Comparative Literary Analysis
The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Le Thi Diem Thuy and Drown by Junot Diaz are two riveting literary masterpieces tackling the common theme of immigrants struggling to survive in America. Both books strike at the chord of every refugees or settlers in foreign land who, at some point in their lives, nurture hope of achieving a sense of belonging or acceptance in the land they where they have chosen to dwell and earn a living, but in the process are alienated, dislocated and experience untold hardships and shattered dreams. Searching for the American dream is a recurrent theme in world literature, and two authors who adopt their own impressively unique styles of presenting this theme, alongside the maturation of main characters, are remarkable.
Both literary pieces have striking similarities hinged on how the main character, presented as young and vulnerable, gradually comes to terms not only with inner turmoil and angsts but also with establishing an identity – with the influence of major forces as family, peers, the environment and culture into which the character is thrust — upon entering the brink of adulthood. Both books also ignite reader attention as they effectively use the first person point of view. They are also similar in the sense that each title mirrors what the corresponding main character is all fired up to do. In The Gangster We Are All Looking For, the young girl aspires to be just that, in the face of domestic squabbles and the weakness she sees in her father. On the other hand, Drown derived its name from the overwhelming tide of events that the brothers in the story (as gleaned from the younger boy’s eyes) find themselves in as they cross over to adulthood.
In The Gangster We Are All Looking For, Le Thi Diem Thuy seamlessly weaves the story and travails of a young girl who arrives in California with her father whom she endearingly calls Ba along with other Vietnamese companions. Eventually joining her and her father is her mother, whose very presence and sentiments likewise add a pivotal part to the story. Together, they trudge along to the fast rhythm and beat of hectic working class life in America. Drown by Junot Diaz likewise presents the struggles and miseries of a fractured family still clinging on to each other and nurturing hopes of finding their place in their chosen country of work and residence. Two young boys who are caught amidst childhood frolic and the throes of adolescence are the main protagonists. They are thurst into a whirl of adult concerns and preoccupations as they wind their way in a seedy neighborhood in the United States, while facing the stark realities of a life of poverty under the supervision of a worn-out working class mother and the shadow of an absentee father.
Each book indirectly makes a few pointed critiques of certain societal structures through the characters’ dialogues and observations. For example, racial undertones are sensed when the central character in The Gangster We Are All Looking For observes how, in the American school she finds herself in, all Asians are lumped together and called by one name, Yang (Thuy, 2004, p. 89). She also nonchalantly observes how young American students vis-à-vis their Asian counterparts are often proclaimed “Most Popular, Most Beautiful, Most Likely to Succeed, (and) though there are more Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian kids at the school, in the yearbook we are not the most of anything” (Thuy, 2004, p. 89). When the Vietnamese girl’s father exclaims, “But what does crying mean in this country? Your Ba cries in the garden every night and nothing comes of it” (Thuy, 2004, p. 27) he in effect is lamenting the wanting conditions he and his family have been forced to live with in America.
In both literary pieces, the hand-to-mouth existence is depicted, as personified by mothers who rant endlessly while making ends meet with back-breaking work. The girl in The Gangster We Are All Looking For expresses, at some point in the story, how her father, who drifted from one menial job to another, did not think her mother got paid what she deserved (Thuy, 2004, p. 133). What the reader encounters then, is a sad story of the pitiable plight of a Vietnamese brood who sails across continents only to discover that life is not greener on the other side of the ocean.
In similar fashion, the young male lead in Drawn notes how his mother puts in “ten-, twelve-hour shifts (in a chocolate factory)for almost no money at all (Diaz, 1996 , p. 72) and also relates how his distant father “lost his job but gained a new one but neither paid enough” (Diaz, 1996, p. 173). When the boy’s father falls ill of a sick back, he laments how “they demoted him to the rotating shift he’d been on during the first days of the job” (Diaz, 1996, p. 204). Indeed, Junot Diaz lucidly presents the vicious cycle of poverty as seen through the eyes of a boy and his immediate family, who must deal with thankless professions and the sordid reality that nothing comes easy to the struggling poor, especially when they are in alien territory. In a straightforward way, he paints a gloomy work life scenario for immigrants in the US, based on his own experiences.
In terms of plot, the immigrant experience is expressed in two totally different writing styles. While Le Thi Diem Thuy presents her story in a fluid, almost poetic way with a cadence that flows from one chapter to another, interspersed by literary devices as flashback to juxtapose cultures and family relations in two distinct countries, Junot Diaz expounds on story fragments with eloquent storytelling ease. In both cases, though, readers are able to easily follow and get into the character’s frame of thought and reference, mainly because they seem to leap out from the pages of the book to remind us of somebody we know or heard about.
Both literary pieces also make rich use of figurative language like similes, metaphors, allusions and symbolisms. Both books start with vivid imagery. In Drown, Diaz uses similes and personification to describe to readers the immediate environment where the young protagonists dwell, before spewing out forceful dialogue on how the main characters feel about the place:
(It is) a small house just outside Ocoa; rosebushes blazed around the yard like compass points and the mango trees spread out deep blankets of shade where we could rest and play dominos, but the campo was nothing like our barrio in Santo Domingo… there was nothing to do, nothing to see… Rafa, who was older and expected more, woke up every morning pissy and dissatisfied. He stood out on the patio in his shorts and looked out over the mountains, at the mists that gathered like water, at the brucal trees that blazed like fires on the mountain. This, he said, is shit. Worse than shit, I said (Diaz, 1996, p. 173).
Le Thi Diem Thuy, on the other hand, has this almost lyrical style of describing things ranging from inanimate objects to people. At the start of her book, she employs spatial description and metaphors as she describes passing scenes with such remarkable detail while as if one were watching a movie. As her young female lead narrates, for instance:
We entered the revolving doors of airports and boarded plane after plane… Holding on to one another, we moved through clouds, ghost vapors, time zones… we moved through a light rain and climbed into a car together. We were carried through unfamiliar brightly lit streets, and delivered to the sidewalk in front of a darkened house whose door we entered, after climbing five uneven steps together in what had become pouring rain (Thuy, 2004, p. 4).
From the start, Le Thi Diem Thuy expressed through her character the sense of foreboding that very often accompany the immigrant experience. While America appeared as a land of promise for the foreign guests as shown by the use of the word “bright,” the phrase “a darkened house” expresses the qualms of the Vietnamese characters making their way to new territory. As the story progresses and the Vietnamese girl grows up, more literary devices are expertly utilized, with special focus on her kin, notably her father, grandfather, and a brother who drowned but remains very much alive in her memory. Even in its culmination, The Gangster We Are All Looking uses rich symbolisms, personification and metaphors to depict nature as representations of people emerging from a long torturous search for the American dream — battered yet renewed with fresh hope. This is especially gleaned from one of the author’s most eloquent lines at the novel’s conclusion: “The fish made their way toward us, turning their backs and baring their bellies to the new moon.. it seemed that the more they writhed, the brighter they became” (Thuy, 2004, p. 158).
Just as articulate in his own way, Junot Diaz employs modern conversational English and a sprinkling of Spanish words to enliven his story. He easily lures readers, just like in his poignant introduction in one of the stories in Drown, entitled “Aguantando” in which the reader’s attention is captured, while presenting the social circumstances of the main characters and setting the stage for the ensuing action. He writes:
I lived without a father for the first nine years of my life. He was in the States, working, and the only way I knew him was through the photographs my moms kept in a plastic sandwich bag under her bed (Diaz, 1996, p. 189).
One quickly notes how Junot Diaz flexible shifts from storytelling ease to use of blunt language that other writers may not pull off with amazing ease. He can deviate from accepted norms of English grammar and style and still regale his audiences, like when he lets the narrator describe vignettes of childhood, “Me and Beto used to steal like mad” (Diaz, 1996, p. 97) or “When I caught Papi’s eye, he was like, No way. Don’t do it” (Diaz, 1996, p. 29). Contemporary profanities are likewise utilized for added impact, blending well into the character and nature of the stories.
Indeed, Diaz masterfully captures the moments of loneliness, pain and rage of immigrants eking a living and plodding along in foreign land, as he himself had experienced first hand. Junot Diaz hails from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. His background, which greatly influenced and set the tone for his first bestselling novel Drown, is encapsulated in the events unfolding following his migration to the US with his mother at the age of six years, following the demise of dictator Rafael Trujillo. As an account stated:
They reunited with Díaz’s father, who was working as a fork lift driver in New Jersey, and settled into a working-class part of town. Díaz was a triple threat: a different color with a strange accent and a nerdy love of books; it was a lucky blessing that he was also tough enough to beat up anyone who got too rough. He lost himself in science fiction novels and horror books by Stephen King. Later, at Rutgers University, he took a creative writing class and decided that writing was what he wanted to do. He went on to earn his M.F.A. at Cornell University where he wrote most of his first book. (“Junot Diaz,” par. 3).
Given this cultural background, I am inclined to understand better the complexities of the personalities, sentiments and outlook of the characters he has woven into his stories.
As for his lead characters, Diaz may have unintentionally created caricatures of himself. It is general knowledge that Junot Diaz actually “lived near one of the largest landfills in the country, a mountain of garbage on fire, covered with birds…” (Solomita, 2003, par. 12) Glimpses of the Drown author’s personality come into focus and blend with that of his main character, especially how “early on, when he was a child, he was still very innocent, but as he grew older, he was forced to let go of this innocence” (Solomita, 2003, par. 13). The author’s traumatic family background – a father who had three families which caused his family to sink further into poverty when they were eventually abandoned during his early teens (Jaggi, 2008, par. 11) likewise sharpened his sensitivity and creatively found its way into his writings.
As far as Lê Thi Diem Thuy is concerned, The Gangster We Are All Looking For is actually her memoir. Born in Phan Thiet, South Vietnam in 1972 (which goes down the annals of history as the year one of the fiercest wars took place), Lê Thi Diem Thuy settled with her father in the US sometime in 1978. Her life story, in a nutshell, is as follows:
She grew up in Linda Vista, San Diego, and her childhood there became the basis of her first book, The Gangster We Are All Looking For. She is an author and a performance artist and has been awarded a fellowship by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University (“California Stories,” 2007)
Knowing this, one obtains a greater appreciation of coming across a gem of a book like The Gangster We Are All Looking For, which elegantly recounts, in vivid details and rich imagery, the very life Lê Thi Diem Thuy has known.
From describing their arrival in America and the many jobs her father took on – whether as house painter, welder, or gardener (Thuy, 2004, p. 105), to describing his drunken rages, to recalling her life and kin back in Vietnam, Lê Thi Diem Thuy writes with elegant poetic ease. At the same time, she reveals the courage and determination that she and her family mustered to survive America. Given the Asian cultural context, one understands better just how difficult it must have been for Le Thi Diem Thuy and her family to meld with and adapt to the American way of life. As such, one develops a finer appreciation for the literary masterpiece she has created. When she describes the Vietnamese girl running “like a dog unleashed” (Thuy, 2004, p. 158) into the light, Le Thi Diem Thuy in effect is describing her own awakening, and it is here where the novel ends, again with the use of flowing water (symbolizing herself and her country) which was also used at the start of the novel.
California Stories Uncovered. 2007. The California Council for the Humanities. 20 Oct. 2008 <http://www.calhum.org/programs/uncvrd_anthology_author_bios.htm>.
Diaz, Junot. Drown. New York: The Berkley Publishng Group, 1996.
Jaggi, Maya. “Junot Diaz: a truly all-American writer” The Independent. 29 Feb. 2008. 20
Oct. 2008 <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/junot-diaz-
Junot Diaz. 20 Oct. 2008 <http://www.lectures.org/diaz.html#excerpt>.
Solomita, Olga. “Swimming lessons: Junot Diaz, author of ‘Drown,’ visits Cambridge
Harvard Summer Academy students.” Harvard University Gazette. 21 Aug. 2003. 20
Oct, 2008 <http://www.hno.harvard.edu/gazette/2003/08.21/03-junot.html>.
Thuy, Le Thi Diem. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. London: Pan Macmillan Ltd., 2004.