Islandborn Is More Than Just A Children’s Book–It’s ‘the Book of Our Childhoods’

Photos by Richard Gonzalez

Photos by Richard Gonzalez

By Christina Miranda

Last month, Junot Díaz resurfaced with his new book Islandborn; this time, however, his targeted audience is below the age of ten. Islandborn serves as more than just a story about finding one’s origin, it brings recognition to a real history while directing it towards children—something long overdue.

Islandborn tells the story of Lola, who is assigned to draw a picture of where her family is from, but comes to a standstill when she realizes that she has no memory of her home in the Dominican Republic. As she talks to her elders, she begins to imagine what the island might be like based on their descriptions alone. Immersed in a vibrant family and culture, she is also taught the harsh realities that have affected the island, including national disasters and the thirty year dictatorship of former Dominican Republic president Rafael Trujillo, presented in the book as the Monster.

On Díaz’s book tour, he took the time to sit down with Latinx Spaces to discuss his new book and the progress and acceptance he hopes it will bring to readers both young and adult. Here is an excerpt of our conversation:

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How difficult is writing a children’s book compared to writing a novel or story collection?

It took just as long to get the idea. The execution was shorter. It still took an incredibly long time: again, I feel perhaps someone else would be able to knock these things out a lot faster, that’s my fantasy. It hasn’t been true for me, I’m very very slow, but it’s true that once I finally got the idea I was able to execute it. The problem was that I spent hundreds of pages getting the idea. If anyone out there is an artist and requires consolation, just reflect somewhat on my embarrassing career and I think that that will at least give you some encouragement. 

In a New York Times article you mention that this book, which you wrote for your goddaughters, took you almost 20 years to write. How do your goddaughters like the book as adults? 

It’s hard to say because I always feel it’s impolite to speak for other people in that way. They’ve told me that it meant the world to them, but it’s for them to say. In a way, I think that it’s hard to communicate what books do for us. Especially if they work well. A part of me is hoping that there is nothing that they can say immediately because it speaks to a book that’s doing its work when it takes you a long time to get your arms around it.

You don’t shy away from serious issues like racial identity and political corruption in history, unlike most children’s books. Why did you decide to mix it in this type of storyline?

Because that is the book of our childhoods as people of color. As immigrants. As people who were captured and forced to be slaves. This is a book that has many traumas in them. If we are only going to write children’s books, comprised of fictions of innocence, we will, by that very act, erase ourselves. And therefore I did not want my community or myself to be erased.

What we’ve always wanted from everyone, whether it is inside or outside of our community, is to understand at the most profound level how human we are, and how deserving we are of sympathy and love, which is something that society spend an enormous amount of energy denying.

I come from difficult struggles, I come from savage histories, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t feel less of a human, I’m not less joyous, and less alive to the possibilities of the world. I feel that this is a culture that pushes us towards a false pretend happiness so that we can’t achieve real, organic happiness. And I would argue that real organic happiness for communities like ours is to be able to live with all the troubles that we have endured, and yet, to feel an endless, generative love towards ourselves, our community, and the world. 

On top of that children live their lives beset by horrors. Why are children so interested in monster stories? Why are children interested in scary stories? Because they know how scary this darn world is. There’s nothing about that book that would even compare to a day in the life of the average, loved, stable, well-taken care of child. Their lives are so full of fears, uncertainty, and threats. Children are vulnerable. They understand vulnerability and they understand overcoming fears. The only person who want these narratives of innocence are more or less adults. Adults who I think want to maintain their own innocence around children, and around larger social questions.

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In today’s social environment, people of color are not getting the voice that they deserve. Do you think it will be harder for people in literature to receive that voice? Do they have more work ahead of them? Or do you think there will be more of a push, that it will be easier? 

Well I think we have so many writers and artists of color who are doing this work. I’m not some innovation. I’m part of a long, long train of people who are doing this work. When you look at our field, I’m sort of a special cupcake that appears every now and then on the menu. But the truth of it is that there are all these people in the field who’ve been in the trenches doing all this remarkable work.

So many of our people are in children’s literature making organizations, making communities. You think about the work Julia Alvarez who’s been working in children’s literature for a long time. You think about Edwidge Danticat, you think about Jacqueline Woodson, you think about Yuyi Morales, you think about in the Chicanolands Pat Mora. You think about the stuff that Arte Público has done.

I mean, my God, would we as a community have survived our childhoods if it wasn’t for something like Arte Público doing this work for us when we were all being erased? And so we’re in there and now I feel like finally the numbers are turning, and our awareness, and our refusal to live in this just unbearable white world is also turning.

That is the book of our childhoods as people of color. As immigrants. As people who were captured and forced to be slaves. This is a book that has many traumas in them. If we are only going to write children’s books, comprised of fictions of innocence, we will, by that very act, erase ourselves.

What do you hope that non-children and adults of color will take away from this book?

What we’ve always wanted from everyone, whether it is inside or outside of our community, is to understand at the most profound level how human we are, and how deserving we are of sympathy and love, which is something that society spend an enormous amount of energy denying. And often we ourselves don’t give our communities sympathy or love. It’s a lesson we could all benefit from.

Where do you see children’s literature going in the next ten years?

I would argue that it has become very difficult to sell books. One can say that YA is blowing up, sure, but it’s mostly cannibalizing the adult market. Fiction numbers have dropped across the board. We’re in a tough situation in literary culture. Sorry if I’m a standard Asian-American kid, or if I’m a standard Latinx kid, there’s more that speaks to me online than there often is in literature, and I understand that.

We also live in a culture where no one is encouraged to preserve contemplative spaces. Which means that it’s harder to read. Despite these conditions, there’s no question we continue to maintain a robust literary culture even as it’s under assault. We’ll see. Hopefully we will be able to stop the crease and begin to some ways feel stronger, reach more readers, and hopefully the culture might slow down and give more space for things like reading.

Do you think you’ll write something like this again someday?

I’ve already written another book, so we’ll see. It’ll get to the artist soon – probably a year, year and a half. Now it’s time to get back to my novel. It’s been fun.

Junot Díaz’s Islandborn is in bookstores now from Dial Books for Young Readers.