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On Memory, Identity and a Decision to make: Islandborn


I have been in doubt whether to publish this post or not for a few days. Because of course it would be easier to be silent on controversial topics.
This picture book by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Junot Diaz will be out in the UK on the 7th of June.
The American edition was already on our shelf, and we had already read it and even brought it to school when he was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct and sexist behaviour a couple of weeks ago.
My first reaction was to delete the draft of this post and put the book in the closet.
Then I thought, and researched, thought again.

What are we supposed to do as parents?
Should we leave the book there, among those by authors who our children will one day admire and be inspired by? Or should we take on the role of censors and boycott?

Do we want to keep our children in a bubble of pretended moral perfection or do we want to give them a compass to find their way of living and reading art, incorporating the biographical information about the authors?
Should we protect them and purify our shelves, or let our children deal with the frustration, disappointment or even disgust when looking at a masterpiece by men who misconducted?
What do we do with the art of monstrous men?
Do we know them all? What defines a monster? Can we?

I am no one to give answers.
The debate had elegant and insightful contributions. Claire Dederer's essay on Paris Review in first place, here. Or Sandra Beasley's article here.

The decision is not clearly about this book, that you can happily live without. It is 'only' a book for children, who are unaware of the above. Still, it gives a powerful picture of the aspects related to emigration and to the search for cultural identity, which is something many children living in large cities can relate to.
So yes, we kept this book, and we kept The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and The old Man and the Sea, and our Woody Allen DVDs.
To them the choice to research, think, feel, accept or reject.


Let's come to the reason why I purchased this book.
Firstly, I knew it had an autobiographical approach, and that Junot Diaz wrote it as a tribute to his Dominican roots. And I did love The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Secondly I knew a bit about the themes treated and I thought it could be inspiring for my daughter, who also lives in a multicultural environment and is herself a 'cultural expat', despite being born here.

Lola, the little girl you see on the cover, is the main character of this story.
She was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to America (probably New Jersey, where Diaz moved as a child) with her family when she was a baby.
She attends a big school where every child seems to be coming from different countries and she lives in a neighbourhood where everyone comes, like her, from the Island.
They will all help her to build her own memory of the island as she is given an assignment at school and has to work on a drawing of the place where she was born.

Lola's journey through the collective memories of her Latin community is a journey towards her own identity and a reflection on the meaning of it.
'Even if you don't remember it doesn't mean it's not in you'
This is the powerful, crystal-clear (quite overly-sentimental, yes) statement of Lola'a grandmother.

The Island is many things: juicy fruit, paradise beaches, music in the air, vibrant colours, but also tremendously hot weather, devastating hurricanes and political oppression. The Trujillo dictatorship is pictured as a Monster with a hurricane-like appearance.
I feel that the information supplied to the girl could have been overly simplified, especially when it comes to the Regime and to the emigration process, although probably a more detailed narration would make the book less approachable by younger readers.
Espinosa's colourful illustrations fill the pages with a burst of colours, giving us a passionate portrayal of the Dominican culture and overall the book does the job and motivates children to look into their own cultural heritage.
This is exactly what my daughter did after reading it the first time, she spent hours drawing things that she could remember about Italy and asking us to add details to draw.

From a Montessori perspective,  encouraging a child to build memories (of his family, community and culture) is essential in the process of defining his own identity and building self-confidence.
When a new baby is born, it is a good idea to start keeping a small album with photos of the child  going through different stages of life, of her family members and of a few familiar places.
This can of course be set up any time later up to toddlerhood.
I'm not saying hundreds photos, nor digital files that can't be accessed independently, but a normal small book which a toddler can hold and leaf through independently.
This will encourage the child to establish a visual and emotional connection with the family (especially if part of the family lives far away) and to see himself growing up within a specific environment. It's basically a first attempt of building both self-awareness and group identity, sense of space and time.
That little black book (I used a basic Moleskine, album format with white pages) is still a favourite over here, you will be surprised to see how much little ones can be inspired by a mere collection of photographs.

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Islandborn [2018]
by Junot Diaz
Illustrated by Leo Espinosa
English edition by Penguin Putman Inc
Reading age: 4+
Themes: Emigration, Identity, Latin-American Culture
















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