September 2007

John Zuarino

features

An Interview with Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao begins with a discussion on fukú, a curse that finds its way into every Dominican family only to wreak havoc upon its inhabitants. Díaz's narrator, Yunior, says of the fukú:

...it's important to remember fukú doesn't always strike like lightning. Sometimes it works patiently, drowning a nigger by degrees, like with the Admiral or the U.S. in paddies outside of Saigon. Sometimes it's slow and sometimes it's fast. It's doom-ish in that way, makes it harder to put a finger on, to brace yourself against. But be assured: like Darkseid's Omega Effect, no matter how many turns and digressions this shit might take, it always -- and I mean always -- gets its man.

And gets its man that fukú does. We get to trace the fukú from Oscar to his sister, Lola, to their mother, Beli, to her parents' untimely demise in Santo Domingo at the hands of Trujillo and all the way back to Oscar's destruction. The reader watches helplessly as he leans just how deep this shit runs through the family line, how deep Trujillo dug his claws until he fell to a fukú of his own. Combine the historical Dominican mythologies and mysticism with unfettered nerd-culture references and you've got a quick yet heavy narrative from an original literary voice indicative of our times.

I called Junot from a cell phone with a New Jersey area code. He immediately asked me where I was from, only to come to the realization that he knows my home town, North Plainfield, like the back of his hand because of a long-term ex-girlfriend. When the conversation got to the point where we were gossiping about certain families we both knew, I figured I'd better not risk upsetting karmic law and start talking about his book.


Obviously, a lot of research went into this. Where did you start? Is it from memory or did you have to do some footwork in Santo Domingo and Patterson?

I've heard it said from other writers before that research is more fun than the actual writing. But I'm kind of this crazy history person -- I basically knew all the texts that I needed to read for this book, so what ended up happening was I would just find myself going, "Hey that reminds me of something on page 70 of this one monograph I have, so let me go dig through and find the reference." And so it was kind of like, I had this enormous amount of historical knowledge in my head and nothing to do with it.  It was more like reverse engineering. The book sort of gave me the map work and the instructions of what to cherry pick. 

Most of the research that I did was on a lot of the nerdy stuff. I had mostly packed that, more than any of the history, into my head pretty tight. But there was a bunch of nerdy stuff I had to go back into. I had to actually watch some of the movies that the narrator and the protagonist were obsessed with, so I found myself watching a lot of crazy movies.

What were some of the movies?

Oh man, things like Zardoz, which is like one of John Boorman's early films. I found myself watching Virus, which is this really crazy American-Japanese production. You know, I found myself reading The Lord of the Rings three times back-to-back. I would finish it and start it again and finish it and start it again. It's so I would have it fucking locked in my head in the way the narrator and protagonist would have it locked in their heads, you know? There's a lot of crazy stuff. I went back and had to read all this H.P. Lovecraft and all the E.E. "Doc" Smith Lensman books. I found myself really just doing a lot of fucking nerdy reading. Again I can't stress how easy the history stuff was. I have a good memory for historical marginalia.

It's interesting, though, a lot of the historical research, especially the mythologies involved in the story, just goes hand-in-hand with the nerdy stuff.

I think there was sort of this constant poetic in the book where I was trying to imprint the real with the crazy, or contaminate the real with all this nerdy narrative, and then the same way just doing the exact reverse -- contaminating the nerdy with the painfully real. There's nothing that historians and serious academics dislike more than someone drawing a flip analogy with a figure from popular culture, but by the same token what's fascinating is how much fanboys and consumers of what we'll call "nerd culture" resist any infection by the real. Fanboys will go out of their way, they'll bend over backwards to swear to God that J.R.R. Tolkien has no racist elements, which is hilarious. In some ways I'm equally committed to both cultures, but I'm an artist, so try to avoid being too much of a partisan. And the same thing, you watch a movie like 300, and it's fucking hilarious. If you talk to fanboys that are into this, they swear to God that the fact that all the villains are black is not a problem. And yet those of us who exist in the real see how problematic that is, so in some ways it's not as if I have a sense that one side or the other is superior. I think each of them have an extremely strong blind spot and that neither proved entirely satisfactory to me as an author or to me as a human being. I feel like I had to lay down ten or eleven or twelve different sheets of acetate for the little hole in my eye; the blind spot became less and less and less.

Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies is mentioned several times throughout the novel in the footnotes. Is it a direct influence on Oscar Wao?

I wouldn't say that. And yet I wouldn't deny it either. It's kind of hard to understand how other people's books work their way into your narrative engine, but I think what was most interesting for me was that in some ways my book was having a conversation with all these other books. And so even though Julia Alvarez's is one of the texts, the book seemed to be explicitly chewing the fat and arguing, sometimes agreeing and sometimes not. There are a number of other books that this novel was in contention, or better yet, in dialogue with. In the Time of the Butterflies was one of her best novels, but I was also thinking of a different approach to writing history.

Is this autobiographical fiction?

That's the kind of question which is weird, because in fiction I think that question is the least relevant, and yet it's the one that's most asked. I think that question has a stronger bearing when people are working in memoir or biography. I don't think of it morally, it's not like it's a bad question, but I think that when you're reading memoir or biography it would be a much more helpful guide. But on the other hand, as a fiction writer, that's always a great question for a very different reason, because instead of guiding our reading as a reader, what it tends to guide is how willing we are to believe someone who basically makes their living off of lies? And so I always get a kick out of answering that question differently every time because there is just no answer that states the fact that I use the fictive. Like most writers in my area I tend to use the fictive, if we can make the word up, to aim readers towards the true, whatever that may be.

This book was a book where I didn't know any of the characters before I started writing them. I think that the most hilarious truth is that the only real character in the book is the fakest one of all. The only character that comes from my life is the talking, possibly alien, mythical mongoose. That's the only character that comes plucked from what I've experienced and what I've lived. That's been a person in my family's history for a very long time.

The mongoose?

Yes, the talking, perhaps godlike, mongoose. He's been in my family for a very long time in the form of a story, you know?

The novel opens with a quote from a Fantastic Four comic where Galactus asks, "Of what import are brief, nameless lives... to Galactus??". Is the figure meant to be viewed as a Trujillo analogy?

The book makes it clear that the Galactus figure, the Darkseid figure, and the Sauron figure are interchangeably dictatorships and also even the mindset found in the United States. I think that in some ways it's asking a question of the reader more than anything, because in some ways, depending on how you answer that question, it really decides whether you're Galactus or not. In some ways I think there are plenty of people who are members of the kind of brief and nameless lives, and yet they don't give a shit about other nameless lives. Some people are incredibly powerful and still think that. And so what's interesting about this is that the person that that's being asked in the comic book is the very character whom the narrator, Yunior, takes on as his narrative alter-ego, his nom de plume. Galactus is actually asking the question in the Fantastic Four comic book to the Watcher, to the person that's telling stories. So I always think that that's a question to the reader but also a question to writers in general. This was the only way that the book could begin. I was like, "Yeah, I like that. Okay."

Oscar's life on College Ave seems so real, I guess more so for me also since it's around where I grew up. Have you spent much time at Rutgers?

Oh, I'm a Rutgers grad. I'm a Rutgers boy. I went to Rutgers from 1988 to 1992, a long time ago, but that was before colleges turned into corporations. It was madness. They hadn't figured out yet to lock us down, and I swear to God that things were as crazy as they are now, but I was like, "Kids, man, you have no fucking idea how over-patrolled you guys are." They didn't even notice us, dude. College was like some empty space. I was always obsessed with Rutgers, and I'm kind of like the Dominican version of Sonny Werblin, you know? Any chance I get, I fucking talk about Rutgers. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life, I will not lie. From the neighborhood I came from, I was literally intellectually starving. I was an incredibly bright kid outside of Perth Amboy, and going to Rutgers was sort of like someone who never had vitamin C their whole life. They're dying from fucking intellectual scurvy and rickets, and somebody gives them a fucking orange. It changed my life. There was a lot of me wondering what can I pillage from my memory just so I can give Oscar a stage to work on? As much as you ask how much this was real, I feel like I was the set designer in a way. My real life designed the set, but the fiction wrote the script and hired the actors.

How has writing this novel differed from writing the short stories in Drown?

I'm probably the worst person to ask that. I don't have any sense other than that writing is extremely difficult for me. People are always asking, "Did it take you so long because writing a novel is really hard?" I'm like, dude, it took me seven years to write one story, one twenty page story. Really? I didn't realize that one was harder than the other, they all seem impossible to me. They both have me through the intestines on their horns, so it's that kind of weird thing like getting gut-shot by a pistol or a rifle. And the process, someone's like "Tell me, which one is worse?" And I'm like [screams]! That's the only way to answer it, I'm usually so busy screaming the fine nuances of loss.

At the most fundamental level, when I was writing short stories, you usually have both feet on the brake. Your ethos is a prohibitive one, and you're just looking to cut shit out. A riff will destroy a short story. A tangent will guarantee that your short story is whack. On the other hand, what I discovered in writing novels is that you've got to give yourself more room, you've got to let go a little bit more. Again it's like writing a short story is one thing, but when you've got to go into another draft of a novel, you discover something about yourself. What's so interesting is that I just don't seem to do anything the easy way. This was a hard-earned victory, and I probably could have earned it far more simply.