“Poor Oscar. Without even realizing it he’d fallen into one of those Let’s Be Friends Vortexes, the bane of nerdboys everywhere. These relationships were love’s version of a stay in the stocks, in you go, plenty of misery guaranteed and what you got out of it besides bitterness and heartbreak nobody knows. Perhaps some knowledge of self and women.”
— From ‘The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao’ (2007)
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Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Díaz was on campus Monday and spoke very candidly to his audience about being a writer and a Dominican, and the idiosyncrasies that stand in between. The passionate author sat down with scene to tell us a bit more about his roots, his acclaimed novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Haiti, and his advice for Yalies. For those who feel they are eavesdropping on the immigrant experience, let Mr. Díaz himself whisper every single detail into your ear.
Q. Tell us more about your early years. What was it like growing up as an immigrant in New Jersey?
A. Well, it was an adventure in many ways. Scary as hell, challenging, confusing. There was racism and there were fights, but there was also learning and love. I came from Santo Domingo just after the Vietnam War; my neighborhood was full of vets and also people who had burned out during the ’60s. This was ’70s and ’80s — almost impossible to communicate that time to someone who wasn’t there. But I guess that’s why I write.
Q. What does it mean to be a Dominican in America? Is there anything special about being a Dominican immigrant?
A. I’m not sure the answer to the first question. As to the second question, the only thing that is special about us, I guess, is our culture, our language, our history and our island peculiarities. All filtered through the individual, which means sometimes its hard to know what is “island” and what is just our very own brand of weirdness.
Q. You’ve probably heard this question a million times. There’s a gap of 11 years between your first and second book. To what would you attribute this?
A. I’m just a slow-ass writer. And I put a lot of pressure on myself. It’s really that simple. Which is not to say those 11 years didn’t suck. They did.
Q. You said one of the central concerns in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is the Trujillo dictatorship, and this is clearly evident when you read the novel. But how did you know the story of this brutal era would suit the story of Oscar?
A. I didn’t. But I just knew that Oscar, this nerdy comic book-reading, lovesick Jersey boy of Dominican descent, would be the perfect anti-Trujillo. That, in fact, if anyone could “defeat” the Trujillo that continues to live in Dominican culture, it was someone like him. I had that sense, and I wrote the book because I trusted that instinct, which is a lot of what writing is about.
Q. How much of yourself did you put into Oscar, a so-called “GhettoNerd”?
A. Well, I’m definitely a nerd who grew up poor, in what you might call a ghetto. But I’m more like Yunior, the narrator — except Yunior is crueler, braver, stronger, better looking and smarter than I am. If it wasn’t for that, we’d be totally alike.
Q. As an author, do you think it’s possible to avoid being pigeonholed by critics as a Dominican/Latino writer?
A. People are always going to try to simplify you. I don’t mind being a Dominican writer as long as its clear that is not the only thing I am. I am also a writer from New Jersey. I’m also an African diasporic writer. I’m an immigrant writer. As soon as people try to limit to one thing, then I resist, I fight. And the best way to destroy any category is too constantly point out, and if possible exemplify, how impossible it is to draw a simple circle around any one person, who all of us contain multitudes, cannot be reduced to formula.
Q. You’ve said the earthquake in Haiti has been an “apocalypse” that has revealed something that was already there. In your mind, why was that “something” there in the first place?
A. Because of history. Because of capitalism.
Q. What’s in store for Haiti’s future?
A. Unless there’s a miracle, a lot more of the same. Just because one country’s demolished, that doesn’t put an end to the criminality that is our current mode of capitalism.
Q. If you could boil it down to a couple of sentences, how would you describe the Dominican-Haitian relationship to a non-islander?
A. A genocide to start with, committed by Dominicans. Much anti-Haitian racism in the DR, much anti-Haitian violence and discrimination and exploitation but also much productive contact, much history of inter-connection, of solidarity. We are the blood that has been spilled, but we have also been brethren. A description that contains one without the other is a lie. And we of course are much more.
Q. I remember back in 2008 you were guest of honor in the Dominican Republic’s Feria del Libro, fresh off your Pulitzer Prize win. I was in Santo Domingo back then. How was that experience like, to go back home right when you were in the middle of a whirlwind of accolades?
A. Well, I’m back in Santo Domingo like three times a year. But you know, dealing with the Dominican media and intellectual and social elites — that’s incredibly exhausting for someone from Villa Juana. But the love I felt from so many people, the pride people threw at me, it was humbling. It touched me deeply.
Q. Do you feel a need to represent Dominicans abroad?
A. Not at all. I know I’m Dominican. But I also know that I am only one of 10 million. I cannot hope to stand in for 10 million. I can only be a tiny note in the chorus, nothing more.
Q. Back-tracking a couple of decades, from your experience as a high school, college and grad student, what would be your main advice to the Yale student body?
A. God, if you got into Yale, I doubt you need advice from me. If there is any advice, it’s stuff you’ll learn soon enough. Just be easy on yourself. And remember that the you can’t live anyone else’s dream. If you’re living your parents’ dream, then you’re basically not alive. It’s amazing how many young people live other people’s dreams. College should be the place you begin to distinguish your dream from anyone else’s.
Q. Favorite author? Why?
A. Toni Morrison. Because no one else explains the U.S. experience better.
Q. Favorite Dominican dish? (I might be able to guess this one.)
A. I’m easy. I love sancocho y pescado con coco.
Q. What are you doing right now, and what’s the next step — work on a new book/story, or continue to teach at MIT this semester?
A. Right now I just finished a short story, a grim one. And I’d like to write one more. Also trying to rough out an idea for another novel.
Q. What do you miss the most from our home country?
A. The whole thing.
Q. How did you like Yale?
A. I saw only a fraction of it — like forming an opinion of a person from a glimpse of their toenail. But the students I met, the Latino students, the Dominican students, the larger students, were thoughtful and kind and progressive. And that was awesome .
Q. Would you come back?
A. I always do. Cuídate mucho.