ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
A decade ago, writer Junot Diaz dazzled readers and critics alike with the collections of short stories entitled "Drown." The book weaves tales of adolescent Dominicans and New Jersey immigrant kids grappling with poverty, identity, sex, and family - and the writing is sharp and poignant, enthralling. Well, it took a decade, but Junot Diaz has now published his first novel, it's called "The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." Junot Diaz joins me from our studios in New York.
How are you, sir?
Mr. JUNOT DIAZ (Author, "The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"): Oh, I'm great. Thank you so much for having me.
SEABROOK: It's our pleasure. Now, let's talk about Oscar Wao. Am I pronouncing that right?
Mr. DIAZ: Yeah. Yeah. That's right.
SEABROOK: He's sort of the boy hero, I guess, you could say of this novel. Explain his last name for our readers, Wao, W-A-O.
Mr. DIAZ: Yeah. This is one of those weird books that's - it's really about my obsession with other books. So poor Oscar's name is just a folk corruption of Oscar Wilde and it's how, Oscar Wilde sounds when you're speaking - you're saying it in Spanish. So, you know, Oscar Wao and it sounds like that, so I just did that to mess around.
SEABROOK: And Oscar Wao is this - he's completely corrupts all the stereotypes of what you would think of the Latin-American immigrant family in New Jersey. He's like a sci-fi super nerd.
Mr. DIAZ: Yeah, yeah, I know. He really put the n to the e to the nerd. I mean this guy stupendous.
SEABROOK: He's sort of completely un-Dominican.
Mr. DIAZ: Well, and in everyway Dominican. I mean what's really interesting is that usually when we leave our homes there becomes like a more tremendous pressure to act the role. A way that I can describe this is, if you're in the Dominican Republic and, let's say, you don't like plantains that just means you don't like plantains. If you're in the United States and in you're a Dominican and you say you don't like Plantains, people take that as a venal sin as like a treachery to race.
SEABROOK: And this is Oscar Wao. And the there's his complete polar opposite Yunior, the narrator of the novel or most of it anyway. Describe him for us.
Mr. DIAZ: Well, Oscar, is like I said he's this a tremendous nerd. He's super awkward. If he sees a girl he instantly falls in love but doesn't know how to speak to them or try to talk them about his latest Dungeons & Dragons games, which is romantic death. And Yunior is, in some ways, the very typical aggressive Dominican male womanizer, very hard nose, kind of brutal language, but in other ways sort of a coward because he's super brilliant but he does everything possible to hide that brilliance from other people.
SEABROOK: Yunior is playing completely towards the stereotypes of what he should be.
Mr. DIAZ: Oh yeah, I know. In a big, big way. I think that, you know, the all of us performer - I think is the part of it that gets kind of lost, is how much we perform for our audience whether that audience is the people at work, our job, our family, and sometimes the myth of our self, because I think that's the hardest thing to let go of is whatever myth you build up over about yourself. And I think more than anything Yunior has a myth of himself that he just refuses to abandon but it creates this wall between him, his experience, and telling the truth. Oscar has a billion myths about the world and about how things are but he's not very mythic about himself. He tend to be pretty honest about how screwed up he is.
SEABROOK: I want to talk more about some of the themes in the book in second, but I feel like I have to ask you, how much of you is there in Oscar, in Yunior or both?
Mr. DIAZ: Yeah, you know, it's - I think all of us know that we have or if we think about it there were always a number of paths that we could have walked down to become who we are. And you know there's still a bunch of choices facing all of us as long as we stay alive. And part of me - the tension between Oscar and Yunior, these two boys, has a lot to do with being really aware when I was young that there were certain paths that I had access to. And one of them was heading down this strictly nerdy path and just sort of pursuing all the kind of reading I wanted to do. But having an older brother who was always telling me, he's like, you know what? Keep acting this way and you'll never get a girlfriend. And knowing that the society that I was growing up in, in privilege or value sort of the things that I kind of like.
And so a part of me I think wrote this book to honor the young part of me that I abandoned when I was a teenager, when I just decided, you know what? I am going to fold. I am going to be the person that expected of me. And I think I never forgot that choice. Most of us pretend we never made a choice that we're who we've always been.
But we make choices, we make choices. We betray parts of ourselves. And I think that I'll never forget betraying the young person I was. I just - I couldn't live with that sort of censure and that sort of disapproval from my friends. And I was a little chicken and said, you know what? I'm going to run after girls and I want to pretend to be tough and I'm going to lift weights all day. I'm going to punch in the head who look at me weird. And it was that decision that haunts the book for me.
SEABROOK: Were you born in the Dominican Republic or here?
Mr. DIAZ: No, I was born in Sto. Domingo. I came over when I was six.
SEABROOK: Hmm. The book is also all mixed up in Dominican politics, of course, in the more than 30 year dictatorship over the Dominican Republic of Rafael Trujillo. And what's fascinating is how much you explain of the Trujillo history in extensive and often hysterical footnotes throughout the book. Could you read the first footnote for us?
Mr. DIAZ: Yeah, sure, sure, sure.
(Reading) For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history, Trujillo, one of the 20th century's most infamous dictators, ruled the Dominican Republican between 1930 and 1961 with an implacable, ruthless, brutality. A portly sadistic pig eye mulatto who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes and had a fondest for Napoleon era haberdashery, Trujillo came to control nearly every aspect of Sto. Domingo's political, cultural, social and economic life. He was our Sauron, our Auron, our dark side, our once and future dictator. A persona is so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful, that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up. Famous for changing all the names of all the landmarks in the Dominican Republic to honor himself.
SEABROOK: At the same time that there are all of these sort of Dominican themes, there's all over with American pop culture. I mean about you talk about the dark side. You mentioned "The Lord of the Rings," "Dune," comic books, bad '70s television. I mean complete and total nerdity, as Yunior might say it. Is this a reflection of your own youth in the sort of decades that you were growing up in?
Mr. DIAZ: Well, yeah. I mean one of the things about being young is that you acquire an entire lexicon of the local popular culture. But also when you're in the third world, what filters to you that is American tends to be this incredible wave of kitsch and pop cultural nonsense.
And I feel like if a third world person is going to write in a book about the Americas, about an American experience, the fundamental bedrock of a language that we share, the language that gets transmitted to us that we learned, to which the United States speaks, tends to be its popular culture. And yet, when it comes time for us to create our great literature, the first thing that we get rid of is in some ways the base line language - the language which we learned and grew up in, but that we say has no place when it comes time for a serious reflection, you know.
And I just was like part of it shores from my own love of these areas, my own love of these things but the other part of it is, you know, a very serious debate about what is the official language of a culture whose primary presence in the world is to its nonsense and its missiles.
SEABROOK: And so in the end, this book seems to be so much about mash ups. Different cultures - Dominican, pop culture, New Jersey, Sto. Domingo. The mash up seems to be inherent in the character of Oscar and in Yunior's. One of my favorite lines of Oscar's is what is more sci-fi than Sto. Domingo, what is more fantasy than the Antilles.
Mr. DIAZ: Well, I mean, think about it. That's, in some ways, what the America is all about. The Americas reflects a lot on the human condition, you know. And I just think that the mash up for me is, again, it's less of sort of a kind of cutesy, brainy could see than what I feel is the true pulse of the project of the new world, which is at the level of the language, at the level of politics. And despite what we like to believe about ourselves, our language, our presence is a mash up. It is all of these traditions working together, wrestling with each other, arguing with each other. And in some ways, being very beautiful and creating out of all that hubbub a wonderful, wonderful song.
SEABROOK: Junot Diaz has a new novel. His first is titled "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. DIAZ: No, thank you so much for having me.
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SEABROOK: We have these parting words for you tonight from that American sage Walt Whitman. To the question of identity of what good one's life is in this big world, Whitman provides this answer that you are here, that life exists and identities, that the powerful play goes on and you will contribute a verse.
That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED for this Sunday, October 14th. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Have a great week.