The Literature of Junot Díaz

The Literature of Junot Díaz

It’s tough trying to say something new about Mr. Junot Díaz. As the golden child of the New York Times Book Review and modern staple on multicultural reading lists, Díaz is never for lack of publicity or praise.

Often roped into the “immigrant lit” niche, Díaz’s tales of overweight fantasists and Dominican lotharios extend beyond the oft-told acculturation, assimilation story. For those of you who’ve picked up a Díaz book and thought you’d find the flowery imagery or internal struggles that define the literature of Sandra Cisneros or Amy Tan, tough noogies. Díaz’s prose is macho and, at times, vulgar. His writing introduces readers to an immigrant experience not plagued with wistful nostalgia or over-sentimentality.

Several years ago, during an NPR interview, Díaz asked, “Can you imagine what it would be like if today I just took you, stripped you from your family, your circuits, your language, your culture, and dropped your ass off in Kazakhstan with very few people like you?” This sort of speculative role reversal emerges in Díaz’s writing voice; a caffeinated blend of Spanglish, nerd talk, and slang. Although easy to follow, Díaz’s writing is not always so easily understood, even by those readers well versed in Spanglish and other linguistic sub-cultures that permeate his prose.

Incorporating Spanglish is nothing new in Latino literature, you might even say it’s expected. Latino writers from Sandra Cisneros to Julia Alvarez have been employing Spanglish as an example of cultural in-betweenness in their writing for years. Díaz, however, uses language as a main player, a heavy-hitter, not as an afterthought or supporting stylistic device. Rather than explaining every term or reference, Díaz instead trusts his readers to understand the larger picture even if they miss a few details. Words like “jiringonza” go untranslated, references to Hipólito Mejía left uncontextualized (Look it up!). In an interview with Terry Gross on Oscar Wao, Díaz said, “We dont understand a word, well just skip over it and keep going. But, you know, thats a basic part of communication, unintelligibility. And so if youre an immigrant, youre so used to not being able to understand large chunks of any conversation, large chunks of the linguistic, cultural codes. And part of what I was trying to get at when writing this book is that I wanted everybody at one moment to kind of feel like an immigrant in this book.”

Having emigrated from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey, Díaz’s personal experience as a first-gen immigrant informs most of his work. Yunior—the author’s streetwise alter ego who’s appeared in all of his published books—often narrates experiences as universal as failed relationships and adolescence. But he is never fully rooted in the football loving, apple pie eating America with which most readers are familiar. Like many of Díaz’s characters, Yunior is a product of “multiple Americas,” “mixed identities” if you will. In the short story How to Date a Browngirl, Yunior informs readers that, “A white girl might just give it up right then...You have nice eyes, she might say. Tell her that you love her hair, that you love her skin, her lips, because, in truth, you love them more than you love your own.” Despite his aplomb and unnerving masculinity, Yunior lets slip moments of insecurity and vulnerability.

Yunior (unlike the women in Díaz’s books) is as flesh-and-blood as fictional characters come. Díaz first introduces Yunior as a kid in the short story collection Drown, where his (and/ or Díaz’s) prose is less sure of itself, more innocent and curious, sticking to tales of adolescence and assimilation. Yunior returns as a narrator in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, where he falls into the role of the prototypical tail-chasing Latino male, but with a voice more vibrant and self-aware than in Drown. In Díaz’s most recent book, This is How You Lose Her, Yunior takes center stage in all his lying, cheating, womanizing glory. In each of these books, Yunior treats the reader as if they are a confidant. He withholds little but still manages to keep us at a distance. Díaz doesn’t spoonfeed readers conclusions or opinions about his characters. At the end of Lose Her, he lets us decide for ourselves whether Yunior is a changed man. This trust in readers is deeply appreciated.

Díaz is innovative. Yes, he’s managed to add a fresh perspective (more postmodern than magic realism) to Latino literature. Yes, he’s created a character most writers dream of, with a voice that embodies all the fractured, dynamic complexities of first and second generation immigrants, without any of the weary sentimentality. The problem? Yunior is the only character who displays this sort of complexity.

In Oscar Wao, even the eponymous main character takes second stage to Yunior’s compelling narration. Díaz introduces characters like Belicia Cabral (Oscar’s mother), Lola (Oscar’s sister), the “Gangster,” and the interminable lineup of women Oscar falls in love with—but most of these characters never get the page time they deserve. Some characters remain underdeveloped for a reason, like the mysterious Gangster, a Trujillo cronie and Belicia’s lover. But Lola, who narrates part of the novel, seems sewn from a similar, less colorful, thread as Yunior. Despite acting as narrator, Lola’s voice never fully distinguishes itself from Yunior’s. A large chunk of Oscar Wao retells Belicia’s tragic childhood in the Dominican Republic during the Trujillo regime, a past that explains her bitter, hardened nature. Yet we never hear from Belicia. Almost everything in Oscar Wao is told from Yunior’s perspective and most of Díaz’s short stories are no exception.

Transparency is not a characteristic Díaz seeks out. He prefers ambiguity to clarity in his use of language, and perhaps in his characters. Nothing wrong with that. Ambiguity makes characters interesting, more three dimensional, more real. But when every character either resembles the same philandering Dominican or is developed through his pen, it may be time for Díaz to switch gears. Not every New Jersey Dominican speaks in the same unique Yunior blend and not all Latinas have supersized culos and explosive tempers. The potential identities of Díaz’s non-Yunior characters are too rich to be reduced to imitations and stereotypes.

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Magdalena Mora. Graduated from Macalester College and currently lives in Austin, Texas.