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The Wondrous Junot Díaz

One of the most memorable events from the 2013 Chicago Humanities Festival was Junot Díaz in conversation with Peter Sagal. We asked Dara E. Goldman, associate professor of Spanish and director of the Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to share her insights into what makes Díaz so readable and so memorable.

Junot Díaz is arguably the writer who put Dominican Literature on the map. That is, he is probably the writer of Dominican descent (along with 1-2 possible others) whose name is familiar to most people.

Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, Díaz first earned literary acclaim through short stories published in the New Yorker and his volume of short fiction, Drown. His literary rep as a "writer to watch" soared to bestseller proportions in 2008, when he published the novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The novel received rave reviews—most notably from Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times—and won numerous accolades, including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In 2012, he published This is How You Lose Her, a collection of interconnected short stories that revisit and further develop characters from Oscar Wao.

Whether you have read these works, just heard of them, or are learning of them for the first time, I would like to briefly offer a few reasons why Junot Díaz is someone you should know (more) about and that you want to read (more).

Master of Voice

Like James Joyce (just to name one prominent example), Díaz builds his stories by weaving together the voices of different, interrelated characters. Each of the characters has a distinct personality and perspective that remains coherent across the length of the work. From a couple trying to resuscitate their floundering relationship through a "Caribbean getaway" in the ancestral homeland, to a prostitute in an abusive relationship with a jealous lover, the individuals who populate Díaz's fiction are complex and have compelling—albeit often erroneous—insight into their own realities and relationships. Together they offer a portrait of a place and a set of experiences that are at once utterly specific and completely accessible. They guide us through (often unfamiliar) landscapes in a way that makes them seem intimately recognizable.

Extraordinary Tales of (Everyday) History

Along with these detailed snapshots of people and places, Díaz offers a kind of compendium of modern Dominican and Dominican-American history. To be sure, Dominican history offers some excellent material for storytelling. At times, in fact, it can even prove "stranger than fiction." The Dominican Republic is located on Hispaniola, one of the few Caribbean islands that is subdivided between two separate nations (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), a cohabitation that has produced tensions, conflict, and interesting points of intersection over the years. After achieving independence from Spain in the early 19th Century, a prominent group of politicians advocated for repatriation or re-colonization by the Spanish crown. It remained independent, although it was briefly occupied by the United States in the mid-twentieth century. The Dominican Republic was also one of the few nations to open their borders to large numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis during WWII—though only a small number were able to take advantage of this policy—establishing a Jewish enclave in the town of Sosúa. These are just a few examples of the curious episodes in Dominican history.

The most extraordinary and momentous element of recent Dominican history is, of course, the dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. Trujillo effectively functioned as the strong-arm leader of the nation for over 30 years (1930-61), a period of extraordinary violence, repression, and massive emigration. Trujillo and the Trujillato (as his era is commonly called) have been the subject of numerous works of fiction, including novels by Julia Alvarez and Mario Vargas Llosa. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the Trujillato is a narrative thread that intersects with the lives of the characters and also forms part of a supernatural curse that haunts the island, its inhabitants and its descendants.

Despite the presence of lengthy exposition and extensive footnotes in Oscar Wao and frequent explanatory asides in the his other two books, Junot Díaz's treatment of Dominican history is never pedantic or exoticized. Díaz manages to make the fantastic history of the Dominican Republic and diaspora both extraordinary and commonplace, inserting it into a worldview that draws equally on religion, science fictions, urban savvy, comic books, and ancestral wisdom. As the characters struggle to make sense of this collage of symbols, the reader learns to both understand the twists and turns of Dominican history and—at the same time—to embrace this history as something fundamentally incomprehensible.

This is How You Tell a Story

One of the most notable elements of Díaz's literary style is his use of "you": his narrators regularly speak in the second person as they relate their own experiences.

You try every trick in the book to keep her. You write her letters. You drive her to work. You quote Neruda. You compose a mass e-mail disowning all your sucias. You block their e-mails. You change your phone number. You stop drinking. You stop smoking. You claim you're a sex addict and start attending meetings. You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy. You blame Santo Domingo. You find a therapist. You cancel your Facebook.

Almost all of the pieces in This is How You Lose Her present a kind of "play-by-play" running account of the narrator's experiences. In Oscar Wao and This is How You Lose Her, the reader accompanies the principal characters (many of whom are also narrators) on an odyssey towards productive manhood. That is, as Maja Horn suggests,1 Díaz's characters are faced with models of masculinity that are inadequate and dysfunctional. The characters therefore struggle to reconcile themselves with these fundamentally flawed templates and seek out more suitable alternatives—with varying degrees of failure. At the same time, Díaz's fiction is constantly engaged with the question of storytelling and narration itself. Oscar, the title character of Díaz's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is perhaps the best example of this quest: throughout the novel, the self-identified geek is seeking to write what we might call the Great American Sci Fi novel. At the end of the book, we learn that he purportedly was able to finally produce his magnum opus, but it appears to have gotten lost in mail. In the final chapters, moreover, Díaz's novel itself offers multiple retellings of its own finale, each of which strives to find the best way to tell the truth of what happened.

Through this combination of techniques, Díaz draws the reader into a story that, without compromising coherence or a recognizable everyday quality, presents itself as a work in progress. We are not presented with a definitive history or even a single, authoritative version of events. Instead, we become part of a process that explores its own possibilities and limitations, that questions how it may or may not be able to tell its own story.

[1] Horn, Maja. Masculinity After Trujillo: The Politics of Gender in Dominican Literature. University Press of Florida, forthcoming 2014

Dara E. Goldman is associate professor of Spanish and director of the Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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