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A Writer's Wondrous Life

With his first novel, the Dominican American writer nets the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

En español | Junot Díaz’s first published work, the bestselling short story collection Drown (1996), earned Díaz critical praise. His second publication and first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, garnered Díaz the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Díaz's voice—as perceptive about comic book characters as it is about Rafael Trujillo's 31-year Dominican Republic dictatorship—delivers. The story spans generations as it follows a Dominican family plagued by a curse. Its latest victim is the endearing protagonist, Oscar, whose quest for love takes readers on a ride through the Dominican Republic's and United States's intertwined histories.

"The parents are suddenly telling the kids about what it was like to live under Trujillo," Díaz says. "I'm hoping it becomes a two-way conversation."  

In an exclusive interview with AARP Segunda Juventud, the Dominican American writer speaks of the challenges of his craft and of the unexpected consequences of his writing.

Q:

Eleven years elapsed between the publication of Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. What was going on in your life during that time?

A:

It’s sort of the least interesting aspect of this because there’s really not much one could say without sounding absurd. I was just wrestling with the material, wrestling with myself, and trying to put down on paper what I thought was a really important book for me—not that it wasn’t important for anyone else. Every step of the way was a fight. The material was difficult. My doubts about the material were apparent. It took its sweet old time.

Q:

How would you describe The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao?

A:

It’s the quest story of this young Dominican guy Oscar, his quest for love, for a safe place in the world, which is what love is. It’s not only his quest, but it turns out to have been his entire family’s quest. If nothing else speaks to the human condition, it is that quest. You could expand it, of course, another degree and just say that that’s really what this whole thing that we call humanity is about: each of us trying to find a place where we’re safe and where we can know love. The rest of it is, in the end, kind of garbage.

Q:

How did you come up with the title for this novel? Oscar’s life is brief, but in what way is it wondrous?

A:

I guess my concept is more that a person would have to work really hard for their life not to be wondrous.

Q:

In what way?

A:

We get these lives for free. I didn’t do anything to get this life, and no matter what the hardships are, it is free and, in a way, it’s an extraordinary bargain. Again, there are plenty of lives that are just truncated by misery and misadventure and horror, but there are also other lives. Just the fact that you get to live and breathe and interact with the world—that’s pretty marvelous.

Q:

You were born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey. How has a sense of place influenced your writing?

A:

You’re looking at two places that are very similar in their relationships to margin and to center. New Jersey is to New York what Santo Domingo is to the United States. I always felt that those two landscapes, not only just the landscapes themselves but their relationships to what we would call “a center” or “the center of the universe,” has in some ways defined my artistic and critical vision. Both places are, as we say in Spanish, “sumamente” important for me.

Q:

Can you discuss the historical and political background against which the narrative of the novel is set?

A:

When I think of the first historical layer, there’s the layer of the New World, which is the colossal, apocalyptic violence that occurred in the Caribbean and gave rise to …slavery, the extermination of indigenous people, the violence of these early forms of capitalism. What were the early years of this thing we call “the Americas,” what we’ve now come to call “the American century”?

Then there was the history of the Trujillo dictatorship, which lasted 31 years in the Dominican Republic and was extraordinarily cruel, brutal, and often bizarre. Rafael Trujillo dominated and deformed this island country, which he isolated from the rest of the planet. What happens when somebody cuts off a country that already has shallow roots to its history, already sketchy connections to recollection, to memory, and seals the country off and forces it to live this kind of imposed delusion? That’s the second part.

The third part, historically, is the lives of my contemporary characters in New Jersey.

Do these histories have anything to do with each other? Is there an argument to be made that, in some ways, we are living historical moments simultaneously?

Q:

In your novel, there is an exploration of identity, of what it means to be Dominican as in: “Harold would say, ‘Tú no eres na dominicano’, but Oscar would insist unhappily, ‘I am Dominican, I am.’” Is it because Oscar is not, perhaps, what people would typically think of when they think of a Dominican? Is playing into stereotypes something you were consciously not doing?

A:

Stereotypes, they’re sensual, cultural weapons. That’s the way that we attack people. At an artistic level, stereotypes are terrible writing.

The thing is, you don’t cure yourself of a culture. You’re in a struggle with whatever rules the culture teaches you, and that’s a struggle that lasts your whole life. We know every culture comes with a prepackaged wall of clichés and stereotypes and shortcuts and specifications. You don’t cure yourself of that. You spend your whole life trying to make sure that you don’t duplicate these in a harmful way.

Q:

In your introduction to Drown, you quote Gustavo Pérez Firmat: “The fact that I’m writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you. My subject: how to explain to you that I don’t belong to English though I belong nowhere else.” In your own work, you provide an idiosyncratic mix of Spanish and English. What is your relationship to the Spanish language, and how involved are you in the translation of your work?

A:

The translator sends me each chapter. I go over it and make all of the corrections I think are worth it, and then I give it to this one friend of mine. She’s super-Dominican, super-picky, and particular. Between the two of us, we pretty much straighten out anything that needs straightening out. The actual heavy lifting of doing the translation is something someone else does. They can do that so incredibly fast. If I had to translate this book it would take me about two years.

Q:

Have you noticed a difference in how various generations respond to your work? Have your parents and grandparents read your novel?

A:

My parents and grandparents can’t read the darn thing until it’s in Spanish. They’ve got to wait to see what’s up. I’ve been hearing from a lot of teachers who have been teaching this book over the last few months, [and] they keep telling me that what’s fascinating is that it has gotten their kids and parents talking in ways that they normally wouldn’t. The parents are suddenly telling the kids about what it was like to live under Trujillo. I’m hoping that it becomes a two-way conversation because part of what turns a traditional reader off from a book like this is that they’re not accustomed to someone from a younger generation being the narrator of an epic. They don’t want to hear the hip-hop kid; they want somebody with nice, smooth British or Castilian tones. If kids are going to be respectful and listen to the stories of the elders, I think it’s only right that the elders have to be respectful and listen to the stories of youth.

Q:

You were in your twenties when Drown came out and now you’re 39. How has age affected your writing?

A:

What’s interesting about getting older, for me, is that all of the illusions of youth, the illusions of endless and boundless super-humanness are scuttled once you get to 40. You realize that you’re vulnerable, that you’re fallible, and that you’re human. I never realized how human I was until I started approaching 40 and things—aches that normally I could brush off—began to last longer. These aren’t bad things to know because I feel like, in the last few years, I’ve come to value, appreciate, and honor life in ways that I didn’t when I was in my twenties.

Q:

You’re only the second Latino writer in U.S. history to win the Pulitzer for fiction. [The first was Oscar Hijuelos in 1990 for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.] What has that experience meant to you?

A:

That very statement is a criticism toward the entire U.S. literary establishment. It speaks volumes on how certain kinds of writers are just consistently marginalized and undervalued. The other thing is that what success tends to do for any piece of art is to encourage and give permission—in a psychological way—to other artists to do the same and to do more.

Q:

What are you working on now?

A:

I’m working on a novel called Dark America. It’s a science fiction novel.

Q:

Does the Pulitzer affect your thinking about this project?

A:

It has no effect. I work so slowly and so onerously that nothing could get between me and my auto-torture. 

 

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