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In Junot Diaz's 'Islandborn,' A Curious Child Re-Creates Her Dominican Roots

Mar 12, 2018
Originally published on March 12, 2018 3:11 pm

Junot Díaz wanted to write a children's book for more than 20 years. In the meantime, he wrote several grown-up books, including The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008. He also won a MacArthur "Genius" Grant, among other accolades.

Now he has finished that children's book. Islandborn is about a curious, Afro-Caribbean girl named Lola.

"She is an immigrant who came over so young, she has no memories of the land that she left behind," Díaz says. "And of course she is surrounded by a community that talks endlessly about the island."

She's about 6 years old, the age Díaz was when he and his family fled to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, which was torn apart by the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Islandborn, illustrated by Leo Espinosa, follows Lola's quest to find out about the mysterious nation.


Interview Highlights

On what inspires Lola to find out more about the Dominican Republic

A teacher, you know, Ms. Obi, challenges them to draw a picture of their first home because Lola is in a school called "the school of faraway places," and all the children in her school are immigrants. But Lola, of course, doesn't have any memories. And so she and her teacher start devising a way that she be able to find a way to draw a picture by talking to and reaching out to the people around her who do remember.

On how she begins to reconstruct the island

Well, she gets into dialogue. I think what's interesting is that the — often the questions of young people, you know, in some ways, they create an invitation for older people who have spent a lot of time sustaining certain kinds of silences. You know, if you're in a family that has silences, a young person can sort of zero in on them and say, "Hey. Whatever happened to X?" Or "What is Y about?" She, in her very innocent and curious and energetic way, creates an opportunity for the community to have a reckoning with some of the history which it's attempting to distance or disavow.

On how older people explain Trujillo's dictatorship to her

Well, you know, one thing is sure is that there's a number of tactics. You have some folks trying to discourage her, other folks trying to shut the door, but her persistence wins the day. And eventually someone sits down with her — Mr. Mir — and explains to her in highly metaphorical language, but I think [in] more honest and some ways more impactful than if he'd given her just a clinical description of it.

On describing Trujillo as a "monster" and the line "That's why we're all here."

When we look at the discourses around immigration, it's always this deficit model: "We didn't have anything at home" or "We had less at home, and so we came here for more opportunities." OK, that's very, very comforting. There's also the fact a lot of people come because political realities have uprooted them, have driven them from their homes.

On Trujillo's dictatorship

I think he's like most authoritarian, near-totalitarian dictators. There was no safety for people or families. Today, you could be walking down the street, and somebody who had Trujillo's ear would want your house, and the next thing you know, you would be out of it. There was constant murder, constant torture. This was also a racial dictatorship, a violently Jim Crow-type dictatorship where people of dark skin, their lives were made much more difficult than the light-skinned people. It was a very bad period.

On how much Lola understands about the Dominican Republic by the end of the book

I would argue that young people are far more sophisticated than any adult gives them credit for. Adults are always imagining children to be less sophisticated than they really are. Lola, I think, is sophisticated. I think, as we see in the book, that she's taken Mr. Mir's story about this political monstrosity that's seized her island to heart. It allows her, in some ways, to connect to her family more deeply and to herself, and ultimately leaves her far more — at least in my mind — leaves her in a better place than she was when she started.

Catherine Whelan and Jessica Smith produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The writer Junot Diaz wanted to publish a children's book for more than 20 years. In the meantime, he stayed busy. He wrote several grown-up books, including "The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao," which won a Pulitzer Prize. He also won a MacArthur Genius grant. And now he has finally gotten around to finishing that children's book. It is called "Islandborn." And it's about a little Afro-Caribbean girl named Lola who is curious about her family's past.

JUNOT DIAZ: Also she's haunted by the fact that she was born on an island that she can't remember, you know? She's an immigrant who came over so young. She has no memories of the land that she left behind. And, of course, she's surrounded by a community that talks endlessly about the island. And so in some ways, she's a bit of an outsider even though she's inside the community.

MARTIN: She's only about 6 years old, which is just the age Diaz was when his family fled to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, escaping a country that had been torn apart by the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Our co-host, Steve Inskeep, talked with Diaz about Lola and her quest to discover the truth about where she is from.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What sets her on a mission to find out where she's from?

DIAZ: A teacher, you know, Ms. Obi, challenges them to draw a picture of their first home because Lola is in a school called the school of faraway places. And all the children in her school are immigrants, but Lola of course doesn't have any memories. And so her and her teacher start devising a way that she can be able to find a way to draw a picture by kind of talking to and reaching out to the people around her who do remember.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm sure there's not a real school of faraway places anywhere, but I bet there are schools in New York City that are a large way to that.

DIAZ: Yeah, no, I actually - I would actually argue this is based on the school that I've worked with closely for many, many years. the Gregorio Luperon up in uptown, up in the heights. And that was a school where almost the entire student body were immigrant or the children of immigrants.

INSKEEP: In the heights - we're talking about Upper Manhattan is what we're talking about. Is that right? Yeah.

DIAZ: Yeah, very Dominican - primarily, dominantly Dominican and still a large African-American community in the area.

INSKEEP: So how does she go about trying to reconstruct the island?

DIAZ: Well, she gets into dialogue. I think what's interesting is that the - often the questions of young people, in some ways they create an invitation for older people who have spent a lot of time sustaining certain kinds of silences. You know, if you're in a family that has silences, a young person can sort of zero in on them and say, hey, whatever happened to X, or what is Y about? She, in her very innocent and curious and energetic way, creates an opportunity for the community to have a reckoning with some of the history which it's attempting to distance or disavow.

INSKEEP: One of the more compelling characters is an older man, a super in the building, whose first answer to her questions is don't think about it. Just be glad you live here.

DIAZ: Yeah, no, you know, and it's kind of the note that suddenly, you know, that kind of echoes in the book that there's probably more afoot in this community than just, you know, gentle memories of large mangoes.

INSKEEP: And how do they go about, the older people, go about trying to explain the horror of a dictatorship to a kid in America who has no experience of such a thing?

DIAZ: Well, you know, one thing is sure that there's a number of tactics. You have some folks trying to discourage her, other folks trying to shut the door. But her persistence wins the day. And eventually, someone sits down with her, Mr. Mir, and explains it to her in highly kind of metaphorical language but I think more honest, in some ways more impactful, than if he had given her just a clinical description of it.

INSKEEP: He says, for 30 years, there was a monster.

DIAZ: Yeah, yeah.

INSKEEP: The line that maybe touched me the most is in - the line in which someone explains, when talking about the monster, when talking about the dictator, that's why we're all here. What do you - what do they mean by that?

DIAZ: Well, I mean, when we look at the discourses around immigration, it's always this deficit model. We didn't have anything at home or we had less at home, and so we came here for more opportunities. OK. That's very, very comforting. There's also the fact a lot of people come because political realities have uprooted them, have driven them from their homes.

INSKEEP: They were on the wrong side of a political battle at home and had to flee.

DIAZ: Yeah, or they were just human beings facing an impossible political situation. With someone like Trujillo, I'm not sure that there was much of a political battle.

INSKEEP: I want people to understand what made Trujillo so bad if they know nothing about him because I'm assuming the average American has only heard the name or never heard the name. What was so bad about Rafael Trujillo?

DIAZ: Well, I mean, I think he's like most authoritarian, near-totalitarian dictators. There was no safety for people or families. Today, you could be walking down the street and somebody who had Trujillo's ear would want your house, and the next thing you know, you would be out of it. There was constant murder, constant torture. This was also a racial dictatorship, a violently Jim Crow-type dictatorship where people of dark skin, their lives were made much more difficult than the lighter skinned people. It was - it was a very bad period.

INSKEEP: So how much of this story do you think Lola, the kid at the center of it, really understands by the end?

DIAZ: I would argue that young people are far more sophisticated than any adult gives them credit for. Adults are always imagining children to be less sophisticated than they really are. Lola, I think, is sophisticated. I think, as we see in the book, that she's taken Mr. Mir's story about this political monstrosity that seized her island to heart. It allows her to, in some ways, to connect to her family more deeply and to herself and ultimately, you know, leaves her far more - at least in my mind leaves her in a better place than she was when she started.

INSKEEP: The book is "Islandborn." It's a children's book by Junot Diaz, illustrated by Leo Espinosa. Thanks very much, Mr. Diaz.

DIAZ: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF YEARS OF RICE AND SALT'S "PLANKTON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.