Su­per­heroes and sci- fi vil­lains in­spired Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer prizewin­ning novel. The Do­mini­can- Amer­i­can talks to Stephen Jewell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

LO­CATED on the edge of Lon­don’s comic shop dis­trict, Junot Diaz’s Blooms­bury ho­tel is the per­fect Lon­don re­treat for the Do­mini­can Repub­lic- born, New Jer­sey- reared au­thor. For while var­i­ous high­brow crit­ics grudg­ingly ad­mit to recog­nis­ing some of the many ar­cane ref­er­ences to ob­scure science fiction nov­els and comic books found in the 39- year- old’s Pulitzer prize- win­ning first novel, The Brief Won­drous Life of Os­car Wao, Diaz has no such qualms. In­deed, he is keen to con­tinue in­dulging his reignited pas­sion.

‘‘ I came back to comic books for the book,’’ says Diaz, who is based at the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute in Rome while on sab­bat­i­cal from his creative writ­ing po­si­tion at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in the US. ‘‘ One of the great gifts of this book was to al­low me to in­te­grate my child­hood back into my adult­hood. It sounds crazy, but I gave all that crap up and now it is a part of my life again. I feel no shame about it and

in some ways I wish I hadn’t been such a sim­ple­ton and as­sumed that adult­hood and girls re­quired you to get rid of all th­ese things be­cause they’re in­cred­i­ble.’’

Un­for­tu­nately, the novel’s pro­tag­o­nist, over­weight ghetto nerd Os­car de Leon — who em­braces the Os­car Wilde- in­spired nick­name he is given af­ter wear­ing a fop­pish Doc­tor Who cos­tume to a Hal­loween party — never achieves that cru­cial bal­ance. He re­treats into the realms of his beloved science fiction and fan­tasy to avoid con­fronting the harsh re­al­i­ties of adult­hood and his in­abil­ity to lose his vir­gin­ity.

‘‘ In his imag­i­na­tive life, Os­car can imag­ine him­self to be any­thing, but in his real life he is in­ca­pable of be­ing any­one but him­self,’’ Diaz says. ‘‘ He re­fuses to hide who he is. With girls most of us will wait un­til the third date un­til we ask, ‘ Do you want to look at my Hell­boy fig­ures?’ That might be strate­gic, but he doesn’t buy that es­sen­tial thing, which is you should per­form dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing on who your au­di­ence is. He seems to think the au­di­ence are all hard­core nerds, and I find that charm­ing and tragic.’’

Like Os­car, Diaz was born in the Do­mini­can Repub­lic cap­i­tal Santo Domingo be­fore mov­ing to the New Jer­sey city of Pater­son at age six. ‘‘ I al­ways say that I use the stage of my life but I’ve im­ported an en­tirely new cast,’’ he says. ‘‘ I didn’t think I had the where­withal to in­vent the lo­ca­tion. I was like, ‘ Let’s place it some­where I know be­cause the rest of it is go­ing to be com­pletely rein­vented.’ ’’

Diaz’s novel, which took out the 2007 Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle award for fiction, ex­plores re­cent Do­mini­can po­lit­i­cal his­tory as well as the de Leon fam­ily’s losses, loves and strug­gle with the ‘‘ fuku’’, an an­cient curse on the fam­ily.

Diaz has been pro­claimed ‘‘ the voice of Do­mini­can- Amer­i­cans’’, al­though any gen­relov­ing Aus­tralian in­tro­vert will also iden­tify with the hap­less Os­car. ‘‘ No one says that of au­thors like Peter Carey,’’ Diaz says of the New York­based Aus­tralian au­thor. ‘‘ He be­longs to a group of peo­ple equally or even more iso­lated if you think about it on a global level. There isn’t a place on earth that can’t be the cen­tre of hu­man­ity at the mo­ment that you’re telling your story.’’

The Brief Won­drous Life of Os­car Wao ex­plores ter­ri­tory sim­i­lar to Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Soli­tude and Michael Chabon’s The Amaz­ing Ad­ven­tures of Kava­lier and Clay , which were in­spired by Su­per­man and the char­ac­ter’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

‘‘ As metaphors, comics are not only valu­able for un­der­stand­ing child­hood but also how we put to­gether our au­to­bi­ogra­phies,’’ Diaz says. ‘‘ We like to put to­gether co­her­ent his­to­ries. The most ba­sic of the su­per­hero tropes are also the most pow­er­ful ways to un­der­stand im­mi­gra­tion, to un­der­stand what it means to come from an­other world and what it means to be strange. On a very

‘ You spend 10 years in a hole work­ing and it comes out and peo­ple like it. It’s a nice thing’

sim­ple level, you never feel stranger than as an ado­les­cent, and X- Men doesn’t make sense with­out racial over­tones.’’

While Chabon and Lethem draw on their Jewish her­itage, Diaz taps into his Latino roots, adopt­ing a vi­brant prose style that blends Span­glish — a col­lo­quial com­bi­na­tion of Amer­i­can English and Span­ish — with African, Caribbean and Do­mini­can id­ioms. ( Ini­tially daunt­ing, it is easy to un­der­stand once you have grasped the hip- hop- es­que rhythm.)

‘‘ There’s a the­ory that each book trains its read­ers how to read it,’’ Diaz says. ‘‘ You’ve got to be­lieve that your read­ers will stick with you if you re­ally give it your all. If you’re too self­ind­ul­gent, then you’re go­ing to shake loose your read­ers, but if you’re pre­pared to give them the trade- off of some stan­dard nar­ra­tive plea­sure then they will fol­low you. I was amazed how few edi­tors were in agree­ment. Most of them were like, ‘ You need to need to get rid of some of this strange lan­guage!’ ’’

De­spite pro­vid­ing ex­ten­sive foot­notes elab­o­rat­ing on the book’s myr­iad cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences, Diaz re­frains from trans­lat- ing any Span­ish phrases. ‘‘ You’ve got to have ar­eas for ev­ery­body not to un­der­stand,’’ he ex­plains. ‘‘ If you asked my friends who are from the Caribbean, the thing that con­fuses them is the comic ref­er­ences. I like be­ing able to rec­on­cile the dif­fer­ent parts of my­self.

‘‘ The only time I feel I put my­self to­gether in any way that makes sense is in my writ­ing. The rest of the time I’m just in frag­ments.’’

Diaz uses fan­tasy to come to terms with the bru­tal hor­rors that the Do­mini­can Repub­lic suf­fered in the 1950s and be­yond un­der dic­ta­tor Rafael Tru­jillo, whom he com­pares with Sau­ron from The Lord of the Rings and other dark over­lords such as DC Comics’ Dark­seid and planet- eat­ing Fan­tas­tic Four en­emy Galac­tus.

‘‘ Orig­i­nally it was a way of mak­ing him ( Tru­jillo) make sense to Do­mini­cans be­cause he had be­come so com­mon­place that the colos­sal power that he wielded and his strange­ness had been forgotten,’’ Diaz says. ‘‘ It’s weird that only by us­ing em­blem­atic fig­ures of pop­u­lar cul­ture was I able to re- em­pha­sise how nuts he was. You can­not approach Do­mini­can his­tory with­out the metaphors of the fan­tas­tic. It’s im­pos­si­ble.’’

A decade has passed since Diaz made his lit­er­ary de­but in 1997 with the ac­claimed short­story col­lec­tion Drown , a gap he at­tributes not only to ‘‘ writ­ing in­cred­i­bly slowly’’ but also to trav­el­ling and en­joy­ing life af­ter spend­ing his 20s ‘‘ work­ing like a dog’’ in var­i­ous me­nial jobs. For­tu­nately, The Brief Won­drous Life of Os­car Wao has been uni­ver­sally praised and this month won a Pulitzer prize for fiction, al­though Diaz is keep­ing his feet firmly on the ground.

‘‘ If any­body pays at­ten­tion to lit­er­ary fiction then you’re al­ways happy,’’ he ad­mits. ‘‘ It’s re­ally grat­i­fy­ing. You spend 10 years in a hole try­ing to work on it and it comes out and peo­ple like it. It’s a nice thing on a sim­ple level to duck your head out and say: ‘ Oh, there’s some ap­plause’, but then you have to go back into your hole and get back down to work.’’

Hope­fully, Diaz will not take so long to pro­duce his sec­ond novel, which will ven­ture fur­ther into oth­er­worldly sce­nar­ios.

‘‘ I’m go­ing to push harder into Os­car­land,’’ he re­veals. ‘‘ I’m such a slow writer that I might as well try some­thing that re­moves me even fur­ther from the main­stream. There’s also a part of me that thinks if you’re go­ing to take a long time that is even more of an im­pe­tus to write your crazy, what­ever- your- nerd- is book.’’

The Brief Won­drous Life of Os­car Wao by Junot Diaz ( Faber, $ 32.95). Diaz will be a guest at next month’s Syd­ney Writ­ers Fes­ti­val.

Happy hero: Op­po­site page, Junot Diaz, au­thor of The Brief Won­drous Life of Os­car Wao

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