Saturday, 4 October 2014

‘Really Reading Junot Diaz: Literature of the “new immigration”’

On Thursday 2nd October, The University of Glasgow was delighted to welcome Dr Maria Lauret (University of Sussex) to the second lecture of the Andrew Hook Centre’s 2014-2015 seminar series. This lecture was co-sponsored by the English Literature Visiting Speaker Series and, as such, attracted a multi-disciplinary audience with diverse research interests and expertise.

Dr Lauret’s lecture focused on the intricate use of language in Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer-Prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), described by The New York Times as ‘an extraordinarily vibrant book that’s fueled by adrenaline-powered prose, [and] confidently steered through several decades of history by a madcap, magpie voice that’s equally at home talking about Tolkien and Trujillo.’ Diaz’s multi-lingual ‘immigrant’ literary style is of central interest to Dr Lauret whose research interests encompass, amongst other things, twentieth-century immigration and Americanisation and, particularly, the literature of the ‘new immigration.’ Indian-born American writer Bharati Mukherjee identifies the literature of the new immigration as inherently different from old immigrant literature, which performed an assimilatory function. By contrast, the literature of the new immigration demonstrates the powerful ideological and cultural hold of the homeland on ‘new’ arrivals on U.S. soil. Lauret, drawing on this idea, cited Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus” (1883) which, engraved at the foot of the State of Liberty, reads ‘Give me your tired, your poor/ your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.’ This, Lauret stated, does not apply to the new wave of Latin American immigrants whose traumatic history finds no refuge in the historically complicit North American states.

The lecture began with a close reading of the opening passage of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which Dr Lauret described as both grandiose and expansive, simultaenously highlighting Diaz’s original and important use of language: ‘despite “discovering” the New World the Admiral died miserable and syphilitic, hearing (dique) divine voices.’ Intrigued by the word ‘dique’, Lauret discovered that in Dominican slang, the word, deriving from French-Creole, means ‘supposedly’ or ‘so they say’. In choosing this word, Lauret argued that Diaz makes a daring political statement, namely, in his implicit recognition of Haitian history and culture, so central to (though often denied by) the Dominican Republic. Dr Lauret directed the audience toward Diaz’s political message, calling to mind Toni Morrison’s assertion that racially-marked languages can revolutionise literature. Diaz, through the use of the word ‘dique’, critiques the Dominican disapproval of blackness. It is here, in the minute intricacies of the text’s language, that Diaz’s political agenda is found. 

Thus, in order to fully understand the language and meanings of Diaz’s text, the reader has to delve beyond the surface-level. Diaz does not translate the interwoven foreign words: He leaves it to the reader to probe beneath the surface, in much the same way that immigrants must learn to navigate the nuances of language in their new communities. In this way, Lauret argued, the tables are turned: English, Spanish/Spanglish and Dominican slang are given equal treatment in a narrative that denies the cultural hegemony of one language.

In what prove one of the most intriguing lines of enquiry in the lecture, Dr Lauret stressed the important role of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, alongside Diaz’ short story collections Drown (1996) and This Is How You Lose Her (2012) in initiating and, indeed, mastering, multilingual fusion literature. Dr Lauret noted that fear of contamination of imperial languages by Creoles and fear of miscegenation has traditionally gone hand in hand. The topicality of language discussions in relation to Diaz’s works cannot be overstated, given that, in 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau projected that ethnic and racial minorities will comprise a majority of the nation’s population within a generation. Thus, Diaz’s hybridisation of language reflects the writer’s hopes for a post-imperial, fusion literature which treats all languages and cultures with the appropriate level of respect.

Lastly, Dr Lauret drew attention to the problematic nature of the majority of immigrant literature, as identified by Diaz himself: ‘“I feel I’m not a … [sic] native informer [who is] only there to loot them [the immigrant group] of ideas, and words, and images so that you can coon them to the dominant group.’ To the contrary, Lauret persuasively argued that the meaningful and ground-breaking purpose of Diaz’s work is to create a universal language, a language that, in its fusion of alien tongues, is deeply ‘American’. Thus, by ‘really reading’ Junot Diaz and the seamless integration of languages contained within the pages of his novel, Dr Lauret argued that the astute reader participates in the move toward a universal language. In what was a highly enjoyable and thought-provoking discussion, Dr Lauret encouraged the audience to both think about and engage with multi-lingual texts and to re-think the notion of ‘Americanisation’, which, in this literature of the ‘new’ immigration, strives to integrate the language and culture of the ‘new’ immigrant groups within mainstream American culture.

Rebecca Dunbar
PGR at the University of Glasgow

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