On Loss and Hope: Drown, by Junot Díaz

.
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 to English
though I belong nowhere else
–Gustavo Pérez Firmat

And so begins Drown, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz’s first short story collection that he jokes “no one ever reads.”

I went about this backwards, having started with This is How You Lose Her when it came out in 2012. A young man named Yunior narrates many of the stories in the two short story collections. Drown covers Yunior’s life as a child and adolescent, while This is How You Lose Her picks up where Drown leaves off.

Yunior is 9 years old in the first story “Ysrael.” He is staying with his brother Rafa and aunt and uncle in the Dominican Republic countryside one summer because his mother is working long hours at the local chocolate factory. Yunior’s father is in the U.S., supposedly working hard to one day send for the rest of his family. In “Ysrael,” guileless and eager-to-please Yunior follows his bored and brutish older brother around, listening to his tales of sexual exploits and accompanying him as he goes to torment the disfigured boy, Ysrael. Slowly, we watch Yunior lose his innocence.

Young Yunior grapples with the fear that his father will never come for them, and later, with the knowledge that he is cheating on his mother. Often it seems, Yunior is longing for either the physical or emotional presence of his father. Yunior’s mother is the anchor in his life but even she, too, eventually drifts away. There is a particularly poignant passage in the story “Aguantando,” heartbreaking in its youthful resignation. “Aguantando” is about the family’s dashed hopes following the father’s many promises to send for them, and Yunior’s mother falls into a depression, leaving her children behind to stay at her sister’s for several months. Of the aftermath Yunior writes:

She didn’t treat me badly on her return but we were no longer close; she did not call me her Prieto or bring chocolates from her work. That seemed to suit her fine. And I was young enough to grow out of her rejection. I still had baseball and my brother. I still had trees to climb and lizards to tear apart.” (page 84)

Without being sentimental or feigning a child’s voice, Díaz seems to capture well the melancholy of a child who longs for parental love while trying to accept what he cannot control. It is interesting to later read This is How You Lose Her and see how the dysfunction has impacted Yunior’s adult attempts at intimacy.

Several of the stories are told from Yunior’s viewpoint while the narrators of the others are unclear. But together the collection paints a vivid picture of the struggles, hopes, and disappointments endured by immigrant families. More specifically, the stories give voice to immigrant adolescent males struggling to love, receive love, and find purpose within the context of barrio life and a machismo culture. Díaz’s writing is spare and poignant but gritty and honest. You can read the strong language, sex, drugs, and petty crime at a superficial level, but palpable beneath all of that is the hurting of Díaz’s characters.

There is some unevenness in the stories but on the whole I was personally touched by this volume. The themes of belonging and daring to hope hit home for me as an immigrant. But I also read this book as a daughter, wife, and mother, and just as powerful for me were the themes of familial connection and sacrifice and coming of age.

14 comments on “On Loss and Hope: Drown, by Junot Díaz

  1. whatmeread says:

    Definitely worth checking out! Thanks for a good review!

  2. Well I’ve really gone about this the wrong way! I’ve read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (which I loved), I have This Is How You Lose Her in the TBR and this is the first time I’ve heard of Drown! It sounds as good as Oscar Wao, he’s definately a writer to savour…

    • Cecilia says:

      I have to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao! My guess is that he just gets stronger as he gets older. Too bad he takes so long in between books ;-)

  3. rudrip says:

    I love short stories and Drown sits on my bookshelf. You’ve inspired me to read it. Diaz’s style is subtle, but powerful.

    Did he share any insights on his writing process at his reading?

    • Cecilia says:

      Rudri, I took some notes from his talk and am planning to write a post on it for next week! Otherwise, I just remember him saying that he takes a loooooong time to write. He joked that what may look like crap to the rest of us actually takes him a lot of brain power to put together ;-)

  4. Carolyn O says:

    Lovely review. Must have been exciting to meet him!

  5. Naomi says:

    I still have not read any of his books, but your comments about his immigrant experience intrigues me. How this influences making connections and building relationships. In your opinion, how does this collection of stories compare with the other two you have read?

  6. Well, look at you! I know you said you were planning to read this way back in January when I posted my review of Oscar Wao. I’m glad you enjoyed Drown so much. And interesting that Yunior is apparently the narrator in all of Díaz’s stories – he’s the “author” of Oscar Wao, too, but you don’t get to meet him until halfway through the book.

    • Cecilia says:

      Alina, you remembered :-) Plus I got extra inspired as I met Junot Diaz two weeks ago!! My plan is to post about that next week. As my husband said, meeting him was the equivalent of meeting a rock star for other people ;-)

      Yes, Yunior seems to figure prominently in all his books so far!

      • Yay!!! I’m so excited you got to meet him – I was freaking out when I heard Ishmael Beah was going to be speaking at a Library conference I went to a few months ago, so I completely get it :) Can’t wait to see your post on meeting Diaz!!

  7. Justine says:

    I was blown away by “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”, and I knew I just had to read the rest. I’ve read his works in all the wrong order, but nevertheless, each has impacted in a way that I can’t even explain. His words are raw and honest, depicting a reality of immigrant life that doesn’t seem to belong in the narrative of the American Dream. While reading, I found myself rooting for the characters, wanting a happy ending for them, yet, at the back of my mind, I knew better, and it is with that mixed feeling of hope and futility that I read his books. p.s. I’m so jealous you got to meet him!

    • Cecilia says:

      I think you summed it up perfectly, Justine! I can’t describe, either, the feelings that I get when I read Diaz. I feel like he gets me, or that there is a place for me, when I read his words. Love your comment.

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