Junot Diaz and the Decolonial Imagination.
With two books of short stories and a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to his name, Junot Diaz is an institution. His accessible, confessional, and intellectual voice speaks for the Latina/o and Afro-diasporic communities of the Americas in a vast number of public forums. On his open Facebook page, Diaz acts as a sharp, politically attuned messenger who relays stories of the many ugly and also inspiring histories of the American hemisphere, a region that has been his fiction's focus. After the shock of the presidential election this past November, Diaz wrote a short piece in The New Yorker from the perspective of someone like so many of the readers of this review--an educator who, faced with groups of speechless, downcast, and terrified students, was at a loss for the right words.
In short, Junot Diaz is one of us, but unlike quite a few of us, he is also a celebrity. Nowhere is this clearer than in the recent volume Junot Diaz and the Decolonial Imagination, edited by Monica Hanna, Jennifer Harford Vargas, and Jose David Saldivar, which the editors deem to be "the first collective reading of Junot Diaz for our time" (1). This collection emerged from a 2012 symposium held at Stanford University devoted to Diaz's life and work. The novelist himself was in attendance. This, according to the editors, was a "rare" treat, difficult as it is "to have a living, thinking, and feeling writer in the space of a symposium where panelists are deconstructing and reconstructing his fiction" ("Introduction: Junot Diaz and the Decolonial Imagination from Island to Empire," 16). The introduction, fourteen chapters, and interview (with Paula Moya) that comprise this volume are all similar in their praise for the man and his writing. In the first chapter ("Against the 'Discursive Latino': The Politics and Praxis of Junot Diaz's Latinidad"), Arlene Davila refers to the novelist as "a literary powerhouse but also a dear friend and colleague" (33). Nearly all the chapters list the many accolades Diaz has received, particularly on the US mainland (e.g., the Guggenheim Fellowship and the MacArthur Fellowship). The volume overflows with respect and affection for Diaz's person and his work, and several of the chapters riff on the privilege of being in close quarters with the author during the Stanford symposium. For instance, in her chapter on disability and decoloniality, Julie Avril Minich adds a footnote recounting how, during this event, "Diaz was open about his physical deterioration, talking about the pain he feels when he sits still for too long." This was an opportunity for the critic to think of how Diaz is "in line with... disability activists" (66n63).
Aside from conveying a sense of Diaz as a kindred spirit, it is clear that the critics whose work is collected here see him as a game changer not only in the field of creative writing, but also in terms of the new critical possibilities that his writing promises. In "Junot Diaz's Search for Decolonial Aesthetics and Love" (Chapter 12), for example, Jose David Saldivar notes that Diaz is "the first Latino writer working in the United States in the twenty-first century to be put forward as a major figure in the world-system of letters" (322), adding in a footnote that we can "glimpse in Diaz's fiction the outlines of some wholly different world-coloniality system of letters coming into being" (344n1). Statements like Saldivar's demonstrate how much is riding on Diaz as a brother-in-arms and as a spokesperson for the myriad ways in which the contemporary academy is thinking through issues of race, gender, and class. As a professor of creative writing at MIT, Diaz inhabits the sphere Mark McGurl has deemed the "Program Era"; he is an institution, and is also thoroughly institutionalized. I cannot help but think of the line in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in which the protagonist's "endless" beating by a group of thugs is compared to an 8 a.m. session at the MLA convention. In other words, Diaz's fiction already pre-empts the critical attention it will receive in university classrooms, not to mention the hotel conference rooms that house our esteemed professional encounters.
As the editors note several times in the Introduction, Diaz's writing is a working through of Anibal Quijano's theory of "coloniality of power" (7), or the deeply imbedded history of colonial violence in the Americas. In light of this critical engagement, the collection's aim is to align Diaz with the decolonial imagination as a step toward "conceptualiz[ing] a society decolonized of hierarchies of racist and heteronormative gender oppression and subalternization" (9). The impressive essays here cast light on the prismatic nature of Diaz's oeuvre and how it can be employed to fit a number of methodologies that shed light on the current state in our critical thinking about identity. In his chapter, Saldivar reads Diaz through the lens of affect, tracing the progressive development of "decolonial love" in the character of Yunior from Diaz's first collection, Drown (1996), to the more recent This Is How You Lose Her (2012). Minich reads Diaz alongside Frantz Fanon and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson to demonstrate how "a critical disability perspective on Diaz's work offers new insights not only about one writer but also... about the aesthetics of decolonization" (51). For her part, Paula Moya offers a comparative reading of Diaz and African-American poet Audre Lorde in order to show Diaz's indebtedness to women-of-color feminism from the 1980s and '90s, and also to pose a critique of what she calls our "so-called postrace moment" in which the category of identity has fallen into disuse as a critical tool ("Dismantling the Master's House: The Decolonial Literary Imaginations of Audre Lorde and Junot Diaz," 232-33).
Echoing Saldivar's claims about Diaz's game-changing perspective, the volume presents a number of debates about the place of Diaz within the American hemispheric imagination, as a Dominican-American writer with biological and intellectual roots in the Afro-Caribbean, the United States, and Latin America. Monica Hanna ("A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cannibalist") reads Yunior, the narrator of Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as an avatar of Brazilian Oswald de Andrade's cultural antropofagia. Along similar lines, Claudia Milian points to the long-standing irreconcilability between Latina/o and Latin American studies, and offers Diaz as a transnational writer who overcomes these divisions by "fashion[ing] hermeneutic turns that disrupt literary conventions in Latin America as well as the United States" ("Latino/a Deracination and the New Latin American Novel," 175).
The transnational Diaz appears in all chapters, particularly Ylce Irizarry's reading of Diaz's dominicanidad as a condition that, propelled by neocolonialism, makes belonging--and the feeling of arrival and settlement in a new home--impossible ("This Is How You Lose It: Navigating Dominicanidad in Junot Diaz's Drown"). Meanwhile, Silvio Torres-Saillant casts doubt on readings that claim Diaz as a Dominican writer, highlighting the novelist's universal outlook, or his place within "non-Dominican systems of significance and larger sites of knowledge of the human experience" ("Artistry, Ancestry, and Americanness in the Works of Junot Diaz," 119).
This necessarily incomplete inventory of the collection's many offerings reflects the abundance of affirmative readings that Diaz's work has garnered and continues to solicit. As a writer who has so masterfully and responsibly navigated the literary marketplace, popular culture, and the academy, Diaz appears to be a critic's dream. And this is the one quibble I have with Hanna, Vargas, and Saldivar's far-reaching volume: while showing the many interpretive possibilities and redemptive qualities of Diaz's career up to this point, they have (inadvertently perhaps) also outlined a version of a writer who is somehow beyond critique. In this respect, Junot Diaz and the Decolonial Imagination reads as a first step in what I hope is an extended, but not uncomplicated, relationship with the work of a writer who speaks so eloquently about our tempestuous present.
MARIA DEL PILAR BLANCO University of Oxford
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|Author:||Del Pilar Blanco, Maria|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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