After catapulting to literary stardom with his brilliant short-story collection, Drown, more than ten years ago, Junot Díaz is back with his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
We first met Oscar de León, Díaz’s protagonist, in a 1996 short story in The New Yorker. He was everything all of Díaz’s male characters in Drown were not—bookish, grotesquely overweight, and utterly delusional about the mysteries of romantic love. He was the anti-macho. In the novel, not much has changed about him, except that we now revisit the history that forged him. And he—along with his clan—is cursed. To be exact, upon them has been unleashed a fukú, the mightiest of all spells that can be cast on the island first rampaged by Columbus. In an immigrant Dominican household led by a belligerent and dictatorial mother and in a New Jersey ghetto populated by every character the diaspora has begotten, Oscar is an artist and dreamer who can scarcely maneuver his way through the social labyrinth called college. Written in Díaz’s elevated street-slang vernacular, the novel reads like an intimate and animated conversation with a friend. When we sat down for this interview in June, Díaz was upbeat about the impending publication of the novel. But he still displayed a certain intellectual moroseness when discussing the long-lasting effects of diaspora, the complex relationships among generations of immigrants, and the indelible mark the dictator Rafaél Trujillo left on Dominican Republic, a place that both perplexes and beguiles Díaz.
Q:It’s been eleven years since Drown. Where you been?
Junot Díaz: I’ve been trying to write. I also spent a lot of time on different campuses, in conversation, helping other writers. That’s what I do: I teach them writing. I’m having so much trouble with writing, you know. Maybe if I help other people, it’ll be easier for me.
Q: You had to give up on the novel you initially were working on. Why?
Díaz: I was writing a novel about a slightly futuristic American version of what we’re living now. In ’94, I started writing a novel about an enormous terrorist act that destroyed the United States. The novel takes place twenty years after this destruction, with all the stuff that we’re dealing with now—a dirty war, the disappeared, the concept of terrorism. Anyway, 9/11 happened some years into the process, and I was like, OK, I don’t have a novel. The U.S. that I had imagined was nowhere near as crazy and as incredibly damaging and brutal and indifferent as the U.S. that we’re currently living in. I thought I was being transgressive, apocalyptic, an out-there person. And then reality lapped me, it just lapped me.
So what happened was: a) one novel died, which I hope to resuscitate, and b) I became a writer who does conferences and panels.
Q: Let’s talk a little bit about immigration. From the vantage point of your writing desk, what do you see?
Díaz: This country has such little sense of itself sometimes, I’m astonished. America is one of the biggest myth-making countries, whether we’re talking about how many books are published, how many movies we make. But the greatest myth of all is what America is. I think that America is such an incredibly dynamic place because of immigration. We fundamentally have been a culture that’s been put together from the explosions of other cultures. But it’s hard for us to see. We have blinded ourselves to the reality of what our country is.
Q: After Hurricane Katrina, people were saying, “Wait, parts of the United States are a Third World country.” And all the immigrants were sitting around going, “Yeah, we knew that.”
Díaz: Katrina was one of those things that rips the clothes off of the guy who keeps saying he’s a saint, and underneath you see that he’s a monster. And the dude just ran and got new clothes, and said, “No, I’m not a monster,” and everybody’s like, “Yes, you’re not a monster.” People just couldn’t wait to get back to sleep.
Q: What about our monster, Trujillo? I have heard you say that we’re all Trujillo’s kids—illegitimately and legitimately—even second-, third-generation Dominicans, and hyphenated Dominicans.
Díaz: The evil of the father lasts. The consequences of those kinds of patriarchal traumas last to the point where the person no longer has contact with the origins of that evil. I had no concept that I was Trujillo’s son. I had no concept until I was reading, got older, went traveling, and I was like, OK, my dad was a total copy of Trujillo. I mean he grew up in the military, during the Trujillato. He thought Trujillo was a great fucking man, and we had in my family—and this is very common in many Third World families—a dictatorship in the house. La dictadura de la casa. And everyone has different dictaduras, but the one that I lived under was a dictadura that would’ve made Trujillo very, very comfortable, because he helped design it.
Q: How did the idea for the novel evolve?
Díaz: I was surrounded by a lot of male writers of color who have this incredibly bizarre relationship to masculinity. It’s like we were all mega-nerds but you would never know that if you listened to the way they talk about themselves.
Q: Were they just posing as macho?
Díaz: I would not say posing, I would say just passing for. I think men spend so much time passing for being men. There’s a sense among many writers of color that the most invisible figure that was sitting between all of us was the nerd. But it was the thing we weren’t saying, that people were afraid to say, like, “Yo, what we do is nerdy by definition.” You can be from a crazy, fucked up background, but I like to read at night. So that was the first part, the identification of a silence.
Later I was in Mexico City for a year living with my friend, the amazing writer Francisco Goldman. He saw that I was losing my mind, not able to write, lost my one novel, going crazy. One day, we were hanging out and we were having drinks with some idiots. And the concept of Oscar, the concept of this poor nerd, the concept of the real version of everything that we’re performing against—at least as a Dominican man of color—suddenly came into my mind. This was the pariguayo (loser); this was the figure who shadows all of us in our attempts to live out this excessive masculinity. So he came to mind, and the little fucker wouldn’t let go.
Q: Oscar could be considered a “ghetto nerd.”
Díaz: He’s part of the generation of young people that were sacrificed. They were ostracized to produce the identity that we see now, an identity where kids are into the Internet, into MySpace, into texting. To produce that identity among young people required guinea pigs. The ’80s was where this was all brought up. So we have people who were frontrunners of what we call the contemporary, wired young person.
But these people were ostracized and loathed, and they’re the ones that were the test betas.
Q: So was Oscar among those who absorbed and processed today’s youth culture?
Díaz: These kids created a matrix to survive. Capitalism seized it and was like, “This is awesome! We could use this to capture young imaginations and entertain them.” It’s this crazy victory, but it’s completely tragic. If you were a nerd computer geek in 1982, the amount of isolation you felt—at least what I experienced, or the kids I knew, the isolation they felt—was almost total. They were not part of society; no one thought they were cool.
Q: It seems like Oscar’s family loves him but doesn’t accept him and is constantly correcting him and trying to redefine him. In a way, he accepts the social ostracizing.
Díaz: You’re 100 percent right. There’s nothing more true in being a child of a diaspora, a child of immigrants. We’re completely new to our parents. We’re not something they can ever understand. And it’s not as if we are ever going to be accepted.
We’re accepted as long as we conform to what we are expected to be, and I’m sure that’s not any different for anyone else. For us there’s this cultural component: You’re Dominican only if you do this, this, and that. And if you do this and that, you’ll be accepted to a certain degree and if you don’t, people will scorn you for it.
Q: Tell me about the women in the book. How did you approach writing them?
Díaz: I was really drawn to thinking about the women in my life. Thinking about my mother, who’s a very powerful force on me. And I have these two very strong sisters who took up a lot of imaginary space in my life.
People can say what they want, but historically, feminism in the Dominican Republic has been extremely strong. I guess the best way of saying it is that no one could have survived what we survived—whether it was first extermination and slavery, then abandonment and erasure, then the series of gunboat two-bit dictatorships, followed by the final apotheosis of dictatorships, the Trujillato. You couldn’t survive it without the resistance of this kind of woman. And the final thing is diaspora: We all got held together.
I was very clear growing up the only reason this shit worked—what we called the Dominican diaspora—is because of these crazy women characters, women like my mom, and their collective knowledge of survival.
Q: It looked to me like the relationships between the women are the hardest ones, the most relentless ones, the most unforgiving ones.
Díaz: When you’re the ones in the life raft and you have four or five women in the life raft who put it together, by the end of it your nerves are blown. The people you’re going to attack are the people who are helping you, who you are holding it together with. I always thought that my mom and my sisters, without knowing it, were shackled together by history, by survival, and by this desire to be free of all those things—to be a person, to be an individual. They were all shackled together in ways that I wasn’t.
As a Dominican man, you’re socialized to be a playboy. You spend a lot of time being taught that women are important, but without the really positive framework of why. You figure out quickly it’s because of culo (ass). But there is a sense that it’s not that simple.
When people are always telling you that you have to have a lot of women, women are very important, there’s a chance that you might actually begin to observe them on a more fundamental level. Then you get so much focus that one day you might actually see. Dominican men are told to look at women all the time, but they’re definitely not told to see them.
The act of looking is a very violent act. You’re saying, I’m gonna map my shit over you—but to see is to actually receive information, to be engaged. And I think what happened to me was that I was always being taught to look, but one day I started to see. And it was because a lot of women in my life were refusing just to be looked at, to be this passive figure. That taught me that you can’t be a human without seeing.
When I was thinking about these women characters, no matter how bad a person I am—a bad writer, my limitations, my sexism, you know—the thought was, it would be useful as a writer to try to create a template for all the male writers, especially Dominican male writers, especially males of color, of how a writer can use seeing to create more nuanced representations of women.
Q: Love is very potent, but love also renders you very weak in this book.
Díaz: That sounds exactly like life. My religious friends would disagree, but I always feel like this world we live in is so incredibly difficult. And it doesn’t give a shit. Yet, despite its mechanical uncaringness, it’s a gift—we didn’t do anything to get this life. I have no sense of anything beyond this, so that’s the hardest thing to wrestle with. Love is the only thing—I don’t want to say that “makes it bearable”—but I feel like without the possibility of love, this place would just devour us. Honestly, connecting once at the deepest level with someone, you know, once you’ve done that, even if your life goes to hell, man, it was really worth living.
Q: What about the actual writing process, because this is long form for you. How was it for you to tackle a novel?
Díaz: This thing almost killed me. I wrote at least, no exaggeration, 2,000 pages to get a decent 350 pages. It was a day-in-day-out fucking massacre. And a lot of it had to do with me suffering from depression like most people do, artists do, not any big deal. But then you’re knocking your head against the wall all day long.
This book required me to look into an abyss and be joyful, because the fact that I’m looking in it meant something, meant that there is life. I want people to read this book and be like “Yo, this shit is terrible but my God, what a fucking smooch, what a kiss.”