Junot Diaz On 'Becoming American'

Author Junot Diaz i i

hide captionMIT professor Junot Diaz, a Dominican-American author and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, attends a ceremony in Santo Domingo on May 1.

Ricardo Hernandez/AFP/Getty Images
Author Junot Diaz

MIT professor Junot Diaz, a Dominican-American author and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, attends a ceremony in Santo Domingo on May 1.

Ricardo Hernandez/AFP/Getty Images

During this week of Thanksgiving — the most American of holidays — NPR is spending time thinking about what it means to become an American. The answers come from three noted authors — Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri and Joseph O'Neill — who've written about newcomers to the United States.

Junot Diaz was an immigrant himself. He arrived in this country from the Dominican Republic at the age of 6. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, centers on an outcast, science fiction-obsessed kid who comes from a family of Dominican immigrants.

"I know that being brought to central New Jersey was both this remarkable opportunity — I discovered things about myself I never would have discovered, I think, had I not been torn away from my moorings — but also was a real, real challenge," Diaz tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

Feeling like an outsider at a young age made Diaz become a "fanatic" for his home country.

"I don't think that I ever would have thought so fondly of Santo Domingo had I stayed there my whole life," he says.

One way he adjusted to his new surroundings was through reading. "The solitude of being an immigrant, the solitude of having to learn a language in a culture from scratch, the need for some sort of explanation, the need for answers, the need for something that would somehow shelter me lead me to books," Diaz says.

Books about car engines, oil paintings and historical figures "became the map with which I navigated this new world," he says.

And as he grew up, Diaz says he came to see the United States as a composite of "multiple Americas": ones that were racist and xenophobic, coupled with Americas where anything is possible — where a kid can "come from a nonbookish culture and be transformed."

On Tuesday, NPR talks with author Jhumpa Lahiri about her struggles with her own identity.

Junot Diaz Reads From His 'Wondrous' Tale

Language Advisory: Language in this audio may offend some listeners.
Junot Diaz

hide captionDominican-American writer Junot Diaz has earned both critical and popular acclaim for his stories of marginalized outsiders caught between two cultures.

Lily Oei

Discussion Highlights

Note: The following audio contains language that some listeners may find offensive.

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

The virtues of Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, nearly drove critics to distraction. The New York Times described his inimitable voice as "profane, lyrical, learned and tireless." It is. Please gird yourself for the profane parts before listening.

Diaz first seized the attention and imagination of readers with Drown, his 1996 collection of short stories. It was an instant American classic. Assigned in thousands of high schools and universities across the United States, to the rapturous reception of students who adored Diaz's tales of immigrant kids scraping by, falling in love, getting depressed and growing up, Drown's success became, in some ways, a problem. Awash in literary celebrity and openly anxious about the high expectations for his next book, Diaz struggled with writer's block for over a decade, in what he once described as a "perfect storm of insecurity and madness and pressure."

But Diaz soared with his follow-up effort. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a lavish epic that twins the stories of two immigrant kids in the New York City suburbs with the dark drama of their family roots in the Dominican Republic.

Drawing as deeply from Latin American political history as it does from contemporary fan-boy culture, the story dazzles with bilinguistic derring-do that's somehow both rigorous and playful. His characters are as recognizable as the teenagers you might see (or be) on the bus, on the street or around the dinner table — and as golden, hopeful, flush and flawed.

This reading of the paperback edition of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took place in September 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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