Monday, August 17, 2015

“You need to learn how to walk the world, he told me. There's a lot out there.”

DrownDrown by Junot Díaz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I just finished reading Drown (signed copy, YAY), Junot Díaz's debut short story collection, and have confirmed that he is ever-reliable. In it are 10 stories that revolve around Yunior, the son of an immigrant family and also the protagonist of all Díaz's works. The immigrant experience is anything but smooth, and we see this at all stages of Yunior's life in terms of his family situation, relationships and work life.

Primarily, abuse - mental and physical - never leaves the pages of the book. In the first story, Ysrael, we learn about a boy who was attacked by a pig when he was a baby and thus has a partially deformed face, the reason why he is ostracized and bullied. Abuse, in the form of drug, physical and psychological abuse, is particularly potent in Aurora, in which Yunior and his girlfriend "hurt too well to let it drop." Violence and suffering weave their way into the characters' daily life and stay there. Yet as Yunior says at one point, "I had heart-leather like walruses got blubber." Toughness and machismo are tied to masculine identity.

Yet perhaps heart-leather is what you'll need in order to achieve the goal all immigrants-to-be are after - escape.
Back then I didn't have a clue what she was thinking but now I know what to pencil into all those empty thought bubbles. Escape. Escape.
Yunior's father - as the 'man of the family' - bears the unspoken responsibility to facilitate this escape for his family. Due to this, however, Yunior spends 5 years of his childhood father-less while his Papí goes to New York, works two jobs to support his family, starts a new family, becoming a U.S. citizen through that marriage, and eventually returns, abandoning his aforementioned second family - the second act of abandonment he commits. Abandonment and betrayal run their course throughout the short story collection, denting all relationships.

Despite all the difficulty the characters experience, however, Yunior puts it best when he says,
“Sometimes you just have to try, even if you know it won’t work.”
That is why I love how Ysrael comes back to us in No Face, this time as somebody who can yell FLIGHT, STRENGTH and INVISIBILITY (yes, all in caps) and keep running, still an outcast but at least hoping for a better future. That is also why young Yunior's frequent car rides as a child are terribly poignant - time and time again he is forced to sit in the car and try to not vomit, although time and time again, he does. When one is drowning, the fight for survival becomes desperate gasps for air and a frantic scramble of limbs. Even when "life smacks everybody around," you must still try to get back to the surface.

Drown is not as explosively entertaining as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or spot-on witty as This is How You Lose Her, but it puts into words the frustrations, pitfalls and experiences of immigrants in a way that is accessible, memorable and strikingly personal. It's always a pleasure to read anything by Díaz (on a side note, he has a fabulous Facebook page).

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