Sunday, October 21, 2007


By Gregg Barrios

Junot Díaz burst onto the literary scene in 1996 with Drown, a collection of 10 tales from the barrios of the Dominican Republic to the struggling urban communities of New Jersey. It later won the PEN/Malamud Award.

That same year, the young writer, who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, was featured on the cover of Newsweek (along with Oscar De La Hoya and Shakira) and named one of ten "New Latin Faces of 1996."

Since then The New Yorker has named him one of the 20 top writers of the 2lst century. He has since received a Guggenheim Fellowship and more recently a Rome Prize Fellowship. Díaz, now 38, is a tenured professor of creative writing at MIT.

A fortnight before the release of his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, he spoke from his publisher's office in New York City.

Q. It's finished. How does it feel?

A. That S.O.B. almost broke me. Books are not people. They are never late to the party. It doesn't make any difference, early or late, as long as you get it done.

Q. Are you going to kick back now?

A. I've kicked back enough. I am trying to work on a new book now. See where it takes me.

Q. Your mug on the cover of Newsweek — pressure or pleasure?

A. I can tell you that I do not believe any of my own press. For some reason, I seem to be immune to that stuff. It happens. I was just excited to meet Shakira. I was like Yo! That was the most important part of everything, but in the end it's not.

It somehow does affect the writing part of me and the writing part of me is already maxed out. In other words, there is nothing that could happen in this universe that could be any harder on me than myself.

Q. Junior is a marvelous guide to the de León family.

A. Junior is hopefully the biggest mystery of the book. He is omnipresent but he’s completely shadowy. There are really two things. Junior as the character and that’s the person that tells the college section and then there’s Junior’s narrative persona which is the watcher.

There are only a few that are me directly. I always thought the ones that were me were pretty clear. There is one about my mother that is direct autobiography, but the rest are Junior.

Q. You used a few elements from your non-fiction New Yorker piece “Homecoming with Turtle” and attribute it as it happens to Oscar.

A. That turtle busted my face up. I should get two or three mentions out of it. Talk about a singular trauma.

Q. I had chills whenever the mongoose appeared. What does the mongoose means to you and in relation to DR history?

A. The mongoose is funny because he’s my favorite character. He is the only real character. In the Díaz family cosmology, he’s the only real character in the whole book.

There’s a story my mom tells about encountering a mongoose. She was lost once so that in some ways inspired it. That character comes out of a childhood in the Dominican Republic being exposed to mongoose. And you see them and as a kid [but] you’ve never seen anything like it. They are extremely fast, extremely social, and clever.

And then of course you discover that they are immigrants to the island. There was something that pulled me about the image of another transplant - who is a really wild little trickster. In "Oscar," there is the actual footnote on the mongoose, where the narrator says that these could also be aliens.

I couldn’t explain it while I was writing it, but there was something about this family’s history that provoked an assistant from this mongoose character. It is almost as if because their life was so shitty, they are able to gain this luminous intervention from what might be an alien. That is what I thought was funny because some people have said, oh, this magic realism bit. And I am like, oh my God, it’s the exact opposite of it.

Q. Macondo versus MacOndo?

A. Right. But also magic realism in a very simple definition is like using the fantastic to describe the real, and this book argues that the real is fantastic. Which is very different. If you ask me [about] the reality of this book - this character is for real.

Q. The influence of comic book chingones Los Brothers Hernandez — Jaime and Beto — is very evident in Oscar.

A. You could say they were the secret fathers of this book. What I wanted to do was honor these Chicano brothers who had a large role in teaching me how to write.

Q. I was hoping for graphic art — perhaps a comic book based on one of Oscar's sci-fi novels. Is that totally off the wall?

A. Not at all. Actually part of the plan was to have a section where it would have been a comic book or a science-fiction story. But what ends up happening is that it was weird.

Every time I tried to write it, the book ejected it. Believe me, I had all these ideas. There were supposed to be dozens of comic book panels and photos throughout the book. Had I had the talent, and the book could have withstood it, I would have. Sorry to say, it didn't come together.

Q. Having Yunior narrate 20th-century Dominican history in a 21st-century voice makes it come alive.

A. The idea of history as a sepia-printed photograph is so wrong. I feel that any moment in history would be as crazy and illogical as our moment right now; and if anything, that is what they share in common. I think that Yunior's sort of rambunctious take on history is because he understood at some level that while it may not be the voice of that historical moment, it was the energy of life. And that is what goes wrong with historical pieces where people are trying to nail down the authentic voice that they sap all of life out of the moment.

Q. Two books about Trujillo or the Trujillato are referenced and critiqued: Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies and Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat.

A. Vargas Llosa didn't blow my bone although I felt that Alvarez, from an author's point of view, was quite good. It's, like, her best novel. But it would be really wrong to miss the fact that Yunior has a lot to say about a lot of things. It would have been unrealistic for him to spare Latinos of some criticism. He goes after everybody, especially people that he loves.

And that is what I think is really good. The fact that Junior references two other books even though he is criticizing them, he’s also saying – Yo! Go look at these books and make your own fucking mind up. That was the one thing I could do as a writer beyond what Junior is doing. I could open the debate up. It’s one thing to just do your own portrayal of one historical moment and say this is it.

Q. In places, Oscar is not unlike that other famous geek in American Lit, Ignatius J. Reilly in Dunces.

A. In some ways I couldn't have written this book if it hadn't been for my love of other books. This book is all about a reader's love. If you think of it just as a book of a writer's craft, it leaves out that it is a love letter to the reading I did my entire life.

Q. I was both scared and fascinated as a kid watching the Dominican Hollywood star María Montez as the Cobra Woman putting the fukú on those condemned to die in the fire mountain.

A. I have a DVD copy. That was the moment of utter hilarity. There was actually a much longer note on the Cobra Woman in the book that I had to cut out.

Q. They named the airport in her hometown after her!

A. I didn’t mention the Barahona Airport. You know María hangs over the imaginary of the Island. There weren’t that many people from that period who didn’t have their hands covered in blood.

Q. No footnote on my other favorite Dominican actor Rafael Campos who introduced “Hey, Daddy-O” into the popular teenage lexicon in Blackboard Jungle?

A. And you know that is so funny, because that’s another of those moments. What ends up happening is as you said, and as Rushdie says, ‘in the end the world will always outdo you as a writer.” I missed more than I actually put in.

Q. The fact that the Spanish in the book isn't translated or italicized speaks volumes about the way we Latinos communicate.

A. In the end you have to write for the future. Unfortunately, the only thing most of us know is the present. You have to hope the future has any use for you.

[A shorter version of this interview first appeared in the San Antonio Express-News. Photo credit: San Francisco Chronicle.]

◙ Gregg Barrios also kindly offered La Bloga an opportunity to reprint his review of Junot Díaz’s new novel:

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

By Junot Díaz
Riverhead Books, $24.95

Junot Díaz's just-published novel originated as a 15,000-word novella (same title) in The New Yorker nearly seven years ago. Talk about making a good thing better. The author has rewritten and expanded his tale into one of the most original and heartbreaking works of this year. It also signals the arrival of a brilliant new American novelist.

The novel centers on "the jones and the woes" of Oscar "Wao" de León, a New Jersey ghetto-nerd of Jabba the Hutt girth who finds no respect, save in the fantasy world of sci-fi books, films and games. He dreams of someday becoming a once and future "Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien." Actually, he is more in danger of ending up a 30-year-old virgin.

"Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody's always going on about — he wasn't no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy.... And except for one period early in his life, dude never had much luck with the females (how very un-Dominican of him)," writes Díaz.

We follow the sad sack nerd from lovelorn dweeb to college geek at Rutgers and on his trek back to his native homeland.

The book's narrative style shifts from the unreliable machista Yunior — last seen in Díaz's first book, the collection of stories called Drown — now a budding writer and college teacher. We learn he once roomed with Oscar at Rutgers at the behest of his sometime girlfriend Lola de León, Oscar's sister.

Lola, who during her punk phase appears to have stepped out of a Love and Rockets comic book, is now a gorgeous athlete and college grad. She also shares in the shoutout of Oscar's tale whenever she can wrest the MC mike from Yunior.

Díaz introduces an ancient curse to the mix — a fukú — brought to the New World by the Admiral (aka Cristóbal Colón). Five hundred years later, the curse intensifies during the Trujillato —Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo's 30-year reign of terror on the island nation.

"Anytime a fukú reared its many heads, there was only one way to prevent disaster. Not surprisingly it was a word. Zata. A simple word followed usually by a vigorous crossing of the index finger."

The novel chronicles how this affected the de León clan — from the torture and death of their abuelo to a near-death assault suffered by their mother Belicia, who later during the Dominican Republic's diaspora escapes to the promised land of Paterson, N.J., where the fukú ultimately finds her.

The appearance of a magical mongoose during critical moments in this family's travails harkens to the eerie monolith in 2001, A Space Odyssey. And no, these elements are not magic realism but actually real.

Díaz's style veers between the highbrow and lowbrow literary, and pop — he opens the novel with a quote from Stan Lee's and Jack Kirby's "Fantastic Four" and a poem by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott.

But it is the heavy influence of genres — the comic books and graphic novels — that predominate, especially Marvel and DC comics and graphic novels such as The Watchmen, which Oscar quotes chapter and verse, and Los Brothers Hernandez, whose tropical Human Diastrophism and punk Love and Rockets seem to have inspired the author.

He also engages in morphing Macondo-style writing with its rival McOndo style with pop culture references, which rejects Macondo's magical realism.

A good example of this occurs when Oscar falls hopelessly in love with Ybón, an older prostitute — MC Yunior can't resist taking a dig at García-Márquez's recent Memories of My Melancholy Whores and still end up with a McOndo pop reference to The Matrix.

"I know what Negroes are going to say. Look, he's writing Suburban Tropical now. A puta and she's not an underage snort-addicted mess? Not believable. Should I go down to the feria and pick me a more representative model? But then I would be lying. I know I've thrown a lot of fantasy and sci-fi in the mix but this is supposed to be a true account of 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.' Can't we believe that an Ybón can exist and that a brother like Oscar might be due a little luck after 23 years?" writes Díaz.

As in Citizen Kane, we never see or hear Oscar in the first person — only what his narrative handlers would have us see of him. One never quite knows what his manuscripts and journals actually contain since Yunior keeps them under lock and key. We never discover what Oscar's Rosebud really was — only the Tao of Oscar Wao according to Yunior to consider for better or worse.

Does Díaz pull this off? Is a degree in comic book heroes and villains mandatory? Is the ability to translate urban Spanglish glossolalia required? Does the reader need to have a thumb-worn copy of Dominican History for Dummies at the ready?

While this novel may leave some reeling, for the more adventuresome, Díaz's geek tragicomedy will both delight and astonish — with each additional reading.

This is the kind of writing from which Pulitzers are forged.


Gregg Barrios is an independent journalist, playwright and teacher. He is a former Express-News book editor. This review first appeared in the San Antonio Express-News.


Lisa Alvarado said...

Gregg -- Bienvendos a Bloga! Great interview and review of Junot and you make the case why Oscar Wao is a must-read book.


Anonymous said...

I'm reading this; it's a great book and well written!

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading the book. I loved it! It just made me want to read-up on Dominican history.

Loved it! I'm passing it on to a co-worker. Spread the word. The book was great.