Caribbean collusion: Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat and the New Yorker fiction podcast.
The fact that I am writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you. My subject: how to explain to you that I don't belong to English though I belong nowhere else.
Gustavo Perez Firmat, "Dedication"
This article brings together two New Yorker fiction podcasts featuring the works of Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danticat in order to read their complementary stories of Caribbean-American immigration through the lens of translation studies. In the 2007 podcast episode "The Dating Game," Danticat and New Yorker editor Deborah Treisman listen to and discuss a recording of Diaz reading his short story, "How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)." Two years later, Diaz and Treisman read "Water Child," one of Danticat's short stories in the episode "Unspoken." In both of these podcast episodes, Haitian-American Danticat and Dominican-American Diaz are asked to explain each other's fiction to the New Yorker's audience, which is primarily white and upper-middle class.
Linguistic translations in the podcasts and their featured stories occur in several registers, including English, Dominican Spanish, and Haitian Kreyol. Despite the presence of non-English phrases in "How to Date" and "Water Child," the fact that the New Yorker podcast is broadcast in English and these stories are written in English means that translation, in this case, does not necessarily refer to linguistic formalism. Nor does it refer to the production of a new text that is written in a different language from its original, but is "consistent with the form of the original" (Gentzler, Contemporary 1). Rather, my study of vexed communication benefits from what Susan Bassnett and Andre Lefevere call the "cultural turn" in translation studies. In the late 1980s, the "cultural turn" shifted approaches to translation away from formalism and towards the study of texts as embedded in cultural networks of "both source and target cultural signs" (Bassnett and Lefevere 12). The practice of linguistic translation, then, can be analyzed as a negotiation between the signs of two or more cultures, as in the case of these two podcasts. Through her pointed questions that couple the "pressure to represent their communities" with the authors' similar poly-lingual styles, Treisman links source language with source populations and in doing so, encourages Diaz and Danticat to act as cultural translators. The two Caribbean authors are asked to translate the poly-lingual complexities of Dominican and Haitian immigrant communities "to the larger community" of New Yorker readers. In the two episodes, Diaz and Danticat use each other's stories in order to respond to the pressures of community representation and the complex negotiation processes of translation that manifest in their own literature and public literary careers.
The digital reach of these podcasts, along with the material networks of people and print the episodes represent, create an alternative space for critical inquiry about translation, one which allows us to recognize what I will call black hemispheric internationalism in translation. Emily Apter uses the term "translation zone" to indicate a "broad intellectual topography" that is neither national nor postnational (5). I extend Apter's concept to the digital medium of these "free" New Yorker podcasts, which, unlike the print magazine, can be downloaded from the internet without a subscription. This global, digital zone transcends national boundaries while still adhering to the inevitable limitations of access to technology. Apter's definition of "translation zone" also allows us to think about the translations that take place when a person moves from one community to another. According to Danticat, "people often miss the complexity of [her and Diaz's] particular community," because both write in English while incorporating words and phrases from their native countries ("Dating Game"). This community consists of people who immigrated to the United States at a young age and for whom writing is always a process of translating experiences and ideas across languages and cultures. When Danticat cites the Perez Firmat poem that Diaz uses as an epigraph for his book of short stories--and that I use as an epigraph to this essay--she suggests that Caribbean-American immigrant literature attests to an inability to completely belong to one language. While critics such as Daynali Flores-Rodriguez persuasively argue that Danticat and Diaz "use English as a way to attest to their own personal journeys," they fail to account for the authors' lack of linguistic "belonging" when prematurely calling English "a language that they can claim as their own" (Flores-Rodriguez 130). The concept of translation, then, offers a much-needed theoretical space for authors so often denied a place of residence in debates of linguistic and regional authenticity. By analyzing the short stories as they appear within the podcast's digital translation zone, this essay brings into focus the authors' alternative forms of belonging within black hemispheric internationalism.
Along with reading the short stories featured on the New Yorker podcast as complementary, I also consider the ways that Diaz and Danticat are often seen as complementary immigrant authors from the island of Hispanola. In the 2007 episode, Treisman, like many popular and scholarly critics, asks Haitian-American Danticat to culturally translate Diaz's story about a Dominican American, asking if "the sexual politics seem very familiar from [her] side of it" ("Dating Game"). Treisman specifies Danticat's "side" as that of one from a Haitian community in Brooklyn. Still, it is easy to hear a reference to Danticat's "side" of the Caribbean island in this moment. Similarly in the 2009 episode, Treisman asks Diaz if, along with "geographic and cultural proximity," there is also "an affinity in [their] work," thereby rooting any possible literary resonances in their complementary biographies ("Unspoken"). In their responses, Danticat and Diaz both acknowledge that they share similar experiences as Caribbean-American authors, but make a point to ground these similarities in the realm of cultural translation.
While Diaz and Danticat are often conscripted into the role of cultural translator, they also make choices to perform community in these podcasts and in doing so, illustrate black hemispheric internationalism in live translation. By choosing to feature the prose of their "fellow Hispanolan" on the podcast, Danticat and Diaz both present themselves as part of an Afro-Disaporic, Caribbean community in the United States. In the 2009 episode, Diaz humorously calls his and Danticat's choices to share each other's stories with the New Yorker's digital audience a "Hispanola conspiracy" and a "full-scale Caribbean collusion" ("Unspoken"). This amiable "Caribbean collusion" actually challenges the island's history of political and social enmity still demonstrated by Dominican President Danilo Medina Sanchez's recent ruling barring Dominican citizenship from those born of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic. Danticat and Diaz, along with fellow Hispanolan authors Mark Kurlansky and Julia Alvarez, explain that this ruling continues a tradition of racially-motivated anti-Haitianism in the Dominican Republic that "dates back to at least 1822" ("In the Dominican Republic, Suddenly Stateless"). Historian Richard Lee Turits argues that Dominincan anti-Haitianism is a byproduct of an "elite formulation of a monoethnic Dominican nation" that requires the denial of African ancestry, and a distancing from Haitian "blackness" (594). (1) Considered together in these podcasts, Diaz and Danticat call upon critics to think of their literature and authorial careers through a new lens, one that accounts for a new form of what Brent Edwards terms "black internationalism," which I argue can extend to Afro-Caribbeans living in the United States.
Diaz's "How to Date" and Danticat's "Water Child" illustrate the difficulties of personal expression across communities in the Americas. Both stories feature a protagonist who has emigrated from the Caribbean to a city in the United States, and in seemingly contradicting ways explore how the protagonists struggle to "say the things they wish to" ("Unspoken"). In Diaz's "How to Date," the narrator, adolescent Yunior, tells his reader, here presumed to be a fellow heterosexual, Afro-Dominican living in his mother's New Jersey apartment, how to perform his ethnic and racial identity on dates with young women from varying backgrounds. As the story progresses, Yunior's pompous first-person narration begins to betray the difficulty of personal expression through translation. Danticat's story, "Water Child" emphasizes the choice of silence through metaphors of the hyphen and audible pauses in the story's reading as it follows a withdrawn Haitian woman working as a nurse caring for laryngectomy patients in Brooklyn.
The podcasts and the stories they tell inspire a hemispheric approach to thinking about translation zones in American literature and popular media. That is to say, the plot and actors in Diaz's "How to Date" and Danticat's "Water Child," along with Danticat, Diaz, and Treisman's subsequent discussions, rely on the assumption that the contemporary nations of the Western Hemisphere are connected through "histories of conquest, colonialism, slavery, indigenous rights, imperialism, migration, and globalization (to name some of the issues) throughout the Americas" (Landers and Robinson xvii). In addition, "How to Date" and "Water Child," particularly when read in the context of Diaz and Danticat's relationship of literary "collusion," become representative of the hemispheric nature of black diaspora in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This black hemispheric internationalism is sonically performed through the reading of the two short stories, as well as the authors' framing discussions on the New Yorker podcast.
Junot Diaz: "Messed Up" Spanish and Busted Translation
In a 2012 interview on National Public Radio's Alt-Latino, Diaz weaves together Spanish slang and English as he laughs at himself and says, "Mero dice, I'm like the poster child for messed up Spanish" (Diaz, Garsd and Contreras "Guest DJ"). Diaz uses the casual Spanish phrase "mero dice," which roughly translates to "I'm telling you," or "but seriously," in an attempt to mock his public image as a poor speaker of that very language. The author comments on his precarious status as an Afro-Dominican cultural celebrity in the United States by undermining his own linguistic fluidity. According to Edwin Gentzler, "switching codes, translating back and forth, becomes a characteristic of life in Caribbean culture; cultural capital is tied to linguistic fluency and translation" (Translation 167). In the interview, Diaz's linguistic style could be considered characteristically Caribbean as he translates back and forth between English and Spanish. It is important to note, however, that while Diaz's "messed up" Spanish communicates the experience of ongoing translation, it simultaneously resists claims to the cultural capital possible with such linguistic fluency. As the most prominent Afro-Dominican literary celebrity in the United States, Diaz is not only a "poster child" for "messed up" Spanish, but for all of the lettered Afro-Latina/o community in the US media. At just twenty-eight, Diaz garnered highbrow accolades for Drown (1996), his collection of stories about growing up Afro-Caribbean, and in the process, became the youthful face and voice of African-descended Dominican immigrants. Seventeen
years after the publication of Drown, Diaz remains for many the lone picture of a demographic seldom depicted in literature or the academe.
Though Diaz is most commonly read as a Latino author, he calls himself "serious about being part of the African diasporic tradition" ("Language" 44). Silvio Torres-Saillant confronts the status of Afro-Dominican literature, which he claimed occupied a position on "la periferia del margen" (7). Afro-Dominican and Afro-Latina/o literature in general is denied residency in both the marginalized African American canon and the peripheral Latin American/Latina/o canons. Even as a child, Diaz "didn't have a safe category" as an Afro-Dominican immigrant, telling Fox News Latino in 2011, "I was neither black enough for the black kids or Dominican enough for the Dominican kids" (Garcia). With a large media presence and the experience of young fame, the Pulitzer-prize winner is for now the representative of Afro-Dominicanidad in the United States. As a result, readers often see him not only as an author of fiction, but as a cultural translator as well. On the 2007 New Yorker podcast, Danticat explains that "a part of the burden . . . if there is a burden, to being one of a few people from your community writing to the larger community, is that people often ... outside the community expect what you write to be some kind of gospel" ("Dating Game"). In other words, non-Dominican readers often expect Diaz's work to translate authentic truths about his community to the larger public.
While Diaz embraces his "messed up" Spanish, which undermines his imposed role as cultural translator, the narrator of "How to Date" employs "busted up" Spanish as he attempts to seduce women of various races. In the infamously misogynistic "How to Date," Yunior tells his reader to use "busted up" Spanish with a Latina or black date, saying,
If the girl is from around the way, take her to El Cibao for dinner. Order everything in your busted up Spanish. Let her correct you if she's Latina, and amaze her if she's black. If she's not from around the way, Wendy's will do. (145) (3)
Yunior's "busted up" Spanish is a show of bravado only barely masking the character's unease, a linguistic performance that more fluent Latinas/os will inevitably be able to correct. Yunior admits that after this show of ordering food, "dinner will be tense" because "you are not good at talking to people you don't know" (146). Behind Yunior's exhaustive regulations for looking smooth on a date is an awareness of how difficult it can be to make oneself understood to new people.
In the audio recording of the passage featured on the New Yorker episode, Diaz's Hispanic pronunciations of the words "Latina" and "Cibao," contrast with his usual New Jersey accent, which mixes African-American and Dominican slang. These contrasting pronunciations accentuate the perplexing polytonality that characterizes the "busted up" Spanish voice of Diaz's Afro-Latinidad. Podcast editor Treisman never explains why only this episode of the New Yorker series plays a recording of the story's author (here Diaz), not the guest (Danticat) reading his own story. But perhaps they were influenced by the author's ability to voice "the linguistic blend" of Afro-Latinidad that "readers who do not speak Spanish can only approximate" (Grimes). (4) Ultimately, audio recordings of Diaz emphasize what is already there in his writing--a linguistic blend that embraces the difficulties of cultural and linguistic translation. "How to Date" on the podcast is itself an auditory "study of the processes of translation combined with the praxis of translation" (Bassnett and Lefevere 123). Also on the podcast, female recording artist Gail Thomas reads many of the women's lines, whose high pitch further emphasizes the linguistic distances between Yunior and his female counterparts. (5)
In "How to Date," Yunior's advice focuses on how an Afro-Dominican living in New Jersey should perform his linguistic, racial, and cultural identity so that he can best entice young women. In translation studies, "fidelity refers to the accuracy that conveys the meaning of the source text ... [and] fluency refers to how the translated text responds to its socio-cultural context" (Flores-Rodriguez 132). Yunior instructs his reader to purposefully prioritize seductive fluency over cultural fidelity, and at times allow others to mistranslate his Afro-Dominican identity. For example, when a girl says, "I like Spanish guys," "even though you've never been to Spain," say "I like you," because "you'll sound smooth" (148). As an Afro-Dominican dating in the United States, encouraging misunderstandings about his culture is easy to accomplish. As the date continues, Yunior advises that on the way to the restaurant, you "supply the story about the loco who'd been storing canisters of tear gas in his basement for years, how one day the canisters cracked and the whole neighborhood got a dose of the military-strength stuff" (145-46). Do not, Yunior insists, "tell her that your moms ... recognized its smell from the year the United States invaded your island" (146). Again, Yunior suggests sacrificing historical fidelity to social fluency. Sharing the Dominican mother's experience would not only betray the noxious reality of the United States' hegemonic power; it would also translate Yunior's family as a subjugated other, which according to his own logic, will sour a date substantially. At this moment, "busted up" translation also entails purposefully glossing over the truth and busting up a story's fidelity.
Yunior's tips for seduction include minimizing visual evidence of poverty by clearing "the government cheese from the refrigerator," and of Caribbean otherness by taking "down any embarrassing photos of your family in the campo. Especially the one with the half-naked kids dragging a goat on a rope leash" (143). Yunior's actions demonstrate his attempts to put fluency before fidelity as he manipulates his cultural source texts (pictures of half-naked kids in the campo), aware that they may translate into otherness for young women in New Jersey. Yunior's praxis of cultural translation includes "nonverbal communication" which Fernando Poyatos defines as the "nonlexical, artifactual and environmental sensible sign systems contained in a culture" (Nonverbal 1). Yunior also says to eliminate signs of blackness by hiding "the pictures of yourself with an Afro." In the same vein, when an "outsider's" mother wants to meet with you, Yunior insists, don't panic, but do emulate the comfort of white male privilege and "run a hand through your hair like the whiteboys do even though the only thing that runs easily through your hair is Africa" (145). Yunior's attempts to hide symbols of blackness reveal his sensitivity to the racist ideologies he expects in the targeted audience, as well as his own internalized racism. After all, Yunior says that if the "whitegirl" starts to "give it up right then, Don't stop her," and "tell her that you love her hair, that you love her skin, her lips, because, in truth, you love them more than you love your own" (147). Yunior's hair is "emblematic of his Afro-Dominican identity," and his negative thoughts about it prove his fluency in the racist ideologies of dominant culture (Moreno 16). When New Yorker editor Treisman remarks on the 2007 podcast with a stilted laugh that "it's funny that it's the white girls that will go all the way," possibly revealing some of the discomfort that comes with being implicated because of one's race, Danticat responds quickly, "I think the funny thing about that is it's the perception" ("Dating Game"). Indeed, "How to Date" is a satirical instructional guide founded on prejudiced perceptions, aimed at translating those perceptions in such a way as to manipulate the target audience.
Yunior's processes of cultural performance and translation in pursuit of sexual intercourse at first appear notable only for his cynical pragmatism towards racism, female objectification, and white ignorance of hemispheric realities. On the podcast, however, it is easier to identify how Yunior's instructions for translation often fail to connect across cultural gaps and instead reveal the character's fear of loneliness because "you are not good at talking to people you don't know" (146). Danticat explains that she chose to share Diaz's short story, "How to Date" for the New Yorker podcast because while you may think, "I shouldn't really enjoy this character" as the narrator rattles off sexist instructions, "you do" ("Dating Game"). Danticat says that Yunior is such an enjoyable character thanks to his "voice and the mix of... bravado, machismo, and ... vulnerability this character shows throughout the story." She points out that for all of Yunior's machismo, he still ends the story sexually frustrated and alone. Diaz's story undermines its own claims to fluency. Yunior admits at the close of his story, "usually--usually it won't work this way" (148). This script of racially-designated seduction will often not produce the results desired by the narrator. While Treisman introduces "How to Date" on the podcast by saying that "the story is what the title says it is," the pedantic tone of Diaz's "how to" proves to disagree with its plot by the final paragraph, and the audience is not left with the hard and fast adolescent chauvinism the title promised. Rather, the podcast listener witnesses a break-down of cultural negotiations stemming from Yunior's inability to connect with others through manipulated translation. As Danticat notes, the story is based on "the contrast between the reality of it and what's hoped for" ("Dating Game"). Lurking behind every hypothetical encounter is an impossible connection, a failed moment of translation. Because "translation failure demarcates intersubjective limits," these moments of failed translation become indictments to Yunior's absolute isolation (Apter 6). The urgency of successful interpretation, like Yunior's desperation to have sex with a woman, is matched only by the ultimate impossibility such translation foregrounds in Diaz's "How to Date."
After Yunior cautions to "be prepared" because "usually it won't work this way," the story's how-to style immediately turns on itself, and the instructive tone of Yunior's voice serves to confirm that all of his efforts will not keep away isolation. As the story reaches its close, Yunior fails to connect with a young biracial woman. First, "she will not want to kiss you. Just cool it, she'll say" (148). Gail Thomas's high-pitched voice on the recording contrasts with Diaz's, making these first two lines of rebuke an auditory turning-point for the story. Diaz's short story "explores the possibilities for linguistic disjuncture and compatibility" illustrating the ways that the process of cultural translation can create both connections and rifts between persons (Chi'en 202). The biracial date will physically enact her growing distance as she "lean[s] back, breaking away from you" (148). In an attempt to placate her with nonverbal gestures, Yunior says to "stroke her hair," even though this will not work either, and "she will pull away. I don't like anybody touching my hair, she will say" (148). Hair continues to serve as a nonverbal means of complicated racial signification in the United States. Finally, Yunior's translation failure will de-familiarize the character from himself and his date, pointing out intersubjective limits.
She will act like somebody you don't know. In school she is known for her attention-grabbing laugh, as high and far-ranging as a gull, but here she will worry you. You will not know what to say. (148)
The narrator is left without words with which he can manipulate his audience. Yunior's "busted up" Spanish is a performance of already-failed translation in praxis. "Say nothing," Yunior instructs, because "you will not know what to say" (148). Instead, "Let her comb her hair, the sound of it stretching like a sheet of fire between you" (148). With this final barrier of sound that renders Yunior mute, "How to Date" ends by undermining Yunior's linguistic and cultural fluency. Danticat tells Treisman that she sees Yunior alone at the end of the story, "resisting ... loneliness" ("Dating Game"). Yunior says that after she leaves, don't pick up the phone, "watch the shows you want to watch ... don't go downstairs. [And] don't fall asleep" because it won't help you escape the isolation of impossible communication (149). Instead, "put the government cheese back in its place before your moms kills you" (149). By listening to "How to Date" in the context of the New Yorker podcast, which allows for this alternate zone of translation and black hemispheric internationalism, we can recognize that impossible translations and the inability to connect across cultural gaps lie at the heart of this satirical story.
A Place on the Hyphen in Danticat's "Water Child"
Like Diaz, Edwidge Danticat has been called a "young prodigy" thanks to her achieving literary acclaim for her first publication, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), at the age of twenty-five. Unlike her Hispanolan counterpart, Danticat is not described as a "poster child," but rather is often represented in the media as an "ageless, contemporary classic," a woman who manages to embody the political present and the Haitian past. In a foreword to Edwidge Danticat: A Reader's Guide, Dany Laferriere goes so far as to say that around Danticat, "you feel yourself in the presence of one of those anonymous divinities from the peripheral religions" (vii). Laferriere thus mythologizes Danticat, turning her into an image of "peripheral" divinity, an idol of marginality. He literalizes this impulse to idolize and perhaps even in the process objectify the author when he writes, "I am convinced that I will come across one day the sculpted head of Edwidge Danticat on the Vodou altar of one of those huts placed in unstable equilibrium on the mountainsides of Haiti" (vii). Laferriere's spectacular imagery communicates the struggles of many critics who praise Danticat all while providing her with only precarious spaces within literary traditions, creating the sense of "unstable equilibrium." Danticat's lauded position in the literary sphere sets her up to represent and therefore act as cultural translator for the Haitian community, even though she is only granted a place on the periphery of that same community.
Danticat writes mostly in English with untranslated words and phrases from Haitian Kreyol and French. Danticat explains her writing process as one of constant translation. In fact, Danticat says that her stories with Kreyol-speaking characters come to her in Haitian Creole, with what she calls "mental SimulTrans" ("The Art"). Written in English and focused on Haiti and Haitian immigrants, Danticat's work is categorized as neither Haitian nor African American. (7) Danticat becomes an author without a language, a time, or a place to claim. It is easy to understand the author's attraction to the quote by Perez Firmat referenced earlier. In an interview with the art magazine Guernica, Danticat explains, "You're told you don't belong to American literature or you're told you don't belong to Haitian literature. Maybe there's a place on the hyphen" ("The Art"). Danticat uses the hyphen, a linguistic symbol that can signify both separation and connection between words and ideas, to grammatically represent her liminal position between national categories of literature. As a Haitian-American writing in English to the New Yorker audience, she becomes a cultural translator who, like the hyphen, symbolizes the bridge and the chasm between two worlds. (8) Danticat confronts her marginality by creating her own "translation zones" in the areas of the hyphen. I focus in this essay on the hyphen as a paradoxical space in Danticat's work, where the potential for interconnection is overwhelmed by the breach of all that cannot be translated into written or spoken language. Similarly, Danticat's featured story on the New Yorker podcast illustrates those moments of unspoken meaning through the silent spaces between characters.
Danticat's short story "Water Child," which Diaz reads and discusses with Treisman on the 2009 New Yorker podcast, follows Nadine Marie Osnac, a young Haitian woman living in New York, whose reticence to communicate starkly contrasts with Yunior's loquacious machismo in "How to Date." In the story, word circulates around the Brooklyn hospital where Nadine works that she is "not a friendly woman" because anyone who attempts conversation with her is "met with cold silence and a blank stare out to the psych ward"(24). (9) Nadine will not answer her ex-lover's phone calls and resists calling her parents in Haiti for fear that "her voice might betray all that she could not say"(23). As a nurse working with postoperative laryngectomy patients, Nadine also encounters involuntary silence in her occupation. On the 2009 New Yorker podcast, Diaz reads the story at a slower pace and in a less-accented voice than that used for "How to Date" on the 2007 episode. Moments of textual silence in Danticat's story become apparent as they are manifested in auditory pauses. Diaz tells Treisman after the reading in 2009 that the story's "reticence about affect" actually "welcomes our identification and engages our sympathies and compassions more than ... if Edwidge filled in all those empty spaces" ("Unspoken"). In Diaz's podcast reading of "Water Child," these textual "empty spaces" not only represent all that is unspoken between characters, but are manifested in auditory silence as well. By considering the vocalized silences throughout "Water Child" as read by Diaz on the podcast, it becomes possible to see how elisions of voice translate the experience of impossible translations in the space of the hyphen. (10)
The most conspicuous incident of elided voice in "Water Child" occurs when Nadine's laryngectomy patient, Ms. Hinds, begins "thrashing" at nurses and "throwing things across her room" as she discovers that she has lost her capacity for speech after the operation (24). Only similarly silent Nadine can calm Ms. Hinds down in this moment of panic. When Nadine asks the patient if she has something to tell her, Ms. Hinds opens "her mouth wide, trying to force air past her lips," but only vocalizes "the hiss of oxygen and mucus filtering through the tube in her neck" (25). The only thing Ms. Hinds can orally communicate in this moment is the "empty space" inside her own body; the sounds of hissing air and filtering mucus reveal a bodily chasm of silence. On the podcast, Treisman asks Diaz if he sees Ms. Hinds's unexpected muteness as an allegory for immigrants to the United States who are "rendered voiceless" upon arrival ("Unspoken"). (11) Treisman's link between Ms. Hinds's sudden muteness and hemispheric immigration aptly points to the theme of linguistic translation as indicative of self-alienation, which runs throughout "Water Child." Diaz agrees that these patients could be an allegory for immigration, but resists creating an equivalency that would culturally translate the immigrant experience into a laryngectomy. Rather, Diaz suggests that immigration is itself a "troubling echo" of any life experience in which "you are ... transported ... into another world, where you have no access to your language," and become foreign to yourself ("Unspoken"). Diaz's more expansive interpretation of Ms. Hinds's operation pushes listeners to consider how Danticat's story also elucidates the speechlessness that can accompany pressures of cultural translation in migration, like those experienced by Diaz and Danticat in their literary careers.
The theoretical framework of translation can help us see how multilingual, immigrant authors like Danticat and Diaz use language and the lack thereof to contend with this "in-between situation" of losing one's capacity to physically voice concepts but having much still to say (Munro 4). The transnational, "broad intellectual topography" of translation provides an optic that can identify examples of not-belonging in language like those Danticat writes through silence (Apter 5). The same way that transnational works like "Water Child" and "How to Date" inevitably challenge the existing assumptions of what counts as American literature, the act of linguistic and cultural translation is a "means of rendering self-knowledge foreign to itself" (6). Even though these two stories are set in New Jersey and New York, they still expose "complex ruptures that remain within but nonetheless constitute" what it means to be an "American." For "How to Date" and "Water Child," the local is always defined by a hemispheric network of understanding, whose "complex ruptures" are voiced through polyvocality and silence.
Nadine's elective muteness firmly "demarcates intersubjective limits" between herself and those who attempt to speak to her, but also between words and untranslatable silences. In addition, "Water Child" suggests that Nadine's choice to be silent is a symptom of living on the hyphen between languages and cultures. When Nadine returns to her condo in Canarsie, she is "greeted by voices from the large television set that she [keeps] turned on twenty-four hours a day" (22). Nadine's television is constantly transmitting speech in this domestic scene, while Nadine repeatedly stays quiet. Danticat highlights Nadine's lack of oral communication by juxtaposing her silence with the ever-chattering television set. The television, unlike people, requires "neither reaction not response" from Nadine (22). The television, then, does not ask that Nadine attempt to translate her own feelings and experiences. When Eric, Nadine's ex-beau, "the near father of her nearly born child" (22), leaves a message on her machine, Danticat explicitly connects linguistic translation with silence. "Alo, allo, hello," he stammer[s], creating his own pauses between Creole, French, and English" (22). Inherent in Eric's process of translation are hyphens. The pauses represent the space of that which cannot be translated with total fidelity between languages. Danticat goes on to strengthen this connection between translation and silence, describing Eric "like the electively mute, newly arrived immigrant children whose worried parents brought them in for consultations, even though there was nothing wrong with their vocal chords" (22). Eric and Nadine's silence is not that experienced by the laryngectomy patient Ms. Hinds, because it is the result of the physical movement of immigration, not physical impairment. The allusion to electively mute children also reminds readers that in the multi-lingual Americas, "translation is not [only] a trope but a permanent condition" (Translation 5). Unlike Yunior's "reluctant reflection" after struggling to manipulate his macho performances for diverse women in "How to Date," Danticat's characters are electively mute, taking refuge in the space of the silent hyphen as they navigate new limits of intersubjectivity in these new worlds.
Nadine does not return the telephone message she receives from Eric and instead removes the microcassette filled with his stammering voice and places it on "the altar she had erected" to her unborn baby. With a "framed drawing that she had made of a cocoa-brown, dewey-eyed baby," roses Eric bought her while leaving the clinic, the microcassettes of his messages, and a glass of water with a small pebble inside, the altar itself attempts to mark an unspeakable absence (22-23). For Nadine, the physical space of the altar represents the metaphorical hyphen, the resting place of Eric's past voice and the unfulfilled future. Nadine learned of a shrine that honored unborn children in Japan by pouring water over altars of stone and now performs her own version of this ceremony as a means of representing her loss (23). When talking to Treisman, Diaz calls this story "an attempt to pour water over all of these absences," such as that created by the terminated pregnancy, as well as the absence of voice that can accompany experiences of migration ("Unspoken"). Nadine creates a place on the hyphen where her unborn child and family can rest, honoring those silences in her life.
At the close of the story, Nadine watches as Ms. Hinds leave the hospital with her talkative parents, temporarily acting as yet another child resigned to muteness. Danticat leaves Nadine Osnac in typically quiet contemplation; the nurse stands alone "facing a distorted reflection of herself" in the hospital's elevator doors (29). Nadine thinks of "her parents, of Eric, of the pebble in the water glass ... all those things belonging to the widened, unrecognizable woman staring back at her from the closed doors" (29). "Water Child" ends with an illustration of the self-alienating aspects that accompany living on the hyphen between languages and cultures. Nadine dwells in the space of things yet unsaid.
To listen to these two New Yorker podcast episodes is to witness a complex dance of hemispheric black internationalism in live translation. By framing the two authors and their works through the digital medium of the podcast, this article challenges scholars to consider new zones of inquiry regarding cultural translation and international literary communities. "How to Date" and "Water Child" illustrate the process of what Edwards terms articulation, or "linking or connecting across gaps" as both protagonists struggle to translate their experiences across cultures and oceans (11). The forms of hemispheric black internationalism represented in the podcasts not only push the boundaries of Edwards's original concept, which is rooted in twentieth-century France, but also challenge essentialist conceptualizations of race in the Americas, and particularly in the United States, where a black-white dichotomy has dominated racial public consciousness. Diaz and Danticat echo the voices of black scholars such as WE.B. Du Bois and Martin Delaney, who saw in the effort of black Cubans the importance of locating "the racial nation-state within the larger flows of hemispheric culture" (Levander and Levine 2). Even though these two stories are set in New Jersey and New York City, the "American" locale is always defined by a hemispheric network of migration. And at the heart of Diaz and Danticat's explorations of American immigrant experience is the island of Hispanola.
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(1) For more historical information on race in the Dominican Republic, see Price-Mars 181 and Moya Pons. For more analytical perspectives on race in the Dominican Republic, see Torres-Saillant 126-149 and Hoetink 55-84.
(2) I contend that Yunior's "busted up Spanish" in "How to Date" and Diaz's "messed up Spanish" on the Alt-Latino podcast are making similar moves with cultural translation. I am not quoting the author and his character side-by-side in order to suggest an autobiographical conflation. While literary journalists often refer to Yunior as Diaz's semi-autobiographical character, Diaz calls Yunior his "alter-ego" (Okie).
(3) I am using "How to Date" as it appears in Diaz's short story collection Drown for in-text citations in this essay. The story is only slightly altered here from its original 1995 appearance in The New Yorker.
(4) This particular recording of "How to Date" featuring Junot Diaz and Gail Thomas as readers was first released in 1998 on the CD entitled The New Yorker Out Loud: Volume 2.
(5) For reasons of space, I do not develop an argument on gender and cultural translation here.
(6) For more on hair as a symbol of Dominican racial identity see Calendario 223-55.
(7) See Munro 4 for a thoughtful discussion of Danticat's position in the literary marketplace.
(8) Danticat's comment brings to mind Perez Firmat's 1994 monograph, Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way. Danticat's quote also calls to mind Achy Obejas's article on translating Diaz's 2012 collection of short stories, This is How You Lose Her. Objeas describes the difficulty of translating this text and describes Diaz's style as a "linguistically promiscuous ... exuberant song to living on the hyphen, a mix of languages with a pop culture beat that references comics and science fiction, hip-hop and salsa" (Obejas).
(9) I am using "Water Child" as it appears in The Beacon Best of 2001: Great Writing by Women and Men of All Colors and Cultures, edited by Junot Diaz. "Water Child" appears in this collection in the same format as it did in the 2000 New Yorker, which Diaz reads on the podcast. The version of "Water Child" that appears in Danticat's The Dew Breaker, on the other hand, exhibits considerable revisions to the character of Eric. These changes are discussed on the New Yorker podcast episode "Unspoken."
(10) Misrahi-Barak theorizes vocalizations of silence in The Dew Breaker as they relate to depictions of violence and trauma (4).
(11) On the 2009 podcast, Treisman discusses Danticat's uncle, who lost his voice in a laryngectomy after seeking asylum in the United States and then eventually died in the custody of immigration officials.
(12) My theory of black hemispheric internationalism performed in live translation on these podcasts is in conversation with Ifeoma Nwankwo's concept of "transnational Black collectivism" as demonstrated by Langston Hughes's translations of Nicolas Guillen's poetry (55-72).
Anne Margaret Castro
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