The first time I read Junot Díaz’s prose was about four years ago, after he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. And yes, I must confess that I picked it up thanks to the endless publicity it received in the following months. Needless to say, I enjoyed it immensely and curiously enough, one of the constant thoughts running through my mind as I read it was, “How could this book possibly be translated into another language?” I recall sensing something similar while reading Manhattan Transfer, but with Oscar, the feeling was that much more intense.
In just the first few phrases of “Miss Lora”, the short story by Díaz I’ve selected for the first meeting of our reading circle, I think we can get a pretty good idea as to why I felt so thrilled with this sort of natural and unpretentious prose, and at the same time disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to recommend the book to people who weren’t going to read it in its original version. Let’s have a look at the beginning of “Miss Lora”:
Years later, you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother would you have done it? You’d remember how all the other guys had hated on her—how skinny she was, no culo, no titties, como un palito, but your brother didn’t care. I’d fuck her.
You’d fuck anything, someone jeered.
And he had given that someone the eye. You make that sound like it’s a bad thing.
I would like to do something for a moment that in a typical English class we don’t usually do: look past the mere presence of curse words or slang, and qualify this language not as taboo but rather as simply colloquial or informal. The use of an informal register, such as the one we see here, is key, and has quite a bit to do with the effect this narrative is going to have on us as readers. We normally use this register when speaking in informal contexts, such as in conversations with friends. When we encounter this kind of language in a text, there is immediately a certain complicity, or at least an attempt at such, between the author/narrator and the reader (not to mention that for a native speaker, the flow of words can seem more natural and the text can therefore be read at a faster pace). Something similar could be said of the use of the second person. As Díaz himself notes in a short interview published in The New Yorker at the same time as “Miss Lora” earlier this year (see link in the announcement of this month’s reading), the use of the second person “you” can simultaneously draw in and repulse the reader, building upon the linguistic complicity set forth by the register. Incidentally, this mode seems most suitable for a short story, since it is not sustainable for very long.
The words culo and palito probably stick out more than any other in this short introductory passage. These Spanish words, like most other words from other languages (with the notable exception of many words assimilated from French), are not very common in most literary texts in the English language. While they do not exactly constitute what is commonly referred to as Spanglish, their presence in the text does express, as before, a more colloquial way of speaking habitual amongst share a bilingual background in the same or similar circumstances. When groups of people find themselves “caught” between two or more linguistic environments, it is quite common to mix the two languages at will in an informal context, since the speakers will understand each other. If one language can be expressive, why not expand your possibilities with more than one?
What about people who only speak one language? Díaz explains in his 2007 NPR interview (see link in the announcement of this month’s reading) that for most American readers who do not speak Spanish, the presence of word and phrases in Spanish should not be (and usually isn’t) distracting – in fact, most readers tend to forget that when we read, we hardly ever understand every single word in a text, but this does not prevent us from coming to a general, or even good, understanding of what we have read. Fortunately for us here in the reading circle, we do understand these Spanish words, so I think we can appreciate better than many the linguistic richness that they create. I’ll be very interested in hearing your perspectives on this topic at our group discussion, or here on the blog.
The main themes of Díaz’s writing in general, and of “Miss Lora” specifically, are rather clear, and aside from the bicultural aspects of this narrative, I would like you to consider them carefully. Many of his stories are centered on adolescence or early adulthood, and all of the insecurity and confusion that these formative years seem to bring with them. How does it feel to discover your hopes and fears, to explore sexual and family relationships, when you are between two or more cultures and their corresponding value systems? Sexuality, family and gender are recurring themes throughout Díaz’s work, and the most obvious storyline of “Miss Lora” is clearly of a sexual nature. However, I think that if we can look past some of the more shocking descriptions, we can find a rather traditional coming-of-age story in which self-discovery is coupled with growth and maturation. From the very first sentence, we can see that the story is a remembrance of, and a reflection on a series of events which later influence the narrator in ways that perhaps he has not realized until now.
There is one more element I would like you to consider, an element very closely related to the ones mentioned above: that of the treatment of women. At first glance, “Miss Lora”, as well as some of many of Díaz’s other works, could be considered by some as a rather misogynist narrative. Women seem to be treated as little more than objects of (male) sexual desire. Would you agree? What conclusions have you reached? Why? I personally would not consider this story demeaning to women, but I’ll wait until the group meeting on Wednesday to tell you why. Here’s a hint: there are many examples, but we can see a pretty good one in those first few sentences, and they usually come back to the notions of adolescence, cultural difference and identity.
In any case, I hope you enjoy Junot Díaz’s “Miss Lora” and that you come ready for an intense discussion on Wednesday. If anyone has read other works by the same author, please feel free to share your thoughts, and I encourage everyone to read or listen to an interview or two with this fresh new voice in American literature. Happy reading!