Sunday, 29 July 2012


Drown - Junot Diaz

The epigram in Drown is a poem by Gustavo Pérez Firmat about linguistic exile:

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

The last pages of the book include a glossary of the Spanish words with which these stories are liberally strewn. In between are ten stories that bridge the immigrant divide between the Dominican Republic and the United States. (For this reason it could be said to fit in to Spanishlitmonth. What do you think Richard?)

I picked this book up because I liked the cover,  bought it because of the blurbs, and was half way through before I made the connection with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (which I haven't read). I was already reading too many parallel books when I started one of the stories in this but once I'd read the first few pages I was not going to put this away until it was finished.

One of the things that hooked me was the familiarity of this terrain, the world of immigrants. It reminded me of stories of the Irish in Britain and America, particularly those of people who had left the Gaeltacht and how Irish punctuated their English, so much so that it left an indelible mark on the English language, particularly in the States. Words like Slum, whisky and Jazz crossed the linguistic divide, telling us also something of the lives lived by those emigrants/immigrants. Children are often more fluent than their parents and learn to fit in. But, as the epigram suggests, they will also remain connected to their 'homeland'.

It is noticeable that many of the Spanish words used relate specifically to family, (Mami, Papi, Tío, Tía, Abuelo) the neighbourhood (colmado, barrio, campo) and insults (pato, puto, puta, bobo). The language at times seems to represent the all too limited boundaries of the immigrants world, which can so quickly become a ghetto.

In Boyfriend the boundaries are represented by the inability of the narrator to imagine himself in the world of the girl downstairs and her boyfriend, who "could have been models" and never talk "about a job or a fucking boss". "People like these were Untouchables to me, raised on some other planet". But these aliens have problems too.

This is not a book without horizons. People escape, first the Dominican Republic and then, possibly, the ghetto. In Drown, the narrator's friend has gone to college, and the voice in which he narrates both acknowledges his childhood upbringing and also an artful facility with words, an ability to use the English language  which suggests that he has escaped the dead end world he depicts. He has assimilated beyond "Contemporary Dominican Tacky" but also beyond dope peddling and fear.

The first story, Ysrael, is set in the campo (countryside) where two brothers (aged 12 & 9) are sent for the summer as their mother has to work and doesn't have the time to look after them. The nine year old is our narrator and he has a different relationship with his brother in the campo than back in "the Capital". "In the Capital Rafa and I fought so much that our neighbours took to smashing broomsticks over us to break it up, but in the campo it wasn't like that. In the campo we were friends." Although we aren't told that the narrator is always the same it is the sort of book where each story seems to refine and expound on the same consciousness, even if there are differences in the life story.

In the story he goes with his brother to see Ysrael, a boy who wears a mask because "when he was a baby a pig had eaten his face off". The mask works a s a metaphor for all the things they don't want to see. Ysrael has grown fast because he is often chased and his only hope lies in been taken to the United states. But you can only be so fast and some things can't be fixed. The problems that you have to deal with in one place will follow you.

The relationship with his brother here is reflected in later stories and also in the relationship with father figures. In a few of the stories the father has left for the glittering promise of The United States, a place where the food will make you taller, and, to uses refrain of the Irish emigrant, the streets are paved with gold. However, the streets have long been stripped of gold in the stories set in the United States. Drugs, juvie, venereal disease, violence and fear have taken its place. For Yunior his father is almost a mythical figure: "He was in the States, working, and the only way I knew him was through the photographs my moms kept in a plastic sandwich bag under her bed."

It is telling that in the story Fiesta, 1980 the narrator suffers from travel sickness. Moving from place to place he finds it difficult to feel at home anywhere, as uncomfortable when taken to his father's mistresses' house as when receiving the affection of his tía. This is a casually macho world where women are expected to bear up under mistreatment by men. Being soft on women can mean being called a pato, a fear which is explored more fully in the title story. Here, escape and betrayal are fused in the person of the narrator's gay friend.

The least successful story, I think, is How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie a faux etiquette lesson which seems tonally out of place. It does, however, act as a bridge between the childhood stories of 'Yunior' and the final two stories,  No Face and Negocios, in which the narrator tells the story of the boy with no face (No Face) and his father (Negocios). This seems like an attempt to stretch his wings, looking from a perspective which is removed from seeing his own difficulties into one which acknowledges those of others. It seems like he is stepping into the shoes of a storyteller.

I feel like I have only skimmed this book and that it deserves more but I am wary of letting blogging take over too much of my life and this book has already gathered a lot of attention and critical coverage. Recommended.


  1. I remember liking most the story "Negocios" which if I'm not mistaken is the last and the longest in the book.

    1. You are of course correct, Rise, and Negocios is certainly one of the strongest stories, although Fiesta, 1980 is probably my favorite.

  2. I read "the brief and wondrous life of oscar wao" and some of the anecdotes of the narrator are just like the excerpts you have above... Is everything in "drown" also found in "the brief and..." I'm confused

    1. I can't say for sure as I haven't read "the brief and...". However "Drown" gives the impression of being somewhat autobiographical so it would be likely for similar episodes to crop un in "the brief and..."

    2. The incidents in "Oscar Wao" are independent of "Drown" but they did share the unique voice of the narrator and also the narrator's name.

  3. I'm probably one of the very few who didn't like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; I found nothing redeeming in his character although I could acutely feel his pain. However, the themes of belonging, and finding home, which you also found in this collection, intrigue me very much. That is an endless source of emotion, I think, even for someone born and raised in the country in which they live. (I'm Italian by birth, but have always lived in the States except for two years in Europe. The US doesn't feel like my home at all now, especially under its current leadership, but here we enter a whole new topic. :)

    Thanks for visiting my blog when I was off in Canada, and for following me on Twitter. It's nice to 'meet' you.

    1. Thanks for dropping by. I am fascinated with the theme of belonging, which seems to me central to the human experience. We operate the most complex social structures and it is very easy to feel like you don't belong in your own house. We can travel to places in our heads that bring us beyond the borders of home. The experience of emigrants and their children externalizes what is a common sense of unbelonging.