Beyond the Circle of Hell

Jill Krementz
Junot Díaz, New York City, October 2008

When his first short-story collection, Drown, was published in 1996, Junot Díaz was hailed as a writer who spoke to his readers from a world, and in a voice, that had never before appeared on the page. No one else had conveyed, with quite such immediacy, the experience of Dominican-Americans inhabiting two countries and two cultures without feeling entirely at home in either. No one had made us so acutely aware of the fact that, for a large segment of our population, immigration is not a singular event but a way of life involving travel to and from the homeland, journeys with the power to reawaken all the anticipation and terror of the initial departure.

Díaz’s work enabled, or obliged, his gringo audience to spend time in neighborhoods that in the past they might have sped through, on their way to somewhere else. And for all their raucous humor and genial high spirits, the stories in Drown thrummed with anxiety—an unease generated by poverty, racism, domestic tension, and sexual confusion. These stresses, one felt, might at any moment overwhelm Díaz’s characters, were it not for the consolations of storytelling: the relief of transforming anger and apprehension into narrative.

The Latino immigrant experience had been eloquently described by earlier novelists including Oscar Hijuelos, Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, and Cristina García. But what set Díaz apart from his predecessors was the exuberance with which he exchanged the standard diction of traditional fiction for the flashier, jazzier locutions of the urban barrio, with just enough Spanish to convey the flavor and rhythm of a hybrid language and without mystifying or excluding English-speaking readers. (Hedging their bets, Díaz’s British paperback publisher added a Spanish-English glossary.)

Drown takes its epigraph from a poem by Gustavo Pérez Firmat:

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 in English
though I belong nowhere else

Obviously, language is a matter of crucial importance to every writer, but for Díaz—and for his homeboys selling weed on the streets of industrial New Jersey, his young men delivering pool tables to homeowners reluctant to leave them alone with the silverware, his immigrant mothers trying to protect their families from dangers that their children understand better than they do—every word involves a choice between past and present, campo and barrio, mercado and mall.

Reading Díaz, we understand why his bilingual characters continue to use street-slang Spanish long after they have stopped hanging around on the corner: for comfort, for community, as shorthand, and because there is no more expressive way to say what they want to say. Their vocabulary and their cadences, their casual obscenities and reflexive prayers define them.

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