Being an “American Original”: Frameworks for Teaching Texts by Junot Diaz

PALS Note: The following is part of our 3 post series that uses Ben Railton’s book, History and Hope in American Literature: Models of Critical Patriotism, as a lens to discuss pedagogy. Check out part one of our series by Shelli Homer and part three by Brianne Jaquette.

In this post, I will cover how some of the frames I found for assessing Junot Diaz othered his work. I will explore how my students and I critically examined these moments of othering, and then I will suggest some more useful frameworks for exploring Diaz’s writing at the end of the post. I will be back later this week with a more in depth look at how Railton’s concept of critical patriotism can help us explore the literature of Junot Diaz.

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via Me*Myself*&*I

In class while reading Drown, my students and I are skimming the pages in the back of my copy of the book. First there is the “Acknowledgements.” Then the “About the Author.” The last two pages are blank. In the middle between the information about Diaz and the blank pages is a page (inserted below) that I suppose has been placed to sell us on Junot Diaz. I am reading and talking this page through with my students and the conversation goes something like this:

img_1249“Junot Diaz is an American original.”

Yep, that sounds good.

“He writes as if he’s discovered a new language, with a voice so supple and electric and deliriously funny it seems to come from another world.”

Hmmm…well, there might be some things to push back against in there.

This page must have come from the marketing department. It isn’t telling us about particular books by Diaz but seems to be selling us on the man himself—hence the prominent picture. We started off buying what the page was selling but then the text took some strange turns, and I wanted to unpack them with my students.

The first odd remark was that he discovered “a new language.” What new language is this “other” one? Is it that he uses crass language or swear words or that he mixes Spanish and English in his text? Certainly he is not the first writer to do either of these things. First, we puzzle over this idea of a “new language,” but then the subtext of this page becomes more clear when we learn that Diaz is writing about the “New America.” I push my students to think about what the repetition of the word “new” suggests. I imagine the thrust is to view the U.S. as a multicultural space, but the language used doesn’t sit right with us. What is new about the America that Diaz is writing about? Certainly America is new to Yunior when he first arrives, but the immigrant experience is not new to America. Mixing Spanish and English is not new to America. Living in a low-income neighborhood is not new to America. Dealing weed or talking to an army recruiter is not new to America.

What we discover is in our reading of this page is that this text pushes Diaz away even while claiming him in the boldest print on the page as “an American original.” This page, presumably written by someone helping to sell Diaz’s books, is othering his work. It is telling us that we don’t have the framework to understand Diaz. We need new ones for books like Drown.

Maybe I asked my students to be too hard on this page smushed in the back of the book. Surely no one was meant to think this much about marketing text. But it particularly stuck out to me as something to analyze with my students after watching a few interviews with Diaz. Diaz is always both gracious and smart when answering questions, but I watched more than one interview where it felt as if the interviewer was asking him the equivalent of “Can you explain all Dominicans to me?” or “I didn’t think I would be interested in this subject but somehow I am, can you explain this to me?” I’m obviously paraphrasing, but take this interview at the Chicago Humanities Festival as an example of what not to ask Junot Diaz.

The interview was with Peter Sagal, who is best known for hosting Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!  I am a Sagal fan, but I was really not impressed with him here. For instance, he explains in a very long-winded manner that he didn’t know much about Dominicans before reading Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He tries to assert to Diaz that he got a glimpse into the Dominican diaspora through the novel. He says:

In reading your book, it’s like, oh…there’s this rich life. There’s this astonishing thing going on behind the facade that I was too self-involved to look behind. So, whether or not you want to have done that…to represent to the reading public, however many years ago when Wao came out, you did, I think, say this is this community. These are the people who live in your cities. These are the people you see. And I can speak for this experience.

That is where the question for Diaz ends. This interview is structured as more of a conversation, so I can forgive Sagal for the roundabout entry into his point. However, it is harder to forgive the fact that his point was basically that he used Diaz’s book as some sort of explainer on the Dominican community in New York/New Jersey. The point that Sagal misses is that Diaz is not responsible for explaining himself to Sagal or anyone else. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t curious about cultures they aren’t familiar with or that it is wrong to ask questions about a person’s history or background. But maybe do a little work first? If not before reading the book, then before asking questions to the author of the book.

We have all been taught to side eye YouTube comments; however, most of the commenters  on this video were on it, and I thought that this comment was particularly on point about the interview:

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I would recommend when interviewing Diaz or writing publicity for his book ask yourself questions like: What traditions do his texts fall into?  What formal features do the texts have? Is his work in line with other contemporary texts or do they break structure and form in interesting ways? What was the relationship between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic when Diaz or Diaz’s characters immigrated? What other texts about immigrants can you connect to Diaz’s work? What are we learning about masculinity, relationships, family, and community from Diaz?

These are the same questions I asked myself when teaching Diaz in the classroom. I don’t know that much about the Dominican Republic or Diaz either, but I know enough American literature and American history to find frameworks for teaching Diaz. Diaz is an amazing writer, but he does not seem to come from “another world.” And he does not need to explain himself. Rather, we need to work in the classroom to ask interesting questions of him and his work. His stories are part of the stories of American history and culture, and therefore, we can pull from these frameworks to find ways to approach his texts.

Here are some potential frameworks for teaching Diaz using Drown (which is the Diaz text that I have taught):

1. Teach with other texts that use both Spanish and English. I would use Gloria Andualza’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” to discuss the political and cultural implications of texts written with two languages.

2. Teach with other stories that use gaps and silences to tell themselves. I could see Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl working with Drown. 

3. Teach with other writers from the Caribbean diaspora. I paired Drown with Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker, which was very useful for a discussion of form and the short story cycle.

4. Teach with texts that interrogate masculinity. Perhaps Walt Whitman’s discussions of bodies with work with a story like “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie.”

5. Teach with texts that use space and place to tell a narrative. I am imagining a discussion of Ben Franklin walking about Philadelphia in conjunction with Yunior, who is also always on the move—taking a trip to see Ysrael, going to a party with his family, or selling pool tables.

Instead of exploring one of the above frameworks in more detail, I am going to leave them here as potential topics. I will be back with a later post that looks more in depth at one other potential frame for teaching Diaz: Ben Railton’s conception of critical patriotism. Hopefully with more considered approaches for Diaz available we can ask questions of his work with complexity and nuance.

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