Archive for the ‘Junot Diaz’ Category

Dominican-American Gothic

September 9, 2008

There was an interesting interview with Junot Diaz on WNYC this morning.  This guy is awesome.  A caller asked him a question about including some sort of Spanglish dictionary in the back of his book to help readers who are not familiar with the culture understand some of the language that is used.  Diaz explains that doing this would destroy the beauty of books; because they are not meant to be viewed the same way by everyone.  If a reader doesn’t understand something in the book, well, that’s the point.  Go out and ask someone, start a conversation about it, realize you’re not perfect and learn something from the book.  Listen to the interview it here.

The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao

June 19, 2008

What do you with your favorite books? And what are your absolute favorites?  Right now, off the top of my head, I can think of East of Eden, The Life of Pi, The Color Purple and now, Oscar Wao.  Do you have a little group of favorite books that go wherever you go?  To college, to camp, to an internship, to a new house, across the country or overseas.  Maybe you read your favorites more than once, like I do.  Maybe you’re like me, and you bookmark your favorite passages and quotes so you can go back and reread them when you’re feeling lonely or you can’t sleep at night.  Maybe you like to think the characters of these books exist in some alternate book-universe, because even though they are fictional characters they become so real when you read about them.  What makes these books so special, what makes them your favorite?  Is it the characters, the writing style, the use of language, the plot, or how everything comes together to form a beautiful story, a piece of art? 

Reading Oscar Wao is like listening to a storyteller weave a tale.  It is like you’re sitting with Yunior (the narrator) on the train, and you have a really long ride, so Yunior decides to tell you a story about his friend from Rutgers, a dorky kid named Oscar Wao who is the exact opposite of the Dominican/Latino male stereotype.  Oscar is overweight and he’s a complete sci-fi fantasy nerd.  Oscar is afraid he will be the only Dominican man in history to die a virgin.  And his family is cursed.  While Yunior is telling you Oscar’s story, he goes into tangents about the history of the Dominican Republic and he tells you terrifying unbelievable horrifiying stories about its former dictator Trujillo and Trujillo’s influence on Oscar’s family.  I randomly came across this review of Oscar Wao in a WordPress blog where the author perfectly describes the writing style that I will quote here instead of trying to write something of my own:

Perhaps this really is today’s new literature – one that is a mix of brands, words that bitch-slap you with their power, and sentences that challenge you with brazen cultural references (not caring if don’t share them).  Its rap brought into novel form – or maybe the other way around – but grounded in enough history and straight-up storytelling to mesmerize instead of confuse.

The first few pages the novel are about fuku, which is like the Dominican version of a family curse.  Fuku follows a family through generations and across oceans into different countries.  A theme through the book is: do bad things happen because a person is cursed or because sometimes bad things just happen?  I found an interview with Diaz on PBS NewsHour.  He says:

If you think about it, a curse is just a story that you may or may not inherit.  I mean, you can believe your famiy is cursed or you can say it’s not . . . I was really fascinated by that idea, that like, you know, this is a book about this idea that you can wake up, you can be born inheriting a story that you had nothing to do with

There was also an interesting quote about the importance of books in Diaz’s life when he was a kid, after his family moved to the US from the DR when he was 6 years old:

I think part of my desire and my love of books wasn’t just this kind of random encounter with them.  It was an attempt for a kid who, in some ways, miraculously teleported out of one world and appeared in another that’s so radically different.  It was an attempt of me to understand where I came from, where I was, how I got there . . . And I needed them, man, because it’s real confusing, though, to jump from the third world to the first world.

I was telling Manny about fuku while walking in Brooklyn a few days ago.  We turned a corner and there it was, the word spray painted in white on a security gate across the street: “Fuku”

Book Updates

June 14, 2008

FIrst off, I’m totally sad about the sudden death of Tim Russert.  The guy was the gold standard of American journalism, in a class of his own.  My dad and I watched Meet the Press every Sunday.  And I loved Tim Russert’s work during the primaries.  Manny and I watched MSNBC coverage for every single primary.  Does anyone remember when he declared Obama as the democratic nominee before anyone else?  Did anyone else get to see that moment live?  How sad that he didn’t live to see the outcome of this election.  I’m sure he’ll be watching everything unfold from a better place.  I will miss him.

On to books, I finished reading The Giver and had my first book club meeting about it.  There’s only three of us in the book club, but we had a really good discussion about the book.  The Giver is sort of a post-apocalyptic book for children.  Jonas, the main character, lives in a world everything is decided for you – your job, your parents, your spouse, your clothes, your food, your house, etc.  Everyone in the community looks the same.  There are no feelings, no free will, no love.  Except Jonas possesses characteristics that makes him different from the rest of his community.  I read The Giver in elementary school, but I didn’t understand it.  I couldn’t grasp the concept that this book takes place in the future.  I still don’t like reading sci-fi books that take place in other worlds or in the future, I am too realistic and pratical to enjoy fantasy books.  But I am glad I read this book again, for a young adult book it has a lot of adult concepts.  Our book club had a really good discussion about dystopian novels and movies.  Manny is a fan of the dystopian genre of film.  What’s the point of making these films and writing these books?  I always viewed them as warnings; they show us that if we don’t stop waging war all over the world and don’t start doing something about global warming, we are going fuck everything up and have a huge nuclear disaster that destroys everything.  And after that, the only way people will able to live is in these communities where every aspect of your life is decided for you and planned out.  Next up for BOSS, Guns Germs and Steel.

After The Giver, I read Michael Pollan’s latest book In Defense of Food. I am a huge Michael Pollan fan.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma completely changed how I eat and how I think about food.  In Defense of Food summarizes the arguments made in Dilemma. The first half of this book just a big essay about how the American way of eating, or the “western diet” is the most unhealthy eating culture in the world.  The western diet is about convenience and instant gratification.  The western diet reduces food into individual nutrients.  Instead of eating a carrot, according to the western diet you’re only eating beta carotene.  According the western diet, a food is only equal to the sum of all its parts.  But Pollan asks, maybe what makes a carrot healthy is not just its nutrients, but the entire carrot as a whole.  For example, nutritionists noticed that people who ate a lot of carrots had a decreased risk of colon cancer.  Researchers isolated the nutrient beta carotene from the carrot and decided this must be what was protecting people from cancer.  Researchers gave people beta carotene supplements to test this theory, but found beta carotene actually increased the risk of cancer in the group that took supplements compared with the group who did not.

This western obsession with nutrients instead of food leads to unhealthy eating fads.  Pollan gives the example of the low fat diet.  In the 1970s it was decided that saturated fat was bad for you.  Instead of encouraging people to eat less high-fat food, the food-industry-controlled USDA encouraged people to eat more low-saturated fat food.  Enter margarine, the perfect healthy substitute to the evil saturated fat butter.  In an effort to reduce saturated fat intake, people ate more margarine and vegetable oil-based substitutes.   But now, years later, turns out that the trans fat in margarine and many vegetable oil based foods is actually worse for you than the saturated fat it was supposed to replace.  Oops.  Pollan’s message is this: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.  The second half the book gives you tips on how to do this.  In summary, don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food, and don’t buy low fat food-like substitutes and use this money to buy locally grown whole foods from local farmers markets.  This Sunday am I am hauling ass to the farmer’s market first thing in the morning and buying a freezer full of grass fed beef and poultry.  No more joking around.  Because really, after reading three of Pollan’s books I am disgusted with the entire industrial food chain that values money and profits over public health.  It is really outrageous.  Read his books, but read Omnivore’s Dilemma first.  If you’re in New York state, find your local farmer’s market now.

Last but definitely not least, I read Drown, a collection of short stories by Dominican author Junot Diaz.  His stories are intense and show the realities of immigrant life and of people who life in transnational communities.  His characters live in both the slums of Santo Domingo and the streets of central New Jersey.  Despite the extreme hardships they go through, Diaz never asks for pity from his readers.  He demands respect for his characters and for their experiences because most people cannot imagine what an immigrant goes through in trying to live in this country.  Right now I’m reading his novel, The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize, so I’ll definitely be writing more about Diaz.  This quote is on the first page of Drown:

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 Perez Firmat