The Places We Carry With Us
May 17, 2018 § 9 Comments
Our family spent this past Spring Break in Belize, where the sights, sounds, and smells surpassed even our wildest imaginations. I will not pretend that we immersed ourselves in the local culture, since the time we spent outside resorts was carefully orchestrated by Belizean tour guides; but we did glean much by talking with these guides and drivers, asking questions about their backgrounds and their lives. Nearly all of these native Belizeans had at one point spent time working and studying in the United States—somewhere in the range of seven to ten years—and spoke of their experience with fondness. Many had expected to remain longer. “What made you decide to come back to Belize?” my children and I would ask.
The answer was always the same. Predictably accompanied by a triumphant smile.
“I was homesick!”
Even as they spoke about the poverty of their people, the bureaucracy of their government, and the turbulent threat of natural disasters, they spoke with greater affection about the warmth and the water. About the coral reefs. About the jaguars living in government-protected jungles. About the “perfect food chain” of the rainforest, whereby predator and prey were so well balanced that insect repellent was often unnecessary. About their big families, their festivals, and their food. The pull of these things was too strong.
When we meet people from other countries who are living in the States—driving taxis or working in kitchens or taking care of children—how often do we inquire about the places they’ve left behind? How often do we assume that, just because they’ve come here for a “better life” or a “better education” or “more opportunities,” the place they left is necessarily inferior, unattractive, unsafe, overcrowded? What if we encouraged our children to not only recognize the heritage of their immigrant classmates and neighbors, but to celebrate it, to help them carry it proudly inside them?
There is an abundance of things to love about Islandborn (Ages 5-9; Spanish version also available), a new picture book from two immigrants themselves: Pulitzer-Prize recipient Junot Diaz, originally from the Dominican Republic, and Colombia-born Leo Espinosa. Not the least of the treasures found in these pages is the American teacher who kicks off the story, presiding over a class where “every kid…was from somewhere else” (the George Washington Bridge in the background cues that this is upper Manhattan or the Bronx). Ms. Obi lovingly instructs her students to “draw a picture of the country you are originally from, your first country, and bring it in tomorrow,” an assignment that is greeted with cheers by everyone in the class. Everyone except the story’s young heroine.
Lola knows her family is from “The Island,” but she left there before she could make any lasting memories of her own. Dalia instantly announces she is going to draw pyramids; Matteo remembers a “desert so hot even the cactus fainted”; and Nelson—normally so distracted he has forgotten his name on occasion!—is already hard at work constructing a mongoose. Lola sits on the playground amidst all the chatter, channeling her “Abuela’s psychic”: she closes her eyes and puts her fingers on the sides of her head. Nothing comes.
Lola may be from an island, but she quickly remembers that she herself is not one. Her apartment is nestled in a vibrant community of Caribbean immigrants, which means she is surrounded by family and friends with memories aplenty from which she might draw. If there was ever an artistic representation of “it takes a village,” this story is it, as Lola goes on a journey to elicit information about her heritage from various folks, then uses her own powerful imagination to fill in the blanks. She doesn’t just record these memories of the Island on the pages of her sketchbook; she internalizes them. In time, she will even begin to feel the truth of her grandmother’s words: “Just because you don’t remember a place, doesn’t mean it’s not in you.”
We, as readers, begin a journey every bit as rich and magical as the one Lola is on, owing in large part to Espinosa’s impossibly gorgeous mixed-media illustrations, which pulsate on the page in colors most of us only dream about, spectacularly blending reality with memory and imagination. The urban landscape of Lola’s current life, with its muted reds and browns, becomes overlain with bright tropical foliage and exotic creatures, including “bats as big as blankets” (in the words of Lola’s cousin Leticia) and dolphins that “bow good night” during red-orange sunsets. The streets are filled with movement, as a street vendor selling empanadas describes to Lola an Island where “even in their sleep people dance,” and another tells her that “the people are like a rainbow—every shade ever made.”
Can we pause to reflect on how far picture book illustration has come? When I was young, I wished my bedroom walls could look like the colorful jungle scene Curious George (naughtily) paints, after climbing through the window of a stranger’s apartment in Curious George Takes a Job. To think what I would have thought if I’d been exposed to the likes of Espinosa’s art! Heck, I wouldn’t have wanted these illustrations on my wall; I would have wanted to climb into them. “I hope you are going to talk about the pictures,” my ten year old remarked to me this morning, when I told him what book I was writing about, “because they are A-MAZ-ING.”
Just because Islandborn’s illustrations are front and center doesn’t mean the narration is any less lovely. Junot Diaz has long been considered a master of language; and the lyricism in his debut picture book—an Island so alive it feels like “the inside of a drum”—is beautifully and perfectly suited to a child audience. Even more, Diaz crafts a young heroine whose curiosity, thoughtfulness, and persistence eventually make everyone around her share a piece of themselves. Lola not only celebrates their shared heritage, but she herself grows in poise and self-awareness through these exchanges. A man in the barber chair tell her about Island mangoes the “size of your head.”
“They make you want to cry?” Lola said. (She loved mangoes.)
“That’s it exactly!”
As Lola is swept along on this colorful current of beauty, she begins to wonder why anyone would leave such an Island in the first place. The ensuing conversations lay the groundwork for us to dialogue with our own children about the difficult choices facing immigrants and refugees. Lola listens to talk about the oppressive heat on the Island (“on you like five bullies”) and the terrible hurricanes, including one that blew through the Island when Lola was an infant, causing her mother and grandmother to take refuge with her under the bed (“Like the biggest baddest wolf of all! It huffed and puffed and blew thousands of houses into the sky!”).
The gravest insight comes from Mr. Mir, the elderly superintendent of Lola’s building, who originally refuses her invitation to talk about the Island. Later, when Lola again approaches him, he gently explains the reason for his hesitance. Long before Lola was born, “a monster fell upon our poor Island….For thirty years the Monster did as it pleased. It could destroy an entire town with a single word and make a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.” While Junot Diaz never names the island in question, lending more universality to his story, we assume from his own childhood that he writes about the Dominican Republic; the Monster, then, would be the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, whose bloody rule began in 1930. Like Lola, young readers won’t know or understand the specifics of Trujillo’s rein, but these details are not important for this story to resonate. The underlying message here is that one’s heritage is often a cross-section of beauty and hardship, love and pain.
Mr. Mir goes on to explain that, while the story about the Monster is important, so too is the story about the men and women who rose up to defeat it (“what a titanic battle that was.”). Mr. Mir himself might have been an original “slayer of monsters,” but he explains to Lola that she, as a descendant of the Island, is a “daughter of heroes.” The courage of her ancestors nestles like a seed inside her today. As Lola prepares to transfer all of these found memories—the good and the bad—into a collection of drawings she can show off at school, we realize that, as much as Islandborn celebrates heritage, it is also a tribute to the power of imagination as a way to connect with our community and ourselves.
Islandborn reminds that each of us comes from somewhere, whether we remember that place or whether it’s passed down to us through the bloodline of our ancestors. Delving into these histories, even nudging others to do the same, makes us more flavorful, more colorful, and more insightful about the world we live in. Perhaps we will even begin seeing through Lola’s eyes, overlaying exotic memories onto the patchwork of our daily lives. Perhaps we will even seek out such places on our own, as good as—or better than—stepping into these lush pages.
Update published May 18, 2018: When I went to bed this past Wednesday night, scheduling my post to go live early the following morning, I had no idea I would be entering a media maelstrom. I had no idea that, just ten days earlier, allegations had surfaced about Junot Diaz and numerous instances of sexual misconduct. Some of my readers have asked how I could sing the praises of a book whose author may have exploited his power, particularly towards aspiring women writers of color. I am deeply sorry for offending, especially if I unintentionally implied that this new information about one of the most accomplished figures in the literary and academic world does not by necessity altar the discussion of his accomplishments. The truth is that I did not know about these allegations prior to publishing my piece below. Had I been aware, I would have stayed silent, even about a book as wonderful as Islandborn.
And yet, I will not pretend that I am not devastated. I am devastated personally, because Diaz has been a literary idol to me for my adult life, one of the most brilliant minds I have ever experienced. I am devastated for the Latinx community, for which Diaz has been a monumentally important voice, although there is inherent danger in tokenism (as stated astutely by this recent piece in the Washington Post). I am devastated that Diaz’s gut-wrenching autobiographical piece, published just one month ago in The New Yorker—about the destructive impact that his repressed sexual abuse as a child has had on himself and his adult relationships—will now be dismissed as a preemptive justification for forthcoming allegations and not a much-needed voice for the atrocious job our society does in supporting victims of abuse. I am devastated for Diaz’s own alleged victims, the latest voices to remind us that to be a woman today still means to fight for agency at every turn, often at the expense of physical and emotional scars. I am devastated for Islandborn’s illustrator, Leo Espinosa, whose incredible art for this book should have been Caldecott worthy, but is now sullied by its association with the person who wrote the words.
Above all, I am devastated for the children, especially the vibrant, brown-skinned, big-haired souls like Lola herself, who may now never find this book. Islandborn gives voice to an inclusive, celebratory perspective which is both critical and long overdue—and not just in the Latinx community. It is about discovering heritage. It is about the power of imagination and the quest for identity. It is about facing down Monsters. I love this book. My children love this book. And yet, I understand that it may be impossible to untangle a writer from his work. I will refrain from actively promoting my post any further, but because my post was written without knowledge of the accusations, I have decided against censoring it. I will leave the decision to seek out the book up to you.
Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month.
Review copy provided by Dial Books for Young Readers. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!