Of the two, it was Junot Diaz's The Brief & Wondrous life of Oscar Wao that I first read last spring for a class on contemporary African/Diaspora writing – the reason being that Diaz is partly of African descent (mediated through a more dominant Latino heritage & his experiences as an American) and his writing is said to be influenced by this background, both linguistically and thematically. However, to strictly classify it as such would be limiting (be it a self-imposed classification or otherwise), yet it is a characteristic that is continually attached to the work. Why, I wonder, does this tendency persist? And how does it affect our perception of the "Other?"
It is generally agreed upon that this book, and maybe even more so Drown (for the multiplicity of its voices), is an attempt by Diaz to capture the voice of the subaltern. The attempt, if you were to judge by the innumerable awards/glowing reviews dedicated to Diaz's works, was a success. Even scary Kakutani was transformed into a gushing admirer, and in a review that can only be read in cooing tones proclaimed that Diaz "writes in a sort of streetwise brand of Spanglish that even the most monolingual reader can easily inhale: lots of flash words and razzle-dazzle talk, lots of body language on the sentences, lots of David Foster Wallace-esque footnotes and asides. And he conjures with seemingly effortless aplomb the two worlds his characters inhabit: the Dominican Republic, the ghost-haunted motherland that shapes their nightmares and their dreams; and America (a k a New Jersey), the land of freedom and hope and not-so-shiny possibilities that they’ve fled to as part of the great Dominican diaspora."
This is where I start to have problems with this type of writing. Diaz is praised not only for his stories, but also for this narrative "voice" that seems to have distinguished him from his peers/predecessors. I want to include Avarind Adiga's Booker-winning White Tiger in this genre, as it is thematically akin to Diaz's work, as are any number of Invisible Man-wannabe books.
The problem with these works, and such readings as Kakutani's, is that they clearly minstrelize the diverse and complex lives and cultures they are involved in. Minstrelsy is characterized by exaggerated movement and expression. It lacks the subtlety of real human experiences, and makes a spectacle of the Other. Words are not spoken, they are flung. Limbs do not simply move, they are thrusted. Other peculiar choices in vocabulary, to name a few, include jostling, etc, some of which immediately stand out in Kakutani's review - conjure, razzle-dazzle. Homelands/Motherlands are always just that, some place that holds great nostalgic significance to these characters and at the same time inspire horrific nightmares - and who can blame these puppets (is it too much to expect agential characters in these books?), "haunted" as they are by memories of gangster-like politicians or crimes committed by the criminal castes - all stemming from a neocolonial imagination of those no-good natives who would run down the country once the noble & kind administrators* had granted them independence.
A language of imitation and performance, and not real experience, minstrelsy seeks to feign authenticity by being larger than life, louder than life, fuller than life, ignoring the relative anonymity of the inconspicuous lives it is trying to describe. Anxious about the bourgeois' inability to hear (it was said that the question is not whether the subaltern can speak but if the bourgeois can listen), these spokesmen for the underground man have resolved to shouting their message from the roof-tops.
Having said all that, I want to make it clear that I am not calling for a silencing of these voices. I do not want Diaz/Adiga to stop writing - I just think it's odd that it is only these kinds of books that receive so much attention. There has been much uproar at a recently released list (the Best American Fiction 1968 - 1998, google it if you must) over its lack of diversity, and while I cannot (dis)qualify these accusations, I suggest that it may be a result of an inundation of this kind of writing - unabashed attempts at vocalizing… Unheard Tales (yes, Tales, not stories, for the Other never speaks of the stuff of everyday life, but is constantly engaged in some epic drama - think gun battles outside the local bodega, knife-wielding.. better yet, broken bottle swinging chauffeurs - expressed in the language of magical realism, always magical realism!).
Updike, that great master of subtle observation, once said in an interview that he "distrust(s) books involving spectacular people, or spectacular events. Let People and The National Enquirer pander to our taste for the extraordinary; let literature concern itself, as the Gospels do, with the inner lives of hidden men." This is a standard that we have come to expect of any sort of writing. Why then, I wonder, is the same not applied to writers like Diaz & Adiga?
*sort of unrelated, I am continuously fascinated by America's infatuation with Winston Churchill. In all my primary education there was no greater villain than Churchill, but here he is a veritable hero, a saint of sorts and with a sense of humor to boot! It astounds me, even though it shouldn't, all things considered. However, I recently read somewhere that Pres. Obama returned a Churchill bust that was previously gifted to Bush by England's former PM, Tony Blair. I can't say that I know the whole story, and maybe it means nothing, but I can't even begin to express how entertained I am by this.