Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Dominican “F” word, can you even say it?

"They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú Americanus, or more colloquially, fukú --generally a curse or doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World. "
--from the introduction to The brief and wondrous life of Oscar

All it took was the first sentence...of the introduction! Junot Diaz reached up from the page, placed a wizard's spell on my imagination. I devoured the book and lamented when life forced me to put it down. Being a bookworm was so much easier when I was a kid, when I could afford to spend an entire evening or weekend with my nose in a book.

We hope that you have read the introduction and chapter 1. If you are like me, you probably kept pressing forward. This is definitely a page turner. We plan on taking the book discussions a little slower to help us process the book. We ask for your patience since this is the first time we do this and we are learning as we go along.

Cynthia and I have met a couple of times to discuss our book club goals and timeline. During our meetings every time I say, fukú. Cynthia promptly follows up with a, zafa. This makes us laugh, a little nervously, after all we are Latinas, we can't help superstition. We might be Mexican but we understand Junot's reference, "to extraordinary tolerance for extreme phenomena." We take careful mental notes on antidotes and even begin to avoid saying fukú, instead call it the Dominican "f" word. So, our most pressing question right now is in the title of this blog post, can you even say it?

More food for thought. These questions are regarding language.
Spanish words and phrases appear unaccompanied by their English translations. What is the effect of this seamless blending of Spanish and English? What if Junot had stopped to provide translations at every turn? Why does Junot not italicize the Spanish words (the way foreign words are usually italicized in English-language text)? Are you bilingual? Do you italicize or resist?

We want you to hear from you, chime in via the comments, you can address one thought, or address multiple questions.*

*Cynthia and I are seeking to develop a safe place for honest and open dialogue. Language is powerful, let's exercise some tolerance and be open to opposing views and if debates arise let's do it respectfully.


Maureen Kelleher said...

If I did say the Dominican f-word, I bet I wouldn't pronounce it right. I think I can pronouce zafa OK, though.

I love that Junot Diaz just puts in the Spanish and lets you deal with it. As someone who's not a native Spanish speaker and expects to spend the rest of her life trying to master it without succeeding (like the asymptote back in math class, that line that always gets closer and closer but never really gets there), it's a little victory every time I can read straight through those sentences and know all the words and hear what they might sound like based on what I hear on the block around my house.

Cynthia Nambo-Book Club said...

It is a breathe of fresh air to read Wao. Often I find that we speak in English and Spanish mixed in with a Chicago 80's Twang! Okay so "I" do this...maybe not "we". There is an ease reading (in Spanish)about Wao's life. He is including me in the conversation because his style is similar to my rhythm of communicating. I didn't even notice that the words in Spanish were not italicized until you posted the question! Interesting! There are times the antidotes help me so much. Especially around the comic book details. B/c I couldn't afford to buy them there are some concepts I miss. But enjoy once I read the notes. Irasema, you really captured our exchange on the Dominican "F" Word! Even though I say in my head that there is no such thing as superstition...just in case..SAFA!!!

Anonymous said...

First of all, thanks to you ladies for doing this, I've been craving this type of sharing about literature and Cindy, thanks for inviting me in.

That intro, wow! I had just taught my students the craft of writing good beginnings to draw the reader into their stories, and whamo, I read his powerful words. Unfortunately, I couldn't use this author as an example for the kiddies, they're only 7.

Seamless is a good word, I hadn't even noticed that there were words in Spanish, I didn't bat an eye when I read them. I'm trying to remember if my other favorite Latino/a authors italicize. Interestingly, he does italicize other words quite a bit.

On an added note: I also thought I was saved when he referred to Ana's eyes as "beautiful Caribbean-girl eyes, pure anthracite." I thought, is this it? Did Junot finally find the most romantic way to describe the brown eyed girl next door? Blue eyes are romantically saphire, violet, deep as the ocean, bright as the sky. Very dark eyes are ebony, black as the night sky. I think green eyed Latinas have it the best, mesmerizing, cat eyes, emeralds. So I googled/image anthracite, it is a silver/grey sparkly stone. (sigh) So now I am in search of the romantic literary referral to the brown eyed girl. I don't know if I just jumped ahead. Do we stick to the general idea of the question at hand?

Jessica said...

Great start, to the book and the book club, thanks to all who are making it happen.

I haven’t said the ‘f’ word out loud since reading the intro, but I keep saying it in my head, over and over. Superstition always gives me pause but really only a pause. I will note when something is #13, but I won’t avoid the number. I will walk around ladders, if its not convenient, I will go under one - noting the whole time what it is Im doing. I will avoid stepping on cracks in the sidewalks, but more to pass the time on a long walk as something to lose my mind in for a while. So saying the F word will now give me pause as well, a super conscientious pause. I’ll question myself, “are you being foolish to use this word?”. I’ll think of African slaves screaming this curse word from the depths of their pain. I'll wonder about “The Nightmare Door’. And then I will cross myself and say a little prayer. This will be my life the next while with the f word.

More about the other questions later…

Alejandra Ibanez said...

Thanks for inviting muchachas! I read the book in December and remember some of my frustration in knowing that I was missing out on the scifi references and jokes. Just like non-spanish speakers may feel with the nontranslated spanish words. Junot makes no excuse for writing as he thinks and speaks. Yet I loved the footnotes!! As a non-Dominican I appreciated the historical and cultural explanations! It left me yearning to learn more about Dominican history...Junot is quite clever! Let me see if I take the book out of the library again and re-read along with you ladies--now that my little guy (who just turned 3 mos) is sleeping better at night!
Oh and I do NOT say the word, scared to say it to myself?!

Rich said...

I say, no italics for Sterling Brown, no italics for Junot Diaz. We're knee-deep in the new American idiom, y'all. Whether or not some folks are ready to accept that, of course, is a whole other story.

sonrisa morena said...

I read the book last year and am re-reading and to be honest I didn't pay much attention to the Spanish words 'til you mentioned it. First time I read it i just read as if nothing was strange about it. It just seemed normal to me...after all that is how I speak therefore reading it was normal.

As for the F word, well I'm not at all superstitious but I did find it amusing mostly because I think every culture has something like it.

Angela said...

how refreshing to be able to discuss my most recent obsession! I must confess that i have owned the book since its release and have just recently found the strength to completely be engaged. I love Wao. I find myself unable to turn pages fast enough to find what witty language Diaz is going to use as his next punch line. Reading the introduction alone was so familiar, in a way that i placed myself back in Mexico chitchatting with primas and tias about the phenomenon of Latin American superstition. trying to make it as academic as possible and still secretly worrying about the 'what if...'. so i don't say it! But, I too, like Diaz, write in my best Spanglish and do not italicize. Sometimes I do it out of habit, like when speaking, just weaving the two together because, well, sometime the sentiment is better in Spanish. I also rebel against italics because it's my language and not some foreign exotic words. if anything, sometimes i want to italicize english!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for choosing this book, I read it last year and needed someone to digest it with.
When describing the book to a friend I did say the "F" word, but after reading your comments I repeatedly said zafa at least 20 times, just in case (does it still count?)!
Strange thing is when I spoke to a Dominican friend about the book and mentioned the "F" word without fear, her eyes lit up and said "zafa"!!
Being a non-Dominican I thought I could use the word, maybe not. what would be the Mexican equivalent of the "F" word?

His writing reflects a new language that is a norm for many of us...he wrote the book just for me, sin explicaciónes. Rebecca

Mujer Maravilla said...

I just gotta say, I totally dig the "nerd" references...especially the ones that refer to Lord of the Rings!! They make Oscar a character I can relate to because he is influenced by American culture but struggling with his Dominican identity ("Is he Dominican enough?") and I think the use of dual languages also plays into this concept.
While we're on the topic of language, I'm more tripped out by Diaz's straight up vulgarity! Not that I mind...I find it very refreshing that he tells it like it is and I admire this boldness. The language seems more authentic.

Anonymous said...


I just got started, so slow is good for me, plus I am a thinker so a digest for a while, comment coming soon...BEST!


Maureen Kelleher said...

Re: Ixchel33's comment.
Wikipedia also has an image of anthracite--it's a kind of very hard coal--the image is black but shiny. You can see the link here:

So I don't know, but here's hoping Junot did come up with a romantic way to describe the very dark brown-eyed girl next door.

Roxann said...

I actually did notice that the Spanish words/terms were not italicized and i think the only reason why I noticed is because one of my good friends, who is Caucasion, praised this books as one of her favorites. I was quite surprised that the Spanish words were not footnoted or even explained in the story. I wondered to myself "How was she able to follow?" but I'm sure she looked up a few of the words on the internet and was able to follow the rest without referencing anything after awhile.
When I write and there are Spanish words/terms in my writing, depending on who my audience is, I do italicize.
As for the superstitious aspect of our Latino culture, I admit that I tend to give into it at times. Every time I pass a church I find myself giving myself the sign of the cross. MEANWHILE, I'm not even a practicing Catholic. haha! I don't believe in any of it and yet I still give in "just in case". When Junot broke down the meaning of fuku and zafa and explained that you just don't mess around with those words I couldn't help but giggle because I totally understood.
I love his style of writing. He is unapologetic and just himself. I agree that his writing is truly refreshing.

Nancy Serrano said...

Wow! I absolutely enjoyed this book. It was such a addicting read and I am still trying to figure out somethings like: could the f word come from "fuck you" and could fuku americanus be really as simple as "fuck you americans". Maybe the fuck you was returned to a Dominican and since we all the strength of the return Fuck you, it probably stuck as a damnation..who knows..I am still savoring on that.

In regards to the spanish throughout, I absolutely felt giddy..Growing up reading English literature that I had absolutely now background knowledge in, many terms and phrases I did not understand were not defined for me. So why should this? I think it is a powerful message to send that the spanish that is embedded throughout is everyday and should be accepted in American literature.
Diaz did a wonderful job at educating in his footnotes. Although I am not that crazy about swearing (I am trying to get better), I think it was just GREAT to see his blunt and blatant way of schooling people on the many truths of Central American History, especially US involvement.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Wao's sis. I almost cried because of all the connections I had. Growing up with a strong single mom who has suffered was tough and I now understand her so much. Oscar's mom had to be strong and because of her history probably was not able to understand how to express that love without showing weakness or breaking down. I am still looking back to that secion and reading it again. It broght back many memories and I really would like to delve into the topic of Strong latina moms..moms who never loved the mainstream way.

Cynthia Nambo-Book Club said...

Wow! Nancy I thought the very same thing f@%* you americans. Thanks for adding it to the dialogue!

sonrisa morena said...

I'm glad somebody mentioned the F@#$ too because it did pass my mind. I like your logic Nancy!!