Junot Diaz: a truly all-American writer

Like his hero, Junot Díaz found refuge from the memory of tyranny and the shock of migration in fantasy adventures.

Interview,Maya Jaggi
Friday 29 February 2008 01:00

Like the "ghetto nerd" Oscar Wao of his latest fiction, Junot Díaz was an avid consumer of SF and fantasy. Wrested from the Dominican Republic aged six, and brought with his family to New Jersey, he found that only such fiction captured his experience. There are "historical extremes in the Americas that are difficult for the mind to grasp: it's hard to convince people the Caribbean was a 300-year-long Auschwitz. Migration is like having your house burn down with everything in it, and only whispers left of what went before. Yet in genres I found descriptions of these very extremes: endless genetic breeding; time travel; leaving one world and being miraculously teleported to another."

Still on the move and with a gym bag over his shoulder, Díaz is speaking in a coffee shop near his London publishers. He has an apartment in East Harlem, teaches creative writing at MIT (for which post he thanks a mentor, Anita Desai), and is spending a year at the American Academy in Rome, grateful for the cuisine, but homesick for his fiancée, a "big-time lawyer" in New York. Yet he returns every month to New Jersey, to the same childhood friends. "I've travelled far from where I grew up, but I'm still stubbornly attached to it," he says. "Migration was so hard for me; I felt I'd lost so many worlds that I didn't want to lose another."

His assured fiction debut, Drown (1996), spanned and recaptured those worlds, shifting between the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, barrio and ghetto, American English and phrases in Spanish. Its stories, linked by a narrator, Yunior, are tender and tough, often zestfully funny, and unflinchingly acute – whether on the callous bullying of a country boy with no face, or the searing hierarchies and self-hatred in "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie". Overshadowing them is a control-freak patriarch, as a car-sick kid is terrorised for defiling Papi's VW, and brothers are uneasily complicit in their father's infidelities.

Although his embrace of Spanish, or "Spanglish", often has Díaz pegged as a Latino author in the US, the reality is more complex. "African diasporic, migrant, Caribbean, Dominican, Jersey boy – these are my building blocks," he says. "It's more an interlocking chain than any one point." An American writer, in the true sense of encompassing a hemisphere, he was named last year in largely Hispanophone company as one of the "Bogotá 39": 39 of the best Latin American writers under 39. But his strongest affinities, he agrees, are with writers of the Caribbean, in any language. His acclaimed new novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Faber, £12.99), contains nods to, among others, Aimé Césaire and Derek Walcott, while his concerns overlap with writers such as Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat. Claiming kinship with the Francophone Martinicans Edouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau, Díaz singles out for scorn a misplaced attempt to link him to Dave Eggers: "don't these critics read Caribbean literature?"

Díaz's speech mixes street slang and "nerdly" words with as much ease as his often hilarious, mongrel prose. As for the strings of Spanish in his new book, while the UK edition of Drown slipped in a glossary, none was mooted this time ("they knew I wasn't playing"). "The opaqueness of some of the language is the point; confusion is part of the game." As for why the book followed Drown after an 11-year gap, Díaz puts it down to being "cocooned in depression" and aborting a novel "about a psychic terrorist destroying New York", overtaken by September 11. He writes "like it's an organ I'm pulling out of myself".

The novel is built on the idea of a curse, the "fukú americanus" or "Great American Doom", unleashed by the advent of Europeans in the New World: "we've been in the shit ever since". The fukú also welds the fate of Oscar Wao, and his family driven into "Diaspora", to the resilient brute who ran "one of the longest, most damaging US-backed dictatorships in the Western Hemisphere": the 1930-61 Dominican dictator-for-life Rafael Trujillo, aka El Jefe.

Since the Greeks and the Bible, "the curse was a time-tested narrative technique for connecting individual fates with the larger fate of nations and races. But it's also a very American preoccupation: was the idea of the Americas a blessing or a curse? How far is it possible to recover from catastrophe? It's a central question of the great American writers – Melville, Faulkner – as well as contemporary greats, like Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison. The two strands, utopian and dystopian, have been wrestling with each other."

The naming of the overweight, bookish, romantic Oscar de León, with his Elvish note-taking, "nerdly banter" and inability to lose his virginity ("how very unDominican of him"), has echoes of Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber", Günter Grass's The Tin Drum and Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda – as well as the "fat homo" Wilde, after whom he is nicknamed in a Latino accent. He aspires to be the Dominican Tolkien (his sister Lola would prefer Joyce), so the fukú is traced through his obsessions, from The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek to the power-crazed Darkseid of Jack Kirby's comics.

All is filtered though the self-serving narrative of Oscar's unreliable Rutgers roommate, Yunior. For Díaz, realist American fiction "tends to do little with dictatorships or the consequence of total power. On the dictator's hold, the basis of our experience in the Americas, you detect a studied silence. But in the genres, in comic books, it's all expressed. It doesn't get discussed on a rational, coherent level but in the underworld of our imagination."

Unlike Oscar, whose grandfather is jailed by Trujillo, Díaz's family was from "anonymous peasant stock: we're more typical of the historical silences this book works against". He grew up among Dominicans in a New Jersey neighbourhood that was "very black, very Puerto Rican and very poor", and knew boys like Oscar.

Despite being a smart bookworm, he was spared their vulnerability by his tough upbringing. His father, who had gone ahead to the US, had been a military policeman under Trujillo and his successor. Díaz and his four siblings grew up in a "household run by a man who believed in the creeds of a fascistic, military organisation; getting smacked around was the least of it". He adds: "My father was a trigamist; he supported three families. We were never not poor." Their poverty deepened when his father left for good, when he was 12 or 13. "My inexactitude probably speaks highly of the trauma," Díaz says, in a sentence that could have come from Oscar's mouth.

The novel, for Díaz, hangs on "how men view, interact with, and use women". Trujillo's regime is not just a kleptocracy but a "culocracy", built on the despot's nationwide droit de seigneur. Absolute power filters down into "Little League dictators" (as Díaz has described his father), and their notions of manhood. In American literature, says Díaz, "there's that Ahab-like preoccupation with the father, the 'American great man'. But the great man who shadows these characters is a nightmare. The greatest Dominican was a demon. You have to wrestle with that patrimony on a level of identity for boys: either come to terms with it, or avoid and ignore it."

Oscar's voluptuous and traumatised mother, Belicia Cabral, is a homage to Morrison's Beloved and Luba, the "large-breasted woman with a challenging past" in the comics of the Chicano Brothers Hernandez. But she is reborn as the overbearing Empress of Diaspora. "Migration gives a blank cheque to put anything you don't feel like addressing in the memory hold," Díaz says. "No neighbours can go against the monster narrative of your family."

Díaz is leary of monster narratives, including his own. Despite their seeming antagonism, he thinks writers and dictators have much in common. The novel is driven by Yunior's avowed love for Oscar's family, but "we never hear directly from them; he chooses the information we get". As a child of dictatorship, "I'm more suspicious of my craft than I should be. Being an author is always like being a well-run dictatorship – it's all one person speaking", pandering to the reader's desire for authority, purity, coherence. Even "multi-voiced polyphony is an illusion; behind it all is a colossal single voice". Yet for Díaz, whose prose bucks purity, "the saving grace, the sign there's no dictatorship, is the ultimate polyphony of the bookshelf".

Biography: Junot Diaz

Born in 1968 in Santo Domingo, Junot Díaz moved to New Jersey at six, where his mother worked on an assembly line; his father drove a forklift. He supported himself while studying English at Rutgers, and completed an MFA at Cornell in 1995. His fiction debut, Drown (1996), led the New Yorker to name him one of the top 20 writers for the 21st century. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Faber) was picked as novel of the year by Time in 2007, and has been optioned by Miramax. Professor of creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is also fiction editor of the Boston Review. He lives in New York and is a resident literary fellow until June at the American Academy in Rome.

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