Spend a bit of time in the book business — no, don't bother, just read a few litblogs — and soon enough you'll stumble into an evangelist for the story collection Junot Diaz published in 1996. Indeed, Drown delivered ten nuanced, highly original short pieces of fiction. Eleven years ago.
"I don't write enough," Diaz admits.
To say that readers have been eagerly awaiting his first novel would be an understatement of significant proportions. Finally, here it is, and — if you can you believe it — The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao arguably exceeds expectations.
Leaping back and forth between the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, pouring across pages in a "combustible mix of slang and lyricism" (quoth Booklist), Oscar Wao bridges several generations and distinct cultures with exhilarating doses of Caribbean history and old-fashioned pulse-pounding drama. Politics, corruption, romance, fantasy, faith, despair — the novel, as Diaz explains, contains multitudes. Kirkus, in a starred review, called it "a compelling, sex-fueled, 21st-century tragi-comedy with a magical twist."
A few weeks prior to his reading in Portland, Diaz talked about Oscar Wao, bright lights, dialogue that sucks, and the silences that draw writers in.
Dave: Yunior narrates The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, with contributions from Lola. Lola's mother, Belicia, is a force of nature. So why is Oscar the title character?
Junot Diaz: For Yunior, Oscar is the key that unlocks the whole family. It's his relationship with Oscar and with Oscar's sister, but explicitly with Oscar, that makes Yunior's involvement in the narrative possible.
The other thing is that Oscar is the last victim of the curse, so it made sense to me. He was the life through which I was viewing the entire family's history.
Dave: The first chapter starts with the curse. Fukú. The curse bridges old world and new, one generation and the next. It gives a cohesion to the various storylines.
Diaz: When I think about this type of curse, I'm thinking about my exposure to them in the Dominican Republic. They're ominous because of their ability to work generation after generation after generation, and I was always curious about what happens to a generation that doesn't believe in these sort of narratives.
Can a generation that doesn't believe in them really understand a generation that believes? Can they understand a generation that used the narrative as a way to understand its personal history?
If Belicia had been the one telling the story, the curse would have gotten a lot more play. Or not even Belicia; La Inca would be a more perfect example. Here you have as a narrator Yunior, who is more skeptical. He's conflicted and ambivalent about it.
Dave: Yunior introduces a lot of Dominican history, particularly in the footnotes. Readers need to know this stuff, but he can't help talking about it anyway. He can't separate that part of the story from the part about Oscar's family.
Diaz: The book in so many ways is about different kinds of lacuna, different kinds of silences and absences. There are so many of them in the book: characters who should be visible but are not, areas of people's lives that have disappeared out of their biography, important figures who in some ways should be more present than they are.
One of the big silences for the generation that Yunior belonged to concerns What the hell are we doing in the United States? People say, "We came looking for a better life." Beyond that bromide, there's an enormous amount of complexity.
It takes a lot for an entire community to uproot itself and move somewhere else. If you just listen to the individual stories, you lose sight of the larger forces that made it possible, or that made it necessary for a community to move across the spheres.
Part of Yunior's interest in the history is not only to fill in context and background, but also for him to understand why he's over here telling this story about two places.
Dave: He didn't experience Belicia's story first-hand, and she doesn't talk about it. There are lots of blanks for Yunior to fill in. He frequently depends on second- and third-hand information.
Diaz: Exactly. But that is nothing new. There's nothing new about telling a story with more silences than presence. That to me is emblematic of the Caribbean experience. More of who we are is gone than present.
And yet we still manage to pull together a culture, a self, a history. One of the reasons his narration is intriguing to me as a writer is because what bedevils him as a narrator bedevils the entire project of what we would call the Caribbean. He's in good company.
Dave: You leave a lot of the Spanish untranslated. Not long passages but words and lines. For instance: Coño, pero tú sí eres fea. That's a big line in the book, and you don't tell non-Spanish speakers what it means.
Diaz: I leave a number of idioms in the book untranslated, without any comment to what is going on or how they're working. Readers will have familiarity with some of them — they're much more familiar with, say, African American vernacular than they used to be.
Certainly the Spanish — and it's multiple Spanishes — could be difficult for some readers, but a lot of what I would call the fanboy or nerd stuff is equally important, and yet it's completely untranslated, left without any explanation.
In some ways, they all function identically. If you get it, you get it. The reading experience will, for each reader, present a series of unintelligible moments. Some of them, I think, people are far more comfortable with. People are far more uncomfortable with not understanding a language. There's a lot of politics and a lot of history that goes into seeing an untranslated line. I think the book lives or dies with how willing you are to fill in those gaps.
I've always thought this is a book you really need to read with a number of people. You could enjoy it as an individual, clearly, but it would be very rewarding to have access to all those idioms.
Dave: Yunior mentions in a footnote that Demon Balaguer appeared as a sympathetic character in The Feast of the Goat. I haven't read Feast of the Goat, but that contradiction — how this historical character is treated by Yunior versus how he was treated by another contemporary author — creates more murky, enigmatic space.
I might not understand a line of Spanish or I might miss the relevance of an allusion to a comic book character, but as I read about Trujillo and the Dominican experience my grasp of history is somewhat undercut, or certainly complicated, by the fact that another reputable book presents Yunior's despicable character as sympathetic.
It's another unknowable. I can make my own assumptions, but I don't know unless I seek more information.
Diaz: That's a very good point. The narrator bends over backwards to undercut his authority. He keeps saying, "We don't know if this is really true. This is my version of the story." In some places, he actually says, "I got this detail wrong, but I'm going to keep it because I like it."
It speaks to the way that even that which we think we understand is not as fixed as we like to believe. Even lives that we're really familiar with are constantly being revised. Yunior is looking for an answer, but he knows deep down that the answer is provisional.
Dave: Yunior isn't especially monogamous or faithful. In the San Francisco Chronicle, you were quoted as saying, "Most of the time [infidelity] is about people withholding necessary information."
If you're telling a story about yourself, on some level you're probably framing the narrative to suit your own agenda; and if you're telling a story about someone else, you're only working with the best evidence available, which is always incomplete.
Diaz: Sometimes I encounter people who get exasperated by Yunior, but what's fascinating about him, and sort of what you point to, why I'm attracted to him as a narrator, is that he might be withholding information from all the people he's dating but he's not withholding any information from readers.
Diaz: That is why he fascinated me. When he's a storyteller, he's honest in ways that he can't be in his life. In some ways that's his tragic flaw. Then you take someone like Oscar, who is completely honest as a human being but when it comes to narration Oscar couldn't tell the truth if his life depended on it. He can tell the truth, but not the truth anybody wants to hear. Instead, he's going to invent rocket ships.
Dave: But if he meets a woman on the street, his heart is on his sleeve.
Diaz: This book for me was such a long process. I wanted to be able to capture all of these wrinkles but still keep it very playful. Someone sent me a note the other day that said, "This is like Dominican history, New Jersey hyperrealism, and Middle Earth mania."
I said, "Yes, but there's one other thing, which is the exploration of these women's lives."
To approach the book, you have to address, at least at the minimum, these larger topics. What is all the fanboy stuff doing here? What is it about the history of the Americas that's so important? Why are these women's lives so central? To do that and try to keep it fun drove me crazy.
Dave: When Salman Rushdie was here, he said, "If I like The Simpsons and I like The Iliad, why shouldn't I talk about them in the same sentence?" I thought of that quote over and over as I read this novel. It leaps back and forth between high and low, serious and comic. It's a very different voice than the ones we get in Drown.
Diaz: Definitely. When I think about Yunior, the narrator, and myself, the writer, we were both rookies when I worked on Drown. You work on a book, but you're also working your narrative engine, fine-tuning it.
In some ways, the voice for Drown was absolutely the voice that needed to be there; at least I think that now, in the fullness of time. But for this, I needed a far more creolized, Caribbean voice, a voice that could be comfortable talking about the Trujillato and equally comfortable enumerating all the different minions of Sauron.
I agree with Rushdie as far as that is an aesthetic ideal — I think it's extremely important — but it was also the drive train of this narrative specifically. This narrator was going to have to contain, in that Whitman way, multitudes, and still remain alive. What I mean by that is that he still had to be present.
I was very much driven to find a voice that would allow me to do this all and not seem utterly, full-time ludicrous. It drove me bananas. Now I can sit back and say, "Oh, I'm glad I did it," but I nearly jumped off a bridge a couple times.
Dave: What other voices or narratives helped prepare you?
In all these areas, I was hearing people do that multivalence thing. What is it called? Hyperglossalia? I was hearing it. Even when I would sit with my goddaughters and watch them fluidly changing between Mundos, the kind of Latino MTV, to VH1 and the BBC News. Just watching them encounter all these worlds simultaneously, that was also a big help.
Dave: You were six years old when you left the Dominican?
Dave: What did you know of the United States before you came? What was the picture in your head?
Diaz: When I came over, when I left the Dominican Republic, it was 1974. No one had any access to TV where I was from. You went to the movies rarely. There was no US radio. There was very little by way of imagery of the United States. It's quite different now. Kids even in the poorest neighborhoods have strong images of the US. I knew so very little. I had no concept.
In some ways, my wrestling with this blank in my future was what started me down the road of an imaginative life. When I was a kid, I wasn't that imaginative. I thought of the US as a Dominican Republic suffering from gigantism.
When I first arrived in New York, what astonished me was the light. We arrived in the evening, and I had never seen so much light in my entire life. I had never seen anything like it. I still dream about that first night.
Dave: How often do you get back?
Diaz: I go back about three times a year.
Dave: What are your impressions? What's happening there?
Diaz: Santa Domingo is something like the whole Latin American third world experience, more marginalized than some places and less marginalized than others. I'm no expert on international political economy, but let's just say that until humanity changes in some fundamental way you don't want to live in a third world country. Unless you're a corrupt, military, political, or economic elite.
I love Santa Domingo to death. I go home as often as I can, back home to my community, the people I grew up around. I see how much misery is considered acceptable by the rest of the planet. That the first world thinks this is okay is really astonishing, that the first world thinks it's okay for the majority of the planet to live like animals — it's astonishing.
I see in Santa Domingo, of course, a number of different things. I'm acutely aware of the emiseration. I'm also acutely aware of how Dominicans like me, who live abroad and send money home, have transformed the country. There's so much that I couldn't begin to do it justice.
If I'm talking about the contributions that Dominicans living abroad have made, I'll sound like a positivist. So much has been done: hospitals, clinics, roads, schools. We've built so much with the money we've sent home, and that's so human and beautiful. But if I talk to you about our political system and our politicians and the corporate interests who prey on the Dominican Republic's weak institutional position, then I don't sound so positive.
I have a complicated view, I would think. But when it comes down to it, you don't pick the community you're born into any more than you pick the family you're born into. It seems to be one of those strange trajectories: we often love most deeply the things we have no control over. I had no control over the fact that I was born in the Dominican Republic, yet I love it so profoundly. It's bizarre. You would think I'd fought a war or something.
Dave: It's fundamentally you. You can never get rid of your roots. You could not love it, but you can't get it out of your system.
Diaz: That's very true. And in some ways, you've just answered your first question. Why is the novel called The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? I just think that Oscar is unintelligible without his family.
Dave: Families are central in many of your stories. I've read plenty of stories about a father who leaves his family behind, whether to earn a living or simply to start a new life, but almost always the stories focus on the family, not the father. "Negrocios" is interesting in that it tells the father's story, and more interesting still in that one of his abandoned children tells it.
Diaz: When I was writing that story, I was thinking of the reverse Odyssey. You've heard it done from the example of Penelope, but I was trying to write an Odyssey from the point of view of the son. The Telemaciad.
Dave: It's another story that's very much about silences and missed information.
Diaz: That's the last story I wrote in Drown.
That sort of narrative mode — again, when you're an immigrant, so much is lost in the transition, so many silences spring up.
The average American kid born in the US probably has an equal amount of silences, but he doesn't notice them. He assumes his history is inviolable; it's a given. What immigration makes explicit is how much families are hiding, how much families need to hide to remain families. It's a part of every family, but if you live in the same place it takes you a while to figure out that those silences are actually there.
Dave: What do you consider your greatest weakness as a writer?
Diaz: I've got a lot of them. My greatest weakness as a writer is that I don't write enough. Productivity. And I would say that I have to learn to be more compassionate as a writer.
Gee whiz, there are so many. It's funny, I'm sitting here going, Can I really say all these things about myself? I'll sound like the biggest loser in the world.
Dave: If those deficiencies are so easy to catalog, do you think that feeds what you call a lack of productivity?
Diaz: I don't know. I wish there was an easy explanation. Honestly, I'm probably as self-absorbed as the next person, but clearly I'm not self-absorbed enough to write compulsively.
Dave: You're no Oscar.
Diaz: I'm no Oscar. But he does it, in some ways, because he's not given any other choice in his life. I wonder, if Oscar had been popular with the girls would he have written?
But I'm rather hard on myself. I'm always looking to do something new. Even if Oscar Wao feels like more of the same, I felt like I was struggling with a whole new set of issues.
Dave: I should let you go after one more question —
Diaz: — Oh, I suck at dialogue.
Dave: You suck at dialogue?
Diaz: Definitely. If I were better at dialogue, I'd probably be walking around with a fur coat.
Dave: That's interesting. I don't feel like that's the case, having just read both of your books.
Diaz: Okay, it's just me. See? I'm probably the problem.
Dave: No, but it's curious. Yunior's narrative voice in Oscar Wao is very first-person. It's a voice full of rhythm, of natural speech patterns, idioms.
Diaz: But it took so long to do that. That's more a product of very hard work than any skill. Certainly I wanted that voice to come off as fluid, but I'm sure there are people out there for whom this stuff comes easy. For me, this is the product of thirty rewrites.
It's funny because this is a voice you would never think is heavily rewritten. But this voice cost me more than you would know.
Dave: It works.
Diaz: I'm glad. I'm very glad that people are enjoying it. There's no lie. It was an incredibly difficult process. The book is supposed to be there as a piece of art, to move people, so if anyone gets moved I'm excited.
Dave: You mentioned earlier that Oscar Wao tells the story of three women, and how that's somewhat ironic given the narrator's problems with relationships.
Diaz: Yunior clearly has these very fucked up views of women, then he turns around and helps narrate these fundamental stories about the women in Oscar's life. I thought that was a great source of hilarity in the book. Yunior can tell a better story about women than he can live.
Dave: The difference between saying and doing. As you said before, he's honest in ways that he can't be in his life.
Diaz: Maybe it's true for any artist, but I think writers are drawn toward silences, if only because we want to do something new and we want to fill in a space that no one has before.
With Belicia, I wanted to write what I felt was a Dominican woman I had grown up with. I felt that no one had been writing about this kind of woman. In some ways she was the heart of the book. As much as I wanted to write a weird, wild character like Oscar, I felt like Belicia, too, meant a lot. In the Dominican community, there are so many Belicias out there, but they haven't really been written about. I was drawn to that silence, too.
Dave: I didn't expect her to be such a big part of the story. It only becomes apparent gradually how big a role she plays, and I think the book's more effective for that. The build up.
Diaz: You want people to be surprised. I've had some reactions from guys who don't want to read stories about women, and they were really disappointed. They were like, "I thought this was going to be about guys!" I laughed.
That's not how the world is. It's only in science fiction where you get a universe with just men in it. Or in the US Senate.
Junot Diaz spoke by telephone from his New York home on August 19, 2007. Listening to him pronouce the Spanish I'd been butchering in my head over hundreds of pages was an education in itself, a bit like hearing a song for the first time after a tone deaf friend tried to whistle it for you. Meet Diaz at Powell's City of Books on Tuesday, September 25.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State