Tough Love: Drown by Junot Diaz

James Ferguson on Drown by Junot Diaz, the 1997 collection of short stories praised for its gritty, dispassionate look at the lives of immigrants from the Dominican Republic in the US

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All big cities have their distinct immigrant districts, but New York’s Washington Heights, at the northern tip of Manhattan, is more conspicuously foreign than most. This is the Dominican Republic come to the Big Apple, Nueva York as the locals call it. Merengue music blares out from CD stores, little restaurants serve up spicy sancocho and ice-cold Presidente beer, courier companies promise to deliver dollars anywhere in the Republic within 24 hours. Climate apart, you could easily imagine yourself in some barrio of Santo Domingo.

Dominicans are now the second biggest Latino group (after Mexicans) in the United States. At least half a million are officially resident, while many more are illegal immigrants, living in fear of the authorities and a sudden deportation order. The great majority are in New York state, but neighbouring New Jersey also has its Dominican communities, spread out in the old and declining industrial suburbs.

Living double lives between North America and La Isla at home, Dominicans make up the classic transnational community, always on the move, assimilating the culture of their new home, preserving the other culture of what is left behind across the Caribbean Sea. Food, music, family ties: all of these take on huge symbolic and emotional importance in the face of what can often be a cold and unwelcoming migrant world. Some return home, others put down new roots, but there is always this sense of distance, of the gap between here and there, the States and the Island.

To be a Dominicanyork is to live this daily double existence, part Hispanic, part American, in which tradition and assimilation engage in a cultural tug of war. And nowhere is this conflict more keenly felt than in the field of language itself, where the migrant is often bilingual, but truly at home in neither Spanish or English. Instead, there evolves a special hybrid language, the spoken reflection of a cultural blending, the voice of the Diaspora and its peculiar rootlessness.

This restless voice runs through the ten short stories which make up Drown, the sensational literary debut of  Junot Diaz, which first appeared in 1996. “I don’t belong to English”, announces the book’s introductory epigraph, “though I belong nowhere else.” Belonging, or not belonging, is precisely the theme that runs through this taut, controlled collection of tales, revealing the heart of the migrant experience and the emptiness to be found there. For this is not the heart-warming myth of the Great American Dream and the successful immigrant’s saga of rags to riches, but rather the dispassionate account of poverty, alienation and unfulfilled fantasies.

Yet the events surrounding the publication of Drown are in themselves like some reworking of the Dream. Diaz was 27 years old, working nine to five as a clerk for a New York pharmaceutical company, when he submitted a short piece of fiction to the prestigious literary quarterly, Story. The magazine prints only 60 of the 15,000 submissions it receives each year, but it leapt at Diaz’s story, Ysrael (the first in this collection). Within a month, the author was being feted as one of the year’s literary discoveries, his work appeared in The New Yorker, and Drown appeared to the sort of critical acclaim that most authors can only dream of.

What all agreed was that Diaz had somehow managed to capture the stark, unadorned reality of the migrant experience in 1990s America. Others had tried to evoke the Latino Diaspora before, often with considerable success, as in Oscar Hijuelos’s The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1990), but few had achieved such a sharp-edged, compelling picture of migrant youth before. And what is so accomplished about this picture is that it is constructed in the language of the homeboys themselves: coarse, violent and yet curiously poetic in its restraint.

Dominicans, of course, have something of an ambiguous reputation in the US, especially those young males who are reputedly connected with crime and drug dealing. It would perhaps have been easy for Diaz to counter the prevailing stereotype with a cast of law-abiding characters or, equally, to pander to sensationalist caricatures with a vision of underworld sleaze. In fact, he does neither, using the first -person voice to develop a narrative stance that is neither judgmental nor sentimental, but rather supremely matter-of-fact and believable. This arrears to be life as it is really lived by young Dominican Americans on the streets of New Jersey or in the slums of Santo Domingo, full of an everyday mix of pain and pleasure, cruelty and occasional tenderness.

All of the ten stories are interconnected, with recurring characters and relationships pointing to a strongly autobiographical background. Those set in the Dominican Republic are told by a young boy and portray a life of poverty and expectation, where the absent father (working in the US) holds out the prospect of a better future.

Here, the emphasis is on the almost casual cruelty of childhood, exemplified by the narrator’s callous fascination with a boy named Ysrael, whose face has been half eaten away by a pig. The grotesque quality of the incident, together with the detached curiosity of the narrative viewpoint, underlines the tangible sense of repressed violence that fills these stories.

But it is in the dead-end environment of inner-city New Jersey that Diaz’s streetwise idiom is most effectively deployed. The same narrator is now transplanted into the concrete jungle of down-at-heel urban America and his language takes on the gangster cool of the Dominican hustler, mixing American and Spanish slang into a fluent new vernacular. In Edison, New Jersey, the narrator gives a lift to a Dominican girl whose family lives in Washington Heights:

Everybody’s on the streets and the merengue’s falling out of windows like TVs. When we reach her block I ask a kid with the sag for the building and he points out the stoop with his pinkie. She gets out of the truck and straightens the front of her sweatshirt before following the line that the kid’s finger has cut across the street. Cuidate, I say.

But not all is delivered in such emotionless and self-consciously hip tones; there is also a longing for fulfillment, individual and emotional, and even a yearning for normality of a sort. At the end of Aurora, the narrator-drug dealer and his crack- head girlfriend dream of kids, a big blue house, hobbies: right then, in that apartment, we seemed like we were normal folks. Like maybe everything was better.

Diaz’s fictional universe, alas, is rarely one where things get better for long. There are moments of humor and compassion, to be sure, but the dominant atmosphere is more one of loss and separation. His characters are by no means victims, but neither are they exemplars of assimilation and American values. Instead, they are survivors, struggling to make sense of an often hostile environment, trying to make ends meet by any means possible.

It is in taking the reader inside this tough migrant experience, uncomfortable though the experience may sometimes be, that Diaz’s considerable achievement lies. If anything positive emerges from such a feat of imagination, it is probably in the author’s unsentimental tribute to the resilience of his own people, a people caught between two worlds.

James Ferguson is the author of The Traveller’s Literary Companion to the Caribbean (In Print/Passport Books/lan Randle Publishers)