Junot Díaz’s “Ysrael”
VOICE AND STORY
For me, as for many others, the publication of Junot Díaz’s book of short stories Drown marked the debut of a major literary talent. In the time since, I have often referred to his work and the work of Edwidge Danticat as two prime examples of a new wave of American writers who are exploring the ways recent immigrant communities are contributing to a new vision of American society and culture. Of course, it is much more than his subject matter that makes Díaz’s works so singular and significant.
One critic has praised Díaz by stating that he possesses “the dispassionate eye of a journalist and the tongue of a poet.” Certainly, the poetry of Díaz’s voice is apparent from the very first pages of Drown in the story “Ysrael”:
Rafa and I stayed with our tios, in a small wooden house just outside Ocoa; rosebushes blazed around the yard like compass points and the mango trees spread out deep blankets of shade where we could rest and play dominoes, but the campo was nothing like our barrio in Santo Domingo. In the campo there was nothing to do, no one to see. You didn’t get television or electricity and Rafa, who was older and expected more, woke up every morning pissy and dissatisfied. He stood out on the patio in his shorts and looked out over the mountains, at the mists that gathered like water, at the brucal trees that blazed like fires on the mountain. This, he said, is shit.
Worse than shit, I said.
Yeah, he said, and when I get home, I’m going to go crazy—chinga all my girls and then chinga everyone else’s. I won’t stop dancing either. I’m going to be like those guys in the record books who dance four or five days straight.
Some aspects of the poetry here are readily apparent—the comparison to compass points possesses an almost metaphysical wit—but perhaps less noticeable is the skillful way Díaz contrasts the beauty of the campo with its everyday poverty, a poverty that is more than simply economic but is also cultural and imaginative. The juxtaposition of Rafa in his shorts with the mist on the mountains and the blazing brucal trees anchors both sets of images in a subtle yet revealing fashion. But there is also the striking mix of vocabularies and levels of diction, as in the phrase “pissy and dissatisfied” or the deflation that takes place at the end of the first paragraph. Although the two boys speak in Spanish, Díaz conveys a sense of the colloquial through finding equivalents in American English and through his use of Spanish; he shifts between these registers like a master musician. (Throughout Drown, Spanish words are situated such that the reader often can infer their meaning even if she does not know Spanish.)
Eliot stated that “the poet is constantly amalgamating disparate experience,” and this is certainly the case in Díaz’s work. This disparate experience involves what these two boys are immediately going through—their boredom with the campo, their awareness of a natural beauty there that seems to them of no use—and beyond that, the sense of displacement they feel in their summer exile from their mother and the Santo Domingo barrio. But there is another level of experience working here too, for the language of the passage implies that this story is being told by someone who has left the Dominican Republic and who has not only learned English but has acquired a fluency in the American urban demotic. The usual dialectic that occurs between the older narrator and the younger self is complicated then by a dialectic that involves a layering of the languages and the cultures the speaker has inhabited.
Here we can begin to understand why Díaz’s work and the experience it explores are so essential to our understanding of the present historical moment. We live in an increasingly global culture, one in which the United States has experienced a more diverse immigrant population, not just because of increased migration from Latin America but also as a result of 1965 Hart-Celler Act. Because of these changes, it’s become apparent that Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis of the role of fiction in a global age has become increasingly relevant and accurate: Bakhtin argued that we are now engaged in a world where “the period of national languages, coexisting but closed and deaf to each other, comes to end.”
One value of Junot Díaz’s work is that it fully engages with Bakhtin’s “new cultural and creative consciousness” of this “actively polyglot world.” This is the world in which he has grown up; this world has shaped who he is.
The narrative structure of “Ysrael” is quite straightforward and starts with a sentence at the end of the first paragraph: “I was nine that summer, but my brother was twelve, and he [the narrator’s older brother, Rafa] was the one who wanted to see Ysrael, who looked towards Barbacoa and said, We should pay that kid a visit.” Later, it’s revealed that Ysrael is a boy whose face was attacked by a pig when he was an infant; his face is now hidden by a cloth he wears over his head.
The story then possesses the structure of a journey; the journey’s goal is simple and concrete—to see what this boy’s face looks like beneath his mask.
Yunior, the younger brother and narrator, is excited about the prospect of being able to accompany Rafa on this trip. In the ensuing section after this first paragraph, Yunior delineates one main block in his pursuit of this goal: the older brother’s disdain of the younger brother and his reluctance to bring the younger brother with him on any venture. When Rafa sets off to see one of his girls, the narrator tells us, “I always followed Rafa, trying to convince him to let me tag along. Go home, he’d say. I’ll be back in a few hours. . . . If I kept on he’d punch me in the shoulder and walk on.” Yunior knows he must be on his best behavior if he is to be able to accompany Rafa on the trip to see Ysrael.
But when they start on their trip the next morning, Yunior runs into the first of his irreconcilable conflicts. After the boys deposit some bottles at the local comaldo to obtain money to pay for their trip, Yunior wants to use some of the money to get something to eat. But Rafa insists that they need to keep the money for their trip and perhaps to get something to drink later. Thus Yunior faces a dilemma: he wants to go on the trip, but he also wants something to eat; if he uses his money to buy some food, he runs the risk of angering Rafa, and his brother won’t let him come along.
But then, in a seemingly fortuitous moment, Rafa becomes engaged in looking for the next bus, and Yunior is able to sneak off and buy a pastelito, thinking he has overcome this irreconcilable conflict. In doing so, he commits a lie of omission, since he of course does not tell Rafa that he is buying the pastelito. Yunior thus tells two lies—one to himself, that he can get away with disobeying Rafa’s orders, that is, that he can overcome his irreconcilable conflict, and one to Rafa.
Unfortunately for Yunior, he is about to encounter a central reality of human existence that fiction explores: the gap between what we intend our actions to achieve and what they actually achieve. On the bus, Yunior hides the pastelito in his pocket, which then creates a grease stain on his pants. As this happens, Rafa is engaging the conductor, the cobrador, in a scheme to confuse the cobrador and allow the boys to ride without paying a fare. Meanwhile, the man next to Yunior notices the grease stain on his pants and offers to help Yunior clean it up: “He spit in his fingers and started to rub at the stain but then he was pinching at the tip of my pinga through the fabric of my shorts.” When Yunior protests, the man squeezes the boy’s biceps, making him whimper and warns Yunior to keep quiet.
Of course, it is not Yunior’s fault that he is molested. But what happens on the bus with this man stems directly from Yunior’s actions: his attempt to overcome his seemingly irreconcilable conflict concerning his brother’s admonition not to spend their money on food.
After the boys get off the bus, Yunior starts to cry. Rafa thinks this is because Yunior is scared because they cheated the cobrador. Yunior may want to tell Rafa about what has happened to him, but he probably thinks that if he does so, he will have to tell about the pastelito, and then Rafa will get angry and leave him. Of course, Yunior could tell Rafa about the incident with the molester without mentioning the pastelito, but I don’t think this possibility enters his mind, and even if it does, he senses that his crying about his molestation, with or without mentioning the pastelito, will only annoy his brother. After all, his brother tells him, “If you can’t stop crying, I’ll leave you.” So Yunior must be silent and suppress his emotions that result from his being attacked. He chooses this silence in order to continue the journey; it is the unexpected toll the journey requires.
When the two brothers finally find Ysrael, Yunior encounters another thwarting agent in the pursuit of their goal. Despite their intentions, which are based on the view of Ysrael as a freak to be gawked at and not a human being, Yunior almost immediately starts to relate to Ysrael as just another kid, someone he might be friends with. Ysrael is holding a kite, which looks to be “no handmade local job”:
Where did you get that? I asked.
Nueva York, he said. From my father.
No shit! Our father’s there too! I shouted.
I looked at Rafa, who, for an instant, frowned. Our father only sent us letters and an occasional shirt or pair of jeans at Christmas.
What the hell are you wearing that mask for anyway? Rafa asked.
The mention of New York causes Yunior to recall their father, and he reacts in a way that highlights that he and Ysrael have something in common. This displeases Rafa, who quickly tries to get things back on track to their original goal: unmasking Ysrael. But again Yunior, overcome by his innate openness, starts to converse with Ysrael about wrestling. In a way, against Yunior’s intention, this disarms Ysrael, and Rafa, seeing an opening, smashes Ysrael in the head.
What Yunior had not foreseen when they set out to find Ysrael was that Yunior would make a human connection with the scarred boy and that he, Yunior, would have to throw aside this connection to complete the unmasking. It’s clear this price is greater than Yunior has expected, both in terms of the way he must regard Ysrael and the violence involved in the attack. Then too there is what Ysrael’s face finally reveals:
His left ear was a nub and you could see the thick veined slab of his tongue through a hole in his cheek. He had no lips. His head was tipped back and his eyes had gone white and the cords were out on his neck. He’d been an infant when the pig had come into the house. The damage looked old but I still jumped back and said, Please Rafa, let’s go! Rafa crouched and using only two of his fingers, turned Ysrael’s head from side to side.
The results of their journey and the unmasking of Ysrael reveal a world of violence that surrounds the narrator Yunior and lies in wait for him in the future, as he makes the transition his brother has already made into manhood. This violence is a direct result not just of the economic poverty around the boys but also of the surrounding psychic and spiritual poverty; it is what seems to be required in order to survive—to not become even more of a victim than they are. At the same time, they have no older male authority to guide them; the fathers are absent. The incident with the molester and the incident with Ysrael seem to carry a message to Yunior: either you are attacked or you attack; that is the irreconcilable choice.
The results of Yunior’s journey are numbness and emotional silence, a cynicism or harsh realism about what is to be expected from the world. At the story’s end, Yunior, thinking that Ysrael’s father in Nueva York will get doctors to help the scarred boy, opines, “Ysrael will be OK.” To which Rafa replies, echoing his description of the campo that opened the story, “Don’t bet on it. . . . they aren’t going to do shit to him.”
Rafa makes it clear to Yunior that such realism is something Yunior must accept if he’s going to be able to accompany his older brother and become part of the masculine world his brother represents to him. The story is clearly centered on the loss of innocence and the acquisition of knowledge, and it invokes the irreconcilable choices Yunior faces in order to complete his journey.
Junot Díaz has remarked that he views Drown as a tool kit for young writers of color, especially those from an immigrant community. For any beginning writer, what “Ysrael” demonstrates is how powerful, complex emotions and concepts can be conveyed within a simple, straightforward story structure: The protagonist has a clear concrete goal, something he desires. In order to achieve this desire, he faces thwarting agents and irreconcilable conflicts. Each action he takes, each choice, moves him either closer or further from his goal. Some of his actions create results he did not foresee and thus a gap between his expectations for his actions and what actually results. Lies, such as the lie of omission by Yunior to his brother, almost always create such gaps.
Beyond its structure, the genius of the story is its multilayered voice and the imaginative and penetrating way the writer brings the narrator—and the reader—into and through the journey toward his goal.