Author Junot Diaz Shares Thanksgiving Memories

Writer Junot Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic, spent his early childhood there, then his family immigrated to the United States. He spoke to Steve Inskeep as part of the Thanksgiving series on immigration and identity. Diaz remembers some of his early Thanksgiving celebrations when he was a kid.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This Thanksgiving week we've been talking with writers about becoming American. They are immigrant writers, and we've heard about their experiences coming to the U.S. And now those experiences inform their writing. Throughout today's program, we're going to hear memories of their early Thanksgivings.

Junot Diaz was six when he moved with his family from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey. Do you remember what your first Thanksgiving or your first few Thanksgivings were like in the United States?

Mr. JUNOT DIAZ (Author, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"): Oh sure, man. It was still in the period of pilgrim nostalgia, you know. It was - you would cut out all sorts of things for pilgrims. It was still this unequivocal good that the pilgrims had come. The funniest thing is that I remember a teacher making me play the part of the Indians in the little shows that they would do.

INSKEEP: Oh, because you needed somebody with a little darker skin to...

Mr. DIAZ: Yeah, they needed a brownie. And it was only later that the kind of genocidal holocaust became clear to me. And I was like, oh, my God, you know. But as a kid, man, you're a kid. It was just a great excuse to run around and do all this kind of kooky stuff.

Then our Thanksgiving would be a turkey surrounded by every Dominican food imaginable: mofongo, bayo maduros(ph), bayu moro(ph), byun pastelon(ph). And a pastelon is kind of like a Dominican meat pie, but made from the sweet plantings, the maduro. And inside there's this wonderful ground beef with raisins and olives. It's just a remarkable dish. And when I think of Thanksgiving, it was an excuse to us to celebrate ourselves.

INSKEEP: So do you like Thanksgiving?

Mr. DIAZ: Well, I mean, I like Thanksgiving because there is always a cost for someone to be somewhere. I know that my presence in the United States as an immigrant is predicated on the catastrophic suffering and the catastrophic sacrifices of the indigenous community here.

INSKEEP: Can I ask one more question about that?

Mr. DIAZ: Of course.

INSKEEP: Because you've taken such a detailed look at the grimmer side of American history and of this particular tradition, does it make you love America any less?

Mr. DIAZ: Why should it? I've always thought that you don't love a country by turning a blind eye to its crimes and to a problem. The way that you love a country is by seeing everything that it's done wrong, all of its mistakes, and still thinking that it's beautiful and that it's worthy. My greatest responsibility is to acknowledge the mistakes and the shortcomings of the country in which I live, to acknowledge my privileges, and to try to make it a better place.

In fact, looking at the darkest sides of the United States has only made me appreciate the things that we do right, the things that we do beautifully. We are for all of our mistakes and all of our crimes a remarkable place.

INSKEEP: Junot Diaz is author of "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." He's one of three immigrant writers sharing their experiences of Thanksgiving with us on this holiday. This is NPR News.

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Junot Diaz Reads From His 'Wondrous' Tale

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

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

itoggle caption 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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