Nilda by Junot Díaz, 1999
The magic trick:
Giving the story a whole new sense of vulnerability through Rafa’s plot arc
The Yunior narration in Junot Díaz stories can be complex and controversial. Is he celebrating a misogynistic perspective or simply representing accurately a certain point of view? Probably both. I definitely don’t think we should force artists to only speak with a positive, respectful voice. That is the worst kind of censorship. However, I will admit to more than occasionally being put off by Yunior’s point of view, his attitude toward women and relationships, and, especially, Diaz’s relentless use of sexually explicit terminology and descriptions. We get it, you’re not afraid to be “real.” Cool.
Wherever you stand on the Yunior character, I’m happy to report that “Nilda” transcends the debate. I hesitate to talk too specifically for fear of spoilers, but Díaz turns the entire story on its head with a major plot turn about two-thirds of the way through. Suddenly the story takes on a deeper, more somber meaning. The oversexed jibber-jabber of Yunior is placed in a new context, one that gives the reader a new perspective. Perhaps Yunior doesn’t map out the world into a series of racial categories and sexual conquests out of immature lust or ignorance. Perhaps he relies on those viewpoints to block out the pain. The last few pages of “Nilda” casts a new light on the entire set of Yunior stories. And that’s quite a trick on Díaz’s part.
Rafa had decided he wasn’t going back to school for his senior year, and even though my moms was heartbroken and trying to guilt him into it five times a day, this was all he talked about. School had never been his gig, and after my pops left us for his twenty-five-year-old Rafa didn’t feel he needed to pretend any longer. I’d like to take a long fucking trip, he told us. See California before it slides into the ocean. California, I said. California, he said. A n—– could make a showing out there. I’d like to go there, too, Nilda said, but Rafa didn’t answer her. He had closed his eyes and you could see he was in pain.
We rarely talked about our father. Me, I was just happy not to be getting my ass kicked in anymore but once right at the beginning of the Last Great Absence I asked my father where he thought he was, and Rafa said, Like I fucking care.
End of conversation. World without end.
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