junot diaz
Stanford Humanities Center

Junot Díaz: Excerpts


Ysrael was a different story. Even on this side of Ocoa people had heard of him, how when he was a baby a pig had eaten his face off, sinned it like an orange. He was something to talk about, a name that set the kids to screaming, worse than el Cuco or la Vieja Calusa.

I’d seen Ysrael my first time the year before, right after the dams were finished. I was in town, farting around, when a single-prop plane swept in across the sky. A door opened on the fuselage and a man began to kick out tall bundles that exploded into thousands of leaflets as soon as the wind got to them. They came down as slow as butterfly blossoms and were posters of wrestlers, not politicians, and that’s when us kids started shouting at each other. Usually the planes only covered Ocoa, but if extras had been printed the nearby towns would also get leaflets, especially if the match or the election was a big one. The paper would cling to the trees for weeks.

I spotted Ysrael in an alley, stooping over a stack of leaflets that had not come undone from its thin cord. He was wearing a mask.

What are you doing? I said.

What do you think I'm doing? he answered.

He picked up the bundle and ran down the alley. Some other boys saw him and wheeled around, howling but, coño, could he run.

That’s Ysrael! I was told. He’s ugly and he’s got a cousin around here but we don’t like him either. And that face of his would make you sick!

I told my brother later when I got home, and he sat up in his bed. Could you see under the mask?

Not really.

That’s something we got to check out.

I hear it’s bad.

The night before we went to look for him my brother couldn’t sleep. He kicked at the mosquito netting and I would hear the mesh tearing just a little. My tío was yukking it up with his buddies in the yard. One of Tío’s roosters had won big the day before and he was thinking of taking it to the Capital.

People around here don’t bet worth a damn, he was saying. Your average campesino only bets big when he feels lucky and how many of them feel lucky?

You’re feeling lucky right now.

You’re damn right about that. That’s why I have to find myself some big spenders.

I wonder how much of Ysrael’s face is gone, Rafa said.

He has his eyes.

That’s a lot, he assured me. You'd think eyes would be the first thing a pig would go for. Eyes are soft. And salty.

How do you know that?

I licked one, he said.

Maybe his ears.

And his nose. Anything that sticks out.

Everyone had a different opinion on the damage. Tío said it wasn’t bad but the father was very sensitive about anyone taunting his oldest son, which explained the mask. Tía said that if we were to look on his face we would be sad for the rest of our lives. That’s why the poor boy’s mother spends her day in church. I had never been sad more than a few hours and the thought of that sensation lasting a lifetime scared the hell out of me. My brother kept pinching my face during the night, like I was a mango. The cheeks, he said. And the chin. But the forehead would be a lot harder. The skin’s tight.

All right, I said. Ya.

“Ysrael,” Drown, pp. 7-9.

Oscar had always been a young nerd-the kind of kid who read Tom Swift, who loved comic books and watched Ultraman-but by high school his commitment to the Genres had become absolute. Back when the rest of us were learning to play wallball and pitch quarters and drive our older brothers' cars and sneak dead soldiers from under our parents' eyes, he was gorging himself on a steady stream of Lovecraft, Wells, Burroughs, Howard, Alexander, Herbert, Asimov, Bova, and Heinlein, and even the Old Ones who were already beginning to fade — E.E. “Doc” Smith, Stapledon, and the guy who wrote all of the Doc Savage books — moving hungrily from book to book, author to author, age to age. (It was his good fortune that the libraries of Paterson were so underfunded that they still kept a lot of the previous generation’s nerdery in circulation.) You couldn’t have torn him away from any movie or TV show or cartoon where there were monsters or spaceships or mutants or doomsday devices or destines or magic or evil villains. In these pursuits alone Oscar showed the genius his grandmother insisted was pat of the family patrimony. Could write in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic. (If only he’s been good at videogames it would have been a slam dunk but despite owning an Atari and an Intellivision he didn’t have the reflexes for it.) Perhaps if like me he'd been able to hide his otakuness maybe shit would have been easier for him, but he couldn’t. Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he'd wanted to. 6

[Footnote] 6. Where this outsized love of genre jumped off from no one quite seems to know. It might have been a consequence of being Antillean (who more sci-fi than us?) or of living in the DR for the first couple of years of his life and then abruptly wrenchingly relocating to New Jersey-a single green card shifting not only worlds (from Third to First) but centuries (from almost no TV or electricity to plenty of both). After a transition like that I'm guessing only the most extreme scenarios could have satisfied. Maybe it was that in the DR he had watched too much Spider-Man, been taken to too many Run Run Shaw kung fu movies, listened to too many of his abuela’s spooky stories about el Cuco and la Ciguapa? Maybe it was his first librarian in the U.S., who hooked him on reading, the electricity he felt when he touched that first Danny Dunn book? Maybe it was just the zeitgeist (were not the early seventies the dawn of the Nerd Age?) or the fact that for most of his childhood he had absolutely no friends? Or was it something deeper, something ancestral?

Who can say?

What is clear is that being a reader/fanboy (for lack of a better term) helped him get through the rough days of his youth, but it also made him stick out in the mean streets of Paterson even more than he already did. Victimized by the other boys-punches and pushes and wedgies and broken glasses and brand-new books from Scholastic, at a cost of fifty cents each, torn in half before his very eyes. You like books? Now you got two! Har-har! No one, alas, more oppressive than the oppressed. Even his own mother found his preoccupations nutty. Go outside and play! she commanded at least once a day. Pórtate como un muchacho normal.

(Only his sister, a reader too, supporting him. Bringing him books from her own school, which had a better library.)

You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.

Pa' fuera! His mother roared. And out he would go, like a boy condemned, to spend a few hours being tormented by the other boys-Please, I want to stay, he would beg his mother, but she shoved him out-You ain’t a woman to be staying in the house-one hour, two, until finally he could slip back inside unnoticed, hiding himself in the upstairs closet, where he'd read by the slat of light that razored in from the cracked door. Eventually, his mother rooting him out again: What in the carajo is the matter with you?

(And already on scraps of paper, in his composition books, on the backs of his hands, he was beginning to scribble, nothing serious for now, just rough facsimiles of his favorite stories, no sign yet that these half-assed pastiches were to be his Destiny.)

From The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, p. 20-22.

Year 0

Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but as you're a totally batshit cuero who didn’t ever empty his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty! Sure, over a six-year period, but still. Fifty fucking girls? God-damn. Maybe if you'd been engaged to a super open-minded blanquita you could have survived it-but you're not engaged to a super open-minded blanquita. Your girl is a bad-ass salcedeña who doesn’t believe in open anything; in fact the one thing she warned you about, that she swore she would never forgive, was cheating. I’ll put a machete in you, she promised. And of course you swore you wouldn’t do it. You swore you wouldn’t.

And you did.

She’ll stick around for a few months because you dated for a long long time. Because you went through much together-her father’s death, your tenure madness, her bar exam (passed on the third attempt). And because love, real love, is not so easily shed. Over a tortured six-month period you will fly to the DR, to Mexico (for the funeral of a friend), to New Zealand. You will walk the beach where they filmed The Piano, something she’s always wanted to do, and now, in penitent desperation, you give it to her. She is immensely sad on that beach and she walks up and down the shining sand alone, bare feet in the freezing water, and when you try to hug her she says, Don’t. She stares at the rocks jutting out of the water, the wind taking her hair straight back. On the ride back to the hotel, up through those wild steeps, you pick up a pair of hitchhikers, a couple, so mixed it’s ridiculous, and so giddy with love that you almost throw them out the car. She says nothing. Later, in the hotel, she will cry.

You try every trick in the book to keep her. You writer her letters. You drive her to work. You quote Neruda. You compose a mass e-mail disowning all your sucias. You block their e-mails. You change your phone number. You stop drinking. You stop smoking. You claim you're a sex addict and start attending meetings. You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy. You blame Santo Domingo. You find a therapist. You cancel your Facebook. You give her the passwords to all your e-mail accounts. You start taking salsa classes like you always swore you would so that the two of you could dance together. You claim that you were sick, your claim that you were weak — It was the book! It was the pressure! — and every hour like clockwork you say that you're so so sorry. You try it all, but one day she will simply sit up in bed and say, No more, and Ya, and you will have to move from the Harlem apartment that you two have shared. You consider not going. You consider a squat protest. In fact, you say won’t go. But in the end you do.

For a while you haunt the city, like a two-bit ballplayer dreaming of a call-up. You phone here every day and leave messages which she doesn’t answer. You writer her long sensitive letters, which she returns unopened. You even show up at her apartment at odd hours and at her job downtown until finally her little sister calls you, the one who was always on your side, and she makes it plain: If you try to contact my sister again she’s going to put a restraining order on you.

For some Negroes that wouldn’t mean shit.

But you ain’t that kind of Negro.

You stop. You move back to Boston. You never see her again.

From “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,”
This Is How You Lose Her, pp. 179-181.

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