Junot Diaz: His own immigrant epic 

Butler Visiting Writers Series resumes

In his way, Junot Diaz is his own American immigrant epic.

A first-generation immigrant, Diaz was born and raised in the Dominican Republic until he was six, when he, his mother and brother immigrated to New Jersey to live with an abusive father Diaz barely remembered.

In America, there was decay, disorientation; but there was escape through reading — through sci-fi and fantasy.

And there was hard work that brought early success. When Diaz' first book, Drown, was released in 1996 — a collection of terse, unsentimental stories about life in the ghettos of New Jersey and Santo Domingo — he was in his twenties. A national bestseller, it was hailed by many as the debut of an important new voice in American literature.

For more than a decade after the release of Drown , that voice was publicly silent. But it was a productive silence.

In 2007, Diaz published his second book and first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a 335-page epic that is, at once, a unique interpretation of the Dominican-American experience, while also drawing from the greatest of American literary traditions. Equal parts immigrant narrative and dystopic city saga, Oscar Waoresembles nothing so much as the disrupted, dislocated Faulknerian narratives of the post-bellum American South. Like the neglected ghettos he grew up in, the novel is also a landscape of hidden and overlapping histories and rhythms, of negotiated spaces between small victories and unspeakable tragedies.

I had a chance to meet and interview Diaz in 2007. The last time I saw him was at his book release party in New York, drinking a bottle of Dominican beer. He seemed ecstatic. Advance reviews were positive. The New York Times was pronouncing Diaz "one of contemporary fiction's most distinctive and irresistible new voices."

The moment's significance wasn't lost on anyone. The illustrious crowd, the shrinking stack of hardcover copies by the door — they portended great things. But who could have known just how great? The Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and The Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

I caught up with Diaz ahead of his reading this Thursday at Butler University, to see what he'd been up to.

NUVO: You've said you're a bit of a self pressure-cooker. Has the success of Oscar Wao been a release?

Diaz: In the end the way I work is pretty set, and it hasn't really changed [the way I work] or my relationship to it. I wish I could say that this has made it easier — or even that it has made it harder. But this thing is like some sort of granite, you know? It doesn't seem to be very mutable.

NUVO: Well, the writing itself feels very controlled. Does it tend to come out that way, or is there a long process of whittling-down?

Diaz: I would say both. I'm just very terse to begin with. I boil it down to the essential gristle. My characters don't exactly run at the mouth. I have to really work hard to get them to say a lot, to be honest. I prefer to write with silence than with anything else.

NUVO: Do you see characters like Yunior and Oscar as, in effect, twin vehicles for your own self-exploration?

Diaz: I don't think I'm ever conscious of that. In the end, Oscar and Yunior are perfect foils for each other. When I'm writing it's very unconscious, so you never know what the hell you're up to. But, usually me and my considerations and my concerns don't ever feel like they're on the table. They don't even get fed, they're not even at the little kids' table. They're certainly not at the big kids' table. Me, I'm probably standing in the kitchen scraping out the bottom of the bowl.

NUVO: Your characters clearly derive from your own experiences. It seems like the odds were stacked against you much of your life.

Diaz: I seem to be very interested in youth. I seem to be very interested in those times when we make these incredibly important decisions about ourselves, but without really any training. We're never warned, "be careful, the decision you make today may be your life." You know, I tend to be interested very much in kids from poor communities like Yunior, or even someone like Oscar, who's middle class. But definitely kids who feel like they're outsiders. I always call them "the yearners." They just long for a very different life. In the case of Oscar, he longs for a very different self.

NUVO: But in your work there are also much bigger forces determining lives — be they the Rafael Trujillo dictatorship in the DR, geography, or one's relationship with one's father.

Diaz: Well, I have always subscribed to that notion that life distinguishes itself by being that collection of forces that doesn't give a shit about what you think, or who you are. That's not always clear when you're young. I don't think we realize how really big and fucking grindingly indifferent the universe is. And that's basically the game we have to play. You're playing poker against the greatest poker player in history and you have one card. But, you know, fuck it — at least you've got a card.

NUVO: There's a certain apocalyptic tenor to that — does that realization inform the apocalyptic references in your work?

Diaz: Well, no, I'm just a person who's obsessed with that idea of living in one world and crossing over to the next. How our very mundane world can feel otherworldly. How catastrophe can in some ways transport you to another planet. I think that those are things that an immigrant like me, as a kid, was particularly sensitive to — you know, cataclysmic change. It's no accident I became drawn to these scenes, to these topics.

NUVO: Time Magazine called Oscar Wao "an immigrant-family saga for people who don't read immigrant-family sagas." It seems to acknowledge a perception out there that divides "literature" from "ethnic literature." How do you walk that line between remaining true to your roots and being pigeonholed?

Diaz: It's always an arms race between people who want you to fit into their comfortable, limiting stereotype and yourself. In some ways there's nothing more hilarious than the fact that we are a country comprised of immigrants in every way possible, and yet there is a fundamental bias against immigrant stories. I think work like mine is trying to literally take folks' hands and say "you may think you know a thing or two about how this stuff is trite and worn out and has nothing to say. But look here, it's only your bias and your learned resistance that makes you think that there's nothing to be learned from this."

NUVO: What do you do to break through those categories?

Diaz: I do think it does not hurt to be a person who is sort of familiar with a lot of the conventions of the world in which he's writing. I think I'm familiar with this convention of desiring to silence immigrant stories, desiring to marginalize them. I'm really familiar with the sort of literary ecology that places stories about white boys going to the third world and discovering themselves in the midst of people of color — that elevates that above the story of an immigrant kid living in New Jersey. And I think that when you know these conventions, when you've thought about them, they just provide new colors with which to paint, new records to spin.

NUVO: Your stop through Indianapolis is part of a short tour. What's the tour about?

Diaz: I was asked by three schools and one other place to read during one week, so it all fell into place. I think it's mostly a reading. There'll be a Q&A. In these cases, you try to keep it humane and short. I have a new piece, and I may read from that. It's a cruel thing to test some of your new shit on people. But it might have to happen.

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