Immigration is one of my favorite topics in the social diversity class I teach. Last fall, I listened to an interview with Junot Diaz on “The New York Times” Book Review. I found myself intrigued by both Diaz himself and his character Yunior. I decided to pick up his first set of short stories called “Drown,” which primarily focus on Yunior. Similar to Diaz’s experience, Yunior is an immigrant to the US from the Dominican Republic. Although I’m generally more enthusiastic about reading novels, I sat down to read the first short story last Sunday. Two or three hours later, I had read the entire book. The book was fantastic, and I highly recommend it. It explored tense family dynamics, immigration, working class struggles, relationships, sexual molestation, disability, and bullying, just to name a few. This book would be wonderful to discuss in a sociology class, particularly in a class on social diversity. Some of the topics might make students uncomfortable.
Diaz manages to convey different lifestyles and aspect of culture in the Dominican Republic and the United States by showing Yunior and his brother, Rafa’s, lives at home and as they visit relatives. One of the aspects that I found the most gripping was the fact that Yunior’s family struggles in both places. In the Dominican Republic, his mother works in a chocolate factory, and at times, she has to send her boys away to other relatives. It is challenging for her because her husband left to live in the US years before and strings her along. The stories trace the difficulties of their relationship. Furthermore, the tales are haunting as you see Yunior at different ages, and it appears that he repeats some of his father’s abusive patterns on at least one of his girlfriends.
One of the most heart-breaking stories in the books is about a secondary character, “Ysrael,” whose name is also the title of the first short story. At this point, Yunior is still living in the Dominican Republic and is nine years old. The boys in the neighborhood abuse Ysrael, because he supposedly had most of his face eaten off by a pig in his childhood. The boy wore a mask to hide his face. The other boys chase him, and even Yunior had hit him with a stone. Rafa decides that they should go find Ysrael and pull his mask off. The boys embark on an adventure on the bus. (Distressingly, Yunior is molested on a bus by a man.) They spend time talking to Ysrael before Rafa hits him so that they boys can observe him without the mask. Both boys are horrified by what they see. In a later story, abuse is implied when Ysrael’s mother tells him to “[go]…before your father comes out” (160). These stories demonstrate how a person with a disability can face many types of abuse from various people. I wondered when I read a later story about Ysrael if he had belonged to a more wealthy social class if the doctors would have been able to help him or not. In the stories, North American doctors are seen with a sense of awe. In addition to disability and bullying, Diaz looks closely at family ties.
Diaz weaves a complex tale of family tension. Yunior’s father leaves the family after he gets caught having an affair. He takes family money to get started and immigrates to the US. The rest of the family believes that he will send for them. He eventually marries another woman to become a US citizen and has a child with her. After many years, he brings the entire family up to New York, where he is living. During the period of separation, he essentially abandons the family. It reminded me of a powerful documentary that I watched about immigrants from Laos, although the reasons for immigrating were different.
Last semester, a student recommeneded that I watch a documentary on Laos called “The Betrayal-Nerakhoon.” When I read Diaz’s discussion of Yunior’s family, it reminded me, in part, of this. In the documentary, due to the impact of the Vietnam war on Laos, the father of the family is detained by the communists. He had worked for the US during the war. The other members of the family believed that it was likely that he was dead. Part, but not all of, the remaining family escape to a refugee camp and eventually immigrate to the US. When they arrive here, it isn’t the panacea they believed in. In fact, they wind up living in an impoverished area in New York where gangs and violence are frequent. Near the end of the documentary, they discover that the father had immigrated to the US as well, and had a new wife in Florida. The break down of the family is tragic, and the video does a great job of showing culture and culture shock. To conclude, I highly recommend both “Drown” and “The Betrayal – Nerakhoon.” They both explore culture, culture shock, immigration, and poverty in the US.