The best novels for understanding the Dominican Republic

Michele Wucker Author Of Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola
By Michele Wucker

Who am I?

A summer with relatives in Belgium—a country divided by language and culture—inspired me to travel to Santo Domingo in 1988 to learn Spanish and study the fraught dynamics of two countries speaking different languages but sharing an island. My time in the Dominican Republic and Haiti inspired a lifelong exploration of complex issues using many lenses and stories. Today I write mainly about risk, drawing on psychology, culture, policy, and economics. The third book, The Gray Rhino, calls for a fresh look at obvious, looming threats. My fourth book, You Are What You Riskexplores risk perceptions and attitudes using a comparative, socio-cultural lens like the one I used in Why the Cocks Fight.


I wrote...

Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola

By Michele Wucker,

Book cover of Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola

What is my book about?

Like two roosters in a fighting arena, Haiti and the Dominican Republic are trapped by barriers of geography and poverty. One French-speaking and Black, one Spanish-speaking and mulatto, the two countries co-inhabit the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. They share a national symbol in the rooster and a favorite sport in the cockfight. Just as the owners of gamecocks contrive battles between their birds as a way of playing out human conflicts, Haitian and Dominican leaders often stir up nationalist disputes and exaggerate cultural and racial differences in order to deflect other tensions. Why the Cocks Fight explores the relations of each nation with each other and with colonial powers including the United States, and how their shared history impacts contemporary dynamics. 

The books I picked & why

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The Farming of Bones

By Edwidge Danticat,

Book cover of The Farming of Bones

Why this book?

What I love most about Danticat’s writing—this is a very long list—is the way she evokes the inherent dignity of characters in almost unspeakably tragic situations. In this case, her subject is a pair of lovers and their community whose lives are upended by the 1937 massacre of Haitians and Dominico-Haitians living along the Dominican side of the border with Haiti. The mass killing is an inflection point in the two nations’ shared history, which individual human stories are essential to understanding.


In the Time of the Butterflies

By Julia Alvarez,

Book cover of In the Time of the Butterflies

Why this book?

A novel based on the real-life story of the three Mirabal sisters, known as las mariposas (the butterflies) who became national heroes for their resistance to the dictator Generalissimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. The murder of these three courageous women by Trujillo’s henchmen helped to catalyze his downfall after more than 30 years of iron-fisted rule. When my publisher sent her an advance copy of my book in 1999, Julia sent me a lovely hand-written note that began more than two decades of friendship. Readers particularly interested in the contemporary relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti will find her non-fiction book, A Wedding in Haiti, well worth a read.


The Feast of the Goat

By Mario Vargas Llosa, Edith Grossman (translator),

Book cover of The Feast of the Goat

Why this book?

A dark, brooding novel by a giant of Latin American fiction, the Peruvian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Vargas Llosa appropriately placed a female protagonist, Urania Cabral, front and center in this book about a dictator who is remembered in part for his abuses of young women. Another storyline involves the men who conspired, with CIA support, to assassinate Trujillo. Vargas Llosa includes real historical characters, like Trujillo’s right-hand man and successor, Joaquín Balaguer, often with fictionalized aspects; and fictional composites bearing witness to the experiences of the Dominican people under their rule.


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

By Junot Diaz,

Book cover of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Why this book?

A central theme in all of Díaz’ work is his critique of toxic machismo in Dominican society, which extracts a heavy emotional toll on men as well as women. That’s why it’s such a delight that the protagonist of this award-winning multi-generational novel is a chubby science-fiction-loving nerd who dares to challenge the hyper-masculine norms. Set in New Jersey—where Díaz grew up—and the Dominican Republic, this novel is the story, in part, of Oscar’s doomed quest for love with a Dominican sex worker. Its larger theme is the way Oscar—and Dominicans by extension—is caught between the US and the DR and between the shadow of the past and fantasies for the future. The narrator, Yunior, who also appears in many of Díaz’s short stories, is the author’s alter ego.


Let It Rain Coffee

By Angie Cruz,

Book cover of Let It Rain Coffee

Why this book?

The title of this novel took me back to 1989, when I was living in the Dominican Republic they year and Juan Luis Guerra and his band 4-40 released their hit song, "Ojala que llueva café", an homage to rural Dominicans and their hopes; and another iconic song, "Visa para un sueño" (Visa for a Dream). This book is about the Dominicans in those songs: a family saga and the historical and contemporary realities that shaped their lives, aspirations, and disappointment. Its backdrop, unlike the other novels here, is mainly the post-Trujillo era: the brief presidency of Juan Bosch, his overthrow, and the revolution and US invasion that followed, catalyzing a wave of emigration that persists today.


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