Monday, November 07, 2016

Are they all Yunior?

Got a new stash of books from D and am pleased as punch. Started with 'Drown', the first compilation of 10 short stories by Junot Díaz which was published in 1996. (Reviews here, here and here.)

The author seems to favor a type of protagonist. Half of his protagonists in these stories set in the city of Santo Domingo are named Yunior for short. With an older brother named Rafa. The other protagonists are simply referred to as 'I'. I don't know if they're one and the same person sharing different experiences with the readers or the author just likes to name them all Yunior. Had to google around to read about the author's frame of mind and intent when writing these stories.

I modelled Yunior's struggle on my earlier self in that it wasn't until my late 20s that I began to realise 'this shit doesn't work'. Over the 16 years this book took to write I always pictured this image of Yunior having this terrible metal mask that he is trying to tear off his face, all the while not sure whether he still has a face underneath it. 
~ Junot Díaz's words in an interview with The Guardian in September 2012.

Although eponymous title story 'Drown' is full of teenage angst, shoplifting, misdemeanors and even the exploration into sexuality, it's written in an even tone in first person narrative. The protagonist in this story has no name. His best pal Beto went away to college and the last summer they spent together involved two sexual encounters. However, right at the beginning of the story, we know he doesn't speak to Beto anymore, presumably because of that last night spent together.

My mother tells me Beto's home, waits for me to say something, but I keep watching the TV. Only when she's in bed do I put on my jacket and swing through the neighborhood to see. He's a pato now but two years ago we were friends and he would walk into the apartment without knocking, his heavy voice rousing my mother from the Spanish of her room and drawing me up from the basement, a voice that crackled and made you think of uncles or grandfathers.

I blinked at the title 'How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Half'. To my relief, it's entirely satirical, of course. Almost hilarious. Picked out an excerpt here that doesn't require that much background or explanation. However, it's totally worth it to read this witty story in its full context.

You have choices. If the girl's from around the way, take her to El Cibao for dinner. Order everything in your busted-up Spanish. Let her correct you if she's Latina and amaze her if she's black. If she's not from around the way, Wendy's will do. As you walk to the restaurant talk about school. A local girl won't need stories about the neighborhood but the other ones might. Supply the story about the loco who'd been storing canisters of tear gas in his basement for years, how one day the canisters cracked and the whole neighborhood got a dose of military-strength stuff. Don't tell her that your moms know right away what it was, that she recognized its smell from the year the United States invaded your island.

In 'Negocios', we learn how Yunior's father Ramón de las Casas left Santo Domingo and the family for a better life in the United States. The father was already regularly cheating on his mother before he left, and in the United States, of course the fastest way to citizenship is to marry an American and secure it. That's exactly what Ramón did, to a Nilda and had children with her. But in the end, he left her too, in the most cowardly of ways. Fast forwarded to years later, the children from the two marriages meet as adults, and Yunior also met Nilda. Googled for the meaning of 'negocios'. I took it to mean 'an agreement' in this context. Well well well.

With the hum of a new life Papi should have found it easy to bury the memory of us but neither his conscience, nor the letters from home that found him wherever he went, would allow it. Mami's letters, as regularly as the months themselves, were corrosive slaps in the face. It was now a one-sided correspondence, with Papi reading and not mailing anything back. He opened the letters wincing in anticipation. Mami detailed how his children were suffering, how his littlest boy was so anemic people thought he was a corpse come back to life; she told him about his oldest son, playing in the barrio, tearing open his feet and exchanging blows with his so-called friends. Mami refused to talk about her condition. She called Papi a desgraciado and a puto of the highest order for abandoning them, a traitor worm, an eater of pubic lice, a cockless, ball-less cabrón. He showed Jo-Jo the letters, often at drunken bitter moments, and Jo-Jo would shake his head, waving for two more beers. you, my compadre, have done too many things wrong. If you keep this up, your life will spring apart. 

No comments: