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Novelist Junot Diaz Weaves Cultures and Languages

April 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM EST
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From the "Fuku" of the Dominican Republic to Klingon from Star Trek, the world of author Junot Diaz is a vibrant mix of cultures and languages. He discusses his influences and winning the Pulitzer Prize earlier this month for his novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Wao."
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JEFFREY BROWN: So it’s a small community?

JUNOT DIAZ, MIT Professor and Author: Well, you know, there’s about a million Dominicans in the New York City area, but people are still incredibly tight-knit.

JEFFREY BROWN: Junot Diaz’s world is a vibrant mix of cultures and languages. He spent his earliest years in the Dominican Republic, came to New Jersey with his family at age 6, speaking no English, but fell in love with books at the library, and eventually graduated as an English major from Rutgers University.

His book of short stories, “Drown,” won him literary acclaim in 1996. His first novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” was 11 years in the making and has just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Set in an urban immigrant community, the book follows an unlikely Dominican-American hero and several generations of his family, from the horror of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic to life in the U.S. today.

Now 39, Diaz teaches creative writing at MIT, but still lives in New York.

At one of his favorite haunts, a Manhattan bar called Camaradas, we talked about the raucous mix of cultures he grew up with.

JUNOT DIAZ: Where I was born and raised in Santo Domingo in the Caribbean is sort of a collision, a confluence of all these cultures, English-speaking, Spanish-speaking, French-speaking, Dutch-speaking. Even the Danes were in the Caribbean.

JEFFREY BROWN: Everything was there?

JUNOT DIAZ: Everything, every race. I mean, the joke of the Caribbean is that, if it can float, it will wash up eventually on our shores.

And then you grow up in New Jersey, which is another kind of — in some way, another kind of nexus of cultures near New York City.

So I always felt that, in my life, what I knew more was the sort of the mixtures, sort of the hustle of many cultures, rather than like the myth of one unified culture. I never saw that, never saw that.

JEFFREY BROWN: The central character, Oscar, is overweight. He’s not athletic. In the beginning, it’s made clear that this is not your typical Dominican stereotype.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, and like he’s really nerd major. I mean, it’s the kind of guy who can’t but talk in “Star Trek” languages. If someone is going to speak Klingon in a room, it’s going to be poor Oscar, you know?

I feel bad, but that is really who he is as a character. And it was part of the fun writing someone not only so extreme, but in some ways so unique.

JEFFREY BROWN: In some ways, this is a familiar tale, family, immigrant family. On the other hand, it is a very particular kind of family with a particular history from the Dominican Republic. Were you aware of the universal, as well as the particular?

JUNOT DIAZ: The universal springs from the particular. I mean, I always say it, but you can’t get around it.

It’s like you look at book like “Moby Dick,” a book that we considered a foundational text in American letters, and that book is so incredibly particular that it’s almost astonishing. I mean, it’s about whaling. And that’s the great American text?

Well, because it’s the particularity of it, the specificity of it, is in some ways what lends its power. So, yes, I mean, I wanted to write a book that was, of course, in some ways accessible, about families, about a nerd kid wanting to get a girl. It’s about maybe or maybe not a curse.

But I also knew that, by not eliminating the weird particularities of this Dominican family in central New Jersey, with a kid who loves “Dungeons and Dragons” and loves Jack Kirby comic books, that was the way into the universal soul.

JEFFREY BROWN: That curse, the — how do you say it?

JUNOT DIAZ: The fuku.

JEFFREY BROWN: The fuku that runs throughout the book has a kind of mythological through generations, and the book goes through generations. And one thing that is here is this layering of history.

JUNOT DIAZ: Yes, I mean, if you think about it, a curse is just a story that you may or not inherit. I mean, you can believe your family is cursed or you can say it’s not, but it’s literally just a story that comes in the family the way, you know, certain characteristics and certain traits.

And I was really fascinated by that idea, that like, you know, this is a book about this idea that you can wake up, you can be born inheriting a story that you had nothing to do with, in some ways, and, even more crazy, you have no interest in it.

JEFFREY BROWN: There are so many references to other books, and authors, and “Star Trek,” and everything. But in a way, it is kind of a book about books, isn’t it, as well as about contemporary life?

JUNOT DIAZ: Sure. Yes, I mean, this is — I will not ever hide that I’m like such an incredible book lover. I mean, the title sort of gives it away. The title of the book itself refers to the brief — I mean, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” the Hemingway story, and to Oscar Wilde simultaneously.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, you should say Oscar Wao is a form of Wilde, right?

JUNOT DIAZ: Yes, it’s a mishearing of “Oscar Wilde.” And so, yes, man, because, you know, again, the same way that some people allow things like curses to sort of shape their lives, they say that this is something that’s important, a lot of us have had books that have helped us shape our lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: And where did that come from, though? Because you came to this country — you were 6?

JUNOT DIAZ: Yes, I arrived at 6 years old. My family didn’t tell me why we came. In those times, adults were just like one morning, they woke you up, and they’re like, “We’re going to the United States.”

And there wasn’t even the attempt at a cliche narrative, like, “We’re leaving because of jobs,” or, “Because we want freedom.” Our parents didn’t tell us anything.

I think part of my desire and my love of books wasn’t just this kind of random encounter with them. It was an attempt for a kid who, in some ways, miraculously teleported out of one world and appeared in another that’s so radically different.

It was an attempt of me to understand where I came from, where I was, how I got there. I mean, they were maps; they were just maps. And I needed them, man, because it’s real confusing, though, to jump from the third world to the first world in the ’70s, especially from Santo Domingo to New Jersey.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what does the Pulitzer mean now?

JUNOT DIAZ: I mean, for me, it’s a tremendous honor. I mean, who would have ever imagined? I certainly wouldn’t have imagined. That wasn’t the way I dreamed that something like this could happen. I just wanted to finish this darn book.

And there’s something really cool about, you know, a Dominican kid, a writer of color, a writer of African descent, immigrant kid from a nowhere place in New Jersey, spent 11 years writing a book, and anybody who wanted to read it, and that anybody wanted to give it an award, it’s — I’m like, a, that’s great personally, but it’s also kind of hopeful for other people.

I mean, there’s a lot of young writers and artists of color and a lot of young writers, period, from the sort of backgrounds that people don’t expect much from. And I’m like, “Let me tell you something: If I can do this, they certainly can do it.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Junot Diaz, congratulations, and thanks for talking to us.

JUNOT DIAZ: Oh, thank you for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To watch Junot Diaz read an excerpt from his book, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” go to our Web site at PBS.org.