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Connecting Different Worlds

Junot Díaz’s writing draws on his Dominican heritage and his voracious love for reading.

From an ancient curse to warriors from the Star Trek television series, from The Fantastic Four comic books to life in a dictatorship, the world of Dominican American author Junot Díaz is a vibrant mix of cultures and languages. It is this original vision that has established Díaz as “one of contemporary fiction’s most distinctive and irresistible new voices,” according to The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani.

Author of the critically acclaimed bestsellers Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz is the fiction editor at Boston Review and a professor of creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Teaching is part of my civic duty, what I do to give back to a society that has given me so much,” he told SPAN in an e-mail interview.

Born in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, Díaz immigrated to the United States in 1975, with his mother and siblings, when he was 6. They were part of the wave of Dominicans who came to America after the death of dictator Rafael Trujillo. They reunited with Díaz’s father, who had immigrated earlier and was working as a forklift driver in New Jersey, and settled into a working-class part of town.

Díaz spent his first few months in school sitting in the back of the classroom because there was no one who could speak Spanish. “I knew no English whatsoever. But I was young and we humans are all about language. In fact, being an immigrant with no English made me very aware of English, gave me a special relationship to it. An obsession with the language that thwarted me for so many years seems to me like inevitability when viewed from the vantage point of hindsight,” he says.

When he was in high school, Díaz’s father lost his job, plunging the family into poverty. The senior Díaz later abandoned them for his other family. His mother struggled to find a job as she did not speak English well. One of the routes Díaz took to distract himself from the poverty and his tough neighborhood was reading. “I read everything. From Enid Blyton to famous Americans’ biographies to comic books to works of Hart Crane. I read everything I could lay my hands on. Tolkien to Tolstoy,” he says.

It was this reading that helped Díaz turn into a writer as a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “I didn’t start writing until I had read a couple thousand books. That’s all changing now. I have so many students who want to be writers and don’t read at all.”

For years, he sent stories to magazines like The New Yorker, where they were ignored. He finally received a response from Lois Rosenthal, then editor of Story magazine. “Junot just leaped out of the mail pile,” Rosenthal said in an interview with The New York Times. “His voice was so incredibly fresh and so powerful. I called immediately. I said, ‘Who are you?’ ”

A year after earning his MFA from Cornell University, Díaz was working at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals in New York City by day, where his job was to make photocopies, and writing fiction at night. He was at work when he got a call one day that his collection of short stories had been sold for six figures.

Drown (1996) was based on his life growing up in the Dominican Republic and in a Latino neighborhood in New Jersey. The success of Drown, he says, made him a real writer, in his own mind. “No other way of putting it. It transformed my life completely. More so than any prize or any subsequent success,” says Díaz.

All the attention, however, interrupted his writing. He struggled with writer’s block and spent 11 years writing The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—a Spanish pronunciation of Oscar Wilde. The novel about a nerdy young Dominican who buries his broken heart and frustration in sci-fi novels and Star Trek action figures was finally printed in 2007. It was worth the wait, though, winning critical acclaim and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008.

“I just wanted some people to read it,” says Díaz. “I honestly didn’t think much of the book. I felt like it had robbed me of 11 years of my life. I was NOT favorably disposed towards it. That it achieved this kind of success...I could never have imagined it, not even in my wildest dreams.”
In fact, he identifies writing incredibly slowly as one of his weaknesses. “I’m too critical,” he says. “I never give myself the mental space to just relax and enjoy my work.”

Writing The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was totally different from writing Drown. “My first book used the short story form to tell a larger novel-like story, but the pieces were still short stories. Manageable chunks of narrative that depended on me taking as much out of them as possible,” says Díaz. “A novel is assembled in a different direction—or at least my novel was. I was looking for ways to put more stuff in. With a novel you have to rely so much more on your instincts, on your intuition, on your unconscious than with short stories. Makes the novel deeper and weirder in many ways.”

Díaz has read a lot of authors of Indian origin and reels off an eclectic list of names. “Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Naipaul, Anjana Appachana, I grew up reading Amitav Ghosh and of course Vikram Seth. Ashok Banker (got to love Indian fantasies), Amit Chaudhuri, Kiran and Anita Desai, David Davidar, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Akhil Sharma, Rohinton Mistry, Shashi Tharoor, Ira Trivedi, I love Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August, Vikram Chandra…come to think of it I’ve read a grip of Indian writers,” he says.

Díaz writes in the language of immigrant teenagers, with a mix of English, Spanish and street slang. He does not italicize or translate Spanish words. Yet, he is able to connect with diverse audiences. Díaz says he has no idea how he manages that but he is “just grateful for this temporary communion.”

Asked whether he thinks individuals can successfully challenge categories imposed on them by society, Díaz says that whether we can or not we must try. “Collectives are always in conversation with individuals and vice-versa. That’s how both sets change over time. Collectives have a lot to teach the individual, too, and it’s not all negative and about conformity.”