I volunteered to teach a course at the Travis County Correctional Complex, a pretrial facility in Del Valle, Texas. After a background check and an orientation, I was permitted to facilitate discussions on Junot Díaz’s first collection of stories, Drown.
Volunteering at the jail for five weeks was a gesture of support for those caught in this country’s regime of mass incarceration. Having lived several of my adolescent years in a Section 8 housing project in Southern California, I saw early on how incarceration as a form of social control resulted in so many family members becoming exposed to the criminal-justice system.
I selected Díaz’s Drown to explore the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality.
As a collection of easily digestible short stories, I knew I could cover a few stories per class. More importantly, the narrator of most of the stories in the collection, Yunior, an inner-city Afro-Dominican immigrant youth living in the Dominican Republic and then New Jersey, is extremely relatable, particularly for this group of students.
Being partially written in Spanglish, confronting issues of drug addiction, parental abandonment, and prejudicial attitudes regarding race and national identity, the text resonated on several registers for the students. Reading and discussing the work with my students led to a sustained dialogue on dealing with poverty. As students related Díaz’s short stories to their personal lives, the openness of one student would encourage another.