Junot Diaz is a funny guy. I imagine him being the Creative Writing professor at MIT that all the girls have a crush on and that all the boys admire because he isn’t afraid to curse in the classroom. However, in the midst of his jokes Diaz is also incredibly humble about his newfound celebrity, which would lead me to believe that he is largely oblivious these school-girl crushes or his “cool” status as a professor.
On Tuesday February 24th at Benaroya Hall as part of Seattle Arts and Lectures current series Diaz read from some new work as well as from his Pulitzer Prize winning first novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The author entered after his glowing introduction from SAL executive director Linda Bowers immediately breaking any sort of uptight mood by leaning his face into his hand and saying “Aw, man guys.” He thanked Linda for her “super-long introduction” and expressed the fear that it, “creates the danger of more introduction than there’s actually writer.” The fear of that danger grew when Diaz admitted that he had been asked to read for about twenty-five minutes longer than he would usually speak. However, when he started reading from a new piece he’s working on titled “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars,” he captured his audience quickly.
The audience had read Oscar Wao and his new work was full of the same biting humor, the same stylistic choices, and even one of the same narrators. He drew laughs, and had a warm reception from an audience that was—let’s face it–mainly middle-aged and white. It made me stop to think about what it was that drew all these people to a book that switches back and forth between English and Spanish slang, tosses words like “nigger” in unapologetically, and makes enough science fiction references to require any non-fan to ask their closest Tolkien addict for explanation.
First, maybe one should look at the foundation behind Oscar Wao to decipher what it is that draws so many different people to it. Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the United States with his mother to meet up with his father in New Jersey when he was six years old. His main character, Oscar, has a similar experience and Oscar Wao has often been described as “immigrant literature.” Diaz points out, however, that not once in the work did he describe the immigration process or the tough years directly after. We meet his characters when they are already settled in their new life and though their immigrant status is far from gone, it is only one of the things that define who they are. In fact, there is no direct conflict with Oscar being Dominican; rather his problem seems to lie in not being Dominican enough. As an overweight science fiction book loving nerd, Oscar has trouble finding his place in any group of people. The loneliness and alienation that Oscar feels are the universal pulling points of this novel. On Tuesday, Diaz explained his belief that “you cannot reach a reader if you have not first passed through vulnerability.” This philosophy would explain why we get to see all of Oscar Wao’s characters at their weakest moments and in some way, we get to purge our own feelings of loneliness or defeat by sharing with the family in theirs.
Diaz’s novel goes beyond the story of a heartbroken kid, however, and also manages to assemble a sort of “People’s History of the Dominican Republic” within the book. Amidst the long footnotes that quote The Lord of the Rings there are page-long explanations of the history between all his characters and the violent, disturbed history of the Dominican Republic especially its years under the dictator Rafael Trujillo. Many of the things sound too horrible to be true and his narrator even admits that Trujillo “was Mobutu before Mobutu was Mobutu”, but some quick fact-checking reveals that most of the horrible things that Oscar’s mother remembers from her childhood or that remained etched in the collective Dominican consciousness did actually happen. The history lesson that the book tells is an eye-opener and one that openly makes the reader aware of how little they know about a part of the world that is still suffering from the after-effects of colonization. What makes it harder to learn so late is the fact that a lot of it happened with the quiet non-intervention of the United States government. At one point, Diaz asked how many Dominicans were in the audience and drew only a couple hoots from various points in the auditorium. Based on this non-scientific poll, I would assume that Oscar Wao gets part of its appeal because it colors in a part of the map of Hispaniola that a large majority of Americans haven’t taken a deeper look at since some brief high school geography lesson. In Diaz’s hands the Dominican Republic becomes alive. It is a loud, hot, colorful place that smells of the sea. But it is also drowning in poverty and depending on the time of the narrative either has the gloomy shadow of Trujillo watching over it or the corruption of his rule still writhing among the population after his death.
Story aside, any novel that’s worth its salt can also be looked at from the angle of language and Diaz’s work is an especially good book to examine. The language of his characters is real, but it doesn’t make the book fell less “literary.” He gets away with some of the more lyrical passages by making one of his narrators a writer as well as one of his main characters. Whether or not this is cheating isn’t really a fair question since a writer writing from the perspective of a writer is a convention that has been used in classic and popular literature alike. More important is the choice of the language in his work. When asked if he had considered including translations of all the Spanish in the book Diaz said that: “The road to evil for an artist is not lack of talent, it’s not lack of time, it’s not money…it’s approval,” and so when he is told something like “less Spanish” he pushes for more. He also explained his use of the word “nigger,” saying that “I have been called every type of nigger on the planet,” and followed with a long list of sordid sounding epithets. “As an author you have to ask yourself what do you owe or what is this relationship that you have with this word that has afflicted you your whole life.” He went on to say, “People only seem to notice when it appears, not when it doesn’t appear,” and revealed that only certain characters in his book ever used the word and only in specific context. The audience understands thin intentionality; they understand that beyond its frenetic Spanish and obscure references that Oscar Wao is a carefully constructed book. Diaz said that he is afraid that “the average reader doesn’t understand the deep architecture of this book,” but I think that he’s wrong on that point. I think that the book is popular precisely because people can sense the work behind it, even if they can’t quite point out all the strings.
Junot Diaz is a self-admitted unabashed book lover who created a book about a book lover that has come to appeal to book lovers everywhere. My reading was not so much hindered by the Spanish (taking it in high school finally paid off), but I was thrown a loop by several of the Tolkien or Star Trek references that are peppered throughout the narrative. Diaz made a comment about the Spanish that I feel is also applicable here: “As a reader, you know that encountering words that you can’t understand is not a malfunction of the writing. Gaps in a text are an invitation to community.” And he’s right. For Tolkien I turned to my boyfriend and for Star Trek I turned to my dad. Reading should be a community experience and for being a self-described “very quiet” writer Diaz has managed to make a book that people talk about with each other. “You spend a decade locked in a room and your dream is that you can at least connect with one person,” he said describing his experience writing Oscar Wao. In the end Diaz has successfully not only connected with people, but he has also connected them with each other, which is something that appeals to all of us—science fiction loving nerd or not.
SAL will be hosting filmmaker Mira Nair on Tues, April 28, 2009 and has added a second night with Naomi Shihab Nye for it’s sold out Poetry series on May 8, 2009.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is out now as well as Diaz’s earlier collection of short stories Drown.
Category: Books and Authors
About the AuthorRachel Chambers was born and raised in Mesa, Arizona and recently moved to Seattle after graduating with her B.F.A. in Creative Writing from Chapman University in Southern California. She misses the sunshine, but so far is excited about the atmosphere of the city. She loves to travel and counts Germany, London, Jamaica, and Japan among her favorite places to visit. She has a soft spot for dogs, especially bulldogs, and most kinds of cheese. Her favorite author is J.D. Salinger and her favorite magazine is Vanity Fair.
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