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Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Junot Diaz, Trujillo and The Dominican Republic

The disaster in Haiti is tragic - but tragedy is nothing new to the island of which it is part, neither from the Haitian side nor the Dominican side, which is the setting for the novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

This book details the brutality of the Dominican Republic's Great Dictator, Rafael Trujillo, a leader who hated his black Haitian neighbours. In 1937, he made this speech:

"For some months, I have traveled and traversed the frontier in every sense of the word. I have seen, investigated, and inquired about the needs of the population. To the Dominicans who were complaining of the depredations by Haitians living among them, thefts of cattle, provisions, fruits, etc., and were thus prevented from enjoying in peace the products of their labor, I have responded, ‘I will fix this.’ And we have already begun to remedy the situation. Three hundred Haitians are now dead in B├ínica. This remedy will continue."

The result was The Parsley Massacre,, a massacre of 20-30,000 Haitian civilians over a period of five days. It was called the Parsley Massacre because soldiers would hold up a sprig of parsley, ask "What is this?", and assume that those who could not pronounce the Spanish word perejil  were Haitian.

Nominally a novel about a young Dominican (Oscar), the book is really a trawl through recent Dominican history. It is wonderful to have gaps in one's knowledge illuminated in such a moving and human fashion, one where gaps and silences fuse with Diaz's words to create an understanding of their own. It is also a lesson for those reporters doing their Haiti disaster schtick to provide some background on what is happening, what is going to happen, and why, without intentions far better than any that have gone before, absolutely nothing will change until the next disaster comes along to make things even worse.

As Diaz said in an interview with the Boston Globe:

"I wanted to stay with Oscar the whole time, but that's not what the book required of me. It refused," says Diaz, who named the title character after the Spanish pronunciation of Oscar Wilde. "It's impossible to understand Oscar without understanding his whole family."

Although Oscar and his family live in the same house, none of the characters seem to know what goes on in one another's lives. That code of silence propels the novel, and it's something that Diaz himself experienced growing up in two cultures.

"My mother had absolutely no concept of what my world had of [being] a young kid in mostly Puerto Rican and black Central New Jersey. I had no concept of what her life was like growing up in Santo Domingo and living through the revolution," says Diaz, his eyes animated as he chats breathlessly. "For me, it was important to have the book riddled with silences, holes, and gaps. The fundamental byproduct of trauma is silence. Immigration put a gag on so many families."

Read the whole interview here. 

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