The national ethos of Americans everywhere is no better represented than by the ever-present, American Dream that has captivated a worldwide imagination since its inception along with the beginning of the Unites States’ existence as a country. For many years, the American Dream has described a world of opportunity in which people of varying cultures and backgrounds enjoy equality in their pursuit of richer, fuller lives. It was this dream that brought the first immigrants to America in the first place, and it was again this dream that gave them the necessary impetus to stay and to improve the conditions of their lives within the burgeoning country. This dream, however, has shifted in scope over the years, in exacting parallel with the cultural values that America represents. In Drown, Juno Diaz deconstructs that original ethos and paints a different yet highly vivid picture of an America that is dominated by cultural decay, urban neglect, and the isolation brought about by the cheap commoditization of his heritage.
Drown takes place in a number of locations throughout the United States, as well as the Dominican Republic, and follows the life and back-story of the young, educated narrator named Yunior, as he copes with the absence of his father, who has abandoned the family for America, eventually returning and bringing them back to New Jersey with him.
Gustavo Perez Firmat’s epigraph of the book serves to present its primary theme most pronouncedly: “The fact that I am writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you” (1). This epigram hints at the cultural decay that is not only experienced by immigrants such as Yunior in America, but actually brought there and cultivated by others like them.
This sense of cultural decay is suggested in the very first story, “Ysrael” in which Yunior and Rafa, his brother, have been sent by their mother to the Dominican countryside. Diaz poetically describes the countryside as “the mists that gathered like waterthe brucal trees that blazed like fires on the mountains”. The same countryside is described blankly by the brothers as “worse than shit” (9). The rest of the story capitalizes on the moral decay of the brothers as they seek a deformed boy named Ysrael, whom they eagerly wish to unmask in order to see the extent of his condition.
These less-than-innocent endeavors are mirrored in later stories as the troubled adolescent narrator— who may or may not even be Yunior to begin with— is seduced by his friend Beto, as they watch a pornographic video in the story, “Drown”. That story becomes one of loss, made poignant by the recollections of the two young men’s friendship. This relationship then segues into a grey miasma that serves to protect the narrator only by quartering off his inner life in blankness.
The linking theme of emotional emptiness that serves to anchor the characters of the book serves to make a remark on the validity of the American Dream, made specifically clear in the last story, “Negocios” which takes up a quarter of the book, describing the journey of Yunior’s father, Ramon. This story continues the masking and unmasking theme that began in “Ysrael” but puts the immigrant experience under examination, and places the American Dream itself in the place of the deformed boy whom the characters wish, and fail, to unmask.
In this story, Ramon’s dangerous and poverty-stricken journey is described with a barren sense of calculated restraint that mirrors the unwillingness of the hardworking father to either fully embrace his new American surroundings or accept full responsibility for the family he is essentially running away from. Diaz explains this dryly when he, through Yunior, declares that English and New Jersey represent the, “language and landscape of emotional deprivation” (102).
Cultural decay is seemingly subverted by Ramon’s use of the Spanish language while traveling through America. However, the framing and inversion of this theme through Yunior’s experiences in the country are the ones that define the sense of cultural decay that Diaz assuredly meant to convey to the reader. Since Ramon’s story is identified so heavily with the theme of loss and of unmasking— of discovering the true nature of the place he is living in, as well as of his own responsibility as a father, it is through the subtlety of Ramon’s repeated abandonment that the effects of this decay become clear.
First, he abandons his family in order to find a new life in America, and, then, leaves his mistress behind many years later, in order to return to the Dominican Republic. This constant threading of the theme of abandonment, both cultural and personal, is connected through the voice of Yunior, as he earnestly seeks to come to terms with his father and to resolve the many instances of ambiguity that their relationship had suffered until that point. In order to do so, he is forced to confront the theme of betrayal, so artfully described in “Fiesta, 1980” by visiting his father’s mistress’ house, in order to complete his portrait of the man.
Connected with the theme element of decay that permeates Diaz’s descriptions of America through these stories is the sense of carelessness and neglect that comes to overwhelm any and all attempts at living in an urban environment and even his use of language itself. Diaz writes in a very sparse manner, echoing the sense of loss that his immigrant characters feel for the rejected home, language and culture that they no longer feel a part of or even understand.
A key element of this barren use of language can be found in the peppering of inexplicable and often poorly-chosen, misspelled or grammatically incorrect Spanish words into his lexicon. This connects with urban neglect through being the chosen method of expression that the urban youth Diaz is writing in the name of commonly use. The method of writing that Diaz uses both describes and mirrors the bleak, meaningless urban lives of the inhabitants of his short stories, occasionally flavoring his descriptions with equally mundane expressions in describing places where, “beer bottles grow out of the weeds like squashes” (40).
Key to universalizing the traumatic effect of neglect of the urban livelihoods of the immigrants Diaz is writing in the name of is the fact that he intentionally leaves the narrators of the New Jersey-based stories un-named. The prevailing message here is that the location itself has succeeded in totally robbing Yunior of his identity. It no longer matters whether the person narrating is Yunior himself, or any other local resident who shares Yunior’s suspicious sense of watchfulness, unhealthily strained relationship with a father figure, and uneasy relationships with women that commonly jump from tenderness to outright violence.
These relationships with women are given a profoundly described starting point in the many erotic themes that take place in young Yunior’s experiences in the Dominican Republic. By relating these erotic themes with the powerlessness and sense of loss— both personal and cultural— that Diaz’s characters feel, the disempowerment of the immigrant experience is made profoundly real through their own manufactured marginalization. These are the terms of the new American Dream that Diaz is writing about, and these are the stark realities to which those who are seeking freedom and liberty must awake to.
This stark, blighted American Dream can only subsist successfully if the past culture that it needs to replace is similarly cheapened, and this is made possible by American pop culture’s enveloping materialism of immigrant cultures. Again, the loose use of Spanish as part of the author’s vernacular serves to make the point incredibly clear. Instead of enriching the reader’s understanding or giving them a greater cultural sense of belonging in reference to the actions of the story, the reader feels confused and disconnected. These words are thrown into the story in such a way that it no longer matters if the reader understands Spanish at all— the jarring effect of the language’s use within the story is felt nonetheless.
These themes are related within the context of the narrative through stories such as, “Fiesta, 1980”, in which Yunior relates to the reader a tale of sexual betrayal that is interspersed with images of disgust from the now partly Americanized youth. While the story centers on Yunior’s inability to avoid throwing up whenever he travels in the family car, Diaz links the vomiting with his father’s infidelity, and makes Yunior’s newly realized American identity clear, with comments such as his relatives’ Bronx apartment being, “furnished in Contemporary Dominica Tacky” (21). This detail creates a clear link between the assimilation of Yunior in American culture, as well as his rejection both of his previous culture and of his family.
His strained relationship with his father is used to create an insurmountable barrier through which the rest of his family remains categorically divided. His brother Rafa is described as turning more and more into a double of his father, by echoing the man’s relentless interest in women and pursuit of sex, while Yunior’s diffidence gets him labeled as homosexual. The ongoing food deprivation, as well as Yunior’s habit of vomiting when not deprived, mirrors the deprivation of cultural sustenance that creates in Yunior a secret identity that isolates him from his family, his culture and, indeed, from everything he knows.
As Yunior increasingly defines himself by what he is not, very little else is given in describing what he is, a sentiment that mirrors the vague and blameless understanding of the American Dream shared by the author. In essence, the American Dream becomes defined, not by what it is, but only by what it is not, and continues to propagate its own existence only by contrasting and isolating itself in relation to the things that it should harmonize with. In the same sense, Yunior, or any one of his doubles within the New Jersey-based stories, feels a sense of ego-death at the hands of the new culture he has allowed himself to be assimilated by, and, by extension, so too has Diaz.
Cespedes, D., Torres-Saillant, S. and Diaz, J. (2000). Fiction is the Poor Man's Cinema: An Interview with Junot Diaz. Callaloo, 23(3), pp.892-907.
Díaz, J. (1996). Drown. New York: Riverhead Books.
Jelly-Schapiro, J. (2013). Ground Zero(es) of the New World: Geographies of Violence in Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat. Transform Anthropol, 21(2), pp.169-186.