STEVE INSKEEP, host:
During this week of Thanksgivings, that thoroughly American holiday, we're going to spend time asking what it means to become an American. The answers come from three noted authors. They've written about newcomers to this country. And the authors include Junot Diaz.
Mr. JUNOT DIAZ (Author, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"): Look, we talk so much about immigration without talking about it at all. Can you imagine what it would be like if today I just took you, stripped you from your family, your circuits, your language, your culture, and dropped your ass off at Kazakhstan with very few people like you and said, hey, not only do you have make your way to the society but you got to maintain a family?
INSKEEP: Junot Diaz wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." It's about a kid who's a total outcast, lonely, fat, obsessed with science fiction. That kid is from a family of Dominican immigrants. So is Junot Diaz, who arrived in the United States at age six.
Mr. DIAZ: 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, real challenge. Listen, I became a fanatic of the Dominican Republic based on the fact that it was taken away from me. I don't think I ever would have thought so longingly of Santo Domingo had I stayed there my whole life.
INSKEEP: What were your first days in school like?
Mr. DIAZ: I basically spent my first few months sitting in the classroom in the back, being ignored by my teachers, because there was no one who could speak Spanish. I remember getting into a lot of fights with the kids. Look, is there anyone crueler than children? But at the same time we were really, really tough kids, and it was me, my older brother, my oldest sister, my little sister, we were all in it together. We fought our way into a good social niche, but man, those first six months were real dicey, I tell you.
INSKEEP: Did you show up at school knowing hardly any English?
Mr. DIAZ: I showed up at school not knowing a word of English and dressed like something out of a, you know, out of a wetback comedy. I mean, I - we stood out so much in this community. It was remarkable.
INSKEEP: And how would a fight get started? You said there were fights with other kids.
Mr. DIAZ: I mean, how do fights get started? I mean, somebody calls you something that you don't understand, but it's clearly negative. And everybody laughs, and you get scrapping. But look, you don't want to generalize because there were also wonderful kids who were very curious about us, who were - right from the start would sit with us and would talk to us and would teach us words. You know, and those kids make all the difference. It's not so black and white.
INSKEEP: Because you write about a kid who is so utterly nerdy, I have to ask you if you were nerdy yourself?
Mr. DIAZ: Yeah, but in no way - the same way any kid who goes to college is nerdy. I can't imagine that one gets into college by being a thug, you know? But what's interesting in this book is that you have degrees of nerds. You have Oscar who is the nerd extreme. You have his sister, Lola, super bookish and super intelligent. You have Junior, the narrator, who is also very bookish and intelligent but does everything to hide it. And I think in the spectrum, I am somewhere between Junior and Lola, where Oscar being the farthest extreme.
INSKEEP: You might be one of those kids who is nerdy, but is self-aware enough to know that he should separate himself a little bit from the really, really, really nerdy kids - that's, you know, an embarrassing group.
Mr. DIAZ: You know, it was the - I have to tell you, it was the exact opposite. I had a certain cache of cool by the time the first few years were done, because I had, like, this good-looking family, my siblings were popular, and so I was actually allowed to hang out with the nerdiest of nerdy people, and it never splashed back on me. I could walk around my neighborhood with a book or an atlas, and nobody would say anything to me.
INSKEEP: Did your reading choices say anything about your transition to America? You said you were walking around with books.
Mr. DIAZ: Yeah, well, look, that was one of the things that was remarkable. I mean, the solitude of being an immigrant, the solitude of having to learn a language and a culture from scrap, led me to the need for some sort of explanation, the need for answers, the need for something that would give me - that would in some ways shelter me, led me to books, man. I was trying - as a kid I was very, very curious, kind of smart, and I was trying to answer the question, first of all, what is the United States, and how do I get along in this culture, this strange place, better? And also, who am I and how did I get here? And the way I was doing it was through books, man. You know, I just - I found books - when they'd showed me the library when I was a kid, a light went off at me in every cell of my body. Books became the map with which I navigated this new world.
INSKEEP: Books about what?
Mr. DIAZ: Books about everything. There wasn't a book that I thought a stranger to me. I would look at books that would have oil paintings, Audubon paintings of animals. I would look at books that would be biographies of, you know, presidents. I would look at books that would have car engines and mechanical design. I looked everywhere for the answers to those questions.
INSKEEP: OK, having done all the reading, then, what's it mean to be an American?
Mr. DIAZ: Well, I mean, that's a really good question. I think it means many, many things simultaneously. You know, it's one of those - it is a question that, as individuals and as a country, we wrestle with every day. It's the wrestling with that question that defines us. It's not any of the answers. For me being an American is, in a large part, you now, dealing with these multiple Americas, one America which is very is xenophobic, which is very closed-minded, which is very racist. And an America where, simultaneously and in opposition, where many things are possible. Where a kid like me can come from a non-bookish culture and miraculously be transformed.
INSKEEP: How, as a kid, did you mesh the side of you that was, as you said, fiercely proud of the Dominican Republic, with the kid who was fiercely reading every book he could find about America.
Mr. DIAZ: Well, you know, what you learned as a kid is that you learn that Whitman concept that you can contain multitudes. That...
INSKEEP: Walt Whitman, the poet, you're talking about.
Mr. DIAZ: Yeah, yeah, you know, that one can carry inside of them both the country of their origin and the country that has received them. I mean, the idea that has been popularized that one must choose between your home place and the new place is cruel and absurd. You can be two things simultaneously, if America teaches you anything is that that is very true.
INSKEEP: Junot Diaz is author of the "Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." Thanks very much.
Mr. DIAZ: No, thank you so much for having me, and, hey, Happy Thanksgiving.
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INSKEEP: Junot Diaz is author of "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," and you can read an excerpt from his novel about a family of Dominican immigrants by going to the book section of npr.org. This is the first of this week's conversations about becoming American. We will end on Thanksgiving Day, when our three authors offer an immigrant's view of the holiday. Tomorrow, Author Jhumpa Lahiri explains why she struggled with her own identity. This is NPR News.
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