Like a lot of other brown kids, I didn’t see characters that looked like me in the children’s books I read growing up. They were often, if not always, white. So when I learned that Pulitzer Prize winning author and Dominican writer, Junot Diaz was releasing a children’s book titled Islandborn, about a young Dominican girl getting in touch with her roots, I practically jumped for joy. But what resonated with me the most, was Diaz’s intentional decision to make the protagonist a young Afro-Latina with dark skin and curly, Afro-like hair.
Diaz also couldn’t find books with characters that looked like him growing up. After spending most of his career writing books that followed young adult Latinx characters like in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This is How You Lose Her, and Drown, Diaz was ready to take on an entirely different book genre. The parents in his life were requesting he write a children’s book that spoke to Latinx kids, that spoke to Afro-Latino kids, that spoke to Dominican kids, and Diaz was finally ready to write it.
“I think part of it (the inspiration behind the book) has everything to do with the complete deficit of children’s books made for communities like ours. Parents that I speak to express that finding books for their children has been a challenge,” Junot shared exclusively with Hiplatina. “Part of it was that and part of it was that I have six god children that have been driving me crazy over whether or not I was going to finally write them a book. And finally, I’m always writing about the lives of young Dominicans and so this was probably just another attempt to try to address that universe.”
As for why Diaz chose to make Lola (the main character in Islandborn) Afro-Latina with dark skin and natural hair, apparently it had all to do with his sister.
“Making the protagonist an Afro-Latina wasn’t just important but profoundly personal. That is my older sister,” he said. “My sister and I we just did not have any of those images [growing up]. I always wanted to do something for her in that way and wanted to make her a character. “
Diaz stressed the importance of young kids seeing images that reflect themselves and the impact it can have on them once they grow up.
“Certainly it’s fantastically essential for a young person to grow up seeing themselves in art, seeing themselves in media, seeing themselves in film, without it we grow up with this hunger and this absence,” he adds. “Then we spend our adult lives wondering why other things that should come easy still come as a challenge for us. Well, we were fucking orphaned by this society and I think many of us, we’re trying to remedy that even after the fact.”
He went on to explain to me the importance of educating people on Afro-Latino identity and the misconceptions and confusions that still exist around it.
“As Afro-Latinos we’re not just misunderstood from one side. We’re misunderstood across the board,” Diaz says. “First of all, the internal level of education is very poor. Most of our families grew up under the racial dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, which still more or less sets the pattern, the framework, for how we talk about blackness in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Dominicans disavow blackness because that’s what they were taught. It wasn’t just a matter of some built-in ignorance or self-hatred. None of that is true. We’ve had very poor education around our Africananidad, which has basically been a project of the elites. The elites have done a lot so that the average Dominican is confused around racial politics and around racial formation.”
Diaz’s book comes at a time when Afro-Latino identity is finally becoming a part of the mainstream conversation. Earlier this year, Afro-Dominican singer Amara La Negra took a stand on a recent episode of Love & Hip Hop to educate her producer on Afro-Latina identity and colorism. Other Afro-Latino identifying celebs like Zoe Saldana and Dascha Polanco have also made a point to highlight the importance of not just acknowledging Afro-Latinos but making a point to hold Latinos accountable for their colorism and discrimination.
This is why Islandborn couldn’t have come at a better time. We’re living in a society that’s no longer subscribing to binary forms of identifications. People are embracing their multifaceted backgrounds and they are making a point to educate their children on the importance of tolerating multiple identities.
“We [Afro-latinos] represent a category that makes a lot of folks uncomfortable,” Diaz goes on to tell me. “These are people who want their simplistic binary dreams. People are so much more comfortable with white and black. Then they suddenly encounter people like us and we confuse people, we trouble people, we rattle simplistic definitions, and a lot of people don’t like multiplicity.”
Diaz goes on to tell me how tolerance is key: “People need to increase their tolerance and increase their awareness, as well as our community has to increase it’s awareness of exactly who we are and battle some of that boilerplate, anti-black disavows that make so much of that older generation.”