Junot Díaz is a writer born in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic and living in the US, New Jersey, from the age of 6. This is his second collection of short stories. He won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his acclaimed novel ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’.
This collection of short stories is mostly from the point of view of a young man of Dominican origin, Yunior, now living in the States. He and his family appear in most of the stories, spilling over from one to the other. This means that we catch glimpses of Yunior and family at different points in time, in different situations, giving depth to the character and filling out aspects of their lives, mostly connected to their experiences as part of the Dominican diaspora, and producing something of the effect that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
With Yunior as first person narrator, there is a lot of sex in the stories, from the very sexualised gaze of the narrator just describing women who come into his life as well as sex in the context of a relationship. At times I enjoyed the occasional deeper human dimension to apparently casual relationships which Díaz depicts with consummate economy. In ‘Nilda’ we see the older brother’s sexual relationship through the still child like eyes of his younger brother. In several situations the women have other lives involving menial poorly paid work and responsibilities for older parents, siblings or children. These other responsibilities are just glancingly referred to, but stay in the mind. At other times I got bored and impatient with the narrator’s unremitting sexual gaze, to the extent that I completely lost interest and sympathy with the narrator of the last story, unable to get over the loss of his girlfriend. He’d cheated on her repeatedly throughout the relationship, so hey, what do you expect she’ll do when she finds out? Is there anything more to say? Now granted, these stories are maybe about men and sex and raising questions about the characters’ attitudes which is no bad thing- it’s just that this is an area that holds little interest for me personally.
But I did enjoy the story ‘Otravida, Otravez’, told from the point of view of a young Dominican woman who works in a hospital laundry. Her lover Ramón is a worker and saving to buy a house in the US for them to live in. He has a wife and child back home, whom he hasn’t seen in a long time- the wife regularly writes, hopeful that their marriage will resume somehow- the pain for everyone involved in this situation is beautifully evoked along with the cold, the dreadful homesickness of the young women when they first arrive and the menial work they endure. Similarly ‘Invierno’ relates the arrival of Yunior and his family in the States. Again, the utter shock of the cold, the little boys’ virtual imprisonment in the flat, the authoritarian father they hardly know, their mother’s misery are all convincingly related. This is the bewilderment, shock and pain of being plunged into a completely different environment and culture and being separated for years at a time from the ones you love. Diaz describes ‘the redhead woman on her way to meet the daughter she hasn’t seen in eleven years. The gifts she holds on her lap, like the bones of a saint’. And the beautiful delicacy of that image is perhaps all the more powerful because of the ‘swagger’ ( as described by Henry Ace Knight in the Asymptote interview ) of the narrative voice elsewhere.
For the author, his experience of the Dominican diaspora also influenced his use of language- and there is an excellent interview with him in the Asymptote journal here explaining his relationship to Spanish and English. There is some Spanish in the stories, largely in dialogue, which readers may understand or not immediately but will certainly get the hang of as the stories go on. And the power of these stories for me lies in their portrayal of that diaspora – the pain of separation, the loss of home and people, the cold unforgiving culture in which they find themselves. It’s just that I sometimes glazed over with the sexual activities, fantasies and multiple infidelities of men.