- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz in the New Yorker, 2000
- Dreaming in Spanglish By
- Questions for Junot Díaz By Meghan O’Rourke in Slate
Oscar was the end point (for me) of a larger, almost invisible historical movement—he’s the child of a dictatorship and of the apocalypse that is the New World. I was also trying to show how Oscar is utterly unaware of this history and yet also dominated by it.
Slate: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao isn’t just about Oscar Wao’s life; it spans the course of many decades and tells the stories of several people related to Oscar. The effect is of fragmentation rather than linear progression. Why did you choose to structure the story like this?
Díaz: I’m a product of a fragmented world. Take a brief look at Dominican or Caribbean history and you’ll see that the structure of the book is more in keeping with the reality of this history than with its most popular myth: that of unity and continuity. In my mind the book was supposed to take the shape of an archipelago; it was supposed to be a textual Caribbean. Shattered and yet somehow holding together, somehow incredibly vibrant and compelling.
And all narrators have a stake in the story they’re telling. In Oscar Wao, one of the questions that a reader has to answer for themselves is: Why is Yunior telling this particular story? One might say that for him the telling of this story is an act of contrition, but that’s too simple—it’s something else, I would argue.
One should also remember that in places like the Caribbean, which has suffered apocalypse after apocalypse, it’s rarely the people who’ve been devoured by a story that get to bear witness to its ravages. Usually the survivors, the storytellers, are other people, not even family. In the United States you only get to visit a sick person in a hospital if you’re immediate family; where I come from the idea of family is far more elastic, far more creative, far more practical, far more real.
This novel (I cannot say it enough) is all about the dangers of dictatorship—Trujillo is just the face I use to push these issues—but the real dictatorship is in the book itself, in its telling; and that’s what I think is most disturbing: how deeply attached we all are to the institution of dictatorship.
We all dream dreams of unity, of purity; we all dream that there’s an authoritative voice out there that will explain things, including ourselves. If it wasn’t for our longing for these things, I doubt the novel or the short story would exist in its current form. I’m not going to say much more on the topic. Just remember: In dictatorships, only one person is really allowed to speak. And when I write a book or a story, I too am the only one speaking, no matter how I hide behind my characters.
We’re in a country where white is considered normative; it’s a country where white writers are simply writers, and writers of Latino descent are Latino writers. This is an issue whose roots are deeper than just the publishing community or how an artist wants to self-designate. It’s about the way the U.S. wants to view itself and how it engineers otherness in people of color and, by doing so, props up white privilege. I try to battle the forces that seek to “other” people of color and promote white supremacy. But I also have no interest in being a “writer,” either, shorn from all my connections and communities. I’m a Dominican writer, a writer of African descent, and whether or not anyone else wants to admit it, I know also that Stephen King and Jonathan Franzen are white writers. The problem isn’t in labeling writers by their color or their ethnic group; the problem is that one group organizes things so that everyone else gets these labels but not it. No, not it.
Slate:Do you feel you have a duty to be representative?
Díaz: I’ve been asked to be “representative” for as long as I’ve been a Dominican. As a person of color living in the U.S. you’re often considered an extension of your group—individualism is hard to come by. So this is nothing new. But I’m just one person, writing about one tiny set of (imagined) experiences. Sure, you can use what I write about to open a discussion about larger issues, about the communities in which my set of experiences is embedded, but that doesn’t make me any expert on anything or the essence of the Dominican Republic.
- Author Junot Díaz promotes community activism, fight against oppression in lecture at Stanford
author and activist Junot Díaz encouraged people of color, undocumented immigrants and other minority group members to stick together and help each other during a turbulent political climate as part of his lecture Wednesday evening at Stanford.“We must steal fire because we must transform this world that conserves and hoards fire for only an elite few,” Díaz said.Díaz addressed the plight of marginalized groups and offered advice to those who feel oppressed in the current political and social climate in the United States.
“White supremacy is out in ways that I haven’t seen before, and I thought I’ve seen it all,” Díaz said. “We really need to fight in ways we’ve never fought before.”
Díaz encouraged students to take advantage of resources that surround them during their time in college.
“You must educate yourself in the system that you inhabit,” Díaz said. “This is a select college. You’ll never be in this kind of environment again.”
He emphasized the importance of connecting with other people in one’s community and building support systems. Students should set aside the competitive mindsets society encourages and come together, he said.
“We need to get in the business of each other’s freedoms in important ways,” he said.
Toward the end of his lecture, Díaz also offered words of encouragement and inspiration to members of minority groups who may feel scared and uncertain of what the future holds for them. He asked people of color to remember and honor their ancestors and the civil rights strides they made, and that every breath they take is a condemnation of colonialism and patriarchy.
“Each breath is the sound of chains breaking. Each breath is, in its own way, a revolution,” Díaz said.
- Literary Giants Junot Díaz and Toni Morrison on Their Unwillingness to Surrender in Document
toni—I always wonder what this country would be like with no African or black influence. Suppose they had never come here. Suppose there had never been the necessity for labor that pulled those slave ships. Suppose there had never been colonization of the Caribbean. Suppose the Europeans or the Brits had just done it on their own. What would the world be like? I can think of nothing that would probably be more sterile and more boring without the blood of the people who refused to not have their own art forms or their own language or their own way of being in the world, whether it’s West Indies or Mexican or just black people from all over. It sounds a little depressing: Can you think of what the music would be like without the influence of black musicians? In days such as this, the benefits—the huge benefits—that so-called immigrants or slaves have contributed to this country is enormous. It may be disregarded in some ways or maybe even made into fear in some places, but the fact of the matter is that it is the lifeblood of the country; it’s real, living life, and the blood that flows through our veins. That reminds me, by the way, of your writing: It’s so alive, and bloody, and sweet, and true.junot—This is the most recent excrescence of a very long, sort of vomitous set of policies and ideologies and conservative schemes. It’s so deeply troubling for someone like me, like most the rest of us who grew up in the public education system and who owes such a debt to public educators, to see this sacred calling be demonized and treated so cynically, and to be attacked by people who seem to be at their hearts opposed to what public education stands for. If we think about the arts and the role arts play in civic society, we’re in the same damn place. What’s the use of a public sphere in a civic society if our artists are not protected or treated well? We’re at the hands of people who clearly despise educators and artists and [who] view both rightfully as a threat to their cynical, cannibalistic manipulations.toni—This is repetition of what evil empires do: the burning of books, the killing of artists, the slaughters, the gulags. All of that is in the history of the world, but it’s interesting that one of the earliest things that such dictator-type people do is go straight for the artists, for information, and for intelligence. We seem to be at the beginning of that process, of the destruction of art, and honesty and truth is just melting away, at least publicly. The good thing, however, is that we are not alone: [look at] all those people marching for all sorts of reasons, going into meetings with their representatives, screaming at them. Something is alive and is refusing this control that I see.
- “He is a writer of fiction. He puts on masks for a living.”: An Interview with Junot Diaz in LARB
Yunior is one of Trujillo’s Children. All of us Dominicans are. We are as haunted by him as we are by our own selves. Of course most of us don’t even know who Trujillo is but ignorance doesn’t stop history from working on us. As we all know history often does its best work on us when we don’t know a thing about the past. Oscar Wao makes that very same argument — that the present dictator of the novel is Yunior.
- Junot Díaz talks Dominican identity, immigration and the (complicated) American Dream
“From the moment I could remember, it was made very clear to me that I was going to the United States,” he says. “There was already the shadow of the United States over all of our lives. There was a sense that the world that we were inhabiting, the people that we were connected to, the neighborhood that was more or less my entire universe, that all of these things would soon vanish.”Born in 1968, Díaz spent the first six years of his life in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. “La Capital” is one of the oldest cities in the Caribbean and home to over three million people. The country shares its home—and complicated history—on Hispaniola with Haiti. Christopher Columbus landed in Santo Domingo in 1492, making it the first city to come under Spanish rule. During this time, the country was populated by Taino Indians. Under Spanish rule, men were used as cheap labor, women were raped, and lands and resources were pillaged. The effects of Spanish colonization were so severe that by 1548 the Taino population had dropped from over 1 million to just 500.
As a result, the Spanish began importing African slaves to the Dominican Republic. The introduction of a new culture directly affected the country… “In the Dominican Republic, it was very hard to escape the sort of syncretic, Africanized Catholic faiths, plural, that are to be found across the island,” Díaz tells me.
Describing this faith in Oscar Wao, the author writes, “We postmodern plátanos tend to dismiss the Catholic devotion of our viejas as atavistic, an embarrassing throwback to the olden days, but it’s exactly at these moments, when all hope has vanished, when the end draws near, that prayer has dominion.” The Christian faith of our viejas, our mothers and grandmothers, is one shrouded in folklore. “I think that a lot of what I was raised to think of as Dominican was inflected by both religious and supernatural complexes,” Díaz tells me.
Reading Díaz’s books was the first time I saw myself reflected in literature.
He speaks a dialect I know, one born in the streets of Paterson, the Bronx, Washington Heights, a language born out of our diaspora. It is the language we learn, fluently, in the various American pockets we fill when we leave the Island—a mix of English and Spanish, that eclectic mix of “dimelo!” and “what’s good.” It is the bridge between our motherland and this land, a blending of two countries.
“I didn’t know what in the world I wanted to be. I loved books to death, I loved history to death. What was I gonna do with that?” At Rutgers, he found himself immersed in the works of Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, Gloria Anzaldúa and Toni Morrison. “I came of age surrounded in college by these brilliant women of color and their radical epistemologies.” Díaz would later name several of these writers as influences.
Díaz captures the tension felt by many immigrants. It is difficult to form one’s identity between two countries, two cultures.
- Junot Diaz talks about ‘living on the hyphen’One of the strange things is that as an immigrant everyone’s always trying to put frames on what your experience is,” he said, pointing to the fallacy that immigrants are more “conflicted” than other people. “This of course isn’t true. As someone who grew up with a ton of non-immigrants, I can tell you non-immigrants are equally [bleeped] up as immigrants,” he noted, drawing a big laugh.
People of mixed heritage, Diaz said, are led to believe that they “only get one shot at the buffet” in American society and must align with a single ethnicity rather than embrace the “simultaneity” of one’s identity, which can include multiple facets that are contradictory. “Instead of being a ‘half’ of something, one might be considered a ‘double’ of something,” he said.
If tomorrow we all died and all that was left of us was our television and our movies, aliens of the future would never know immigrants existed,” he said.
“In a country that despises immigrants, in a country that creates nonstop legislation to make immigrants feel not only stigmatized but also hunted; even if an individual wants to sit there and say, ‘I’ve never felt the lash of stigma,’ I can find a quorum of people in their community who would report the opposite.”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feeling pride about being from a margin,” he said, adding that we too often become fixated on trying to “sympathize and align ourselves with the winners.”
He described the theory of New Jersey-born artist Robert Smithson that while art is bought, sold and otherwise commodified in places like New York, London, Los Angeles and Tokyo — the “somewheres,” he called them — great art is created in the “elsewheres.”
“Only people with the marginal knowledge on the outside looking in produce the kind of art we need versus kind of art we think we need,” Diaz said. “New Jersey is the ultimate elsewhere.”
- On reading, fame and immigration: an interview with Junot Diaz
His novels, in the words of Obama, speak “to a very particular contemporary immigration experience,” and are “steeped with this sense of being an outsider, longing to get in, not sure what you’re giving up.” Here, Díaz riffs on his own feelings of alienation and discusses how, following an upbringing during which he was seldom the center of attention, finding anonymity is akin to feeling “mission accomplished.”Why did you become a writer?
I had a sense very early on that I wanted to be an artist, because I was taught that an artist inhabited a certain place in society that wasn’t predicated on approval. To my young mind, an artist’s practice had everything to do with exploration, experimentation and breaking silences. It seemed incredibly heady, very intellectual, and I was drawn to that deeply. I was this immigrant kid from a very poor and boringly troubled family who fell in love powerfully with books in ways that only the loneliness and the disorientation of immigration could explain. Reading was in some ways a compass and salvation. In that love I developed for books and reading, and in that curiosity and interest in this concept of the artist, I began to come together.
How does reading fit into your life now?
Some hungers never dull. Everything for me seems to begin and end with books. I continue to read frantically. It’s sort of like people who went hungry for a period in their lives. Their relationship with food is forever altered. They stock a refrigerator as if they were still going hungry. In the same way, I’m frantic about books in ways that I don’t need to be.
How does the theme of immigration play into your writing?
That might be the most autobiographical part of my work. For all my attempts to not fit in, I really do belong to my community. My books all have a central alter ego, Yunior, and he is simultaneously part of his community and in an enormous struggle with it. When I began to put that to language, as I was coming of age and in college, I realized what a wonderful curse that was for a literary character. What does it mean to be a member of the team and yet very critical of it? It’s a way of permanently never being at home.
Where do you feel a sense of belonging?
I often recreate and feel most at home with the community I grew up with—Dominican, African-American, working poor. Emigrating to the United States from the Dominican Republic added an extra level of consciousness, where there’s always a distance between where I am and the island that I still call home. My little brother was born and raised in the United States and doesn’t know anything about the Dominican Republic. He’s not any less complicated than I. It’s just that he only has one lens, though it’s probably twice as thick as my two lenses. My identity is predicated on the idea that there are two worlds. When I’m in one world, I’m looking for the second.
Where else do you see the immigrant narrative depicted in popular culture?
I’m always struck by how central an immigrant sensibility is to our modern experience. Even if we don’t recognize it, the immigrant narrative is important for our way of understanding the world. Recently, I went to a meeting at an animation studio and they showed me their slate of films for the year. Every single film was about a character who is in one world and is either transported or travels to another world and is forced to learn its language. These films all tell immigrant narratives, but that’s not something people want to be reminded of.
My dream in life is to disappear, to have anonymity. There are easier ways to get famous than what I’ve done. In spite of myself, I have received a certain level of attention. I think that everything I’ve done as an artist has been because I haven’t been able to say what I need to say or get close to some of the things I’ve been through—the family traumas. It’s hard to indulge fame when you grew up in a world of shame.