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Reading Junot Díaz with Incarcerated People

2015-11-19

I appreciate the fact that my first teaching experience as a graduate student was in a jail. Through an initiative started by the Graduate Comparative Literature Students (GRACLS) organization, I volunteered to teach a Reading World Literature course at the Travis County Correctional Complex (TCCC), a pre-trial facility (a jail where people are temporarily detained while they await sentencing) 10 miles southeast of campus in Del Valle. After undergoing a background check and attending an orientation at the complex, I was provided access for five weeks to facilitate discussions on Junot Díaz’s Drown (1996).

I participated in this program because mass incarceration directly impacts my life. I attended a high school that enforced a zero tolerance policy which channeled students from school-to-prison by criminalizing misbehavior. Living several of my adolescent years in a section-8 housing project in Southern California, I witnessed younger relatives serve terms in juvenile hall, while some adult relatives spent years in prison. Over time, after observing the racial demographics of those imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses, I began to understand how mass incarceration as social control resulted in so many relatives becoming exposed in higher rates to the criminal justice system. As it turns out, teaching in jail this past month hit close to home for me. During my first week as a volunteer, a loved one was incarcerated. Suddenly, being of service to incarcerated individuals became an activity I involved myself in committedly.

After reading the list of students who signed up for my class I was humbled. Upon seeing a group of thirteen grown men garbed in tattered, soiled, black-and-white striped uniforms– my students– I immediately felt intimidated. Stereotypes of violent inmates I carry from media images and popular culture’s representation of the incarcerated actively ran through my mind. I kept calm. After inquiring why people decided to join the class on the first day, the responses ranged from those with little reading experience who wanted to engage more with literature, to those wanting to become familiar with the work of other authors. As I interacted with the students and solicited their participation, which they were eager to share, I quickly came to realize that I was among a community of people interested in discussing world history, languages and literature in relation to their own lives.

A major obstacle to teaching people in jail is recognizing their humanity. Only after this step was I able to further develop my pedagogical stance. My way of teaching literature remains student-driven and discussion-centered. I discussed basic literary concepts of narrative prose, major themes and historical context of Junot Díaz, with the class. I consistently encouraged self-reflexive reading practices with fictional narratives. The Haitian-Dominican context of migration, ethnocentrism, multilingual communities and US imperialism equipped us with several avenues of inquiry. Of course, my ability to facilitate such a course has been supported by professors whose scholarship has informed the content of my course, while my own personal experience being a pupil informs my pedagogical approach.

After having recently completed Professor Jennifer Wilks’s Danticat and Díaz course in fall 2014, which introduced me to the works of Edwidge Danticat and Junot Díaz, I was compelled to continue studying these writers. I chose to read Diaz’s Drown with my students in order to further explore intersectionality of race, class, gender and sexuality. As a collection of easily digestible short stories, I knew I could cover a few stories per class. I deliberately chose a book that represents Afro-latinidad, to further continue the conversations generated in Professor Jossianna Arroyo-Martínez’s Afro-latin@s course outside of the classroom.

Cognizant of the notion that, depending on a student’s learning style, some students intake information best visually, audibly and/or kinesthetically, I attempted to cater to as many students as possible with my presentation of information as well as my body language. While explaining history of Hispaniola the first day of class, I attempted to draw the Caribbean islands on a whiteboard with a marker. With little geographic accuracy, the result was a pathetic ensemble of awkwardly shaped blobs. This experience reminded me of the importance of visual aids, and humor. I came equipped to the next class with a poster-sized, high quality image of the Caribbean. In addition to this improvement, a student who wanted to see what Hispaniola looked like on the ground, suggested I bring an educational film. The rest of the students agreed. In a classroom with no internet or projectors, I had a tv and dvd player. The most immediately accessible film I could think of was the episode of Black in Latin America “Haiti and the Dominican Republic: An Island Divided” with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Despite the film’s superficial glossing of Haiti-DR race relations, I rented the video from UT’s Fine Arts Library and brought it inside the jail to play for the students. The well shot scenes and archival footage brought to life many of the histories and geographies I was attempting to describe orally.

For each student this course marked their first time learning about Hispaniola-US relations. After viewing the film, several students reacted strongly to the unjust and disproportionate amount of economic poverty Haitians endure, the US military occupation of Hispaniola, and the nuanced racial dynamics of Dominican society. With knowledge of Díaz’s opposition to the Dominican government’s anti-Haitian attitudes, I updated students on the precarious citizenship status of Dominicans of Haitian descent who have become stateless in mass expulsion procedures a.k.a. ethnic cleansing. By discussing Afro-latinidad in Díaz’s texts we examined the anti-black racism within the Latino communities, on the one hand, and challenged the US African-American English language monopoly on blackness, on the other. This influenced students’ racial perceptions regarding blackness by addressing how Latino communities have historically distanced themselves from their blackness and interrogating how people of color internalize white supremacist beauty standards that induce self hate. The figure of Yunior, the Afro-latino narrator of many stories within Drown, enabled students to discuss Black communities from several perspectives.

The social position of Díaz’s narrator Yunior as an economically impoverished inner-city Afro-Dominican immigrant youth in New Jersey enables students to offer their own personal reflections on how they relate to Drown. One student was curious about Haitian Vodou traditions. He told me: “There’s some brothers in my unit who practice that Vodou…I myself follow Christ and never really heard much good about Vodou…but they told me about their faith and it sounds good to me.” Reading Afro-latin@ literature helped this student understand the way that the US mainstream has negatively portrayed African-inspired religious traditions actively honored by diasporic communities across the globe.

In another case, while elaborating on the French colonial empire’s legacy in the Caribbean it became clear to a student of Afro-Puerto Rican descent how he came to inherit a French last name. Some students were drawn to broader themes in Drown such as the compulsive behavior of drug addicts, father abandonment, and prejudicial attitudes regarding race and national identity. The male homoerotic scene in the book led to a discussion on homophobia faced by queer communities. Although this conversation was challenging to hold amongst a several men who carry internalized machismo we discussed the gender spectrum and marginality. Meanwhile the brief scene of Yunior’s molestation opened up conversations on trauma and the authorial practice of writing silences.

Towards the end of the course, not as many people started showing up. Attendance fluctuated from about thirteen, to ten, to eight, to three. With summonses to court dates, cell blocks being on lockdown, and the overall discouraging conditions of incarceration, I did not interpret student absences as a disapproval of my class. Most of my students verbally communicated their appreciation towards me after each class. This satisfying sense of having provided a substantial educational service encouraged me to plan another class to teach next semester. In the next Reading World Literature course I facilitate, I plan to read prison literature, especially literary productions of political prisoners. With some help from my friends and mentors I plan to draft a prison literature syllabus for spring 2016.

About Michael Reyes Salas

Michael Reyes SalasMichael was born in Bellflower, California. He grew up in several cities within the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys of Los Angeles County, San Bernardino County, and also lived a total of three years between the city of Xalapa, Veracruz and the pueblo of Tequila, Jalisco. After finishing high school in México, he returned to California obtained a GED, enrolled in Citrus Community College in the city of Glendora, and transferred to The University of California, Los Angeles where he graduated in 2014 with a B.A. in English and a minor in French. He entered the Graduate Program in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin in the fall of 2014. His research has been funded by Mellon Mays, Ford Foundation and the Social Sciences Research Council.

Michael Reyes Salas