miércoles, 2 de octubre de 2013

"Junot Díaz" entry in The Contemporary Spanish-American Novel. Bolaño and After.

DÍAZ, JUNOT (Dominican Republic/USA, 1968) 
Published in The Contemporary Spanish-American Novel. Bolaño and After. Ed. Will H. Corral, Nicholas Birns, and Juan de Castro. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. 

To read the published version click here

Ignacio López-Calvo
University of California, Merced

Junot Díaz was born in Santo Domingo, but his family moved to New Jersey when he was six in order to re-unite with his father. He is best known for his 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008, and attracted similar attention when published in Spanish. He is also the author of two acclaimed short-story collections Drown (1996) and This is How You Lose Her (2012), as well as of uncollected nonfiction. He is only the second Latino author to win the Pulitzer for fiction. Díaz has also received the Pushcart Prize XXII, the Eugene McDermott Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lila Acheson Wallace Reader’s Digest Award, the Pen/Malamud Award, a US-Japan Creative Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a scholarship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in Rome, and a MacArthur grant.  

            His works depict the trials of Dominican immigrants in the U. S. and their negotiations between cultures, using frequent language borrowing and a street-wise, humorous, and sarcastic tone. In his novel, this type of language, together with references to popular culture, is blended with lyrical passages and references to "high" culture. The epigraph that opens Drown, from Cuban-American author Gustavo Pérez Firmat, shows both identification with other Caribbean (or Latino) authors in the U. S. and a linguistic awareness of the contradictions of writing in a language that does not fully belong to you. Code-switching and language borrowing, therefore, function as a method of inscribing alterity and cultural distinctiveness in his writing. They also mark English as inadequate to describe a specific Dominican-American experience. On the other hand, the gap between language and
experience is again highlighted when some of his characters' Dominicanness is questioned owing to their unfamiliarity with the Spanish language. Díaz's particular use of language reflects his concern for the complicated relationship between language, self, and place in the Dominican American realm. As is common with diasporic identities, his writing also showcases the evolution of the characters' ontological subject positions, depending on whether they are on the island or in the U.S.

           Like Oscar Wao, the stories included in Drown are set in seedy neighborhoods in New Jersey or the Dominican Republic, be it the countryside or marginal areas of Santo Domingo, where violence, abandonment, hopelessness, and machismo prevail. A semi-autobiographical teenage boy named Yunior narrates the adventures of his impoverished family, including his father's chronic absence, violence and infidelities, his mother's abnegation and loneliness, and his older brother Rafa's bullying. He also recalls his first homosexual experiences, his relationship with his girlfriend, his drug dealing, and the challenges of growing up as a "hyphenated American" in a fatherless family.

            Díaz's second short-story collection, This is How You Lose Her, which again has Yunior as the protagonist and first-person narrator in most of the stories, covers the same topics as Drown but concentrates even more on the themes of love (also prominent in Oscar Wao) and infidelity. Thus, "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars" relates Yunior's flawed relationship with a young woman named Magdalena, who abandons him for being "a typical Dominican man," who is, unfaithful. During their trip to Santo Domingo, Yunior points out, from his position of a tourist from the First World, the extreme poverty he sees. Like the novel, this story flirts with magical realism: a visit to a cave that is considered the birthplace of the Taino Indians reveals the end of Yunior's relationship with Magda. As Sam Sacks points out in his review of the book, while praising Díaz's elaboration of secondary characters: "One of the joys of the book is Mr. Díaz's singular writing voice, a vernacular Spanglish that runs easily to a kind of jazz poetry" (C9). Completing a circular structure related to that of his novel, in the story that closes the collection, "The Cheater's Guide to Love," Yunior is caught being unfaithful, this time with fifty women. Once again, he unsuccessfully tries by all means to continue his relationship with his girlfriend. After moving to Boston, Yunior suffers numerous racist affronts, becomes very sick, and cannot cope with his depression and his feeling of guilt. The first-world tourist descriptions of the Dominican Republic resurface: everyone seems to be missing teeth, entire families ride a single motorbike and, according to the narrator, there are more mosquitoes than in a refugee camp.  Violence, patriarchy, and racism seem to dominate most human relationships. Overall, just as Oscar de León's predicament in Oscar Wao is that he cannot find a woman who will reciprocate his love, Yunior's curse (both in this collection and in the novel) is that he cannot keep a lasting relationship with a woman because of his unstoppable proneness to have multiple sexual partners.

            The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao addresses the themes found in his short story collections. This impressive novel balances settings in both an unpromising New Jersey and an exoticized Dominican Republic, focusing on Oscar de León  (known as Oscar Wao, which is Oscar Wilde's name pronounced "in Dominican"), a young Dominican-American of African ancestry who hopes to become a science-fiction writer and who is in the middle of a desperate quest for reciprocated love. Heavy-set, "nerdy," and still a virgin, his expected Dominican manliness is often questioned by his best friend and college roommate Yunior (apparently the same Yunior who narrated the short stories). Oscar, whose alienation leads him to attempt suicide, wonders if the fukú curse brought by his family from the Dominican Republic is preventing him from being more successful with girls. Eventually, he leaves the house he shares with his mother and sister in New Jersey and moves to the Dominican Republic, where he falls in love with a middle-aged prostitute named Ybón Pimentel. Like his mother before him, he is harshly beaten as a result of this forbidden relationship before returning to the U.S. He later insists on pursuing this relationship and ends up being shot to death in a sugarcane field. Besides Oscar's adventures, the middle chapters extend to those of his beautiful sister Lola León (who also narrates some chapters), his mother "Beli" Cabral, and his grandfather Dr. Abelard Luis Cabral. The perspective of these family members, whose storylines rival in importance with Oscar’s bildungsroman, expands the historical context of the national diasporic experience. Like Oscar, Lola and Beli often feel out of place and share the struggle to find a place they can call home. And like Abelard's manuscript, Oscar’s is also lost after his death, leaving readers to guess the cure to his family's ailments (plausibly the fukú curse) that he claims to have discovered.

            Oscar Wao is consciously written under (perhaps against) the imposing shadow of García Márquez's magical realist techniques and the success of Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat, a novel also dealing with Trujillo's dictatorship and its consequences. The "Note from your author" in the opening of the novel asserts "I know what Negroes are going to say. Look, he’s writing Suburban Tropical now," shows Díaz's awareness that his debut novel runs the risk of confirming U.S. stereotypes about an underdeveloped, exoticized, male-chauvinistic, and magical Latin America governed by authoritarian rulers. Yet, regardless of his anxiety of influence, the debt to Magical Realism and to the meditation on the nature of power that is typical of Latin American dictator novels is noticeable. The narrator also mentions Julia Álvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies, as well as several historical texts, proving that his author has no desire to hide his sources and influences.

Like The Feast, which Díaz's main narrator considers unoriginal, Oscar Wao is more focused on the consequences of dictatorship (the action takes place during the 1980s and early 1990s) than on the Trujillato (1930-1961) itself. Yet there are several chapters devoted to life during that era, as suffered by the protagonist's mother and by his grandfather. We learn, for example, that because of her dark skin, Beli was abandoned by the rest of her family after her parents died and she later suffered constant abuse. Eventually, she has an affair with one of Trujillo's henchmen, who happens to be married to the dictator's sister, and becomes pregnant. As a result, she is brutally beaten in a sugarcane field and loses her child, before escaping to the U.S.

The voice that initially appears to be an external omniscient narrator in Oscar Wao turns out to be, in Chapter 4, the womanizer Yunior de las Casas, Oscar’s former roommate at Rutgers University, who also dated Lola for some time. Still Díaz's literary alter ego, Yunior exposes widespread sociopolitical injustice and cultural atavisms, highlighting, with a tone of cynical resignation, Dominicans' shame about their African ancestry. Likewise, if machismo is presented as a national trait, then Trujillo comes to emblematize the essence of Dominicanness: “If you think the average Dominican guy’s bad, Trujillo was five thousand times worse. Dude had hundreds of spies whose entire job was to scour the provinces for his next piece of ass” (217).

Therefore, while the implicit author establishes a separation from mainstream American culture (his apparent colonial Other), he also deviates from a complete identification with the colonized Dominican culture; in fact, self-criticism of Dominican cultural values pervades his three books. In this context, in consonance with the First-World tourist perspective noticed above, Fernando Valerio-Holguín argues that Yunior and other protagonists in works by Dominican-American authors "return to the Dominican Republic as postcolonial tourists and then transform the here/now into a there/now, because if they truly have exchanged time, they speak from the hegemonic space" (3). Díaz positions himself, from a postcolonial perspective, in an in-between third space of hybridity that draws from both cultures while concomitantly rejecting them. Yet his writing in English and his numerous cultural and linguistic translations (even though he has refused to identify with the typical "native informant" position of ethnic authors in the U. S.) give the impression that his implicit readers (despite sometimes addressing them as negros and plataneros) does belong to mainstream America. Valerio-Holguín has gone further in his assessment of these writers: "[they] have appropriated the hegemonic discourse that primitivizes the Other as a way of combating the anxiety, angst, and fear produced by hybridity. In this way, Dominican-American writers achieve recognition from the hegemonic subject and go on to form part of the American literary canon" (1-2).

Díaz's frequent use of footnotes in his novel continues a long tradition begun by Jorge Luis Borges, Manuel Puig, and other Latin American authors. However, he resorts to them to clarify Dominican terms, traditions, beliefs, historical events or historical characters more than to provide extraneous erudition or arcana. Along these lines, his footnotes about the stories of Hatüey and Anacaona continue the traditional linkage between the colonization of the Tainos by the Spanish conquistadors and Trujillo's dictatorship, which is prevalent in numerous novels about that historical period (De Maeseneer, "Narrar el (neo)trujillato…"). His unacknowledged return to Magical Realism is reflected in his lingering on the undeveloped nature of his settings and interest in the exotic world of metaphysical phenomena such as the "Golden Mongoose" that aids Oscar's family, or the
traditional fukú superstition and its counterspell, the zafa, whose meaning is explained by the narrator in the introductory section. This represents a continuation of what other authors of the Trujillo cycle, such as Marcio Veloz Maggiolo in La biografía difusa de Sombra Castañeda (1981, The Vague Biography of Sombra Castañeda), had begun. Along these lines, although both Díaz and Vargas Llosa avowedly attempted to break away from the tradition of dictator mythification, Díaz's references to the purported superpowers of Trujillo, “the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated” (80), and to the omniscience of his Secret Police end up contributing to the failure of this project. Trujillo, although not a major character in the novel, remains a larger-than-life figure that affects every character and every action, even decades after his death.

Despite their different generations and Díaz’s greater fondness for pop culture, in Oscar Wao we still find the tropical exoticism, the hyper-violence and sensualism, the cult of Third-World underdevelopment, the cyclical time, the family saga, and the incorporation of superstitions, mythical legends, and popular folklore made famous by One Hundred Years of Solitude and Magical Realism. This approach is set in the novel’s first pages when Yunior thinks that his roommate Oscar would wonder: “What more sci-fi than Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles? But now that I know how it all turns out, I have to ask, in turn: What more fukú?” (6). Yet the novel is still an impressive accomplishment. It includes numerous references to popular culture, including classic science fiction, fantasy novels, comic books such as Fantastic Four, sword-and-sorcery novels such as Lord of the Rings, old television shows such as Twilight Zone, video and role-playing games, the Internet, Hollywood, and anime films. These texts and films, which are used to underscore the fact that Oscar is a "ghetto nerd," also become a refuge (as death will also be later on in the plot) where he is no longer a weird overweight teenager or an outsider, but a hero or an avenger instead. In addition, Díaz uses science fiction and fantasy to draw a hyperbolic parallel with the shocking and "magical" history of the Dominican Republic (Trujillo is associated with fictional characters such as Darkseid, Galactus, and Sauron), particularly as it affected Oscar's family during the Trujillo Era’s authoritarianism. All these intertextualities with American popular culture separate Díaz's writing from the magical realism he criticizes in the novel, bringing it closer to the contemporary, urban world of Alberto Fuguet's* and the McOndo group's prose.


Works Cited 

Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007.
---. Drown. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
---. This Is How You Lose Her. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012.
López-Calvo, Ignacio. "God and Trujillo": Literary and Cultural Representations of the Dominican Dictator.
            Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2005.
Maeseneer, Rita de. “Narrar el (neo)trujillato: ¿una historia sin fin?” Seis ensayos sobre
            narrativa dominicana contemporánea. Santo Domingo: Publicaciones del Banco
            Central de la República Dominicana, 2011. 17-49.
Sacks, Sam. "Tales of Love and Loss in the Diaspora." The Wall Street Journal. Sepember 8-9,
2012. C9.       
Valerio-Holguín, Fernando. "Dominican-American Writers: Hybridity and Ambivalence."
            Forum on Public Policy. A Journal of the Oxford Round Table. Oxford University.            



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