“Drown” is a collection of ten short stories by Junot Diaz that tell the story of Dominicans living in abject poverty in their motherland and later transferring to the United States in search of a better life. The ten short stories cover the lives of an extended Dominican family back in their home country as narrated by a young boy, and move sequentially until they relocate to America and the boy becomes a young man. The main theme is poverty, and how the extended family of the narrator Yunior has hopes of escaping this poverty by relocating to America where his father relocated to some years back when he was still young. The innocence of Yunior is really touching, especially in the first two chapters of the book. His father left him when he was four, and his family lives in squalid conditions with the hope that one day their father would send for them so that they all go live better lives in America.
In the first story titled “Ysrael”, Yunior and his brother Rafa have been sent to the countryside by their mother during the summer vacation. The narrator describes their search for a young boy whose face was chewed off by a pig and has to wear a mask. Yunior and his brother want to find the deformed boy and remove his mask so that they can see the extent of his deformity. This story tells of two failed connections, that between Yunior and Rafa, and between Yunior and Ysrael. Yunior and Rafa’s pursuit of Ysrael is cruel and meaningless, and is paralleled by Rafa’s pursuit of girls in order to exercise his manhood. Both these pursuits, for the brothers to find the meaning behind Ysrael’s disfigurement and for Rafa to find girls, fail in the end. It emerges that Rafa’s cruelty to Ysrael is another way of him trying to prove his entry into manhood.
The second story “No Face” also has erotic themes just like the first one. In the second story, Ysrael, the country boy who was disfigured by a pig becomes the narrator. In this story, we see the way Rafa’s pursuit of the tormented and disfigured boy is mirrored by his pursuit of young country girls for sexual pleasure. His younger brother Yunior is reluctant to join him on both pursuits, and Rafa accuses him of being a homosexual. The author also links Ysrael’s mutilation to images of castration. Ysrael is trying hard to overcome the memories of the attack that caused his disfiguration, and in the process tries his best to act “like a man”. He is liable to another form of attack by boys who threaten to “make him a girl”. The author Diaz cleverly pairs Yunior and Ysrael as mirror images of each other. Ysrael’s physical mutilations are a reflection of the emotional mutilations suffered by Yunior during his fatherless childhood, which are just as profound even if they are not visible to the eyes.
The first two stories set the pace and reveal the themes that are explored throughout the other stories. The narrator Yunior describes their poverty as such: "We were poor. The only way we could have been poorer was to have lived in the campo or to have been Haitian immigrants (70).” During this time, he was living in the Dominican Republic with his mother, his grandfather, and his brother Rafa. This is a typical Latin family setting which usually includes extended family members. During this time, their father had moved to the United States, and the boys are made to believe that their father is going to send for them soon. The mother used to receive letters from their father in the United States, and they were full of promises that he would come for them any week or month now. Yunior says: “It didn’t help matters that me and Rafa kept asking her when we were leaving for the states, when Papi was coming.” This made their mother very sad because he didn’t know what to tell them, and did not want to fill them with false hope. From the other stories, we will later discover that their father had started a new life and a new family for himself in New York.
It is common for most Latin American families to have a family member go to the United States in search of greener pastures. There is always hope that he will be able to send enough money to help the family back home, and might one day relocate all of them to the united states so that they can all live a better life. This does not always happen, as we see the author become increasingly disillusioned by the American dream. His father’s absence, and the fact that he doesn’t send money back, leaves the family living in extreme poverty. Their mother is forced to work hard in a factory for little pay. We see the narrator becoming dejected with his father for living them, and he begins to question whether going to America will provide the solution to all these problems.
There are many links between the stories as narrated by Yunior and they are all very significant. The father-son relationship is strained, as the boy blames his father for abandoning them. We later discover that the father has some behaviors that can only be termed as irresponsible as he also chases women in the United States, just like his son Rafa was doing back in the Dominican countryside. The narrator is fond of his mother, and he helps her in any way that he can. In fact, his love and closeness to his mother adds to the accusations that he is a homosexual. These two relationships are used by the author to bring out the narrator’s ambivalence about migration and cultural erosion.