“All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation – -it is the Self escaping into the open,” so writes E.B. White in The Elements of Style. In Drown, the collection of short stories written by Junot Diaz, what escapes into the open are revealing glimpses not only into the Self, but the Self as gleaned through the refracted images of the immigrant experience in the United States. Diaz’s style, at once simple and complex, propels these experiences in ten loosely-structured, semi-autobiographical tales of love, loss, abandonment, identity, hard-earned optimism, and belonging in the lives of Dominicans both in the Dominican Republic and the United States. His use of language, prose, and narrative shifts are bold, fresh, and inventive, giving depth and feeling to his tales in unexpected ways.
Language is everything. To a writer, it is an essential tool. But for the writer who is bilingual and living in a country where his native tongue is not the dominate language, it is also a means of self-identification. The characters that populate the ten stories in Drown straddle a fence between their native country in the Dominican Republic and their new home in the United States, constantly negotiating the terms in which they must identify with the dominant culture and their own. Language becomes the tie that binds them back to their past. In the stories, “Ysrael,” “Aguantando,” and “Fiesta, 1980,” which relate to the narrator’s early years on the Island and in New Jersey, Diaz liberally sprinkles the text with Spanish words as if they were spices in a pot, adding flavor and subtext to the whole.
Though the stories are written in English, Diaz carefully mixes in these words with a natural ear for rhythm and poetry. For instance, in “Ysrael” he writes: “The next morning the roosters were screaming. Rafa dumped the ponchera in the weeds and then collected our shoes from the patio, careful not to step on the pile of cacao beans Tia had set out to dry.” (Drown 9) His use of Spanish words flows easily with the English language, drawing the reader into the narrator’s world, and his observations from the perspective of a native relating to his own land.
Yet, the use of Spanish takes on a subtler context when the stories turn to life in New Jersey, after the narrator has come of age. For example, in the story, “Edison, New Jersey,” Diaz uses the differences in American and Dominican cultures, namely language, to portray the two worlds the narrator straddles. Yunior, who is now a pool table delivery boy, rarely uses Spanish, except when it points out not only the differences between himself and the greater mainstream American culture, but also the differences in himself in comparison to his Dominican past. When he and Wayne make a delivery to a house in which the owner has laid down copies of the Washington Post on the floor, he slips into Spanish.
“Carajo, what if we slip.” (Drown 122) He also uses Spanish to describe his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend as a “zangano” and “painfully gringo.” (Drown 126) These two seemingly minor incidents bring to the surface the narrator’s feelings of “otherness,” in the environment around him. This feeling of otherness takes on a surprising twist when Yunior meets the Dominican maid at one of his customer’s homes. After he encounters her for a brief second in the window during a botched delivery, Yunior strikes up a conversation with her in the kitchen during a later visit and discovers her Dominican roots. Though the dialogue is written in English, the entire exchange is in Spanish, except when he slips into English: “I say in English that she should have her boss bring her but she stares at me blankly.
I switch over.” (Drown 133) (Italics mine) (Notice also that when the character switches to English, it is described in narrative and not shown in dialogue, as the previous exchange.) Later on, after the woman has shown him her boss’ bedroom and his clothes, Yunior continues to have trouble expressing himself even in his native tongue. “A habit of money, I say but I can’t translate it right; I end up agreeing with her.” (Drown 134) Caught between both worlds, the narrator makes an uncomfortable fit in both, thus foreshadowing a later scene in which the narrator gets the woman on the phone but is unable to “say” anything to her. Diaz is able to portray this internal conflict through these subtle stylistic choices.
As a matter of style, it’s interesting that Diaz chooses not to italicize the Spanish words in the text. Since most grammar guides suggest that foreign words should always be italicized, DiazÃ?Âs choice in breaking that grammatical standard should be examined. By not italicizing Spanish words, he is clearly commenting on how even the written language in our society marginalizes or illegitimizes those who do not speak English. By choosing not to italicize Spanish words, Diaz is integrating the language into the English text, thus legitimizing the language as well as the experiences of those who speak that language.
Legitimacy and authenticity are two themes that come up prominently in Drown. Not only in terms of language and identity, but also in voice. While it is a matter of conjecture whether or not all the stories are told from the same narrative point of view, I have no doubt that Diaz wanted to explore a broader canvas of Dominican life. Hence, the stories shift back and forth between life on the Island and New Jersey. While most of the stories are told in the first person narrative, the last two, “No Face,” and “Negocios,” make slight departures from that form. “No Face,” revisits the character Ysrael, who is introduced in the first story. Only this time, the story is told in the third person point of view.
The reader is allowed to see Ysrael in the way he sees himself and not simply as the object of someone else’s observations. Why would Diaz include this story in the collection, especially since it sharply deviates from the stories of Yunior and his family? By changing point of view, Diaz is then able to connect the experiences of Yunior and Ysrael, alienated individuals both who wear masks, literal and figurative, that hide or conflict with their true identities.
Diaz’s narrative choices also bring up the issue of authenticity. Since he tells some stories from different points of views, such as in “Ysrael” and “No Face,” how can the reader trust that the narrator of these tales is reliable? Or, better yet, who can be considered the “authentic” voice for the Dominican experience? In some stories, it isn’t clear “who” the narrator is, while others break from first person narration to second (“How to Date a Brown girl…”) or to third (“No Face”), further distancing the narrator from the reader. Though Yunior narrates throughout “Negocios,” the story is really about his father and his experiences in the United States before he sends for his family up north.
The story was related to him by both his mother and father, and because of this each version collides and conflicts, denying both the narrator and the reader a sure ground in certainty. “There are two stories about what happened next, one from Papi, one from Mami: either Papi left peacefully with a suitcase filled with Eulalio’s best clothes or he beat the man first, and then took a bus and the suitcase to Virginia.” (Drown 174) The story, as well as the book, ends on a speculative note:
The first subway station on Bond would have taken him to the airport and I like to think that he grabbed that first train, instead of what was more likely true, that he had gone out to Chuito’s first, before flying south to get us.
The question then becomes for the reader: What is the real truth? Whose version of the truth do we believe? Who is authentic? And is it possible for the narrator to authenticate his experiences in a language not his own. The epigraph from Gustavo Perez Firmat at the start of the book perhaps offers a clue: “The fact that I/am writing to you/in English/already falsifies what I/wanted to tell you.” In Drown, Diaz questions the notion of authenticity and belonging and, by doing so, challenges his readers to reexamine those ideas, as well.
Another stylistic choice on Diaz’s part is the way he structures his sentences. Rhythmic and stripped bare of excess wordiness, his prose conveys a clear-eyed, often nonchalant realism in his stories. This style is best typified in the way he portrays violence. For instance, in the first story of the collection, “Ysrael,” Yunior and his brother Rafa travel a long distance to see the title character to get a look at his face, which has been eaten away by a pig and is now kept hidden behind a handmade mask. Diaz’s choice in language and rhythm to describe Rafa’s hitting Ysrael over the head with a bottle is striking: “I’m from around here, he said.
The mask twitched. I realized he was smiling and then my brother brought his arm around and smashed the bottle on top of his head. It exploded, the thick bottom spinning away like a crazed eyeglass and I said, Holy fucking shit” (Drown 18) In four sentences, Diaz captures the unexpected suddenness of violence. He does this mostly through rhythm. The first two sentences are short, clipped, almost banal, but by the third and fourth, the rhythm is more fluid, with an eye toward poetry. His use of certain words such as “brought,” “smashed,” “bottle,” “exploded,” and “bottom,” with their long and short vowels, also mimics violence, with all its lurching, fluid, and abrupt motions. In the final sentence, Diaz draws out Rafa’s action – -“It exploded” – -from Yunior’s reaction – -“Holy fucking shit” – -with a poetic description of the smashing bottle, suspending the action in a dreamlike quality that allows the reader time to digest what has happened.
Diaz is also able to convey the narrator’s stunned reaction to his brother’s violence without explicitly saying so, thus creating conflict between the narrator and his brother, as well as contrasting the traits of both characters. Here’s another example of DiazÃ?Âs style: “I’m in no rush; I take [the Pathfinder] out behind the apartments, onto the road that leads to the dump. This was our spot when we were younger, where we started fires we sometimes couldn’t keep down.” (“Aurora” 57) The first sentence has the rocking, pitching, rolling rhythm of a car taking sharp, sudden turns.
The semicolon acts like a gear shift in the sentence, lurching the action forward, while the next clause has the flowing, smooth rhythm of motion. This allows the narrator to casually guide the reader back into his internal thoughts in the next sentence, much in the same way he guides the Pathfinder. The narrator shifts to the past, remembering sentimentally about the childhood experiences, some common, some not-so-common, he’s had in the dump. This passage is brief, a flash, patterning the way the mind works when it momentarily shifts from one train of thought to the next. By placing this passage within the context of the narrator in his car, Diaz is able to convey how the environment shapes the narrator’s identity in a concise manner without slowing down the story’s pace.
Diaz also has a fresh eye for detail. In “Aurora,” he describes the Hacienda with laser-sharp clarity. “The boards across the windows are as loose as old teeth, the bushes around the front big and mangy like Afros.” (Drown 60) Such stylistic choices are not meant to showoff what a good writer Diaz is, but to enhance the story’s themes and character development. Diaz’s prose also evokes a sentimental wistfulness and cynicism in his stories, sometimes in one sentence even. The last paragraph in the story, “Aurora,” (Drown 65) is a perfect example of this. The girlfriend scenes in “Edison, New Jersey,” are equally poignant and heartbreaking. These stories, as well as “Drown,” express a deep, profound longing which is all the more moving because of DiazÃ?Âs mastery of prose.
In any story, style is not simply a way for a writer to stamp her personality into her writing, but a way to tell a story effectively. Diaz portrays a world that is “drowning” in the bitter realities and broken dreams of his characters’ lives, while at the same time allowing room for transcending hope. His style is equally transcending, bringing greater clarity and focus to his writing all the more.