The novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” has earned numerous accolades, including the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. But while speaking at Yale on Monday, Junot Díaz, the book’s author, had to answer for an unforeseen repercussion of his novel.
“I was wondering, who did you write your book for?” asked Lucas Iberico-Lozada ’13. “Because I broke off with my girlfriend because of it.”
Díaz, 41, addressed Iberico-Lozada’s and other students’ questions in a lighthearted but reflective Ezra Stiles College Master’s Tea. About 130 students and faculty crammed into the master’s house to hear the Dominican-American author reflect on the creative writing process and the experience of being an immigrant.
The acclaimed novelist began the Tea on a more serious note by talking about the recent earthquake in Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with his native Dominican Republic, describing the event as just one in a series of “apocalypses” that have affected the Caribbean. In Díaz’s opinion, the earthquake in Haiti has uncovered what was already there: “structured neglect and underdevelopment.”
“Often when events like this happen, a veil is ripped off our world,” he said, noting that the word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek word for “to reveal.” He added: “We begin to see the world for what it really is, not what we try to think it is.”
Díaz said he has tried to explore many of these apocalypses — including slavery and the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo dictatorship during the early and mid 20th century — at an artistic level in his writing. In talking about writing fiction, Díaz called himself a “fukú,” a Dominican term he uses to describe someone who finds more truth when facts are represented in a fictionalized way. As an example, he said he would be more stirred by a fictional account of the lives of people who perished in a car accident as opposed to a straight report of the names and numbers of casualties.
Díaz, who was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to the United States at age six, said he used his experience as an immigrant growing up in New Jersey to shape “Oscar Wao.” In college, he said, he was an obsessive weight-lifter who used steroids and hid his intelligence behind the stereotype of the Dominican macho. He said he modeled the narrator of “Wao,” Yunior, after this college persona. Now, Díaz teaches creative writing at MIT and involves himself in liberal causes like immigration reform, which he accredits to growing up with a “fascist, trujillista, right-wing lunatic of a father.” He said he views teaching as his civic responsibility, a way of giving back to an educational system from which he has taken so much.
When discussing the process of writing “Oscar Wao,” Díaz said he incorporated several languages and vernaculars in order to showcase the multiplicity of experiences in America.
“We are so god—n mixed, it’s insane,” he said in the informal tone that characterized his talk.
Díaz also used the metaphor of telling stories to comment on national politics, saying President Barack Obama has become a inadequate storyteller by failing to communicate to the American public what he is doing in office and why it matters. Despite his support for Obama, Díaz referred to the president’s first year in office as “a disaster, “adding that the Republican party has succeeded in narrating the missteps of the current administration.
“When he was campaigning, we knew exactly in which chapter we were,” Díaz said of Obama. “I have no idea where we are in the story now.”
Five students interviewed after the tea said they admired Díaz’ intelligence and insight, and that they were fascinated by the talk.
Mariel Novas ’10, a former president of the Dominican Student Association, said the range of topics Díaz discussed made for an excellent talk.
“Nobody can encapsulate being a Dominican, an intellectual and an immigrant like him,” Novas said. “He spoke through a lot of different lenses.”
After the Master’s Tea — which was co-sponsored by the departments of English and African American Studies and Ezra Stiles College — Díaz gave a reading and lecture in Linsley-Chittenden Hall.
Correction: Jan. 26, 2010
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name Yunior, the narrator of author Díaz’s novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”