The second read for my ‘Are You Read-Y for This’ book club, chosen by an inspirational friend and colleague, was Dominicana, by Angie Cruz. Thank goodness for book club, because I’m ashamed to say I would never have known about it otherwise.
I have never read this author before – but I suspect I would have picked it off a shelf if I’d seen it, purely because the woman on the front cover looks like me. (I’m a narcissist, clearly.)
Such a great book!
Sacrifice. For me this was the heart-breaking and inspiring theme. It made me think of the sacrifices that have been made in my family. I’ve had a privileged life, undeniably. But wow, the sacrifices my ancestors have made. My maternal grandfather who came to England from Nigeria to study Mathematics at university but could only find work in the mines, and the fatal health implications that had on him. The abuse my maternal grandmother experienced as one half of a biracial marriage in 1940s Nottingham. The loss of a father my inspirational mother experienced. It’s hard to even write about the gravity of these things.
How privileged we are, if we live lives that are without real, scarring, life changing sacrifice. And how little we know of others, and the sacrifices they make.
Our heroine of Dominicana is a young woman from the Dominican Republic, who changes the course of her own life in order to better those of her family. As a teenager she is wise beyond her years, but that doesn’t mean that the experiences she goes through don’t collide painfully with her teenage romance, every day comforts and simple pleasures. She sacrifices all these things to emigrate to America. To head into the dream her mother has had for her, and for herself, forever. The dream, of course, does not marry up with the reality.
Her mother’s fixed ideas are so immoveable that there is no other route to take. She is a woman trying to save her family the only way she believes she can – through her daughter. She cares so deeply and loves so fiercely that she is cruel. She is both desperate and strong. A scary combination. And a powerful lesson in the pitfalls of parenting and control.
Of course it seems obvious to state that not all ethnic minorities’ experiences are the same. But there are some interesting challenges in this book. There are prejudices, rivalries and assumptions amongst immigrant populations. There is snobbery and determination to be seen as something other than the other outsiders.
Learning about the Dominican community in New York in the 1950s was fascinating to me.
On top of the incredible story of Ana herself, interweaved with the characters I loved, admired and hated, I loved the richness of the descriptions of the cuisine. OMG I loved the food. All these dishes I’d never heard of but could almost taste because of the descriptions of the ingredients and processes. Combined with the memories they evoked for Ana they were just beautiful.
I loved the New York scenes too. What an adventure it would be to travel back in time and be part of that vibrant, tense and vital time in Western History, when Malcolm X rose and fell.
There was huge discomfort too. About Ana’s age, the sex, the physical abuse. We’re used to seeing women magically walk away and become strong in fiction and popular media. This isn’t necessarily reflective of reality. Especially for immigrants who have limited options. It’s uncomfortable to read something that reflect reality in this way. Fiction is always an escape, but the real escape never came for Ana.
It’s not a love story – our young heroine saves herself, through strength. She does not escape. She is not rescued. She accepts her sacrifices, focuses on the enormity of her responsibility, and makes her world work for her. That is courage. That is sacrifice. And that is the experience of so many people seeking a better life in a new place.
I can’t wait to discuss this with my fabulous book club-ers. I’ll report back! And in the meantime, if you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.