It’s been a series of long weekends for me lately. First was the four day Easter long weekend, where I baked my own hot cross buns and did as little as possible (read more in my Tenth of December post here). The next weekend we had Friday off for Anzac Day and I spent the long weekend with my Mum (I talked about this in my post for Americanah). And then, due to crazy cheap flights booked more than twelve months ago, with little knowledge of the number of holidays around us but knowing how crazy the winter months are for me at work, last weekend my partner and I went up north. Four magical days of sunshine, fresh air, peace and quiet, luxurious sleep-ins and lazy afternoons reading, visiting family, eating well and discovering the beautiful towns of northern New South Wales. By the time it came to leave, I was genuinely teary. But as Melbourne gets colder and bleaker, work becomes busier and busier, and it all gets too much, I’ll happily dream of sitting back on that veranda, drinking tea, reading, watching the local kookaburras come up for a rest and the breeze gently swaying the bamboo in the sun.
The first of two books I read over that incredible weekend was Drown, Junot Diaz’s debut from 1996. Years ago I read The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao, which won Diaz a Pulitzer Prize for Literature, but I have to admit I struggled with it. Diaz’s writing often centres on experiences of immigration in America, particularly from the Latin American perspective. His device of using a mix of formal and slang English with smatterings of Spanish is what sets his writing apart, but I unfortunately found it quite distracting in the form of a novel. But in Drown I understood the power and beauty of it and was sucked right in.
Drown is a collection of short stories, predominately about family within the context of migration. They don’t make easy reading, but there’s a strong heart to each of these stories and a gentle humour that carries throughout. ‘Fiesta 1980’ is a gorgeous example: a story about family and carsickness. Amidst a feuding family and a marriage being torn apart by the father’s affair, the narrator suffers from yet another stop by the side of the road:
“We drove the rest of the way to the Bronx in silence. We only stopped once, so I could brush my teeth. Mami had brought along my toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste and while every car known to man sped by us she stood outside with me so I wouldn’t feel alone”.
Some of the stories are more intense, like in ‘How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie’:
“Supply the story about the loco who’d been storing canisters of tear gas in his basement for years, how one day the canisters cracked and the whole neighbourhood got a dose of the military strength stuff. Don’t tell her that your moms knew right away what it was, that she recognized its smell from the year the United States invaded your island”.
In the final story, ‘Negocios’, a son tells of his father’s immigration to the United States and of being stuck between two lives. It’s heartfelt and touching. Reading Americanah, I understood the concept of moving away from home and coming back from a whole new perspective (I spoke more about it here), but not just ‘Negocios’ but in Drown as a whole, Diaz floats the idea: what happens when you can’t, or won’t, come back? That duality still exists and in many ways only becomes more complicated. What happens to those who stay, but what happens to those who are left behind?
Reading Drown on this weekend away was an interesting juxtaposition: travelling to a place so familiar yet so far away, whilst reading of places so far away yet so familiar. Both the trip and the book gave me some much-needed perspective, in many ways more than Americanah did. After recently spending time with my Mum and on this trip seeing an Aunt and Uncle for the first time in years, I had naturally been thinking about family, and I often think about family in the context of being away from it. But I also know that I am only ever a short and cheap flight away. In Americanah we know from the start that Ifemelu is coming back to Nigeria, but in many of the stories in Drown, neither the reader nor the character knows where the future lies. And that’s where things get complex and heart-breaking for the characters, but thought-provoking and emotional for the reader.
While we had beautiful, warm, sun filled days up north, we also had clear, crisp, cold nights. It was the perfect weather for bunkering down and watching movies, which is exactly what we did. We booked a place to stay with cooking facilities – something we always try to do when travelling. It helps to keep holidays affordable and not entirely filled with restaurant food and take-aways. On the small countertop burner we had limited options, but it reminded me of a great recipe I cook often in summer, where our apartment becomes hot at the thought of cooking, let alone turning the oven on. This pasta dish involves such minimal cooking its really more like assembling a salad. After cooking enough pasta for two, while it’s still hot I mix in the other ingredients: two large zucchini that have been grated coarsely, a clove of garlic grated finely, a handful of roughly chopped walnuts, a big handful of roughly chopped mint, the zest of a lemon and it’s juice, a sprinkle of chilli, a glug of olive oil and a splash of the pasta water to add enough starch to hold it all together. Crumble feta over to taste and that’s it. The heat from the pasta takes just enough bite off the raw zucchini and garlic but retains their freshness, while the nuts make for nice little hits of crunch throughout. It holds up well as a salad for lunch the next day too, which is when this photo was taken. This is also one of those great recipes where you can be really flexible according to what’s on hand. I’ve also added in sliced red onion, used pine nuts when I’ve had them in the pantry, or used goats cheese or even parmesan or pecorino when I haven’t had feta in the fridge. Here I used basil as well as mint just because. It’s easy, comforting and nourishing. It’s about making something homely despite the obstacles, whatever they may be.
If you also like reading short story collections, you might find some inspiration for your next read from this list of Perfect Examples of the Short Story by Flavorwire, in which Diaz's most recent release, This Is How You Lose Her, is included.