Monday, April 07, 2008

Junot Díaz Wins Pulitzer Prize + Poem: Forrest Hamer + Review: Dos Caras de Jano/Two Faces of Janus

What great news came down today: Junot Díaz was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, roughly a month after receiving the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. As I've said on here before, this one of the best novels I've read in some time, particularly one of the best contemporary novels, and it's also one of the important contemporary works on the issues of Dominicanidad, nation, history, Diaspora, immigration, class, race and, in particular, blackness, that I've come across. Many of the reviews I've read lose sight of this, but it's all there in this remarkable book. Díaz's articulation of Diasporic nerd-dom also is incredibly fresh, as is his use of a postmodern formal structure and his often plangent realism, which makes the stories of the characters so vivid that their sufferings break your heart, not just figuratively, but by the end of the book, literally. It took Díaz 11 years to complete this novel, and it's one of the best responses to the notion that any writers--poets, playwrights, fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, anyone--should be churning out work like paper airplanes. Like any lover of great art, I'm grateful, very grateful, that he published this book when he and it were ready, and I'm delighted to be able to congratulate him on this extraordinary honor. As I wrote of the lovely and extremely talented Natasha Trethewey and her collection, The Native Guards last year, the honor went to a truly deserving writer and work.


Forrest Hamer's most recent collection Rift (Four Way Books, 2007), a past Book Choice here, is so full of great poems, possessed of tremendous lyric force and philosophical depth, that it's hard to choose one to feature this month. So I think I'll choose one of the ones that I keep coming back to, a poem written in a style I would venture is Forrest's own, which is to say, a poem whose title, highlighted, nests in the body of the poem. This small but substantial gesture reorients the eye and mind when reading the poem, making you think about, among other things, embodiment itself, the relation between the poem and how the poet names it, how it functions in terms of the body of the lyric. Forrest, who's a trained and practicing psychoanalyist, is very interested in and writes with great skill about the mind and body, bodies, his, others, ours, but also, without the freight of religion or an established metaphysics, about soul. He was on a panel at this year's AWP that I heard was great, and I wish I could have heard it, and him. He's a poet you don't want to miss. So here is one of several poems titled "Someone I Know." Enjoy!

A woman late in her eighties began once more to feel desire. She said a
fever came over her so strong at night she would not sleep: she would imagine
all sorts of men, and some women, and all of them left her the sense she
probably was dying, the flushes one last rally to keep her self intact.

Some people can feel full only when passion is strong, so they provoke
others into making them feel. Others can feel only themselves when feeling
is calmed or seems gone. And there are others whose sense of being comes
from not being selves at all.
Someone I know doesn't yet know what there
is to tell, and I spend hours with him waiting for the song there is when I hear
best: sung by me in a language I do not recognize, listening fills me with the
closest I have come to being satisfied.

I would not be beautiful, for that would be another curse; nor would I be on
fire. The first curse, of course, is knowing.

Copyright © Forrest Hamer, 2007, 2008, from Rift (New York: Four Way Books, 2007), all rights reserved.


On Saturday afternoon I eagerly traipsed down to the Chicago Latino Film Festival to catch Las Dos Caras de Jano (The Two Faces of Janus), Edmundo H. Rodríguez's film based on Puerto Rican anti-colonial activist and progressive author Wilfredo Mattos Cintrón's fourth novel of the same name. I'd first heard about the film's screening on Blabbeando (mg/ Andrés), and the plot, focusing on a serial killer of gay men in San Juan and a black Puerto Rican detective investigating them, or at least one, was enough to bring me to the theater.

So what's my verdict? Perhaps I should begin by filling in the plot a bit more. The film really comprises two storylines: the background one focuses on the grisly serial murders of gay, mostly middle-class men in San Juan, by an unknown but extremely disturbed "Angel of Bachelors," and the viewer learns about 3/4ths of the way through who the killer is, as he commits one of them, along with the likely motivations behind them. But the foreground story, which links to this larger, more disturbing narrative, centers on a formerly closeted and now openly gay man, whose murder also appears to be part of the serial spree. A friend of the murdered man asks handsome but often-frowning detective Isabelo Andújar Jr. (Modesto Lacén, above right, after the screening) to investigate, and he quickly homes in on the trio of close friends, from university days, of the murdered man. One is a wealthy, pompous, and unabashedly racist banker (who refers to Andújar at one point as "Buckwheat"); the second is a Marxist university professor; and the third is a DL architect. Andújar also looks at the boyfriend, a former student of the murdered man; a male hustler who, we learn, is servicing a powerful member of the Puerto Rican Senate; and the murdered man's ex-wife, who is a prime but not very convincing suspect. Along the way, Andújar also has a discussion on gay identity, being out, and self-hatred with a young gay male employee of the pharmacy where his girlfriend, a blonde Puerto Rican woman, works, that keys him in to the film's title and the idea behind it; for closeted men, their existence is like the two faces of Janus, one turned towards the light, the other one, hidden, towards the darkness. Ultimately, through a series of revelations, about the sorts of accommodations that married couples make and the nature of the closet in Puerto Rico's machismo society, Andújar identifies the killer, with even more tragic consequences.

I appreciated the many themes and topics the film addressed or attempted to address. It dealt with class, race and racism, sexual orientation, identification and gender roles, internalized violence and sexual repression and oppression, the power of social and political capital, failed political dreams and accommodation, and so much more. In the short space of the film, Rodríguez (and the screenwriter Gilberto Rodríguez, drawing from Mattos Cintrón's work), portrayed a fairly rich portrait of contemporary San Juan, showing it to be more diverse and cosmopolitan than I might have imagined, while also portraying some of the longstanding retrograde attitudes that still exist. The portrayal of Andújar captures this. While he evidently harbors residual homophobic attitudes--he cannot not bring himself to say the word "gay," choosing instead, as others in the film did, to say "homosexual," until he was corrected by a gay man--his general outlook was portrayed as somewhere between benign and indifferent. Even when he's being aggressively macked by the murdered gay man's boyfriend, his response is to deflect it, and not, as might be the case elsewhere, to go plumb loco. Ultimately, we see that he grasps the true sadness and sorrow at the core of the murderer's actions, but he doesn't grasp the despair, which tips over into sentimentalism and melodrama, that has led to the crime. It's also apparent that he, nor anyone else, for that matter, appears to care about the more extensive series of murders that have occurred; ultimately the film ends with a scene of domestic bliss, in which the black detective and his white girlfriend--both Puerto Rican, of course--can finally come together and find a place within this society, while gay men, we gather, will continue to be killed off, without any recourse to anything beyond partial acceptance and the threat of violence.

Rodríguez, following Mattos Cintrón, draws a parallel between the social hostility and actual and symbolic violence against gays and the various manifestations of racism. One of the film's running jokes is that some people, fellow Puerto Ricans, including some who are visibly of African descent, do see the very dark-skinned Andújar (Lacén at right, with Rebecca Hazlewood, as Chandra, photo from Rojo Tomate) but don't really seem him, except as an alien, an outsider, or a stereotype of one sort or another. But in the case of the latter, not the kinds we might first imagine. In one case, he's mistaken for a babalawayo (santero); in another, a child thinks he's the wise man and king Melchior; in yet another moment, he's thought to be a caddy, a scene that could easily appear in a mainstream US film. In yet another moment, a little boy is terrified just by the sight of this black man, something I've personally experienced in the US more than once, though thankfully it doesn't happen that much any more. Andújar mostly parries this racism, but in an argument with his girlfriend, he articulates his frustration, both with religion and Christmas, but also with the ignorance he has to deal with, noting that the black king he's been mistaken for is actually Balthazar, and that, when his girlfriend offers to celebrate Hannukah and even Kwanzaa if that will inspire some holiday spirit in him, he rejects both, citing the latter as an "American" invention, inauthentic and no remedy for the malaise in the heart and soul he's carrying around. Just as Andújar is the antithesis of racist stereotypes of blacks, the film's portrayal of gay men mostly avoids stereotypes as well, though the narrative of self-loathing resulting in violence and melodrama, though based on a real story, harkens back to deterministic, pre-liberation narratives of gay male life.

While the digital video cinematography is admirably crisp, the filmmaking itself feels little clumsy at times, with shots and effects not really adding up as they could and the editing not as tight as it could be. The gauzy flashbacks are a particular problem. Another issue is the acting: many of the actors over-emote, or act a bit more stagily than is necessary, which I take to be an issue of direction rather than anything else. One example is Mr. Tagore (Vik Kumar), the DL South Asian (see, I said the film showed San Juan as cosmopolitan) storeowner, who klieglights his closetedness fairly quickly, or rather his wife's obvious unhappiness, in combination with his theatricality, does so. Just a little more restraint would have gone a long way. Lacén unfortunately has to spend a good deal of the film trying to look and act as glum, disaffected and serious as is humanly possible, but when he's got something to work with, he's great, and he's a glory to look at, a force field of beauty at the center of the film. What I told C when I recounted my thoughts on the film was this: while there are some obvious faults with the acting, directing and script, the overall ideas and freshness of the story outweighed them for me, and I was glad I saw the film and suggest others do to if it comes through where you are. As one of the producers, Iván de Paz, who was present with Lacén after the screening noted, the film tackles issues that are still very controversial in Puerto Rico (not just homophobia, but also classicism, racism, and "interracial couples," to use his words), in a fairly direct way.

At the top of this review is a photo I took of Modesto Lacén, chatting with someone who was in the screening and afterwards was talking up black film festivals in California. If you want to see Lacén these days, catch the off-Broadway production of Celia: The Life and Story of Celia Cruz, in which I believe he said he plays the great salsera's husband, Pedro Knight (photo at left from the NY Post, Xiomara Laugart, at left, as Celia Cruz and Modesto Lacén, at right, as her husband.) I hope he gets on the Diasporic bandwagon and gets even more roles both in PR and on the mainland: he's a winner.


  1. What a post of riches, thanks for sharing about this film. And ditto, ditto, again ditto on Díaz--particularly the import of creating on creation's timeline, not some illusionary standard of productivity.