The Languages of Junot Díaz: Spanish, English, & Silence
In “Drown,” the title story of his narrative collection, Junot Díaz recounts the story of a Hispanic youth growing up in New Jersey. Though Díaz explores issues of queerness, desvergüenza, and familial relations within this selection, perhaps the most intriguing topic in the short story is that of language. Díaz employs the languages of Spanish and English, often using Latino street slang to further the story’s urban tone. At a Drue Heinz Lecture in which the author was featured (and which I attended), Junot Díaz explained his understanding of the languages from an immigrant perspective, as well as his uses of the languages in his short stories. Moreover, rather than simply recounting the struggles of adapting to a new language or customs, Díaz recounted how, at an early age, he used language as a tool to makes sense of his new hybrid identity. Díaz further revealed the importance of a third language: the language of Silence. It is this language that proved to be the most powerful means of exploring issues of self. Through applying Díaz’s uses and understandings of Spanish, English, and Silence to his short story “Drown,” I argue that the Hispanic immigrant experience can be understood through an establishment of a “third place” (Reagon). This third place allows for the immigrant, like Díaz, to make sense of his mezcla of identities; for Junot Díaz, this third place was found in literature.
In order to explore the third place that exists in “Drown,” I will first analyze Díaz’s understandings of language in relation to his immigrant experience. Junot Díaz was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; in 1974 at the age of six, Díaz and his family immigrated to “the absolute frontier of Spanish in America… New Jersey” (Díaz). It is a known fact that second-language acquisition is easier for those in their youth, like Díaz was at the time of his own immigration. Díaz, however, still found himself in a struggle between Spanish and English. During the Drue Heinz lecture, Díaz remarked that “it was not just a matter of learning a new language,” for he “found [him]self in 1974 plunged into a language war” (Díaz). From his exposure to differences in treatment and use of the two languages, Díaz noted that his younger self soon realized that “Spanish was a form of abuse… It was discouraged, a stigma,” whereas English was “the language of [his] acceptance—it was the language of [his] future” (Díaz). From these two “warring” worlds, Díaz drew upon the language of Silence to make sense of his situations and, indeed, of himself. For the young Díaz, “Silence [was] a way of communicating, of organizing identity” (Díaz). It is through this Silence, present in both real-world relationships and in literature, that Díaz discovered himself: in order to cope with his two colliding worlds—those of Spanish and English, Latino and Anglo—Díaz turned to literature. For Díaz, literature was clearly an escape: “I dealt with the malignancy and uselessness of Spanish by getting into reading, to engage in reading so that you feel safe, confident [sic]. Reading was that safe space” (Díaz). It is obvious, then, that the silent acts of reading and writing provided Díaz with a third place, a retreat, which existed outside of the conflicting worlds of Spanish and English.
But how was this silent sanctuary of reading transferred into the act of writing and, thereby, into his short stories? I argue that it is through layering the worlds of Spanish, English, and Silence that Díaz first made sense of his surroundings; writing then became a mode of continued self-discovery and self-invention. For the young Dominican, “reading [was] understanding the language and culture [he] was living in” (Díaz). It is obvious that the young Díaz first interpreted his immigrant experience through literature. If reading was the act by which Díaz first processed his hyphenated existence, then writing was the means by which he reclaimed himself. For Díaz noted that “it was in… writing that [his] true self cohered: [he] wasn’t just reading or speaking. For an immigrant kid who had lost his tongue on the flight from Santo Domingo, writing gave [him] a way to discover and make [him]self anew ” (Díaz). Though the silent act of reading was the way in which the self-proclaimed “immigrant kid” made sense of his bi-lingual and bi-cultural world, the act of writing allowed Díaz to reinvent himself. For, as Bernice Johnson Reagon notes, “there are those of us who straddle. We are born in one place, and we are sent to achieve in the larger culture, and in order to survive we work out a way to be who we are in both places or all places we move” (Reagon 114). Through writing, Díaz was able to bridge the divides that his biculturalism and bilingualism had created. Díaz remarked during the lecture that he was able to “[speak] the language of elisions” and that “in many ways, silence is the writer’s material” because “writers often say, ‘there is a silence, there is a gap, there is a lacuna, and I want to speak to it’” (Díaz). Writing, then, allowed Díaz to create for himself a third place in which he could straddle and make sense of his Anglicized Latino identity.
Díaz’s understandings of language and literature in relation to the immigrant experience have undoubtedly transferred into his own writings. Díaz himself confessed that “immigrating in 1974 must play a tremendous role in why I am a writer. I’m struck by how little we know about young immigrants” (Díaz). This fixation on the immigrant experience fueled Díaz’s desire to write about the topic. Though Díaz avoids autobiographical conversation pertaining to his short stories, it is clear that Díaz’s writings are informed by his own process of self-discovery. In this way, Yunior (the protagonist of many of Díaz’s writings, including “Drown”) can be understood and analyzed as Díaz’s literary device of introspection. In “Drown,” Díaz (through Yunior) recounts relationships with his mother, his friend Beto (who complicates the introspection with issues of queerness), and urban life, mainly through the English language. And though the short story uses some Spanish, the majority of “Drown” (and, indeed, the collection itself) is written in English. Why does Díaz not write in his native tongue of Spanish? And is this lingual choice significant in understanding the writing or the content? I claim that, yes, Díaz’s avoidance and occasional use of Spanish are both choice-specific and informative. As I noted earlier, the young Díaz recognized Spanish as “a form of abuse” (Díaz). For this reason, when Spanish is used in the short story, it is employed as a tool of denigration, a signifier of shameful identity, or a source of brutality: Yunior refers to Beto as a “pato” (Díaz 91), himself as a sinvergüenza (92), and the “Spanish-language news” as “violence” (95). It is also interesting to note that Yunior’s drunkard of a father, whom he describes as “a real asshole” (Díaz 98), lives in the Spanish-named, Floridian city of Boca Raton (Díaz 107)—a name which, when translated to English, literally means “Mouse Mouth.” In Spanish, a “ratón” (rat) can be either an insult or a hangover—a description of a bibulous or unruly person; similarly, in English, “mouse” can be used to describe a cowardly person. Clearly, Yunior, like Díaz, locates the Spanish language as “not only a national identity, but [as a means] to hurt each other” (Díaz). Furthermore, the importance of Silence in Díaz’s own life and immigrant experience is conveyed through Yunior’s encounters with himself as well. In “Drown,” Yunior plunges into a pool, and he describes the experience of being underwater as follows:
The water feels good. Starting at the deep end I glide over the slick-tiled bottom without kicking up a spume or making a splash. Sometimes another swimmer churns past me, more a disturbance of water than a body. I can still go far without coming up. While everything above is loud and bright, everything below is whispers. And always the risk of coming up to find the cops stabbing their searchlights out across the water. And then everyone running, wet feet slapping against the concrete, yelling, Fuck you, officers, you puto sucios, fuck you. (Díaz 93).
Here, Yunior’s submersion in the pool offers a literal “third place.” In describing “everything below,” the tone is peaceful: the word choice denotes a sense of calm, and the structuring of the sentences is simplistic and grammatically correct. However, Yunior’s description of a hypothetical disturbance from this third place drastically changes the writing style: sentences are short, rushed, and grammatically incorrect; more notably, Spanish is, once again, re-introduced into the hectic narration as a means of insulting, a “form of abuse” (Díaz). Finally, in Yunior’s description of his mother, he notes that “she has discovered the secret to silence… [She’s] like a shadow warrior” (Díaz 94). Díaz, like Yunior’s mother, has discovered the “secret of silence” through writing. For it is through Silence that Díaz and “Mami” have transformed themselves into “shadow warriors”; in this way, they are able to cope with and battle the warring worlds of Anglo and Latino that threaten identity.
It is through living in the third place—the realm of Silence—that both Díaz and Yunior have made sense of their immigrant experiences. For Díaz, writing and reading have proven to be secret sanctuaries through which he may rediscover and reinvent himself. Yunior, then, is Díaz’s primary method of introspection, a personification of Díaz’s personal third place. Furthermore, Yunior is emblematic of the Hispanic experience in America, for the character creates identity and self-understanding through assigning both language- and culture-specific meanings. As Díaz noted in the Drue Heinz lecture, “We all have three or four identities at once, some of us just don’t get carded at the door” (Díaz). It is through literature that Díaz analyzes this mezcla of identity. Exploration and recreation of self through writing works such as “Drown” is clearly the method through which Díaz has made sense his own Hispanic-American and immigrant experiences.
Díaz, Junot. “Drown.” Drown. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group. 91-107. Print.
Díaz, Junot. Drue Heinz Lecture Series. Carnegie Music Hall. Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, Pittsburgh. 16 Nov 2009.
Reagon, Bernice Johnson. “‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I See’; or, ‘By and By I'm Gonna Lay Down My Heavy Load’.” The Journal of American History 78.1 (1991): 111-119. JSTOR. Web. 15 Dec 2009.