I smiled when I saw the image of a brown-skinned, curly-haired little girl – a pink barrette in her hair – on display at my local bookstore. It was a little girl who looks like me. She looks like my niece. She looks like generations of kinky-haired Latinas, niñas and hijas who have been ignored in mainstream American literature, media and pop culture.
Her name is Lola and she’s the main character of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz’s latest work, a children’s book titled “Islandborn.”
“Islandborn” is a new vehicle for the Dominican American author’s ongoing exploration of the immigrant experience. The characters in his other books, including the award-winning novel, “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and his short story collections, “Drown” and “This is How You Lose Her,” navigate the distinct yet connected cultures of the Dominican Republic and the United States but those works catered to an adult audience.
In writing “Islandborn,” Diaz was making good on a two-decade-old promise he made to his goddaughters that he would one day write a book inspired by them — two young, vivacious Dominican girls living in the Bronx. Their influence is prominent in the layout of the story — Lola, a smart, lively and curious young girl, was seemingly created in their image.
The story begins with Lola being assigned a class project to draw a picture about her home country. It isn’t a particularly unusual assignment, since Lola attends a multicultural school, made up of immigrant students. The problem is, although Lola knows where she came from, she can’t remember anything about it, because her family moved to the United States when she was a baby. Throughout the book, Lola asks her family, friends, neighbors and community members what they remember about “the island” they all came from. She’s fascinated by every story and memory she hears, collecting so much material that she has enough for an entire book. In the end, she feels more connected to her original home, “the island.”
Although I was born in the States, I relate to Lola’s struggle to identify with the island that created her. Being a Puerto Rican who’s never been to Puerto Rico — I haven’t yet saved enough money for a Caribbean trip — I’ve always felt that there was a part of my culture I could never understand. To this day, when I meet fellow Boricuas, I’m more often than not met with a disappointing “But you’ve never been to the island?” Like Lola, I’ve relied on the stories from my family and friends to connect to the island of my ancestors. Despite the judgments of others, I know my not having been to Puerto Rico doesn’t make me any less Puerto Rican. I was reminded of that bond when Lola’s mother in the story tells her that, even though she might not remember the island, “it remembers you.”
“Islandborn” was written for children, but Diaz’s signature themes of family, immigration, a feeling of otherness and memorable female characters still run through the story. Just as important are the illustrations by Colombian-born Leo Espinosa, which bring Lola’s community and “the island” to life in vivid color. Diaz, in an interview with The Post’s Book World, said that Espinosa’s interpretation of “Islandborn” and its Latinx characters was remarkable for being so authentic.
“There’s one thing that really matters to my community, which is how slighted we have been in visual culture, and how wrongly the textures of our skin and hair are depicted,” Diaz said. “Espinosa’s art is a master class in, among other things, just the reality of our hair.”
When I think about the stories I read over and over as a child, I remember the standout characters being talking animals, imaginary creatures or, when they were human, starkly Eurocentric—a combination of big bad wolves and little pigs, fairies and mermaids and Cinderellas. Reading “Islandborn,” I saw myself immortalized in a children’s book for the first time, something that I would carry with me and my future family, forever. If I have a daughter one day, she won’t have to wait until she’s in her early 20s to see a character that resembles not just her looks but her life. The existence of “Islandborn” as a children’s book gives young Afrolatino children a small slice of representation that didn’t exist before.
I spoke with Diaz this week about his thinking behind “Islandborn” — the process it took to create his first children’s book, his history of writing about Latina women, and how he hopes this story about a little girl named Lola will influence those who read the book. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Why was it so important to make the main character of the story not just a Latino child but an obviously Afrolatino child?
Well, I’m an Afro-Carribean and Afro-Dominican and I have felt palpably our absence in media and the arts and literature in the world. I think I’m an artist in part because I’m attempting to repair those deep silences and erasures and absences. I think that as a community, Afrolatinos are often overlooked. It’s far easier for our community to erase our blackness inside of Latinidad and it’s easier in the African Diaspora to erase our Latinidad, in favor of our Africanidad. And I think for many of us it’s been a great challenge — how do we preserve these important, vital, sides of our identity? This was another attempt to have as much of me present and spoken to as possible.
It seems that America is starting to recognize that Afrolatinos make up their own vibrant culture among the dozens that shape this country. We’ve always been here — why is it now that we’re just starting to be seen?
The United States is dominated by the ruling binary of white and black. It’s very, very difficult to get anyone in the United States invested in anything other than that ruling binary. We are taught how to think, and we are taught matrices of evaluation by the larger culture. When the larger culture basically argues all day long that there is whiteness and it’s incredibly important and then there’s blackness which helps us define whiteness, it’s going to be hard for most people to develop a sense of a world which is more sophisticated. Now what’s happened, I think, [is] you have people, but also communities, that not only embody that nuance and sophistication but are also standing up for that nuance and sophistication. Our very bodies, speak to the poverty of thought that is represented by a black and white binary.
You never mention the Dominican Republic by name in the story, but it’s obvious to those familiar with DR history with the references to music, the character of the monster (a metaphor for dictator Rafael Trujillo) and details in the illustrations such as the DR flag magnet on the fridge. Was there a reason for you only calling it “the island” in the story?
In my mind, I always wanted this book very much to be about the Dominican Republic and equally about some other place that doesn’t quite exist. That it stands in for and is a metaphor for those islands that so many of us leave behind. Again, the text will confirm for you that it is all about the Dominican Republic, but I would also argue that there’s a lot of room in the text for you to say, wait a minute, perhaps there’s more here. Perhaps there’s an invitation for other people to engage. I think I was reaching for other things, other things that have to do with what it is to be Caribbean, what it is to be an immigrant, and what it would mean to imagine other places for ourselves. Lola is being asked to imagine a place that she has been but she can’t remember. And in some ways, I’m inviting the readers to embark on that same journey, to undergo that same process with all of those possibilities, to imagine a place that they cannot remember. A place called “the island” that has no corollary in the real world.
You’ve mentioned previously that you didn’t grow up reading books as a child, because it wasn’t a vital part of at home Dominican culture. How was the process of writing a children’s book when that wasn’t something that was a part of your childhood?
By the time I learned English, I was too old for [children’s books]. I sometimes think I wrote this children’s book to give myself what I never had, which was that light reading, those few beautiful years reading children’s books. Of course, the fortunate child has a parent or a caretaker that joins them in that reading, but I gave myself the best I could, which was a good amount of time to go back and read a bunch of children’s books and enjoy them and to kind of enjoy them and to kind of linger in what makes them so important and so valuable. I had an amazing time. It was a remarkable journey.
You are one of my favorite male writers when it comes to how you write about women. Based on my reading of your novel and short stories, you have a deep respect for the women in your life. How have the women in your life influenced your work ?
I had one of those childhoods where I was raised by women. My father was in the United States, so I was raised by my mother in the Dominican Republic. My mother, of course, had to work, so I was raised by my grandmother, I was raised by my mother’s two sisters, my aunts. Those were the first six years of my life. The first six years of my life were overwhelmingly female, and of course I also had two sisters growing up. Again, when I was a young person, raised into a single family, and I think that’s just experiential. I think what politically and philosophically happened was that I attended a university, a public university that had in its fold a women’s college. I attended Rutgers where there was a public women’s college and when I was an undergraduate during my most formative years I was exposed to radical women of color in ways that utterly transformed me.
When I think back on books that I enjoyed reading as a child, I can’t recall ever reading a story that had a protagonist that looked like me or had a familiar background as me. What do you hope will be the impact of “Islandborn” being a book now in the reach of children’s hands?
It’s hard to say what any book will do to any society. In general, books are very, very small and they loom large in our hearts and our minds but in a society like ours, where people engage in such societal and economic cruelties, books are so small and in some ways are even smaller than children in this society that doesn’t even take children very seriously. What I do hope and what I aspire to is a book like mine can do what it did for you, which is open up a space of deliberation—that it can open up and view a dialogue with what you have read and what you would like to read. And that this book can be a friend for communities that have had very few friends in literature.
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