In Drown, a collection of short stories, author Junot Diaz presents readers with an impoverished group of characters through harsh, but vivid language. Through the voice of Yunior, the narrator throughout the majority of the stories, Diaz places the blame for Yuniors negativity and rebellious nature on the disappointment caused by his father and the childhood illusion of America. Diaz, through language and symbolism, forces readers into an emotional bond with Yunior while exposing the illusory nature of the American dream.
Although intertwined with each story, “Fiesta, 1980” allows for a more concise discussion of Diazs purpose. Diazs language, even at first glance, appears very different from conventional authors: Mamis younger sister- my tia Yrma-finally made it to the United States that year. She and Tio Miguel got themselves an apartment in the BronxHe didnt say nothing to nobody. (Drown, 23) Two aspects, his Spanish interjections into the text and his tendency to disregard English rules of grammar, surface in the opening of “Fiesta, 1980.
Yuniors narratives contain Spanish words an average of about every other sentence. Diaz uses them to keep readers aware of Yuniors culture and homeland, attempting to stop the “stifling” effect America often has on immigrants cultures. Also, Yuniors rejection of the norms of English writing, evident in the phrases “got themselves” and “nothing to nobody” in the above quote, gives his narratives a certain rebellious quality. Not only does he rebel against Americas tendency to smother cultural values but rebelling against American rules in general, even the rules of grammar.
Diaz continues his grammatical attack on the United States rules with his lack of quotation marks: Papi pulled me to my feet by my ear. If you throw up- I wont I cried, tears in my eyes Ya, Ramon, ya. Its not his fault, Mami said. All of the conversations are printed in the manner above, without any quotation marks and sometimes even a new paragraph to indicate another speaker. Diaz successfully attacks the United States in Yuniors defense, but through language style rather than blatant statements. Yuniors narration, besides being a political one, also appears very negative, but also extremely personal.
His voice is conversational, which has a powerful effect: rooped back into the living room with their plates a-heaping and all the adults ducked back into the living room, where the radio was playing loud-ass bachatas. (Drown, 37) In the above quote Yunior invents the words a-heaping and loud-ass, but the reader understands what he means. Yuniors casual wording, essential to the tone, creates the illusion that the reader knows him personally and thus demands an emotional response to his suffering. His negativity, undoubtedly stemming from a combination of his fathers abuse and the false hopes of America, adds to the storys sense of intimacy:
A third-world childhood could give you thathe found me sitting on the couch feeling like hellI wasnt that sort of son. (Drown, 25, 29) Yuniors frequent references to his difficult childhood and his current discomforts, “third world”, “like hell”, “that sort of son” in the above excerpts; never allow the reader a moments relief from what he experiences. Diaz, having established a “close relationship” between reader and narrator, expects the reader to experience all of this simultaneously with Yunior. The reader suffers a let down in discovering Yuniors unhappiness.
Diaz creates the effect with language to contrast the readers disappointment with Yuniors. Once again regarding Diazs language style, vulgarity and blatant phrases as well as cultural references add to the power of the story: He was looking at her like she was the last piece of chicken on earth. (Drown, 36) The word choice often takes the reader by surprise, as it most likely did in the above quote. However blunt, Diaz creates a vivid picture. The wording, strong and punchy, reflects the difficult situation in which the family must live.
Vulgarity has the same effect: Its the only pussy youll ever get, Rafa said to me in English. (Drown, 31) The word pussy, especially out of the mouth of a young boy, shocks readers with its bluntness. Besides conveying the familys style of speech, it paints a clear picture of Yunior’s lifestyle, even at an age as young as nine. Diaz does inject occasional imagery that contrasts with the nearly constant blatant vulgarity. In the following quote Mami feels less ambitious to have….. a good time after Papi comes home from work, ready to fight:
That morning, when she had gotten us up for school, Mami told us she wanted to have a good time at the party. I want to dance, she said, but now, with the sun sliding out of the sky like spit off a wall, she seemed ready just to get this over with. (Drown, 24) In the above quote the images of the sun sliding from the sky and the spit on a wall are juxtaposed, revealing Diazs opinion of the United States. The character Mami represents the Dominican Republic, home, where Yunior feels safe. Papi, domineering and selfish, represents America and all of its false promises.
The juxtaposed images represent the countries, opposites in Yuniors mind. Yunior feels his homeland slipping away while America takes over, his culture fading on American soil: 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 dont belong to English though I belong no where else. (Drown, 1) This poem, shown on the first page of the collection, illustrates Diazs ideas about America and its tendency to stifle ones culture.
The powerful effect “Fiesta, 1980”, and Drown as a whole, has on readers can be greatly attributed to Diazs careful construction of each story, incorporating tough wording and elements of Spanish culture. Secondly, symbolism presents another important aspect of Diazs writing. The lime-green Volkswagen van helps to convey just how profoundly affected Yunior becomes by disappointment. Green, the color of the van, represents money and hope two things often deceiving to Yunior and his family.
Yunior remains so scarred by his continually being let down that when the family finally acquires some possessions, what they have been striving for; he cannot enjoy them: Brand new, lime-green and bought to impress. Oh, we were impressed, but me, every time I was in the VW and Papi went above twenty miles an hour, I vomitedthat van was like my curse. Mami suspected it was the upholstery. In her mind, American thingshave an intrinsic badness about them. (Drown, 27) In other words, Yunior becomes unable to accept the VW van, or America, after so much trauma caused by broken hopes and abuse.
We see this once again at the fiesta. He starved in the Dominican Republic, in the campo mentioned earlier in the novel, but every vision of his homeland in “Fiesta, 1980” appears happy and mystical, but far away: shes [Mami] surrounded by laughing cousins Ill never meet, who are all shiny from dancing, whose clothes are rumpled and loose. You can tell its night and hot and that mosquitoes have been biting. She sits straight and even in a crowd she stands out, smiling quietly (Drown, 41) The above passage refers to Mami in the Dominican Republic before she married.
Yunior fondly reflects his place of birth, contrasting it to the harsh realities of America. When anything goes right in America, like the family party, Yunior finds much awry and again cannot enjoy the good parts of a predominantly bad situation: but when I joined the other kids around the serving table Papi said, Oh no you dont, and took the paper plate out of my hand. His fingers werent gentle. Whats wrong now? Tia asked, handing me another plate. He aint eating, Papi said Why cant he eat? Because I said so. Papi, representing America, prevents Yunior from eating.
Although, in reality, Yunior is able to eat in America, this symbolizes his inability to enjoy any progress his family makes. Papis fingers “werent gentle”, once again referring to the difficulty Yunior has accepting Americas reality, harsh and invading. Papis reply “because I said so” alludes to the lack of answers America offers to Yuniors questioning of authority and the broken promises. Diazs symbolism mainly concerns his ideas about the image of America and the reality immigrants must face after such high hopes. Mami and Papi not only represent different countries, but an internal conflict within Yunior.
He wants to believe that their family has finally achieved a level of success, but has become so hardened against hoping that he physically and mentally cannot accept it. Overall, the stories in Drown possess both a sadness and an anger. Yuniors voice, although often vulgar and negative, draws readers into his life. As we read, we form a bond with Yunior. In doing so we move to another level, the political one Diaz wants to express. Thus, in “knowing” Yunior, Diazs cause also becomes important to readers, exposing the American dream for what it is: an illusion.