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Saturday, July 01, 2006

THE FATHER TONGUE (2006)

Bearing it? Holding out? Enduring? Junot Díaz could have used any of these expressions instead of the Spanish word “Aguantando”, as the title of his short story included in his book “Drown”, written in one of the most creative and astounding English tones since Carver. But Junot Díaz, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States as a child, still perceives himself as an immigrant to the English language. Even if Díaz has been “hyped as the next young gun of American fiction”(Spillman), his Spanish words, tossed here and there in the text in a very controlled way , act as a reminder that he is writing from his cultural background as a Dominican and that he has a mother tongue, the Spanish language. This kind of bicultural text has created what it is more a market label than an accurate literary category: the Latino literature. Written by immigrants, and more often than not, reporting the immigration experience, it is a literature written in English and firmly embedded in the American culture. As the Cuban-American writer Gustavo Pérez Firmat states: “Born in Cuba but made in the U.S.A., I can no longer imagine living outside American culture and the English language” (Next Year in Cuba, 1). The Latino label usually doesn’t apply to the immigrants who decided to be faithful to their Spanish and are considered as writers belonging to their national origin –the most famous of them, Isabel Allende, a San Francisco resident, is a Chilean writer- mainly because, like the Cuban poet José Kozer, they have manifested their “will to live in Spanish” (Pérez Firmat, Life on the Hyphen, 161). Those who, inside the United States, play the experimental game of belonging to a sort of nation –the Hispanic community- inside another nation- the United States- write in Spanglish, which is a Spanish infiltrated and modified by the English and, according to Ilan Stavans , “a new American language in the making.”(Marx and Escobar Ulloa). These experimental writers seem to represent the only true literary novelty: living in an imaginary Latinoland inside the United States, they relate to the Spanish language and tradition. Junot Díaz, as Oscar Hijuelos, Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez and many others, represent the Latino writers but their writings, as the exemplary “Aguantando”, show that they might be Latino writers, but there is no such a thing as Latino literature written in English. Once the Latino writer chooses the English, the English also chooses him, and the Latino story, the Latino character and the Latino experience become part of the English language heritage while being, at the same time, ruled by it. What is called Latino literature is nothing else but pure American literature: language rules.

Junot Díaz comes from the Island, that Hispaniola where Columbus landed and started the invention of America. Because America was first a continent, and a promise of paradise for Europeans, no matter if from Great Britain, Spain, France or other countries, all the countries of the Americas share this solid ground of a shared birth. Independence wars brought a new common sign of identity to all the American countries and the leader of them all, the first to cut the umbilical cord with Europe, took the name of the continent: America. That America grew from the independence of the British Empire, which would rule the world still for more than a century, and, as an absolute master of the world, gave good lessons to its breed. The other America, the Latin America, won instead its independence from the falling and destroyed Spanish Empire, only to get the melancholy lesson of the looser. The tension between the Anglo-Saxon culture and the Hispanic culture, between the English and the Spanish, and between the Latin Americans –immigrants or not- and the US Americans, is dyed by this historical background with deep psychological resonances. Junot Díaz literature is inscribed in this confrontational pattern of two cultures and his statement of using Spanish words is also an unconscious rebellion to his choice of English. A rebellion which is also well paid back by Kirzner and Mandell, the authors of “Literature” , the book where “Aguantando “ can be read by English students, but only as “Aguantado” (448) , a disrespectful misspelling, which converts the present participle in a past one and shows how the Anglo-Spanish war is still active, not only in the immigrants minds but in the country hosts.

Between being fully American and rebelling against it, the Latino immigrant dwells under a powerful shadow: the mother land, the mother tongue and probably the actual mother. Junot Díaz ‘s “Aguantando” tells the story of a boy living with his mother, brother and grandfather in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic capital and the oldest city in the Americas, while he dreams of the return of his absent father, gone to the United States. From the first sentence: “I lived without a father for the first nine years of my life” (Kirzner and Mandell, 448) to the last one “What’s the worry with that one?, he’d ask and Mami would say, he doesn’t know you. Squatting down so that his pale yellow dress socks , he’d trace the scars on my arms and on my head. Yunior, he would finally say, his stubbled face in front of mine, his thumb tracing a circle on my cheek” (457) Díaz introduces the relationship with the US as a relationship with an absent father. “He had left for NuevaYork when I was four but since I couldn’t remember a single moment with him I excused him from all nine years of my life”(448) says the protagonist of the story about his father, adding that “the only way I knew him was through the photographs my mom kept in a plastic sandwich bag under her bed” (448) while giving to the paragraph a political spin, since the shot was taken in the same year the US invaded the Dominican Republic, 1965, to prevent a feared new communist revolution in the Caribbean.

“Aguantando” can be seen also as an autobiographical story that reflects the perception of Junot Díaz as an immigrant himself, torn between the need of faithfulness to the mother tongue and the need to betray her to survive in the new American environment, adopting what in the story can be seen as the symbolic father’s tongue. The protagonist relates his miserable life in a poor neighborhood of Santo Domingo, where, like in most of the Latin American countries, there is no law and no justice, with the necessary consequences of lack of education and poverty. The Latin American society is described by Díaz as a feminine dominant society without a rule. For the protagonist, the US appears not only as the place where the father is, but where the jobs are; where men go and where men rule. Junot Díaz ’ s choice of the English language could be based on the deep need Latin Americans have of a father who properly rules the family life in a way its members are kept together and able to prosper. To resign to the mother tongue signifies in Díaz world, to enter in what is perceived as the father tongue: a language that rules the previously unruled. The English language and its tradition are fully embraced by Díaz, as the scholar Rob Jacklosky notes: “In a twist that no marketing strategist could have foreseen, in most bookstores, Diaz shares shelf space with Dickens, often sitting cover-to- cover ... so rather than a ‘front-line report’ as one critique suggests, what we have is a missive from the literary past: Diaz is working in a classic, not a street mode.” In Díaz language, the said and the not-said create a more powerful link to the English speaking reader’s emotions than the hidden meaning of some Spanish words. It is not then the association with Dickens but with Raymond Carver that prevails, in the delicate assessment of the family ghosts. As the critic Eli Gotlieb points out “The family portrayed in many of Diaz’s stories is fatherless, and the father’s ghost presence is the core of the book, a kind of ground tone or ambient noise which shades the narrator’s whole childhood.” In Díaz prose we are far away from any Spanish literary tradition. The sharp language and the sober construction of the scenes remind us more of Hemingway than any of the contemporary Spanish authors, except those who made the point of abandoning the Spanish flourishing wordiness and its tendency to the baroque, and mimicked the precision and brevity of the English, imitating also American authors in the structure of fiction. The reading of “Aguantando” in Spanish, in the translation of the book “Drown” (which, continuing the bicultural battle, became in Spanish “Los Boys”) represents a thrilling experience. The memoir of a Spanish speaking Dominican kid has the pace, the rhythm and the tone of what a Spanish reader recognizes immediately as a translation from the English of the United States, with its hammering sentences, made of mere action, with precise verbs which in Spanish would require infinite adjectives to come to the point, and a whole flair of American-ness in the way of talking about the most intimate feelings, which in its lack of self pity is not Hispanic at all. What happened to Díaz, a Hispanic after all, and how come that even translated to Spanish, he writes like an American? Writing about his absent father, he abandoned his mother and recovered his father in the language of the country that fostered first the father and later the son. By doing so, he became an American writer and completed the full circle of immigration. His cultural background will remain for ever as Latin American, Hispanic, and Dominican but his literature is now nothing but pure American production. The absent father is finally present: English rules.

Talking about his first trip back to Dominican Republic, “home”, after twenty years, Junot Díaz writes: “The trip was to accomplish many things. It would end my exile –what Salman Rushdie has famously called one’s dream of glorious return,” to only find that “Nobody believed that I was a Dominican! You, one cabdriver said incredulously and then turned and laughed.” (Díaz, Homecoming, with Turtle) and we cannot but remember the scene in “Aguantando” where the protagonist plays with his friend Wilfredo, “We shook hands elaborately. I called him Muhammad Ali and he called me Sinbad; these were our Northamerican names. We were both in shorts; a disintegrating pair of sandals clung to his toes” (453), and realize how America as a model has always worked inside the Latin American souls, provoking mixed feelings of genuine desire of betterment and an uncomfortable envy which always seems to point out the inferiority feeling where it comes from. In this sense, some could be drawn to think that “Díaz has provided us with an exemplary chapter in the novel of American Empire, showing us both the literal impoverishments produced by colonialism, and –perhaps more difficult to accomplish- the excruciatingly subtle ways in which colonialism can be internalized and allowed a second life” (Gottlieb), forgetting that the cause of poverty in the society where Díaz and the rest of Latin Americans come from , lies not in the so called imperial expansion of the United States but rather in the lack of proper rules or even of a rule. If Díaz, in the rest of the stories of “Drown”, presents also the life of his protagonist Yunior with “his struggles with alienation and dislocation as an immigrant in New Jersey” (Chen), and as a “ghetto writer … he shocks the reader into the experience of rough life in the ghetto. As a result it reiterates Díaz political causes and exposes the delusion of the American Dream.” (Chen) , we might be tempted to shelve him again in the Latino section, forgetting that his chronicles of poverty and his artistically controlled “disregard for English grammar” (Chen) and “His use of blatant curses, Spanish interjections, lack of quotation marks and failure to start new paragraphs” are not far from the Afro-American literature, which has never been doubted of being other than American literature, with the African languages also lost in the far away past, and reflecting accurately in the style of dialogues, the uneducated and particular way of speaking of the working class. As Díaz himself says in an interview by Marina Lewis: “It’s fun to blow things out of proportion to make a point” (Lewis).

In that same interview, Díaz had previously confessed: “Because community work is so important to me, I find myself almost utterly alienated from other writers. Because that’s a central part of who I am. For most other writers that’s not a real concern. Few are the writers I can share both my art and my community work with” (Lewis) “Aguantando” can be read then also as the testimony of a political fighter, in the crossroads not only of the wealthy White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant population and the Dark, Dominican, Catholic immigrant community, but in the wider continental crossroads of the wealthy English speaking America and the poor Spanish speaking America. Two Americas which are doomed to be one, as in the beginning, with the languages reconciled in the richness of the common history and each respectful of its own tradition. In the meantime, Díaz says: “I might grow up feeling truly American, but I won’t. I am an immigrant and I will stay an immigrant” (Guthmann). However, when the drama of poverty and the tragedy of immigration become part of the past and not a poignant daily reminder of injustice, nobody will deny to bilinguals or trilinguals in the continent, the pleasure of expressing themselves in more than one language, a privilege of educated people that only becomes a theme of an essay when writing in the language of the rich is understood as betraying the language of the poor.

In “Aguantando”, there is also a Spanish speaking father who chose to stay in the Dominican Republic, the young protagonist’s grandfather, the father of her mother, who spends his time setting rat traps and remembering “the good old days, when a man could still make a living from his finca, when the United States wasn’t something folks planned on.”(450) As long as the local fathers will fail, orphans will not always have the choice of loyalty to their mother land and mother tongue. They will continue to emigrate and the American literature will benefit from them, even if they persist, as Julia Alvarez in believing and telling us they are something else: “No, I am not a Dominican writer or really a Dominican in the traditional sense….I’ m also not ‘una norteamericana’. I am not a mainstream American writer with my roots in a small town in Illinois or Kentucky or even New México, I don’t hear the same rhythms in English as a native speaker of English. Sometimes I hear Spanish in English (and of course, viceversa). That’s why I describe myself as a Dominican American writer. That’s not just a term. I am mapping a country that’s not on the map, and that’s why I am trying to put it down to paper”(172-173) But she writes it in English. In a perfect, round and polished English because as Junot Díaz concludes: “No one internalizes social norms in society as do minorities in that society. Or, in other words, whatever criteria there is for literature, nobody follows that more to the letter, I think, than people who are literary minorities. There is this kind of colonial baggage…that idea that the Indian becomes more Indian than the Englishman” (Lewis). Or the child, a man, like his father.


Works Cited
Alvarez, Julia. Something to Declare. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.
Chen, Yvonne. "Junot Díaz: Writer, Activist, Teacher."
The Middlebury Campus 23/04/2006
http://www.middleburycampus.com>.
Díaz, Junot. "Homecoming, with Turtle."
The New Yorker 14 June 2004 23/04/2006
.
Díaz, Junot. Los Boys. 1st ed. Barcelona: Mondadori, 1996.
Gottlieb, Ely. "Prose Reviews Drown Junot Díaz." Boston Review. 28/04/06
.
Guthmann, Edward. "It's a scary time for Latin American immigrants and Junot
Díaz feels the pressure to help."
San Francisco Chronicle 22 April 2006 28/04/2006 .
Jacklosky, Rob. "Drown- Book Review."
Studies in Short Fiction.
Winter 1998. 28/04/2006 .
(Jacklosky)
Kirszner, Laurie G., Stephen R.Mandell. Literature.5th ed.
Boston, Ma. Thomson, 2004.

Lewis, Marina. "Interview with Junot Díaz."
Other Voices 3623/04/2006
http://www.webdelsol.com/Other_Voices/DíazInt.htm>.
Marx, Agnes and Escobar Ulloa, Ernesto. "Entrevista: Ilans Stavans."
Barcelona Review 28/04/2006 .
Pérez Firmat, Gustavo . Life on the Hyphen. Austin, Tx: University of Texas Press,
1994.
Pérez Firmat, Gustavo. Next Year in Cuba. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
Spillman, Robert. "Salon Daily Clicks: Sneack Peeks." Salon 23/04/2006
.

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