The Wondrous Life Of Junot Diaz

Author's Immigrant Roots Influenced His Pulitzer-winning Work

April 16, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic but has lived in the U.S. for 34 years. He is even more fluent in English than he is in Spanish. But he says there never will come a point in his life when he stops being an immigrant.

There never will be a time, he says, when he won't feel at least a little bit like an outsider - when he can stop being hyper-aware of himself and his own responses, or stop scrambling to make sense of the bewildering country in which he has inexplicably landed.

Immigrants are constantly constructing narratives in their own heads that explain the world around them, Diaz says. So, of course, are writers.

"There are similarities," he says.

"But is that one of the things that made me a writer? I don't know. I've become much more wary in recent years of how we parse the unconsciousness, how we explain the unknowable. So many writers are not immigrants, and not all immigrants are writers. I've wrestled with the question of what makes me a writer 70 different ways."

The irony, of course, is that some would consider the author himself to be the ultimate insider. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was widely acclaimed by the literary establishment and won a slew of awards, including a 2008 Pulitzer Prize. Diaz, 40, will read an excerpt from his book Saturday, when he is the featured speaker at the CityLit Festival at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

The sixth annual festival, which is free and open to the public, has probably never fielded a stronger lineup:

Mark Doty will read from Fire to Fire, which won the 2008 National Book Award for Poetry. There will be appearances by Liza Mundy and Barbara Seals, two authors who have penned biographies of first lady Michelle Obama, and presentations by such well-known local poets as Michael Collier and Elizabeth Spires. In addition, Baltimore Sun editors Nancy Johnston and Dave Rosenthal, who operate the Read Street blog, will moderate panel discussions about new authors and the future of the book culture in the U.S.

But it's Diaz's reading that's generating the most buzz, and with good reason.

Chatting with the author can be lots of fun. His mind is always probing, analyzing, wondering. Ask Diaz even a halfway intelligent question, and he responds with a cascade of words that moves fast and throws up spray against the confining banks. The stream of his thoughts is so vigorous that even when it branches out into the surrounding countryside, it doesn't detract from the overall momentum of his argument.

The author also seems to not censor himself. If he chooses not to answer a particular question, he'll say so upfront and then explain why in complete, even copious, detail.

It's not surprising, perhaps, that The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao isn't in fact, so brief (about 350 pages), or that the narrative voice is every bit as powerful and distinctive as Diaz's own voice. What is surprising is that those voices are so different.

The novel tells the story of Oscar, an overweight nerd who is fixated on video games and science fiction, and dreams of one day becoming "the Dominican Tolstoy." Diaz weaves Oscar's doomed romantic pursuits with the story of his mother, who grew up in the Dominican Republic during Rafael Trujillo's dictatorship and barely escaped with her life.

The story is narrated in a streetwise, hyperbolic Spanglish by Yunior, who is Oscar's college roommate and the sometimes-boyfriend of Oscar's sister, Lola.

"I made Yunior the narrator to solve a structural problem in the book," Diaz says.

"Oscar needed a foil, to have his life filtered through another person. That easily and cheaply creates a sense of community. And Yunior and Oscar are opposites in a way.

"Oscar is incapable of not being himself, and Yunior is incapable of not posturing and wearing masks. Oscar is incapable of finding love because he doesn't like himself, and Yunior is incapable of finding love because he can't let anyone get to know him."

The impetus for the story occurred in the mid-1990s, when Diaz was on an extended vacation in Mexico.

"In my mind, I saw this middle-class Dominican family sitting around the dining room table, which is something my real family didn't do much," Diaz says. "They all were looking for love while dealing with an anti-love curse."

Diaz came to the U.S. with his mother and four brothers and sisters at age 6. His father, a former member of the military police in the post-Trujillo regime, had come to America previously, working for several years to accumulate enough money to send for his family.

Young Junot learned to read in English, his second language, before he could speak the tongue fluently. At age 7, he mastered his first book in his new tongue: The Sign of the Four, one of the Sherlock Holmes novels. "I was one of those kids who had an incredibly advanced reading level," he says.

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