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