Junot Diaz, in so many ways, is perhaps what writers aspire to be: unapologetic, direct and every bit as nerdy.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author for “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” was invited to the Philippines recently for the 2nd Manila International Literary Festival, which was organized by the National Book Development Board and co-presented by National Bookstore.
The Dominican Republic-born Diaz teaches creative writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During his brief visit, he spoke with the Philippine Daily Inquirer and shared his story of growing up as an immigrant in New Jersey in an impoverished family, as well as his views on politics, science fiction, and, of course, writing.
This book—for those who may not know much about the Dominican Republic—reading it somehow gives one a sense of the history of that country. Was that a part of your plan when you wrote this?
I think that’s a side effect to the book’s central project, which is about a family that suffers a deep historical amnesia. Once you get to the end of the book, you’re going to see that part of the family’s problem is that they keep erasing their past. And this is very typical of postcolonial traumatized societies. It certainly seems to be the case for the Philippines, which has a lot of traumatic amnesia. The central play for me is how deeply Dominicans are invested in forgetting. That in some ways, my country is held together more by what we forget than what we remember. And this book is an attempt to create a counter-nation. What would the Dominican nation look like if it remembers? And when you remember, other people will join in.
Readers, when encountering new terms or unfamiliar names, the tendency would be to look it up on the Internet. And your book is filled with footnotes filled with characters, both factual and fictional, that may not be known to all. Did it worry you that your readers might finish the book and end up with more questions than answers?
Any book that has questions in it, for some readers, it’s going to push them to look for answers and I think that’s a wonderful consequence of doing historical work or one that puts together very weird themes. If you put together Dominican history and comic books and science fiction, then everybody would be looking things up.
In doing that—bringing the fantasy world of comics and historical facts together—how exactly were you able to make it work in this book?
I discerned the secret grammar of science fiction and comic books which is about power and racial otherness. In fact, the beginnings of what we call traditional science fiction always had questions of race in it. “Frankenstein” is considered the foundation of science fiction text and the great terror of Frankenstein’s monster is that he is a member of a new race. And the reason that the doctor finally decides to destroy the monster is because it wants to breathe. Then H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” is about the return of colonialism. Imagine strange aliens inside huge metallic destructive ships arrive and destroy your country—that sounds like an experience of the Dominican Republic.
So how much research did you have to do for this?
A lot. I’m already a nerd. But then I had to research huge. Being a nerd is like being a jock. There are levels. Some people are all the way at the Manny Pacquiao spectrum and other people are just like beginners and I think I was somewhere in the middle.
Can you please take us through the process of putting this book together? I read that you wrote this book for 11 years, is that true?
It took me 11 years, but I wrote it in seven. It’s terrible. Part of it is having faith in that you’re going to get somewhere. It’s one thing to finish a book in one year. Finishing a book in a year is like walking across Manila. You can do it. But do you want to do it? On the other hand, writing a book for seven to 11 years is like making your way from the most northern part of the Philippines to the most southern island, there’s a good chance you’re not going to make it, that you’re going to get lost, that you’re going to get stopped but you’ve got to have a lot of faith. Walking across Manila for one to two years, you need a lot less faith but you just have to have willpower.
Do you like getting lost?
I don’t think I like it. I think that the only books worth writing, one has to get lost for. If you don’t get lost, I don’t think you can write a book that’s any good. If you already know where you are, how can you write anything new?
So is that why your book stood out?
I have no idea. I think there are a million factors why a book is good or bad. I know that had I not gotten lost, the book would have been terrible. Why it’s good, that’s anybody’s guess. But I think that you can certainly eliminate one part of terrible by getting lost.
Were you an Oscar Wao when you were younger?
I think that like most kids, I felt weird and alienated growing up and I wasn’t the coolest kid in the world. In the US, as an immigrant, I felt those but I was deeply social. I had a great group of friends and even though it was very hard for me to see that, I was very popular growing up. I think that my early experience gave me a lot of sympathy for Oscar. But in relationship to Oscar, I’m more Yunior.
So where did you get all those emotions that Oscar was feeling like when he would cry by himself when girls would reject him?
Because that’s everybody. Who do you know hasn’t felt like a loser or hasn’t felt vulnerable? Who do you know who hasn’t been “not picked?” There’s always a part of us that loses. We’re not gods. I think it’s much easier for me to write about losing than it is about winning. I know more about that. I think that we just lie. We’ve been colonized by two cultures most obsessed with appearances. And, of course, we’re rarely going to admit that we feel vulnerable, that we’re not always at our best. I walk to my barrio in Santo Domingo and the poorest in the world are acting like they are rich.
What explanation do you have for that?
Human nature. Plus we belong to cultures that put more emphasis on appearances than on substance. Who you are in your heart will not get you into this hotel. If you pull up in an expensive Mercedes Benz that you cannot afford, suddenly you’re a great person. As an artist though, you certainly are attracted to those kinds of things.
So you like telling these kinds of stories.
I just think that human nature, even if it seems crazy, is of great interest to me. Why we do those things? Why do we always feel the need to have people think of us as being better than we are? That’s very interesting and I always wrestle with that. As an artist, I think it’s the little things inside the heart, the little betrayals, the little secrets that make a book worth living.
Speaking of Yunior, he has a very distinct language in this book. How intentional was it?
Yunior has to tell a very difficult story. About a family destroyed by dictatorship and rape, and I think Yunior wanted to be very, very clear. I think his colloquial way of speaking, his vernacular was an important tactic. If you talk too lofty, too artistic, it would ruin what he wanted to say.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
I think it was in college. I always loved to read but I didn’t have that American dream of partying in college. I had a full-time job. You have to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? Who do I want to be?” These are great questions to ask yourself. If you’re paying that much money, losing that much sleep, you should know why you’re doing it. And in college I finally asked myself what was I really doing?
I was going to be a lawyer. I’m an artist and that’s a big problem. I realized very quickly that I’m not made for anything that has to wear a shirt and tie. It was very disappointing for my family. I come from a very impoverished family, I don’t (explicit) pretend. My family in the US is what you call the welfare, food stamps, the section 8 housing and I still remember getting my mom’s tax records in the mail. My mom had five children and she raised us on $6,000 a year. This was in the 1980s and from this very poor background—when you have a kid that’s good in school—my family’s dream is not for me to be an artist but for me to get rich. Ask any poor person who has a kid that’s smart.
Here in the Philippines, they’d want the kid to be a politician. It’s the easiest way.
Of course, the Philippines is a very big country. In Santo Domingo, there are not that many politicians. We only have 10 million people. There’s a lot more politicians here. It’s like soccer in Brazil. This country, from the outside, its favorite sport looks to be politics and the Roman Catholic Church. You should come to the Dominican Republic, because from what I’ve seen so far, Filipinos would have no problem over there. You wouldn’t even notice you’d left. Think about how much diversity you have here. Do you think that if Santo Domingo snuck up as an island and parked itself off the coast, people here would be surprised? Filipinos can fit anywhere.
I started joking around in the short time I have been here that if you subtract Asians and put in Africans and it’s basically the same. We have certain strong similarities. Our countries have been colonized by both the Spanish and the English. I feel the similarities very strongly.
But was it your parents who wanted you to be a lawyer?
It’s too easy to put it on them but I think it’s the whole society that has a lot of stake at producing a lot of people who like money versus producing people who like art. And being a writer was my dream, I realized that, okay, if I’m going to suffer, it would be for my dream. Don’t suffer for bullshit. Suffering for another person’s dream only makes you resentful. Do you know how many adults my age who are still suffering for other people’s dreams? People who are not living their dreams—they’re miserable. I don’t want to be like that. I’m not a perfect person, I’m flawed, I make mistakes but I have one tiny advantage in that, at least I’m following my dreams. It’s all I got.
What’s the first thing you tell your students in creative writing?
Read. If you want to be a writer, you would be better served by not writing for two years and spending those two years reading.
“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is available in three formats (hard cover, trade paperback and mass-market paperback) in all National Book Store and Powerbooks branches.
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