Interview: MacArthur 'Genius' Junot Diaz

His debut novel — The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao — won a Pulitzer Prize. He was recently named as one of the 2012 recipients of a MacArthur Fellowship. (Rebroadcast from December 2007)

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Diaz, who teaches writing at MIT, has a new reason for his students to pay close attention. He's one of 23 new MacArthur fellows who were named this week. It's an honor that also comes with a $500,000 no-strings-attached grant to support the work of each recipient.

Most of us call it by its unofficial name, the Genius Award. The announcement of the MacArthur fellowship coincides with the publication of his new collection of short stories titled "This is How You Lose Her." So it's been a good few weeks for Junot Diaz.

Terry spoke to Diaz in 2007, after his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" was published. Diaz describes Oscar, the main character in his novel, as a ghetto nerd at the end of the world. Oscar is a Dominican-American kid who doesn't fit into the macho culture that surrounds him. He's overweight, and he's a hard-core science fiction and fantasy man who fears he will remain a virgin for the rest of his life.

Diaz immigrated with his family from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey when he was six. His novel follows several generations of a Dominican family living under dictatorship on the island before immigrating to the U.S.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Junot Diaz, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a reading from your novel. I'm going to ask you to introduce it for us.

JUNOT DIAZ: Oh, OK, thank you. This is the character named Yunior, who's this big muscle-building knucklehead describing his college roommate, Oscar, who's this really big nerd who is trying, you know, to find someone to fall in love with, and so this is him talking about poor Oscar and his girl troubles.

GROSS: OK. Why don't you do the reading.

DIAZ: Thank you.

(Reading) Did I try to help him with his girl situation, share some of my playerly wisdom? Of course I did. Problem was, when it came to the mujeres my roommate was like no one on the planet. Dude weighed 307 pounds, for Christ's sake, talked like a "Star Trek" computer. The real irony was that you never met a kid who wanted a girl so bad.

(Reading) I mean, I thought I was into females, but no one, and I mean no one, was into them the way Oscar was. To him they were the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, the DC and the Marvel. Holmes had it bad, couldn't so much as see a cute girl without breaking into shakes, developed crushes out of nothing, must have had at least two dozen high level ones that first semester alone.

(Reading) Not that any of these every came to anything. How could they? Oscar's idea of G was to talk about role-playing games. How crazy is that? My favorite was the day on the E bus when he informed some hot morena: If you were in my game I would give you an 18 charisma.

(Reading) I tried to give him advice, I really did. Nothing too complicated like stop hollering at strange girls on the streets, and don't bring up The Beyonder any more than necessary. But did he listen? Of course not. Trying to talk sense to Oscar about girls was like trying to throw rocks at Unus the Untouchable. Dude was impenetrable. He'd hear me out and then shrug.

(Reading) But my favorite conversation that semester? Junior? What? Are you awake? Oscar, if this is about "Star Trek." It's not about "Star Trek." He coughed. I've heard from a reliable source that no Dominican male has ever died a virgin. You, who have experience in these matters, do you think this is true? I sat up. Dude was peering at me in the dark, dead serious. Oscar, it's against the laws of nature for a Dominican man to die without having sex at least once. That, he sighed, is what worries me.

GROSS: That's Junot Diaz reading from his new novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." That was a great reading. Thank you for doing that. Oscar is really like the opposite of the stereotype of the macho Dominican man. Do you relate to him? Do you have that level of nerdiness within you?

DIAZ: You know, it's funny because one of the things about being an adolescent, which I kind of drew upon a lot when writing this book, is that you always feel like you're the biggest freak in the world. And so I was nerdy, certainly, to a certain age, never as crazy as Oscar, but what mattered most was the entire time I was growing up I always felt like, man, there's never been anyone like me and there'll never be anyone like me again. And that's probably a good thing.

GROSS: This isn't the kind of question I usually ask people I've just met, but were you as worried as Oscar that you'd never lose your virginity?

DIAZ: No. I think my problem was I was terrified that I was going to get someone pregnant, like the rest of my neighborhood.

GROSS: Oh.

DIAZ: I mean, it seems like everybody I knew - my sister got pregnant when she was a teenager. A lot of my friends had kids. And so my big terror was that, like, I would get somebody pregnant in high school and that would be the end of all things.

GROSS: Did you?

DIAZ: No, no, no. I'm telling you, the terror shaped my behavior.

GROSS: So you were - you took precautions?

DIAZ: Yeah, yeah. That's a mild way of putting it. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what was the kind of man you thought you were supposed to be? What kind of young man did you think you were supposed to be?

DIAZ: Well, I mean, you know, part of what interested me about Oscar was like his character of this kind of Dominican nerd living in New Jersey. He was the far extreme. You know, we have characters like him, all our communities, and it's more crazy when your community is kind of poor, kind of immigrant, people like him really stick out, but he's still there.

And when I grew up, I grew up with a military dad, he was in the military in the Dominican Republic, seriously into that kind of discipline. I mean, the old man used to check our shoelaces before we left the house to see that they were like tied correctly. And he was really into boxing and really into fighting.

And he was the kind of dude who really believed that if boys didn't fight all the time that, you know, someone was going to take advantage of them or something was going to happen to them. So he always had me and my brothers and the neighboring kids fight all the time. It was like "Fight Club" without, you know, the cute boys. We were just like smacking each other around. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

DIAZ: Yeah, and so I would go to school, you know, I would go to school, this was in the day when, you know, there was no - people didn't care. You could show up at school with two black eyes and a busted lip, and your teachers would be just like, hmm, please turn to page three.

(LAUGHTER)

DIAZ: So the kind of boy I was, or that I was told to be, you were kind of this like half-gladiator, half-dude who, you know, was supposed to have as many girls as possible and work until your heart exploded, have no fear, you know. It was such a weird thing because you're a little kid, of course, and doing all this stuff, and the whole time you're thinking: Why don't I feel like this is normal?

GROSS: What about the part of you that liked to read books and was interested in writing?

DIAZ: Well, I mean, that also came out in some ways. And the one thing my old man is he always had a - he had a shelf of books in the basement. And they were all these books about history, about the Dominican Republic, about politics. And I think, you know, in some ways he modeled some bizarre masculine behavior.

But he also modeled that reading could be masculine. And that saved me like a lot of bizarre contradictions because I just really got into reading from a young age. You know, I was a kid who had difficulty speaking English when I first immigrated.

But in my head, when I read a book, I spoke English perfectly. No one could correct my Spanish. And I think that I retreated to books as a way, you know, to be, like, masterful in a language that was really difficult for me for many years.

GROSS: In your novel you write a lot about Trujillo, who was the dictator in the Dominican Republic from about, what, 1930 until his assassination in 1961. And the mother in the book, Oscar's mother, grew up in the Dominican Republic. And she was a, you know, a beautiful woman when she was young.

And you write in the book how it was understood if Trujillo saw a beautiful woman he would have her as his own. And so fathers would lock up their daughters to prevent that from happening, unless they wanted it to happen, which her father did not.

DIAZ: Yeah, that was more disturbing. Yeah. Like lots of fathers in that historical period happily gave up their daughters to curry favor from the dictatorship.

GROSS: How did you hear stories about this? Was this research or stories handed down by family?

DIAZ: It was a lot of both. I mean, one of the things about, like, what does the Dominican Republic matter to the United States, and more specifically, what does what happened to somebody in Santa Domingo matter to a kid who was born and raised in the U.S.

I mean, in some ways those are the kind of questions the narrative is trying to, like, wrestle with. And for me that was the question, even when I was growing up. I left Santa Domingo young, grew up in the U.S. I was far more worried about if I knew all the Michael Jackson lyrics than listening to my folks' stories about what happened in Santa Domingo.

And yet the shadow of the past has a way of, like, casting its power over our present, even when we deny it. What ended up happening to me was I became not aware of that there was all these stories about Trujillo and all these stories about the dictatorship but that there was an absolute silence about the dictatorship, that no one was actually speaking in any clear way about those 31 years.

And, you know, it's sort of like you look at a history book and find 40 pages missing in the middle. I felt like when I grew up I was like, hmm, this is strange. Both my parents and all their brothers and sisters grew up in this fearsome dictatorship, and yet none of them have spoken about it.

GROSS: When you started asking them about it, which I assume you eventually did, what kind of stories did they tell you?

DIAZ: Well, you know, you go through a whole number of levels of evasions. You know, where they're just like ah, that's old stuff. Oh, nothing happened. I had nothing to do with this. You know? But eventually if you keep going, and you're persistent, you begin to get the outlines of what happens when a country is isolated from the rest of the world and is controlled by a single madman. And it was like a nightmare.

I mean, I was talking to someone the other day about a story, a very common story that I heard from family members about, you know, like so much of the island was informants that worked for the secret police and how one man was walking down the street eating an orange, and he threw the peel on the ground.

At this time the Dominican Republic was one of the cleanest countries in the world. And the secret police arrested the guy who threw the orange peel on the ground and the three nearest people to him because they should have apprehended him. And all of them were whisked off to jail.

GROSS: Was anyone in your family ever, you know, beaten by Trujillo's men or put in jail?

DIAZ: Oh, man, that's the kind of question that would have probably stopped the entire questioning if I pushed too hard. It always felt like there were people in my family who were involved in every piece of that history but in weirder ways.

My father was actually in the military police of the dictatorship, in the post-dictatorship, and that was another bizarre thing where instead of being, in some ways, having a family member who was a victim of it, my father was part of that kind of structure and brought the regime home in ways that I think - in ways that I think that were, as we say in Spanish (unintelligible), that were really- it was really powerful.

I mean, that regime of the Trujillato, we lived in our house. I mean, we always joke around that in my family had this dictatorship of our home.

GROSS: What are some of the ways that he brought it home?

DIAZ: Well, I mean, I just think about lining up all your kids and examining their shoelaces is a perfect example of the Trujillato. I mean, in this period, this is like people would get assassinated. But first, before they were assassinated, Trujillo and his minions would critique their clothing and their dress styles in the newspaper, and the next day he would kill them.

And so there was a, you know, there was this huge sartorial obsessions. And then again, my father's constant belief that at any moment something catastrophic would come, you know, the country that was always kept on edge, you know.

GROSS: Was it upsetting for you to find out that your father was in the military of the bad guy?

DIAZ: Well, I mean, the best way to answer that is almost the entire island was complicit in the dictatorship. Some of us were more complicit than others. And so, you know, it was one of those things where, you know, my father was in the military.

But, you know, you walked around my neighborhood and people would say, you know, the thing about your father was that your father like never pulled his gun, never hurt anybody, which, you know, you couldn't say about everyone else there.

And at the same time I had a mother who was wounded during the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. So you have people in the family who fit in different places in this kind of a historical moment. So, you know, you had a father who was in some ways this pro-dictator kind of guy. You had a mother who was wounded by the U.S. invasion. And as a kid, what do you do with all that history?

GROSS: When did your parents decide to move to the U.S., to New Jersey, more precisely?

DIAZ: When everybody realized that the country was going to enter a very dark period after the U.S. invasion. It was called the 12 years. They - everybody began to leave because there were sort of death squads and all sorts of fun stuff. And, you know, my parents, my father, even though he was part of the regime, the military regime, he was like there's no future here. This country's just going to eat itself. So, you know, he jumped out as soon as he could.

DAVIES: Junot Diaz, speaking with Terry Gross in 2007. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: Let's get back to our interview with writer Junot Diaz, who's one of 23 recipients of the MacArthur fellowship named this week, an honor commonly known as the Genius Award.

GROSS: One of the things I love about your writing is that you combine so many different, you know, like styles of speaking in it. There's, you know, Dominican and like teen African-American slang, science fiction, you know, and just like, you know, fine, elegant writing. But it's also colloquial, you know, borrowed from different cultures. And I guess I'm wondering: Did you grow up feeling fluent in all those different cultures?

DIAZ: Yeah, you know what it is? I think that most of us - I know I was - I was exposed to dozens of idioms, dozens of vernaculars. And I think that we just choose to deploy some at any given time. You know, at home out in my neighborhood we grew up with a very black Puerto Rican English.

Then we had to go to an overwhelmingly, you know, mainstream school. In my house we spoke a very formal Dominican Spanish. But when we were hanging out with other people who spoke Spanish, it was really colloquial. Then we had all the pop-culture stuff that knitted us together as a generation. Then we had the language that we just used among our little group.

And what I thought was interesting for me when I was writing this book was that, you know, it's so hard in some ways to pull a self together when you have all these disparate threads running through your lives, when you have all these experiences, when you're always asked to choose one or two voices and that's it because too many would be too many, you know.

In this book it's like the one place I felt that all the voices that I had running through my head could have a home and could, like, speak at once and speak together.

GROSS: And I have to say, as a reader, like, there's certain words in it I don't get. Like I don't know who The Beyonder is. I assume that's a science-fiction reference. But, you know...

DIAZ: Yeah, Marvel Comics.

GROSS: Yeah. OK. But - OK. But I didn't know that. But I figured that's fine because I get it anyways. I know it's from his kind of like comic book or science fiction world. And there was a few, like, Spanish Dominican words that I didn't get, but I kind of got it. And it worked for me.

DIAZ: Well, you know, part of the thing that really interested me about the reading experience is that a lot of times we forget that a large portion of what we're reading we don't understand. And most of the time we just skip over it because it's sort of implicit.

We don't understand a word, we'll just skip over it and keep going. But, you know, that's like a basic part of communication, you know, unintelligibility. And so if you're an immigrant, you're so used to not being able to understand large chunks of any conversation, large chunks of the linguistic, cultural codes.

And part of what I was trying to get at when writing this book is that, you know, I wanted everybody at one moment to kind of feel like an immigrant in this book, that there would be one language chain that you might not get. And that it was OK.

Like, it might provoke a new, like, a reaction to want to know. And that's good because it'll make you go look and read other books and start a conversation but that life and the experience that most of us have in the world is that we tend to live in a world where a good portion of what we hear, see and experience is unintelligible to us. And that to me feels more real than if everything was transparent for every reader.

GROSS: There's a lot of bad luck in this book, and the narrator thinks that Oscar and his family have been living under a curse, and the curse is known as the F-U-K-U curse. Now, I wasn't sure whether this is supposed to be a reference to the English expletive that is awfully close to F-U-K-U.

DIAZ: No, not at all. It's actually fuku...

GROSS: Or whether it's actually - yeah, whether it's actually like a Spanish word or...

DIAZ: No, no. It's a real word. In Santa Domingo, it's like one of these Nigerian words that we got thanks to four or 500 years of slavery. It's called fuku and it means like kind of bad luck, like afflicted bad luck. It's a real word.

GROSS: Did you expect that other people like me might be confused by that and not sure whether like it was a reference at all to an F-you kind of curse?

(LAUGHTER)

DIAZ: You know, it's funny because it's only after the book was published and some people - I realized that, in my mind - that word has been in my mind long before I spoke English. So that has priority over the sort of, the analogue it has in English, you know.

GROSS: Sure.

DIAZ: And so it's weird, I never thought of it until - and I'm not kidding - in an explicit way until the book was published.

GROSS: I think that most Americans know less about Dominican history and Dominicans than they do, say, about Puerto Rican history or Mexican history or, you know - do you know what I mean? So I'm wondering, there are so many stereotypes that Mexicans and Puerto Ricans have to put up with. Do people even know enough about Dominicans to have stereotypes of Dominicans? Were there stereotypes of Dominicans when you were growing up?

DIAZ: Well, no. I mean, I think the first thing is that it assumes that bigotry, you know, differentiates too much. I mean, the funniest thing about being a Latino is that no one actually gets your national origin correct. Being Latino guaranteed that I was going to be Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican. Whoever you hated, I was at that time.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: How convenient.

DIAZ: And the fact that - yeah, yeah. And the fact that my family's of African descent, I mean, I'm what they would call mulatto back on the island. But I had siblings who were phenotypically black. So you hated black people, we fit into that little category, too. You know, that's what happens when you come from a place like Santa Domingo.

DAVIES: Writer Junot Diaz, speaking with Terry Gross in 2007. His new collection of short stories is called "This is How You Lose Her." Diaz is one of 23 recipients of the MacArthur fellowship named this week, an honor commonly known as the Genius Award. We'll continue with his interview in the second half of the show. I'm Davies. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Let's get back to Terry's interview with Junot Diaz, who is one of 23 new MacArthur Fellows named this week - an honor commonly known as the Genius Award, which comes with a no strings attached $500,000 grant to support his work. Diaz has new a collection of short stories called "This Is How You Lose Her." Terry spoke to him in 2007 about his Pulitzer prize-winning novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."

GROSS: You know, as you were describing earlier there's a curse that may or may not be responsible for all of the bad luck in the book's main family. And I was wondering if you grew up believing in curses or superstitions at all?

DIAZ: Oh, no. I was a real empirical kid. You know, I'm living in a family that, you know, I had this military dad, everything was real precision, everything was your word, you know, everything was exact, on time. And, you know, I had a grandmother who would turn around and tell me the wildest stories about, you know, these folkloric stories, belief in curses, belief in monsters, dreams and ancestors. And I felt like, you know, you have these twin traditions running through your head in one household. And even if I didn't believe the stories about my ancestors or about, you know, curses, I was ceaselessly delighted. They just--I loved those things.

GROSS: So, I mean, obviously your grandmother must have influences your interest in storytelling. But what about your father's military discipline side, do you think that there was part of that that was helpful to you as a writer as well?

DIAZ: Again, one of the weird things about being an immigrant is that you come to the country to work. You didn't leave the country behind so you could just lamp and, you know, watch TV. One of the things that happened with all my siblings is all of us like worked like dogs. I mean, from as soon as we could carry something, from as soon as we could lie to someone about our age, we all had jobs.

And I think, you know, my dad's discipline certainly was helpful, but the conditioning of being an immigrant, of knowing that your mom is out there cleaning toilets for a living a full day and then coming home and still holding a family together, you know, you have that kind of survival guilt. You're like, your parents did everything for you and the least you can do is work and try to support that effort. And more than anything, I think is I think what I do well as a writer, part of it is underpinned by that immigrant desire to work, to work really hard, to kind of honor your parents' sacrifices for coming out to a strange country, in many ways giving up their entire lives. It's that honoring that really drove me.

GROSS: Was there a part of your life when you were rebelling and not honoring and thought of them as being old-fashioned or from the old country, from not kind of getting what America was about, from not knowing either the slang or the music or the references?

DIAZ: Oh, yeah. No. We always thought our parents were dumb asses. But, you know, just like immigrants, that didn't mean we stopped working. It was crazy. We could have bad mouthed our parents and been like, huh, these guys, they don't know nothing. And yet, boy oh boy, we'd all still go to our jobs every damn day, deliver our 200 newspapers before dawn. You know, go to our second jobs at night.

GROSS: So is it thrilling for you to not only be a writer, a published writer, but to be getting like such great reviews, having read all your life and thought about language so much. I mean, did you expect that you'd actually be able to pull it off?

DIAZ: I don't know. I mean, I guess, maybe I grew up in a different world. But most of the people I grew up with, we could never believe that we could do what we ended up doing. You know, it's like immigrants - I mean, if my mother could have - my mother could never have imagined how she would start on a farm in Santa Domingo and end up in a house right across the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey, with these children who are all like professionals in some ways, you know. And I never thought that - to be completely honest, I never thought that I would have the career I have now. I mean, it's such a huge blessing.

But there's a part of me in the end that knows that any kind of accolades and any kind of praise, that's just provisional. If you're serious about this tradition, if you're serious about participating in writing and in reading, you know that what you're really about is that you're trying to build a relationship with a reader, with a reader that you'll never meet and that you'll never see. And you want that relationship. You want a book to last on a shelf longer than the fireworks of people saying, `Oh, you've done well, son. You did well.' I mean, really great art has to last. And you never know if you've done really good art because there's plenty of people who were praised in their days that we don't read any more at all.

GROSS: I'm assuming the answer to this will probably be yes, but I'll ask it anyways. Did your parents' English get good enough so that they could actually read your books?

DIAZ: Oh, no, not at all. My mother only speaks Spanish. She doesn't read English at all. She thinks what I do is -she finds my work to be - he's like, Man, this is crazy. You are a smart one, we wanted you to be a doctor. So, you know...

GROSS: Is it frustrating that they can't share in your books? They can't, you know, your mother can't read them?

DIAZ: Well, no. I mean, she'll read them when the get translated into Spanish. But, I mean, I think that it's - so many of us do stuff that's - our professions are so incredibly specialized. I mean, I teach at MIT.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

DIAZ: My students, the average human being couldn't even begin to talk to my students about what their professional interests are.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

DIAZ: You know, I've got kids who do a high energy physics.

GROSS: Right.

DIAZ: You ever try to talk to a high energy physicist about what they're doing? I mean, I feel like I mean that's - I can't even begin to understand the second word that comes out of their mouth. My mom at least says, well, I've got my son's book. I can put it on my shelf and show it to relatives, you know.

GROSS: Right. Absolutely.

DIAZ: So, I mean, sure, you know, I mean everybody wants to be perfectly transparent and wants everybody, you know, your parents to know everything about you. But reality is it's a new world of specializations area. It's like you're lucky if people can even remember your job title.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Junot Diaz, it's really been great talking with you. Thank you so much.

DIAZ: No, thank you so much.

DAVIES: Junot Diaz, speaking to Terry Gross in an interview recorded in 2007. Diaz is one of 23 new MacArthur Fellows named this week. His new collection of short stories is called "This Is How You Lose Her." You can find Maureen Corrigan's review on our website FRESH AIR.NPR.org.

Up next, the Village Voice in the 1970s. James Wolcott recalls his early days as an aspiring writer.

This is FRESH AIR.

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