Imagine a first novel with a nerdy gordito Dominican-born protagonist who lives in New Jersey and is steeped in the geek speak of genre fiction and untranslated Spanish. A fan boy who dreams of becoming a latterday J.R.R. Tolkien and may wind up a 30-year-old virgin (un pecado mortal si eres dominicano). Add to this mix the unpardonable publishing sin: a title — The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao — with a “spoiler alert” boldly announcing Oscar’s demise.
Junot Díaz wrote this geek tragicomedy. And, as he told me in an interview weeks before its publication in 2007: “The fucker nearly did me in.” But apparently the fukú, the curse that follows Oscar and his family throughout the novel, didn’t zap Díaz. The book was anointed with heaven-sent reviews, mass-market bestsellerdom, a plethora of literary accolades including the National Book Critics Circle Award for best novel. In early 2008, Oscar Wao received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Díaz has been on a roller coaster ride since. A tenured creative writing professor at MIT, the barely 40-year-old writer spoke to the Current on his way to the New Yorker Festival, a fortnight before his upcoming reading at Trinity University on Thursday.
Is the Wao World Tour on its final legs?
It doesn’t look like it. It only seems like a
tremendous amount when you just want to sit home and write. I think it’s probably been 50 cities in the U.S., maybe 10 countries worldwide.
Has it affected your health?
It just made me never want to do an interview again.
Raising a family?
Not at all. Not even close.
Is the novel the direction you’ll pursue?
Well, I’ve never had — besides my first book — any luck with short stories. So I plan to stick with the novel for now.
Do terms like “Latino writer” or “Dominican writer” bother you?
Being a Dominican writer signifies very little except being connected to Santo Domingo, but it doesn’t over-determine who I am or what I write about. The notion that only the unmodified writers can represent the universal is absurd. My concept of a Latino or a universal writer is non-exclusive.
I always felt that the title story in Drown, your short-fiction collection, was underappreciated. It should be in every anthology of gay fiction. Do students discuss its ideas about masculinity?
You’re very kind. I have to say I rarely have anyone talking to me about it. Honest, there is almost an absolute silence around it. When it comes to the mainstream media and questions of sexuality, there seems to be a silence about it.
At the Dominican Day Parade in NYC this summer, young males appeared much more open with their sexuality than their counterparts in “Drown.”
I go to readings. I do a lot of work with young people as much as you see the difference in young people; all the generations have shared a silence to the story “Drown.” While many things change with each generation, there are still large-scale taboos, large-scale stigmas in Latino communities about sexuality that are transgenerational.
Odd, since the title of your novel is a play on the name Oscar Wilde, a gay writer. In Oscar Wao, the novel’s narrator Yunior keeps Oscar’s diaries under lock and key. What gives?
I think the reason as to why these two circle each other is that these two young men see in each other answers to profound riddles in their own masculinity. Oscar in many ways presents for Yunior a certain kind of public self-acceptance, which Yunior absolutely avoids. Yunior does everything possible to hide what he really is from the world. He wants to pass for a hyper-masculine male even though he’s everything but that.
Then you have Oscar who sees in Yunior the type of social facility, a social dexterity, the kind of accepted masculinity, the productive relationships with women that Oscar spends the entire book longing for. And I think that each of them sees in each other an answer to a profound fact, and Oscar and Yunior are perfect masculine foils for one another.
You mentioned working with young people. I teach creative writing to at-risk students. Most never read black or Chicano poetry, love sonnets, the Beats or Bob Dylan in their regular classes. How did arts education become an endangered species?
Look, the house is burning. The House of America is on fire right now. Nothing reveals a culture’s priorities more than how it acts in times of emergency. The economic crisis has made explicit how little this culture places on the arts.
New Jersey is often the butt of late-night comedian jokes — but consider that William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Bruce Springsteen, and yourself all grew up there — give us a shout out for Jersey.
I myself am deeply wedded to Jersey. It shaped the sense of my sensibility as well.
Being at the nearest margin to New York City had a remarkable impact on who I was as a person and as an artist: This idea that I could see NYC from where I lived and yet it was as far away as another planet.
Conan O’Brien can make all the jokes he wants with his million-dollar salary, but these are real people we are talking about. So to ridicule people’s struggle so that middle-class white America can giggle says a lot.
Are you ready to get back to writing — back to teaching?
I’ve been teaching this whole time. What makes it a little tiring is doing the two together. But again, it’s one of those things where plenty of people would be happy to have my job. So I don’t complain too much. •
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