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Spend a bit of time in the book business ² no, don't bother, just readafewlitblogs ² and soon enough you'll stumble into an evangelist for the story collection JunotDíaz published in 1996. Indeed, Drown delivered ten nuanced, highly original short pieces of fiction. Eleven years ago. "I don't write enough," Díaz admits. To say that readers have been eagerly awaiting his first novel would be an understatement of significant proportions. Finally, here it is, and ² if you can you believe it ² 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" (quothBooklist), 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 ² the novel, as Díaz 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, Díaz 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? JunotDíaz: 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. Díaz: 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.
Here you have as a narrator Yunior. More of who we are is gone than present. the curse would have gotten a lot more play. a self. Readers need to know this stuff. and she doesn't talk about it. If you just listen to the individual stories. perotúsíeresfea. and you don't tell nonSpanish speakers what it means. But that is nothing new. but also for him to understand why he's over here telling this story about two places. There are so many of them in the book: characters who should be visible but are not. you lose sight of the larger forces that made it possible. Or not even Belicia. And yet we still manage to pull together a culture. Part of Yunior's interest in the history is not only to fill in context and background. For instance: Coño.and third-hand information. or that made it necessary for a community to move across the spheres. a history. Dave:Yunior introduces a lot of Dominican history. He's conflicted and ambivalent about it. There's nothing new about telling a story with more silences than presence. there's an enormous amount of complexity. different kinds of silences and absences." Beyond that bromide. Not long passages but words and lines. but he can't help talking about it anyway. Dave: You leave a lot of the Spanish untranslated. It takes a lot for an entire community to uproot itself and move somewhere else. . He's in good company. That's a big line in the book. "We came looking for a better life. who is more skeptical. Dave: He didn't experience Belicia's story first-hand. Díaz: Exactly. particularly in the footnotes. He frequently depends on second. Díaz: The book in so many ways is about different kinds of lacuna.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. important figures who in some ways should be more present than they are. 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. areas of people's lives that have disappeared out of their biography. La Inca would be a more perfect example. He can't separate that part of the story from the part about Oscar's family. There are lots of blanks for Yunior to fill in. That to me is emblematic of the Caribbean experience. 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.
Even lives that we're really familiar with are constantly being revised. African American vernacular than they used to be. but he knows deep down that the answer is provisional. by the fact that another reputable book presents Yunior's despicable character as sympathetic. or certainly complicated. I might not understand a line of Spanish or I might miss the relevance of an allusion to a comic book character. Dave:Yunior mentions in a footnote that Demon Balaguer appeared as a sympathetic character in The Feast of the Goat. say. for each reader. you get it. enigmatic space." . "I got this detail wrong. He keeps saying. The reading experience will. Some of them. I can make my own assumptions. he actually says. This is my version of the story." It speaks to the way that even that which we think we understand is not as fixed as we like to believe. left without any explanation. present a series of unintelligible moments. they all function identically. I think. I haven't read Feast of the Goat. clearly. Certainly the Spanish ² and it's multiple Spanishes ² could be difficult for some readers. In the San Francisco Chronicle. "We don't know if this is really true. Díaz: That's a very good point. Yunior is looking for an answer. people are far more comfortable with. you were quoted as saying. The narrator bends over backwards to undercut his authority." In some places.Díaz: I leave a number of idioms in the book untranslated. It's another unknowable. but a lot of what I would call the fanboy or nerd stuff is equally important. Readers will have familiarity with some of them ² they're much more familiar with. I think the book lives or dies with how willing you are to fill in those gaps. There's a lot of politics and a lot of history that goes into seeing an untranslated line. but I don't know unless I seek more information. "Most of the time [infidelity] is about people withholding necessary information. Dave:Yunior isn't especially monogamous or faithful. but it would be very rewarding to have access to all those idioms. I've always thought this is a book you really need to read with a number of people. but as I read about Trujillo and the Dominican experience my grasp of history is somewhat undercut. In some ways. You could enjoy it as an individual. but I'm going to keep it because I like it. People are far more uncomfortable with not understanding a language. but that contradiction ² how this historical character is treated by Yunior versus how he was treated by another contemporary author ² creates more murky. without any comment to what is going on or how they're working. and yet it's completely untranslated. If you get it.
Caribbean voice. fine-tuning it. "Yes. Dave: But if he meets a woman on the street. 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. and Middle Earth mania. but you're also working your narrative engine. in the fullness of time. and if you're telling a story about someone else. we were both rookies when I worked on Drown. you have to address. He can tell the truth. Díaz: That is why he fascinated me. New Jersey hyperrealism. "If I like The Simpsons and I like The Iliad. In some ways that's his tragic flaw. Díaz: This book for me was such a long process. Then you take someone like Oscar. In some ways. a voice that could be comfortable talking about the Trujillato and equally comfortable enumerating all the different minions of Sauron. you're only working with the best evidence available. which is the exploration of these women's lives. why I'm attracted to him as a narrator. the narrator." To approach the book. I agree with Rushdie as far as that is an aesthetic ideal ² I think it's extremely important ² but it was also the drive train of this narrative specifically. It leaps back and forth between high and low. the voice for Drown was absolutely the voice that needed to be there. This narrator was going to have . 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. on some level you're probably framing the narrative to suit your own agenda. but there's one other thing. "This is like Dominican history. why shouldn't I talk about them in the same sentence?" I thought of that quote over and over as I read this novel. You work on a book. I wanted to be able to capture all of these wrinkles but still keep it very playful. his heart is on his sleeve. Díaz: Definitely. But for this. Dave: Right. I needed a far more creolized. It's a very different voice than the ones we get in Drown. he said. and sort of what you point to. he's going to invent rocket ships. these larger topics. When he's a storyteller. at least at the minimum. serious and comic. Dave: When Salman Rushdie was here. Instead." I said. but what's fascinating about him. which is always incomplete. the writer. but not the truth anybody wants to hear. at least I think that now. Someone sent me a note the other day that said. Díaz: Sometimes I encounter people who get exasperated by Yunior. When I think about Yunior. and myself.If you're telling a story about yourself. is that he might be withholding information from all the people he's dating but he's not withholding any information from readers. he's honest in ways that he can't be in his life.
Dave: How often do you get back? Díaz: I go back about three times a year. What is it called? Hyperglossalia? I was hearing it. I had never seen anything like it. What I mean by that is that he still had to be present. No one had any access to TV where I was from. I knew so very little. Just watching them encounter all these worlds simultaneously. what astonished me was the light. who wrote Texaco. It drove me bananas. I still dream about that first night. I had no concept. He writes in French. Now I can sit back and say. "Oh. it was 1974. There was very little by way of imagery of the United States." but I nearly jumped off a bridge a couple times. and still remain alive. full-time ludicrous. to VH1 and the BBC News. I was very much driven to find a voice that would allow me to do this all and not seem utterly. It's quite different now. I thought of the US as a Dominican Republic suffering from gigantism. There was no US radio. when I left the Dominican Republic. and I had never seen so much light in my entire life. I'm glad I did it. Dave: What other voices or narratives helped prepare you? Díaz:Patrick Chamoiseau. Kids even in the poorest neighborhoods have strong images of the US. We arrived in the evening. Even when I would sit with my goddaughters and watch them fluidly changing between Mundos. When I first arrived in New York. You went to the movies rarely. my wrestling with this blank in my future was what started me down the road of an imaginative life. In some ways. How does this work? How do we think about it? In all these areas. in that Whitman way. Dave: You were six years old when you left the Dominican? Díaz: Yes.to contain. is a really brilliant writer. the kind of Latino MTV. that was also a big help. multitudes. I wasn't that imaginative. His voice was a great guide for me. When I was a kid. Dave: What are your impressions? What's happening there? . Dave: What did you know of the United States before you came? What was the picture in your head? Díaz: When I came over. I was hearing people do that multivalence thing.
and more interesting still in that one of his abandoned children tells it. more marginalized than some places and less marginalized than others. And in some ways. I have a complicated view. We've built so much with the money we've sent home. whether to earn a living or simply to start a new life. political. That the first world thinks this is okay is really astonishing. I'll sound like a positivist. . but almost always the stories focus on the family. schools. have transformed the country. Why is the novel called The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? I just think that Oscar is unintelligible without his family. not the father.Díaz: Santa Domingo is something like the whole Latin American third world experience. You would think I'd fought a war or something. You could not love it. There's so much that I couldn't begin to do it justice. or economic elite. but let's just say that until humanity changes in some fundamental way you don't want to live in a third world country. clinics. roads. So much has been done: hospitals. 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. who live abroad and send money home. but I was trying to write an Odyssey from the point of view of the son. I've read plenty of stories about a father who leaves his family behind. Unless you're a corrupt. yet I love it so profoundly. 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. a number of different things. You can never get rid of your roots. I would think. that the first world thinks it's okay for the majority of the planet to live like animals ² it's astonishing. I'm no expert on international political economy. Dave: It's another story that's very much about silences and missed information. "Negrocios" is interesting in that it tells the father's story. military. Díaz: That's very true. you've just answered your first question. The Telemaciad. you don't pick the community you're born into any more than you pick the family you're born into. then I don't sound so positive. I love Santa Domingo to death. If I'm talking about the contributions that Dominicans living abroad have made. I go home as often as I can. I'm acutely aware of the emiseration. Dave: It's fundamentally you. I'm also acutely aware of how Dominicans like me. but you can't get it out of your system. Dave: Families are central in many of your stories. You've heard it done from the example of Penelope. of course. I had no control over the fact that I was born in the Dominican Republic. It seems to be one of those strange trajectories: we often love most deeply the things we have no control over. I was thinking of the reverse Odyssey. I see in Santa Domingo. But when it comes down to it. It's bizarre. Díaz: When I was writing that story.
Productivity. but if you live in the same place it takes you a while to figure out that those silences are actually there. in some ways. He assumes his history is inviolable. I'm always looking to do something new. That sort of narrative mode ² again. Dave: You suck at dialogue? Díaz: Definitely. And I would say that I have to learn to be more compassionate as a writer. having just read both of your books. Honestly. Dave: I should let you go after one more question ² Díaz: ² Oh. Can I really say all these things about myself? I'll sound like the biggest loser in the world. how much families need to hide to remain families. Gee whiz. because he's not given any other choice in his life. I wish there was an easy explanation. so much is lost in the transition. Díaz: I'm no Oscar. Dave: That's interesting. there are so many. do you think that feeds what you call a lack of productivity? Díaz: I don't know. it's a given. I don't feel like that's the case. If I were better at dialogue. The average American kid born in the US probably has an equal amount of silences. Dave: If those deficiencies are so easy to catalog. when you're an immigrant. but he doesn't notice them. I'm probably as selfabsorbed as the next person. What immigration makes explicit is how much families are hiding. .Díaz: That's the last story I wrote in Drown. I'm sitting here going. Dave: What do you consider your greatest weakness as a writer? Díaz: I've got a lot of them. I wonder. It's a part of every family. But he does it. Dave: You're no Oscar. My greatest weakness as a writer is that I don't write enough. so many silences spring up. but clearly I'm not self-absorbed enough to write compulsively. I suck at dialogue. Even if Oscar Wao feels like more of the same. I felt like I was struggling with a whole new set of issues. It's funny. I'd probably be walking around with a fur coat. if Oscar had been popular with the girls would he have written? But I'm rather hard on myself.
They were like. to move people. The book is supposed to be there as a piece of art. For me. and they were really disappointed. Díaz: You want people to be surprised. Díaz: But it took so long to do that. he's honest in ways that he can't be in his life. Díaz:Yunior clearly has these very fucked up views of women. Díaz: Maybe it's true for any artist.Díaz: Okay. Yunior can tell a better story about women than he can live. Certainly I wanted that voice to come off as fluid. With Belicia. It's funny because this is a voice you would never think is heavily rewritten. As much as I wanted to write a weird. but they haven't really been written about. It's a voice full of rhythm. In some ways she was the heart of the book. Dave: I didn't expect her to be such a big part of the story. "I thought this was going to be about guys!" I laughed. and how that's somewhat ironic given the narrator's problems with relationships. I was drawn to that silence. too. Dave: You mentioned earlier that Oscar Wao tells the story of three women. But this voice cost me more than you would know. . wild character like Oscar. then he turns around and helps narrate these fundamental stories about the women in Oscar's life. There's no lie. I felt that no one had been writing about this kind of woman. so if anyone gets moved I'm excited. and I think the book's more effective for that. I thought that was a great source of hilarity in the book. if only because we want to do something new and we want to fill in a space that no one has before. In the Dominican community. Dave: The difference between saying and doing. meant a lot. As you said before. it's just me. I wanted to write what I felt was a Dominican woman I had grown up with. That's more a product of very hard work than any skill. See? I'm probably the problem. Díaz: I'm glad. Dave: It works. idioms. but I think writers are drawn toward silences. I felt like Belicia. this is the product of thirty rewrites. there are so many Belicias out there. I'm very glad that people are enjoying it. but I'm sure there are people out there for whom this stuff comes easy. It was an incredibly difficult process. It only becomes apparent gradually how big a role she plays. of natural speech patterns. too. but it's curious. I've had some reactions from guys who don't want to read stories about women. Dave: No. The build up. Yunior's narrative voice in Oscar Wao is very first-person.
Or in the US Senate. It's only in science fiction where you get a universe with just men in it. a bit like hearing a song for the first time after a tone deaf friend tried to whistle it for you. September 25. Listening to him pronouce the Spanish I'd been butchering in my head over hundreds of pages was an education in itself. Meet Díaz at Powell's City of Books on Tuesday. .That's not how the world is. 2007. Junot Diaz spoke by telephone from his New York home on August 19.
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