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The Outsider Is In: An Immigrant's Stories
In Life as in His Acclaimed Work, Author Junot Díaz Unites Two Selves

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.

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?

"My nerd part was my secret identity," he says.

'How Does It Feel . . . ?'

Díaz is a trim man of 38 with a not-quite-shaved head and a small, neat beard. He wears jeans and a colorful striped shirt (untucked) and this day gives off no hyper-male vibes, unless you count the swear words with which he reflexively laces both writing and conversation.

His father, a veteran of the Dominican military, "was so [expletive] masculine," Díaz says. "He was into boxing, he got a black belt in judo when I was, like, 10. . . . He was very much a public tough guy, my dad."

The elder Díaz preceded the rest of the family to the United States, leaving his wife and children to make do as best they could. (His mother found a low-wage job in a chocolate factory.) After he finally brought them to New Jersey, he left them again.

The middle of five children, Díaz says he started writing "because I read so damned much. I just wanted to participate in this thing that I loved."

In high school he tried to write a horror novel, a la Stephen King. "It didn't work." In college, at Rutgers, he discovered creative writing classes. He wrote for hours every day. "It was all junk," he says now, "but it was like this dream."

A few years later, the dream came explosively true.

Díaz had honed his writing skills in grad school at Cornell, sent out reams of short fiction to magazines that ignored it, worked multiple dead-end jobs. Then one day he got a call from the editor of Story magazine, who'd been struck by the power and freshness of his voice. Before long he had an agent and a collection of linked stories up for auction. Riverhead bought it as part of a six-figure, two-book deal.

Published in 1996, "Drown" drew far more attention than your average debut.

"Díaz has the dispassionate eye of a journalist and the tongue of a poet," said Newsweek. And: "Talent this big will always make a noise."

"So, Junot Diaz, How Does It Feel to Be a Literary Sensation?" read a headline in the Los Angeles Times.

"Drown," as the author told the Times of London, was both "deeply fictional and deeply autobiographical." The first-person narrator -- sometimes unnamed, sometimes called Yunior -- appears both as a child in the Dominican Republic and as a tough, troubled immigrant kid trying to make his way in New Jersey. In one story, he shoplifts, deals dope and becomes estranged from an older friend who's chosen college. In another, "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie," he parses race and class complications in the world he's been forced to adopt. In a third, he tries, with some difficulty, to present his family narrative from his father's point of view.

Díaz was jarred by his success. "When you get a break from fighting for your life," he says, "all these debts that you've been deferring suddenly come due." He now had the luxury of getting depressed.

"It changed his identity," says novelist Francisco Goldman, a close friend. "It was very, very difficult." He'd been an outsider, then "all of a sudden he was a successful American."

Díaz made several attempts at the promised second book, but they didn't work out. He earned his living teaching, at Syracuse and then at MIT. A decade went by.

Finally, he finished "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," which New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani promptly praised as "original" and "galvanic."

Like "Drown," it is narrated in large part by Yunior. Like that first book, too, it centers on a family of Dominican immigrants. But that's where the obvious similarities end. "Oscar" is filled with strong women. And the title character -- at least on the surface -- is as unlike Yunior as he could possibly be.

Oscar de León (the "Wao" is a nickname derived from a mispronunciation of Oscar Wilde) is an overweight, fantasy- and science-fiction-loving, impossibly un-macho kid who "looked straight out of a Daniel Clowes comic book." At one point, he upsets Yunior, with whom he's sharing a Rutgers dorm room, by chalking a phrase from "The Fellowship of the Ring" on their door.

"In [expletive] Elvish!" Yunior reports.

Then: "Please don't ask me how I know this. Please!"

Superhero twist, anyone? It's hard to read these lines and not see Yunior as Junot Díaz, trying to keep his "completely normal" mask on.

Which would make Oscar his secret nerd identity, revealed at last.

'No Less Absurd Than Hobbits'

Annie Proulx met Díaz not long after the publication of "Drown." The author of "The Shipping News" and "Brokeback Mountain" had pegged him as "an exciting young writer." But some years later, when Díaz was up for tenure at MIT and Proulx was asked to read a portion of "Oscar" before writing a letter of support, she "approached the task with trepidation."

Too many wonderful first story collections, she explains in an e-mail, are "followed by less exciting novels."

As it turned out, she needn't have worried.

"The work is fresh and pulsing with a vitality rare in American literature," Proulx wrote in her letter of support. It is "richly slangy, gliding in and out of Spanish and English in almost a newly-invented lingua, threaded with reeking doom, heat, hair, inquieto, and the unsatisfiable yearning of alienated yet closely-bonded characters."

All this plus hilarious footnotes, extended metaphors from Tolkien and characters out of Marvel Comics, too.

Díaz says he borrowed the footnote notion from a favorite Caribbean novel, Patrick Chamoiseau's "Texaco." Written in a wildly non-academic voice (yet nonetheless educational), the notes offer edgy evocations of the largely forgotten horrors perpetrated by Dominican dictator-for-life Rafael Trujillo, without whom the Dominican diaspora is impossible to understand.

Tolkien shows up everywhere -- Trujillo is Sauron, his henchmen are Ringwraiths, a guarded upper-class enclave is "so Minas Tirith" -- but the references are never explained. Neither, for the most part, are allusions to the Marvel universe and to numerous other works of pop or high culture. If you're unfamiliar with Galactus the planet-eater or the works of Joseph Conrad, you're on your own, just as you are in the many untranslated Spanish passages.

Díaz's failure to explain and translate was in part an effort to suggest the immigrant point of view.

"There's always a space in every immigrant's life which is reserved for what you don't understand," he says. "In this book, I wanted there to be for everybody an area that they didn't understand, so that we would all share, in one place or another, this moment of unintelligibility."

A related point: Those pop-culture references aren't there just because he and Oscar love what Díaz calls "the genres." Immigration is such an apocalyptic upheaval, he says, that "the quote unquote realistic novel," which tends to "marginalize extreme experiences," has trouble evoking it.

Time-travel narratives come much closer, he thinks.

And hey: "Some of the myths that nation-states hold dear are no less absurd than Hobbits."

By way of example, Díaz mentions "benevolent occupations," "exporting democracy" and "American exceptionalism." He discusses the myth of painless immigrant assimilation, which, like the magician's trick of misdirection, "exists so that no one looks any further."

Mythology, he concludes, should be an equal-opportunity realm:

"If it's okay for people to have these fantastic myths to help them organize their beliefs, I might as well deploy the fantastic myths of my childhood to help me organize and give meaning to things which there isn't language to give meaning to."

'Consequences Catch Up to You'

But perhaps the central myth of Díaz's childhood -- one with which, in his novel, all the major characters must contend -- is the myth of hypermasculinity, the notion of how real men are supposed to behave.

Short version: They're supposed to chase every skirt they see.

The specific culture Díaz grew up in, he says, was one "where having a lot of girlfriends was a given, and, for my father, was a big part of what he considered his identity."

In "Drown," Yunior's father drags him along when he visits a lover. In real life, Díaz decided not to be like his dad, but he couldn't seem to help himself.

"You say to yourself, 'I'm not going to be like my parents in this way,' " he recalls. "And I can still remember the day when I betrayed that constant mantra."

He was at Rutgers. He had a girlfriend, "and I was always super-serious about my girlfriend." But one day some friends showed up at his apartment with a bunch of eager women who had just failed tryouts at a local strip bar.

Díaz excused himself: "I was like, 'Oh, I've got to go to bed now.' " His friends derided him. As he sat on the edge of his bed, he remembers thinking: "I'm weak. I'm [expletive] weak. I'm just going to do this."

A few years back, he published a nonfiction piece in the New Yorker that hinged on infidelity. In it, he's about to travel to the Dominican Republic for the first time in almost 20 years when his traveling companion, a woman he cares deeply about, learns that he's cheated on her. The relationship does not survive.

"She broke my heart, that girl did," Díaz wrote, "which was a fair trade, considering that I'd broken hers first."

"Consequences catch up to you," he says now. "There comes a point where you're taking more out of the world than you're putting in." He started asking himself, "Why am I always so miserable, and why is it that all the people that used to date me hate me?"

"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is dedicated to Díaz's fiancee, Elizabeth de León, who is a lawyer in the New York attorney general's office.

Writing his novel, Díaz says, he was obsessed with the concept "of a society that so values certain kinds of masculinity."

He created Oscar -- the nerd who doesn't look like he has an ounce of macho in him, the terminally lonely guy who wants desperately to be a Dominican ladies' man -- as "my foil, my way of talking about these kind of issues."

He created Oscar's fierce mother, the beautiful, scarred Belicia, whose life is almost destroyed when a Trujillo lieutenant takes her as a teenage mistress. (Díaz got so enamored of Belicia, in fact, that she almost took over the book.)

He created Lola, Oscar's equally fierce and beautiful sister, who shares narrating duties with Yunior and would be his perfect love if his "completely normal" male ego would only shrink enough for him to stop running around.

Díaz, says Francisco Goldman, digs into the macho hang-ups of Latino men the same way Philip Roth took on "the things that most discomfited Jews -- savagely and comically and bravely." But Goldman, whose mother was born Guatemalan, is also concerned that writers such as Díaz and himself "break this stereotype people have" of Latino writers.

"It's not our job to explain ethnicity," he says.

As for Díaz himself: In the course of a two-hour conversation, he repeatedly confirms that immigration is "the root of who I am as an artist." Yet he's just as comfortable weighing in on innumerable other literary topics.

He brings up the English children's writer Enid Blyton, another of his childhood favorites. "As a kid, I was comforted so profoundly by writers who could never have imagined me," he says.

He holds forth on writers he loves, from Kiran Desai to Edwidge Danticat to Alexandre Dumas. Right now, he's immersed in "Grotesque," by the Japanese writer Natsuo Kirino. He thinks the greatest living American writer is Samuel Delany, a name better known to science-fiction aficionados than to the reading public generally ("his text that I recommend to everyone is his labyrinth novel called 'Dhalgren' ").

What will he be working on next?

Well, there's one of the projects he started before "Oscar," a historical fantasy that sometimes gets referred to as "a Caribbean 'Lord of the Rings.' " He's written one volume, but doesn't know when he'll get to the three more he's planned.

But first, he'll go back to something he calls "my destruction of New York City" novel, of which he'd written a couple hundred pages before the Sept. 11 attacks. In it, he invents a persecuted minority -- people so neurologically sensitive that they can't be lied to, and die of emotional burnout before they're 30 -- who turn on the humans oppressing them.

It's hard to know what to make of this without reading it, of course, but it does make one thing perfectly clear:

Junot Díaz has outgrown the need to conceal his inner nerd.

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