDESAnd it's the combination of those two modes of writing and thinking and feeling that make this a great book.
MILLERYeah, and I think in this story, and I'll just throw this out, I think Israel becomes the Dominican Republic. I think that when we look at Israel, he suffers a deformity from a chews off his face. So he's suffering from poverty. What I find interesting is that, you know, when Junior and his brother, you know, running around and dealing with him, Israel wants to be a wrestler, he wants to be strong, okay.
MILLERHe also feels that if he can go to North America, he'll have his face fixed. His clothes are from North America. The kite that he's playing with is from North America. He represents that. What happens is that when we look at what happens before, okay, he is deformed by poverty. His face gets chewed off. His father, look at this father, hiding the face, hoping that maybe there'll be enough money, and they'll be able to fix it if he leave the Dominican Republic and goes where, North America.
REHMAnd he wears a mark.
REHMSo that he will be hidden from those around him.
ORTIZYes, and so "Ysrael" is the name of the homeland, of a promised land. And so it's about a sort of bare, kind of, you know, symbolic gesture, as Diaz makes in these stories. But it's absolutely -- it's pivotal to everything else that he wants to do. There is a kind of allegorical sort of strain that runs through these stories. And then Israel kind of weirdly shows up again, not just in the story "No Face" but in "Oscar Wao." There are actually these very mysterious references to a man with no face there, as well.
ORTIZ"Ysrael" also weirdly foreshadows something about the further sort of fascination with superheroes and comic books that we get in "Oscar Wao," right, because the mask is a mask that his father forces him to wear to hide his mutilated face, but it's also something that allows him to imagine that he's like all the sort of famous, iconic wrestlers in Latin American culture, where there is a fascination with this kind of figure, right. But it's also a way to be a superhero because it's a superhero who's masked, and...
REHMBut even with the mask he is tormented by those around him of his own age, Marcela.
VALDESYeah, there's another interview that Junot Diaz did in which he talked about we picked on our weak. He was talking about Dominican culture. And for me this is one of the things that I love about his writing is the way that he shows how this kind of machista culture, where you pick on your weak, hurts not only the weak but hurts the bullies, too. I mean, Yunior is someone we see as a child, who is young, whose older brother tells him -- at one point they ride a bus, and a man pretends to be helping him and then starts pinching his genitalia, right.
VALDESAnd Junior threatens to expose the man, and the man grabs his bicep and pinches it so hard that, you know, it startles him. And then when he gets off the bus with his brother, who has seen none of this, he doesn't tell his brother what has happened, but he starts crying, and his brother says to him when are you going to stop crying. Do you think our daddy is crying, our poppy is crying in America? You know, the implication is be a man, grow up, you're nine now, it's time to be a man.
VALDESAnd I feel like there's -- we see what kind of man Yunior turns into. There's so much of this pressure cooker on the weak who get picked on and also on the bullies.
REHMWe have titled this program "A Reader's Review," so not only are the three guests here in the studio our reviewers, our readers, but also we welcome our callers. Let's open the phones and go to Cincinnati, Ohio. Kyle, you're on the air.
KYLEHi Diane, thank you so much for taking my call.
KYLELove the show. I just wanted to say, you touched on it earlier, but the lyricism and the romanticism that Junot Diaz is able to bring into these really bleak, urban environments I think blends an incredible amount of (word?) the books and brings us into it. It enables me within, you know, (word?) scenarios to see and be around it, and I think that's his gift as an author.
ORTIZAgreed, agreed. It's one of his many gifts. I think it's one that certainly colors these early stories. You know, in some ways the lyricism here is a little bit more pronounced because the stories are sort of more modest, and they're quieter in their delivery in terms of the way that the narrative voice works. I think we get a much more active and kind of almost intrusive Yunior in "Oscar Wao" and in the later collection "This is How You Lose Her."
ORTIZSo there's something special about "Drown" because these -- in this stories, I think those moments of just utter beauty, there are so many breathtaking short sentences across these stories.
MILLERAnd that's why you go back. If you lay claim to Toni Morrison and say she's an influence of you, it means that, you know, when you read a Toni Morrison book, and I say this as a poet, there's always that tendency of stopping in a line and reading it two and three times, you know, because it is -- it pulls you in. You know, it's poetry. And I -- when I read "Drown," you know, I'm reading 10 short stories with a pen, and I'm underlining it because there are these lines where, you know, it's just this beauty.
MILLERI really want to mention something else in terms of -- that doesn't get lost here. There are a number of things in this book, which are very marginal but are very important, how he makes reference to the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic, '65, the references to Haitians, very subtle, the references to Puerto Ricans, very subtle, and then one I like is they're up in the States, and they're still young kids, and yeah, we can go out and play baseball, like we play baseball because you know what I'm saying, like we really don't want to play baseball, but, you know, we're from the Dominican Republic, we know how to play.
REHMSo we play baseball.
MILLERAnd there's just one little line in there, and I see yeah, you know, we'll go out and play baseball with these kids.
REHMEthelbert, I want you to read that poem for us.
MILLERAnd this is, you know, many times when we read a book, we go past -- or even a poem, we go past the epigraph and things of this sort. And we were talking about Cuban-American literature, and this Gustavo Firmat, Cuban-American writer, this is what shapes this book, I feel. The fact that I am writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you, my subject, how to explain to you that I don't belong to English, though I belong nowhere else. You know, that says it all, right here. And, you know, then we get into the stories.
REHMAnd then we get into the stories. How does this poor child lose his face, Marcela?
VALDESWhen he was a baby, while he was asleep, a pig came and began to eat his face.
REHMA wild pig?
VALDESWell I don't think it specifies whether or not it's a wild pig.
ORTIZI don't think it does, but I think it could just be a pig who was...
REHMAn ordinary pig.
VALDESI mean, we're in the campo, it's the kind of, you know, countryside.
REHMAnd the baby is on the ground?
ORTIZIt seems that way, yeah, yeah.
VALDESAnd the pig is probably pretty hungry if it's going to be eating a baby, right. So this is probably not a very well-fed pig. There's a lot of references to hunger of different kinds in the book. There's at one point, when he talks about their poverty, their mother says to Junior and his brother, well, at least you're not living with the Haitians because then you'd be eating rocks, right, instead of -- and Junior's thinking about that is we weren't eating rocks, but we weren't eating meat, either, because we didn't have enough money for that.
VALDESAnd there's later on, in a different story, where Yunior is not in, there's a woman, a girl who looks at a boy eating a hamburger from a fast food joint, and she says, why don't you give me a piece of that. And he says because I'm hungry.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. When you think also, I'm stuck on Yunior, his homosexuality, he has to deal with that, as well.
ORTIZHe does, he does. So it's a really interesting thing about that story. So you're talking primarily about "Drown," right, the title story. Marcela and I were talking about this a little bit before we started, and this is something that comes up when I teach these stories because these are the kinds of details that matter to students, to young people, right.
ORTIZSo they're fascinated by the two homosexual encounters that happen in the "Drown" story between the narrator and his best friend Beto, right. And it seems, because of the sort of the context of all the stories, that this narrator must be Yunior, but he is actually never named as Yunior in this story. So there's a kind of productive ambiguity there about who this actually is.
ORTIZI think it's safe to say that it could be Yunior, it might be Yunior, it might as well be Yunior. So the fact that in the title story Diaz gives us these really fascinating, amazing moments of an intimacy you're not expecting I think does sort of ground a lot of the other sort of forms of patriarchal attachment and patriarchal violence that you get in all the other stories because it's such an oasis of something different and something differently intimate and really moving and really beautiful in this story.
REHMI think there was something you wanted to read from Page 106, after the line break that begins, I believe I see him in his father's bottomed-out Cadillac.
ORTIZYes, so this is about a page and a half, and I'll start by saying that this is the final sort of passage in the story. It's a couple years after the encounters between the two young men. Beto has gone on to college, and Yunior is still in the neighborhood. It's Yunior's mother who tells Yunior, we'll call him Yunior, that Beto is back in the neighborhood, and they should probably find each other, and Yunior is just too conflicted because of what happened two years before. This is a moment where he's basically coming back home and sitting with his mother.
ORTIZ"I believe I see him," this is Beto who he thinks he sees, "I believe I see him in his father's bottomed-out Cadillac heading towards the turnpike, but I can't be sure. He's probably back in school already. I deal close to home, trooping up and down the same dead-end street where the kids drink and smoke. These punks joke with me, pat me down for tabs, sometimes too hard. Now that strip malls line Route 9, a lot of folks have part-time jobs. The kids stand around smoking in their aprons, nametags dangling heavily from pockets.
ORTIZWhen I get home, my sneakers are filthy. So I take an old toothbrush to their soles, scraping the crap -- the crap, sorry, into the tub. My mother has thrown open the windows and propped open the door."
REHMAll right, and we'll have to read the rest of it after we come back from a short break. Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. For this month's Readers' Review as we speak of Junot Diaz's book of short stories, which in many ways are interlinked. The title of the book, the title story is "Drown." And you, Ricardo, were reading for us from that story.
ORTIZOkay. So we'll start again with, Yunior and his mom at home together. "My mother has thrown open the windows and propped open the door. 'It's cool enough,' she explains. She's prepared dinner, rice and beans, fried cheese, tostones. 'Look what I bought,' she says, showing me two blue t-shirts. 'They were two for one, so I bought you one. Try it on.' It fits tight, but I don't mind. She cranks up the television, a movie dubbed into Spanish, a classic, one that everyone knows.
ORTIZThe actors throw themselves around, passionate, but the words are plain and deliberate. It's hard to imagine anybody going through life this way. I pull out the plug of bills from my pockets. She takes it from me, her fingers soothing the creases. 'A man who treats his plata like this doesn't deserve to spend it,' she says.
ORTIZWe watch the movie and the two hours together makes us friendly. She puts her hand on mine. Near the end of the film, just as our heroes are about to fall apart under a hail of bullets, she takes off her glasses and kneads her temples, the light of the television flickering across her face. She watches another minute and then her chin lists to her chest.
ORTIZAlmost immediately her eyelashes begin to tremble, a quite semaphore. She's dreaming, dreaming of Boca Raton, of strolling under the jacarandas with my father. You can't be anywhere forever, was what Beto used to say. What he said to me the day I went to see him off. He handed me a gift, a book. And after he was gone, I threw it away. Didn't even bother to open it and read what he'd written."
REHMWow. Marcela, the image of his mother at once tender, so weary, so somehow beaten down.
VALDESSo many of the women in these stories are weary and beaten down, just exhausted from surviving, not just poverty, but surviving the men in their lives, really. I mean, we don't know exactly who this mother is because the narrator is unnamed. But we do see earlier in that story, the son coming in. He sees her talking to the estranged father, who's in Boca Raton. And he takes the phone out of her hands and he says, "That's enough," and he hangs it up. I mean there's just this kind of level of kind of control and domineering that sons exert on their mothers when they get older.
REHMAnd husbands exert on their mothers.
VALDESYeah, and on their wives.
REHMOn their wives.
VALDESAnd the way they treat girlfriends. I mean, there's not a single happy, romantic relationship in this entire book.
MILLERBut I think there's something that happens when a writer, a successful writer dedicates a book. He dedicates this book to his mother. So I think when you do that, you know, you're summing up all these stories. You're writing from a center, you know. I mean, it's not dedicated to, you know, his aunt, uncle. It's not dedicated to -- it's dedicated to his mother. And I think when you see that, you know, and I'm glad it is in Spanish, "para mi madre, Virtudes Diaz."
MILLERIt's in Spanish. And this is, I think, something very personal. This is where you leave your fingerprint on your collection. And if somebody bypasses the fingerprints, well, they bypass the fingerprints, but the fingerprints are here.
ORTIZYeah, so I would say that -- I wanna sort of build on what Ethelbert just said and actually one observation that Marcela just made as well. I do think that in some ways "Drown" is a valentine to the immigrant mother. And that she's here. And that if you look at sort of these moments, like the one that I just read, there are beautiful moments in the "Fiesta, 1980" story and in "Aguantando" and even in "Negocios," where we do get a sense of whether Yunior's mother or a version of her, of the kind of immigrant mother that we get much more spectacularly portrayed in Oscar Wilde.
ORTIZBut here she's just starting to immerge. And I think that there's a love for her here that I felt really deeply this last time re-reading these stories over the weekend. I also wanna say something about love in general and romantic love. Because that's another sort of casualty of the immigrant experience and everything that we see here. And for me, the story that tries desperately to be a love story and knowingly, intentionally fails because it just can't get there is "Aurora."
ORTIZWhich is, for me, almost -- it's another standout story in this collection. You know, the whole sort of premise of a crack dealer and his underage girlfriend trying to imagine a life together while they're squatting in empty rooms in unrented apartments across north Jersey. There are moments of stunning, stunning beauty in that story, as well.
REHMHere's a tweet from Hannah, who says, "Diaz's portrayal of Dominican masculinity is poignant and terrifying. What has been the impact of turning a mirror to gender norms in the Dominican Republic?" How would you respond, Marcela?
VALDESYou know, I have to say I'm not really certain. I -- it's hard for me to think of -- as much as we like to think as books being novels and fiction being transformative, I think it tends to be transformative more in an individual level, than necessarily as a community. And I haven't done enough research in the reaction in the Dominican Republic to his writing.
VALDESI can tell you that many people, like me and Ricardo, who have loved the books, I mean, embrace the court of criticism and the real indictment, in some ways, of the way a culture treats its women. I mean it's not just one bad character here or one bad character there. I mean, it's really a sort of a cultural indictment. But as far as the communities' reaction in the Dominican Republic to the book, I'm not certain. Maybe Ricardo knows.
ORTIZI actually don't have an official answer to this question either. But in terms of just watching my students respond…
ORTIZ…to what we're talking about, and, again, just hearing a lot of sort of anecdotal stories over the course of many, many years now, it is one of the points of sort of, yeah, intense sort of complexity and debate about his work and about the kinds of representations that he gives us. But I just don't imagine anybody but a kind of committed feminist being able to sort of display the brutality of patriarchy and it's -- and the violence that it enacts toward women the way that he's consistently done across all three of his major works.
MILLERWell, I think this is where you have to ask yourself what type of writer you're going to be. You know, I think that what happens, if you're going to depict reality, that's what you do. You know, we're not -- you're not gonna change a country's behavior. At the same time, this is 2016 where we're engaged in these issues, you know. And this is where, if you're in the classroom, this is how you teach literature. To me, this is a book definitely for high school kids coming of age.
MILLERYou know, you need to deal with the whole thing, in terms of masculinity.
REHMBut in the midst of debate in this country over immigration and what the immigrant population does, how it acts, how it behaves, how do these stories resonate with people not familiar with this kind of behavior.
ORTIZI -- well, I would say that my hope would be that everyone is first sort of taken aback by just the gorgeousness of the art, of the stories, the brilliance of the artistry. And you go with that. And then everything else becomes I think a question of just acknowledging that no one is better than anyone else and no one is worse than anyone else.
ORTIZThat this is our humanity in all of its -- with all of its flaws and all of its accomplishments, all of its beauty. And it's sort of just like yours. It's certainly no better and no worse.
REHMDown side, Marcela?
VALDESOne of the things that striking about the book is the way that it shows the difficulties of being a immigrant in the United States. I mean, in the final story we see this father, and in some ways you earn sympathy for the devil. Right? There's this father, you see him working jobs, two eight-hour shifts, back to back…
VALDES…with the four-hour break in between. You see him pulling 19, 20-hour days. You see him walking, I think it was 380 miles from Virginia to New York to save money so he wouldn't be homeless in New York. I mean we see the just acid experience of being -- trying to make it in the United States when you have no one.
VALDESAnd before that, with the scenes in the Dominican Republic, we see the children, a nine-year-old who can't read, the hunger, the baby with the face eaten off by the pig, the living under the zinc roof. So we see what they're leaving, too. So you have this vision of this absolutely destructive, destroying poverty that you're escaping. But what do you escape to?
REHMExactly. And an email from David. "You have to read 'Drown' in sequential order." He says, "I was introduced to Mr. Diaz's writing by way of a Japan travel piece and then began 'Drown.'" Do you think it needs to be read sequentially?
MILLERNo. I think we have to ask our self how do we read short stories. They're short stories. To me, if I'm editing a collection of short stories, I want each story to stand alone. I looked at this book and there's definitely some throwaway stories that might have, you know, a good editor might say, okay, we really don't need this, but, you know, we're dealing with the size of the book. But I think right now in our society the short stories should have -- should be making a comeback, you know.
MILLERAnd I like the look of the short as a time in which you carve out during your lunch break or when you're traveling and you can finish it and reflect on it. You know, that's how I see it working.
REHMSo would you argue for sequential reading of "Drown," Marcela?
VALDESI think it depends what you're looking for. I mean, the same way you can dip into "Mad Men" and enjoy one episode and it'll be great, but if you want the whole story, then you have to start at the beginning and -- so that you can watch the characters change and watch time play out. Does that mean that you can't enjoy one standalone story or one standalone episode?
MILLERYou sound like we're talking about Netflix now.
VALDESRight. But if you miss…
VALDES…all of it, you miss a lot. Because there is change over time.
ORTIZWell, so there is the experience of the characters and the consistency of the fictional world that he gives us. And then there's the experience of the reader who actually has the freedom because it's a short story collection not to read them sequentially if he or she decides not to. And so, you know, Diaz decided that the stories should be in this order in the collection. And it makes sense. They go back and forth. They alternate between stories set in the D.R. and stories set in the U.S.
ORTIZAnd then the last story is the one that, in a sense, is in the middle. Because it's the one that narrates the father's first voyage from the D.R. to the U.S. So it brings everything together. Right? But there -- so there's a very interesting sort of strategic play with time that Diaz gives us. And that allows us either to follow him on that journey or to make up our own.
REHMBut how do you teach the book?
ORTIZSo I have at times, actually, asked different groups of students in the same class to read the stories in a different order. So, for example, if I ask one group of students to read all the Dominican stories first and then read "Negocios," and then read all the stories sent in the U.S., that's a really different way of getting the same story and it has a different effect.
REHMAnd it's a different perception of each of those characters, perhaps, going along?
ORTIZAbsolutely. You know, it creates a really different effect about, you know, the way that we see characters develop, the way that we know their motivations, the way that we see how their memories of the past might influence the way that they behave later. And so -- but it's a puzzle. And it's a puzzle that actually can be put together in different ways. But the author -- the writer said, here's the way that I, you know, want to sort of put my stamp on these stories. It's in this order. You're the -- you the reader can exercise whatever freedom you want to read them in whatever order you'd like.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Marcela, I know you wanted to read from the story, "Fiesta," starting on, let's see, page 33.
VALDESSo they're at a party. The title of the story is "Fiesta, 1980." It's a party in 1980. They've driven out to some family members' home. And so there are two families getting together. And this is told from Yunior's point of view. "In the kitchen I could hear my parents slipping into their usual modes. Papi's voice was loud and argumentative. You didn't have to be anywhere near him to catch his drift. And Mami, you had to put cups to your ears to hear hers.
VALDESI went into the kitchen a few times. Once so the tios could show off how much profanity I had been able to cram in my head for the last few years. Another time for a bucket-sized cup of soda. Mami and Tia were frying tomatoes and the last of the pastelitos. She appeared happier now. And the way her hands worked on our dinner, you would think she had a life somewhere else making rare and precious things.
VALDESShe nudged Tia every now and then, things they must have been doing all their lives. As soon as Mami saw me though, she gave me the eye. Don't stay long that eye said. Don't piss your old man off. Papi was too busy arguing about Elvis to notice me. Then somebody mentioned Maria Montez and Papi barked, 'Maria Montez? Let me tell you about Maria Montez compi.'
VALDESMaybe I was used to him, his voice, louder than most adults, didn't bother me none, though the other kids shifted uneasily in their seats. Wilquins was about to raise the volume on the TV, but Rafa said, 'I wouldn't do that.' Mute boy had balls, though. He did it anyways and then sat down. Wilquins' pop came into the living room a second later. A bottle of Presidente in hand. That dude must have spider senses or something.
VALDES'Did your raise that,' he asked Wilquins. And Wilquins nodded. 'Is this your house,' his pop asked. He looked ready to beat Wilquins silly, but he lowered the volume instead."
REHMTalk about tension. Talk about the air in the room somehow being just swallowed up. Pretty scary stuff, if you're a kid. And that's who you hear talking, are these children.
VALDESThere's a moment earlier in that story when Yunior's father is yelling at him and his younger sister closes his eyes. And he says growing up around Papi had made her frightened girl. Rita (sp?). I'm not getting the quote exactly, but he talked about essentially growing up with her father was a terrifying experience for this young girl.
REHMSo is Junot Diaz talking about his own life story or simply creating fiction?
ORTIZI think there's a little bit of both, but I think that once a writer turns into this sort of -- the space of fiction, all bets all off about the rest of it. So of course every writer draws from his or her own life, but I don't think there is any reason to sort of look at any incident in one of these stories and go aha, this must have come directly from something that happened to the writer.
REHMWell, back to what you said, Ethelbert, he does dedicate the book to his mother.
MILLERAnd I think he's also given a lot of voice to future writers that are gonna come from the Dominican Republic -- either from the Dominican Republic or from here in New York or D.C.
REHME. Ethelbert Miller, he's an author and host of "On the Margin," a show on WPFW here in Washington. Marcela Valdes is a journalist specializing in Latin American and Latino literature. And Ricardo Ortiz is chair of the department of English at Georgetown University. The book we've been talking about, "Drown," by Junot Diaz. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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