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Junot Díaz

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.


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?


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.


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


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.


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


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


In what way?


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.


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


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.

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