Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz carries his career-long exploration of Latinx immigrant identity into his debut children’s title, "Islandborn." Díaz told Crosscut.com on Tuesday (March 20) that he developed the book, which features a Black Latinx girl as its protagonist, to combat the White normativity of children’s literature.
"I experienced [not finding kids’ books with characters of color] and I certainly never wanted anyone else after me to experience it," he explained. "So there’s the agony of the persistence of a crime, that something hasn’t been repaired. It certainly hurts you to know that the younger people, that the youth are going through things that you had hoped, by this time, would’ve been resolved. But ultimately, you’ve gotta recognize the problem and see if you can do anything about it. And this book was an attempt to do something about it."
"Islandborn" follows a six-year-old immigrant named Lola, who shares her name with the title of the Spanish-language version of the book. Lola does not remember her country of origin, which she and her community simply refer to as "the Island." A school assignment prompts her to interview neighbors about their homeland, which they portray as a beautiful, multicultural paradise. The adults also tell her about a monster who forced many residents to flee their homes—a reference to the military dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, whose bloody and destabilizing rule over the Dominican Republic fueled emigration to the United States. The Dominican-American Díaz, who wrestled with the Trujillo legacy in previous novels, said that he confronted anti-Black racism soon after he and his family left the Dominican Republic themselves.
"I knew I was in trouble as soon as I got off the plane," he recalled. "I didn’t understand the magnitude of the trouble. That took many years. But I knew something was really the matter. I knew we were in serious trouble. And just the fact that I went from a country where there was really only one primary color, Black and shades of it, and suddenly to be thrust into a country like the United States, which was such a disavowal of Blackness."
Díaz depicts Lola and the members of her community in varying shades of brown, which intentionally points to the nuance of Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latinx identities.
"We’re just coming to terms with our complexity," he said of Afro-Latinx people. "I think we haven’t had the numbers; we haven’t had the kind of the critical mass. The time is right for these conversations, conversations that I feel are long overdue, but the time is right. I’m glad it [the book] is done, and I am certainly glad that I was able to portray this very particular community in which I grew up as faithfully as I could."
"Islandborn/Lola" was released on March 13.