Junot Díaz: the wao factor

Nearly a decade after his first novel, Junot Díaz produced a book that made him a celebrity and won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz. Photograph courtesy Riverhead/Lily Oei

Junot Díaz was born on New Year’s Eve, 1968 in a barrio of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. When he was six he relocated with his family to the United States.

Díaz grew up in New Jersey and attended Rutgers College, paying his way by washing dishes, delivering pool tables and pumping gas, then completed an MFA at Cornell University. In 1997 his collection of stories, Drown, about the lives of young Dominican-Americans growing up in New Jersey and Santo Domingo, appeared to rapturous acclaim.

In the May–June 2000 issue of Caribbean Beat, James Ferguson heaped praise on what he called a “sensational literary debut,” lauding Diaz for his “unsentimental tribute to the resilience of his own people, a people caught between two worlds.” Junot Díaz fans awaited his follow-up book. And waited. And waited.

It would be a full decade before the novel saw the light of day, but when it arrived in late 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was to confirm Díaz as one of the premier writers of his generation.

Oscar Wao is an unlikely hero, a crushingly overweight, pimple-faced Dominican-American ghetto nerd, desperately seeking to love, to be loved, and to get laid. The novel is also about Oscar’s family, whose lives are intertwined with the reign of the notorious dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, and who seem fated by a fukú, a sort of curse, to perpetual tragedy. The book won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the premier honour in American letters; the National Book Critics’ Circle Award; and a number of other prizes.

Díaz spoke to Jonathan Ali about Oscar Wao and its eagerly-awaited follow-up.

 

I remember always getting a wonderful joy out of storytelling. Whether this comes from my Antillean roots or from my own individual choices, it’s hard to tell. But I do know that the oral tradition back home is beyond powerful, so there’s no question that this was an influence on me.

I belong to a poor immigrant family that always pushed education. (Out of five children, three of us ended up in college and two of us graduated, which in our community was quite a lot.) But my desire to be a writer, to be someone who lived a life of the mind, was considered a bizarre thing while I was growing up. It was a desire, a faith, I had to nurture carefully, since so many people in my community thought it impractical.

This was so despite the fact that there’s a tremendous history of Caribbean letters. In the Caribbean there’s something about the stupendous diversity, the surreal simultaneity which is found there that seems to be a natural nutrient for the artist. In my own particular experience, I wasn’t exposed to that Caribbean literary tradition until college. My first Caribbean writers were George Lamming, Alejo Carpentier, Paule Marshall, Aimé Césaire and Pedro Mir.

The writing of my first book, Drown, what I remember is the loneliness of it. Living in unheated apartments and spending hours at a time in the library, familiarising myself with the short story form. Getting the book published and the acclaim that followed, that was a blur. I was already neck-deep in the trouble of my next book.
Why was [The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao] so long in coming? There’s a million answers to that question. The only real one is that I don’t know. Books take the time they take. The creative process, to me at least, is a mystery. I worked at writing every day all those years and the book still took a decade or so to finish. Go figure.

Oscar Wao is a novel about silence, about caesuras, about absences, about lost histories, about rape and domination, about jokes, about a thousand languages colliding into each other. It’s about a beautiful sister that runs away to a beach town; it’s about the joyful survival, the inventiveness and creativity of a people who were nearly destroyed, about people who were destroyed. It’s about a nerd who might or might not be cursed and his quest for love. It’s about a Caribbean family who buys a house in New Jersey. The novel jumps back and forward in time, jumps back and forth between the islands and the States. Instead of being a continent of a novel, it’s a shattered archipelago of a tale. Of course one is surprised [by the novel’s great success].  It’s been a long time since I published anything. I’m surprised and honoured.

But the success in and of itself means very little to me. I just want to get on to the business of writing my next book. I don’t know what I’m working on yet. I’m only starting to sit down at my desk. This is the last of these interviews I’m doing. Because for me, unless I cut the world off, unless I shut myself into the world of sentences and pages, nothing will get done.

 

What the critics said:

“Funny, street-smart and keenly observed…it unfolds from a comic portrait of a second-generation Dominican geek into a harrowing meditation on public and private history and the burdens of familial history. An extraordinarily vibrant book that’s fuelled by adrenaline-powered prose, it’s confidently steered through several decades of history by a madcap, magpie voice that’s equally at home talking about Tolkien and Trujillo, anime movies and ancient Dominican curses, sexual shenanigans at Rutgers University and secret police raids in Santo Domingo.”

 Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times

”Oscar Wao is more than simply an innovative work or a groundbreaking one. It is…where Caribbean fiction must go. This is a type of book that will make people want to write books. A work that divorces itself from colonial and postcolonial reference points and admits that we’re far more influenced by hip-hop, Starsky and Hutch, reality TV, Jay-Z, the card game Magic: the Gathering, Spanglish, dancehall and reggaetón than we care to admit.”

Marlon James, the Caribbean Review of Books