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The Outsider Is In: An Immigrant's Stories

"My nerd part was my secret identity," Junot D¿az says of growing up in a macho culture. This duality informs his new novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

NEW YORK

Understanding the immigration experience may be impossible if you haven't been through it. But it helps to hear Junot Díaz talk about classified ads.

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Díaz is the author of "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," a novel published early this month to immediate acclaim. He's sitting in the lobby of the venerable Algonquin Hotel trying to describe how it felt to be a 6-year-old kid from the Dominican Republic plunked down in New Jersey in 1974, at "the end of one world, the beginning of another."

He didn't speak much English for years -- out of stubborn-mindedness, perhaps, or a child's sensitivity to ridicule -- but he started reading it pretty much right away. By the time he was 9, he was compulsively consuming newspaper classified pages. They were, he says, "a window into a world I had no access to."

One day that window opened just a crack.

Someone had placed an ad offering free books. Díaz called and reached an elderly woman who lived maybe four miles from his house. "I have 500 books and I don't want to throw them away," she told him. "If you can get over here and get them, you can have them."

No adult in his life would have cared that he wanted those books, so being driven to pick them up was out. But he realized that if he took a shopping cart and made three or four trips, he could get them all.

"That was the first time I found 'The Borrowers,' " he says, referring to Mary Norton's children's classic about unseen, Lilliputian-scale people who live by "borrowing" from normal-size humans. Other favorites from this unlikely trove were titles by explorer and naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews, "the guy who went to Mongolia and found the dinosaur eggs" -- Díaz still dreams of traveling to Mongolia himself -- and a variety of "books for young people, like 'On Hygiene.' Great stuff!"

He had a problem, however.

"Bookworm" was not an acceptable identity in the universe he had to navigate to survive.

His solution was a twist on the superhero narratives he was also absorbing. On the surface, rather than a mild-mannered Clark Kent type, he would be a tough guy. "Hypermasculinity and virility" were what his family and community valued, so he would act like "the most completely normal Dominican immigrant kid."

And when he stepped into that phone booth to become his true self?


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