Several months ago I received an email in my inbox from an organization called One Book, One Bronx.
Because, as you know, I am an avid lover of literature, I clicked on the link to be taken to the wonderful world of an online bookclub that centers authors of color.
I immediately signed up and was overjoyed to log on for several Wednesdays at 7 pm for an hour and half of lively discussion of Bernice McFadden’s Sugar (2000).
Led by the wonderful Barbara Dubison, it was a whirlwind experience, filled with laughs and insights and inspiration.
While I was disappointed in McFadden’s ending to Sugar I was hooked on the club—the invitation to share my love of Black literature with other Black literature-loving adults who also live full lives and who “get” the many ways that a good story enriches and enlivens us, was a much needed clam in the midst of isolation.
A book that I was recently turned on to vis-a-vis One Book, One Bronx and more specifically, Ron Kavanaugh who runs the book club, was Dominicana (2019) by Angie Cruz. The novel is an absolute masterpiece, told from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl named Ana who is married off to a man more than twice her age.
Most of the novel’s action takes place in 1965 after Ana immigrates to New York with her husband, Juan, also Dominican. Juan portrays himself as a “successful” immigrant who can save Ana and her family from the poverty of the Dominican countryside. In reality, he is a day worker with barely a pot to piss in, let a window to throw it out of (as my mom used to say).
Each of Cruz’s characters is well-developed and left me feeling wholly invested in their fates—this includes Juan’s. But, this is especially true for Ana, of course, with whom the reader can easily empathize. She is young and naive and we might say, sold off to Juan with the hope that the marriage will result in immigration for the rest of the family.
This imperative to immigrate is a reality even today for many impoverished people from other countries. They are sold the American Dream only to be confronted by a waking nightmare once they arrive.
In terms of form, something that I don’t remember ever seeing before, but which is incredibly effective in terms of narrative style, is the absence of quotation marks. It’s a brilliant choice because it allows the reader into Ana’s head and heart so that we, in a sense, become Ana. Because she is so young her experiences are largely unfiltered, pure. We can tap into her sense of isolation, disorientation, loneliness, and ambition. The seamless connection that Cruz makes between what is seen, felt, heard, spoken by Ana impels us to also experience her disillusionment and gradual, but inevitable awakening.
One of the things that I loved about the novel is the author’s engagement with the complexities of race and racism in a Dominican/American context. Perhaps surprisingly, there’s no mention of Haiti in the narrative. If you know anything about the island that Christopher Columbus decided to name Hispaniola, then you know that 2/3 of the island was, for a time, colonized by the Spanish. The other 1/3 was colonized by the French (the history is long and complicated, but that’s a different post).
In 1822, after the Dominican Republic had been “freed” from colonial rule by the Spanish, Haitians ruled the entire island. This was a problem for many reasons for the Dominicans. The imposition of language and religion was not well-received by the Dominicans, understandably. But at the base of Dominican resistance to Haitian rule—let’s face it—was race. These people who saw themselves as proximate to whiteness and in opposition to blackness as Haiti claimed it, were not interested in what Haitians were offering. It is why, to this day, Independence Day for Dominicans is a celebration of their independence from Haiti, not from Spain.
Even though some of the action of the novel takes place in the DR, again, the author focuses on the Dominican experience of race in a U.S. context, and more specifically, in a Washington Heights, New York context. The Cancions live in a primarily Dominican neighborhood, but it is also where the Audubon Ballroom is—the site of Malcolm X’s murder. So, in the midst of Ana’s racist husband’s ranting about “the blacks” we have an outsider’s impression of what the murder of a great civil rights activist meant to the African American community and most, importantly, one particular woman (we never know if it is his wife) who returns to the site of the murder for several months after the scene of the crime has been cleared away.
I mentioned at the outset of this review that I learned about Dominicana because I’m part of a wonderful bookclub, One Book, One Bronx. Well, one of the cool things about “a member” is that authors of the book being studied will often join the conversation. This past Wednesday, indeed, Cruz visited with us and answered some of our questions. It really was a treat!!
I learned, for example, that the narrative technique that enamored me—the absence of quotation marks around dialogue, is actually common in Spanish writing. Cruz also noted that another reason she used that technique was because people often skip to the dialogue when reading literature, but, for her (and I completely agree) the other parts of the narrative—facial expressions, movements, etc—are equally critical to the story. Without the demarcation the reader is forced to take everything in.
I also learned that Dominicana took 10 full years for Cruz to get right. The effortlessness that comes through on the page took time and sacrifice; a valuable lesson for all aspiring writers.
Cruz was pulled away from the conversation by family obligations so I didn’t get all of my burning questions answered. Nonetheless, we continued talking and as usual, afterwards, I couldn’t settle my brain enough to go straight to sleep. I can think of no better reason for insomnia.