Monday, September 15, 2014

Dragging Along The Dominican Republic- Junot Diaz

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Junot Diaz doesn't shy away from the heart wrenching.  He has written the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner about a multi-generational family curse (lots of dying); several short stories about a young man who just cannot stop cheating on women he loves (lots of thoughts about dying); and about people who try to ingratiate themselves in America for a better life (leaving behind lots of death in the Dominican Republic, just to face having to die in the American ghettos where they live).  Life and death go hand in hand in Diaz's stories, along with failure and success, and the desperate need to be better than one's parents, while maintaining their heritage.

Diaz, who writes both short stories and novels, creates an unique central character: the Dominican Republic (DR).  The DR holds a strong place in Diaz's heart; he too immigrated to the US as a child and was raised in New Jersey.  Currently a creative writing professor at MIT, Diaz strives to highlight a segment of the American culture that often gets forgotten: the immigrant population from the Caribbean. The DR is a central theme throughout his 1996 debut collection, Drown, where the reader is exposed to a series of short stories that are snapshots into the characters' souls.  We see how they struggle to convey a macho (or slutty, depending on what they want) persona to the public, all the while mourning their inability to achieve higher goals like college or at least staying out of jail.  Failures and triumphs are also in his Pulitzer Prize novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Having a generational 'curse' hanging over his head, Oscar is an overweight nerd, the exact opposite of what a Dominican man is supposed to be.  He is a constant source of woe for his mother, who hopes that he can become more manly or at least more healthy, and for his beautiful and popular sister, who is completely unsure how to deal with her awkward brother. Diaz's latest award winning collection, This is How You Lose Her, we see how the DR paints the characters' (several characters resurface through all of his stories) relationships.  Several stories are about how men want to stay with the women that they truly love, but they just can't escape the pressure to be 'manly' by cheating with several different women.  In others, the reader is shown how women also can't stop playing men for money, cars, or whatever they want.  The constant back and forth in their relationships is blamed on the instability of relationships and sex in the DR; however, this cultural norm for the DR does NOT translate well in the US.  Throughout their struggles with themselves, their history, and their family, the DR hangs over their head, like a past they cannot escape and a future they cannot avoid.

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Diaz writes his stories with a modern, yet uniquely Dominica-meets-East-Coast vernacular, almost a type of Spanglish that is easy to follow along with, all the while pulling the reader into the characters' world.  The descriptions he gives of the varying settings create a stark contrast between the overall pictures of the DR and of the USA; however, the reader can also see the glaring similarities between the two with descriptions of crime and the abject poverty the characters experience.  Junot Diaz is not only telling a story; he is bringing the Caribbean immigrant story to life, a story in which a reader will be completely immersed in.  The stories which Diaz tells are beautiful in their simplicity; uncomplicated phrases and clean descriptions enhance the complexity of the characters' interactions and the depth of their emotions.

Love, loss, poverty, and, most importantly, a loss of culture is what drives Junot Diaz's characters; these people feel the stinging pain of trying to mesh their Dominican culture and identity in with the oft-sterile culture of the USA.  They cannot regain what they left behind, thus they tend to fill the void with destructive behavior, almost barreling themselves towards the stereotype of a "ghetto" immigrant.  It is these descents, these personal struggles, both real and imaginary, that Diaz creates for his readers.

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