Book Recommendation: Drown by Junot Diaz
Junot Diaz’s Drown, a collection of short stories published in 1997, is not a new book. But it is a book that sparkles anew in the light of a current controversy. Open your laptop, and the world is at your fingertips. Information, relationships, images multiply exponentially each second, like cells dividing under a microscope. Challenges to this freedom of access, we assume, happen exclusively in other countries: Belarus, Russia, Iraq. Until they don’t.
Forget merely Internet censorship. In Arizona, right now, this summer, the Tucson Unified School District awaits a federal court’s ruling on a recent law that dismantled the district’s Mexican-American studies program, barring the teaching of books like Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and Junot Diaz’s Drown. The law prohibits public schools from teaching courses “designed primarily for students of one ethnic group,” as though literature is defined by the skin color of its writer; as though most of the canonical literature taught in public schools isn’t definitive of primarily the white Anglo-Saxon experience.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Censorship anywhere is a threat to the freedom of ideas and thought, our most intrinsically American, and human, values. Though we may not all live in Arizona, readers can triumphantly celebrate the contributions of these banned books in a show of solidarity with those who believe that excellent literature—not solely because of its author’s identity, but also not in spite of it—is to be protected and celebrated.
So I read Drown.
And when I first finished it, I struggled to see what had proved so threatening to the Tucson school board. Told through incisive characters who cut like razor wire, through language so precise and nuanced it reads like stark poetry, Diaz paints his muddy, tangled version of the American dream. His father, then the rest of his family, travels from the Dominican Republic to New York and southern New Jersey, where their heritage, language and food simmers and sputters in that proverbial melting pot. Food, sex, family, work, travel and above all, adolescence, lend flavors both sweet and acidic to the story.
But it is not a comforting stew that Diaz finds in the American experience. And perhaps, I realized, this is where the Tucson fear is rooted. When we confront the realities of the modern immigrant experience, which has more to do with undocumented workers and poverty than the Mayflower and Ellis Island, we realize just how narrow a space at the table we have made for our fellow Americans.
Source: I got the book used at Myopic Books on Milwaukee Ave. — love that place!