The term “un pie aqui y uno alla” (one foot here and one foot there) succinctly describes the bi-national existences led by many of the Dominicans and Dominican-Americans in the United States. Living and working in this country but maintaining close ties to the Dominican Republic, its people, customs and culture has been a defining feature of the Dominican Diaspora. The DR’s close proximity to the U.S. has enabled frequent trips to the island and has helped to maintain a vibrant and dynamic relationship between Dominicans living abroad and those back in Quisqueya.
For those of us on this side of the divide, we in essence became hybrids, simultaneously Dominican and American. That has been my story. I was born in New York City, lived in the Dominican Republic as a small child, returned to the U.S. at the age of 5 and have made regular trips back to the DR all my life. When I was growing up in the Washington Heights section of New York City in the late 80s, the rhythms, smells, language and traditions of the Dominican Republic reigned supreme inside my household but just outside those doors, America and its accouterments; English, hip-hop, graffiti and pizza, beckoned.
That duality is at the heart of understanding the bold, brash and equally brilliant work of Junot Diaz. From Drown, his first collection of short stories, to the Pulitzer Award-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, to the recently released This is How You Lose Her, that dichotomy colors his work in ways large and small.
First of all, it’s in the language. Junot’s characters communicate in a rapid-fire Dominican patois that is part hip-hop slang, part English and part Spanish with a healthy sprinkling of choice nuggets from the Dominican vernacular thrown in for good measure. I recall being downright tickled and pleasantly surprised by Junot’s use of the word plepla in his magnum opus, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. In his latest book, This is How You Lose Her, the following gems are immortalized on the page; Ta to, deguabinao, zángano and popola to name just a few.
Believe me, many Dominicans will find said words simply sidesplitting. In fact, I chuckled just typing them. Be warned, do not use any of these words, especially popola, around children, the elderly or the prudish. It is that clever use of such words and phrases that impart a certain creole Caribbean authenticity to Junot’s prose. Junot fearlessly and unflinchingly employs idioms that are so Dominican-specific that they may be foreign to even other Latinos or more Americanized Dominicans.
Besides language, in all three books, which are based primarily in the United States, the Dominican Republic’s history and culture play a vital role in their respective storylines. In fact, each of the books is part of a unified whole that quite masterfully and poignantly tell the story of the Dominican experience; from the landing of Columbus on the shores of the island that would be renamed Hispaniola, to the genocide of its indigenous inhabitants and the wholesale importation of African slaves, to the tyranny of the Trujillo dictatorship for a good chunk of the 20th century, to the mass exodus of Dominicans to the United States.
Junot’s work is in many ways big history told in an intimate, human and, at times, uproariously hilarious way. It is the story of what happens to a people who are caught in the headwinds of history. How they make their lives meaningful and navigate a world that is not of their making. It is also the story of human frailty and how the choices we make really do break us or make us, and how they sometimes do both.
Díaz’s latest book is much lighter fare than the first two in certain ways. It is about the cheaters, two-timers, lotharios and sucios, in Junot Diaz parlance, but it does not – it cannot – escape the dictates and wide shadows cast by history, culture and circumstance. Yunior, who has been a prominent character in all three books, is as fated and destined to a certain end as Oscar was in Oscar Wao. It is all in the title (you already know how it ends) but the wonder, craftsmanship and beauty is in the details. It always is.