Entertainment | Books

The streetwise scholar

Unable to speak English when he moved to the United States as a child, Junot Diaz has become one of the voices of contemporary America

  • By John MsDermott
  • Published: 21:30 August 7, 2014
  • Gulf News

Arriving early at B&G Oysters, a preppy restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay, I turn to the glossary of Junot Diaz’s first book “Drown”. Added at the insistence of his publisher, it hints at themes in the work of the Dominican-born author. There is FOB (first-off-the-boat), barrio (neighbourhood), carajo (curse) and zangano (an about-nothing person).

Conveniently, it also lists a greeting — Como te sientas. I ask as he descends the stairs.

“Good, brother,” Diaz says. He is entitled to be perky. Since Drown was published in 1996, the 45-year-old has received praise that would make a tyrant blush. That collection, a combustible mix of stories set in his “two homes”, New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, fuses English and Spanish with hip-hop slang and grad school jargon and fizzes with a furious cadence.

It turned Diaz into a star; here was a voice that resonated with contemporary polyglot America. The New York Times compared Drown to Huckleberry Finn. His second book, the novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (2007), won the Pulitzer Prize. In 2012, the MacArthur Foundation awarded him a “genius” grant.

We find a table at the rear of the sparse but bright indoor section. Diaz stands erect; in his early twenties he injured his back delivering pool tables — a job he took to pay for college. Goateed, bespectacled and Bic-razor bald, with a taut frame jiggled by a restless right leg, the author has the look of a master struggling to keep his Zen.

He has lived in Cambridge, across the Charles River from Boston, since 2003, when he began teaching creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his third and most recent book “This Is How You Lose Her” (2012), Yunior, the narrator of most of Diaz’s stories, complains that he feels “exiled” in “uncool” Boston. But Diaz tells me that he finds the city, with its “town-gown chasm”, “endlessly fascinating”.

He says he regularly comes to this restaurant with his partner Marjorie Liu, a paranormal and fantasy novelist. On her recommendation by proxy, I order the salmon tartare and a lobster roll. Diaz chooses green tea, tomato salad and the “dreaded” fried clams.

The clams are a “childhood thing”. When Diaz was six years old, his family moved from the Dominican Republic to the Jersey Shore. Many of his stories feature a young Yunior and his relatives in the throes of life as new migrants.

“[T]he US was a difficult place where even the devil got [beat up],” thinks Yunior’s mother in “Invierno”. In the same story, Yunior, like Diaz unable to speak English at that age, plays in the snow with a girl from the neighbourhood. “We sat there for a while, my head aching with a desire to communicate.”

I say I found these human tales a bracing counterblast to the political rhetoric that often clouds the realities of life for new immigrants. “Our visions of an immigrant community and an immigrant experience are highly moralistic,” he says. “I feel like our reality is William Gibson meets Toni Morrison, yet the way we’re interpreting the morality of immigrants is Chaucer.”

In other words, the immigrant’s journey is not the only characteristic of an immigrant; their lives are complex. He adds that the “frames” through which many in the west understand immigrants, such as a source of cheap labour, “tend to be highly simplistic and highly reductive, and just strangely ungenerous”.

To what extent is Diaz driven by his own family’s experiences? As the food arrives — starters and main courses full of ocean grub — he replies, “I grew up in this family where we’re all sitting across the table from each other and there was no communication between them — we talked but we never communicated.”

These multiple generations could not understand each other’s lives. “I have always had this desire in the books to have the conversations that never happened at home,” he says.

In “Otravida, Otravez”, from “This Is How You Lose Her”, Diaz describes the struggles of Ramon to find steady work, to provide for his family, to buy a house. A second-generation migrant, Diaz says, “doesn’t know anything about this, and has to encounter just the gruelling, eviscerating, frontline experience of first wave immigrants”. His voice — a methodical, lecturer’s delivery peppered with a rapper’s argot — stretches the word “e-vis-cer-a-ting”, bending it through each of the syllables.

As I try to keep the flailing lobster’s limbs within my brioche, I suggest that Ramon’s story, like others in “This Is How You Lose Her”, reveals the power exerted by a destination country’s culture: isn’t Ramon chasing the American dream? “I just think it’s really, really true the way our narratives and our scripts propel and envelope us, even in times when we ourselves no longer feel them,” he says.

In Ramon’s case, “it is hard to decide how much of his motivations are his, and how much is because we have these scripts that keep us alive: Family. Business. Home. It’s almost a secular version of the ascension force.”

Diaz’s writing is, in part, an effort to “describe this American crossroads where I grew up and all these cultures were coming into contact with each other”. Like Saul Bellow, that streetwise chronicler of the Jewish American experience, he fuses a “foreign” language (Yiddish for Bellow, Spanish for Diaz) with English and a vernacular lingo.

In “Oscar Wao”, Diaz describes how the eponymous “passionate enamorao”, with his “triple-zero batting average with the ladies”, looks at girls on the volleyball team and sees “the sort of hot Latinas who dated only weightlifting morenos or Latino cats with guns in their cribs.”

Chomping his way through his mountain of battered clams, Diaz adds that his choice of language also serves an instrumental purpose. “I believe wholeheartedly that the experience of reading powerfully invites the reader to reach out to other people, to form community when they encounter language that they do not understand.”

This explains his annoyance at the inclusion of the glossary in “Drown”. It was not until he was 13 that English became his main language of thought. “I’ve never thought of all these multiple languages and all of these multiple cultures as sort of fearful, as restricted, as something that locks me out.”

Diaz’s hyperactive prose is graphic. When describing a depraved apparatchik’s obsession with Oscar Wao’s sister he adds descriptions that newspaper style guides would balk at.

I wonder, then, which language is better for swearing in? “I think that English swear words are so much more forceful and direct. In Spanish they are so much more personal. Spanish curses I feel in my marrow. Though they often take a little while to unravel.

He has been criticised for his portrayal of women — or rather for his portrayal of Yunior’s portrayal of women. There is, among others, the chica with the “big Dominica posterior that seemed to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans.” Writing in Elle magazine, Virginia Vitzhum praises Diaz’s work but argues that his “constant dismissal of women as slams a door in my face”.

The machismo of his characters is, he says, a deliberate, critical ploy. Studying at Rutgers University in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he saw how black female writers such as Alice Walker were accused by their male counterparts of “pathologising black males for the consumption of white audiences”. Diaz, however, remembered the “hypermale culture” he grew up in and thought that “the representation of the males in these women’s writing was an act of generosity!”

Henceforth, he sought to “not only confirm but extend the criticisms of these black women writers” by “holding up a mirror” to the types of guys he grew up with. Between the last few mouthfuls of fried clams, Diaz uses an explanation befitting a cultural theory seminar — “We live in a patriarchal imaginary where men cannot conceptualise women as fully human” — before adding a homie embellishment - “What’s really important is how this feeling resides in us, how this just lives in us, man, even if we’re the good guy — it should give a [expletive] pause.”

There is more than feminist theory behind his implied criticism of masculinity. Like the men in “This is How You Lose Her”, Diaz’s father was, according to his son, a cheater and a player. For a while, he followed suit. “I woke up one day and thought to myself, ‘I’m my Dad!’ I woke up one day and said, ‘Wow, I have transformed into the very man who victimised and broke my heart as a kid.’

His father, a Dominican military veteran, was a harsh disciplinarian with his five children (four sons, one daughter), if not with himself. Diaz says his father has not spoken to him or his siblings since Diaz was 19; he has “completely disappeared”.

“When you are nine years old and your Dad is choosing random girls on the street over you as a kid, that’s hard to communicate what it means to a child. I think my own inability to communicate it to myself I translate into Yunior.” Diaz has no plans to have children — “I think it’s finally skipped me by,” he says.

The family was steeped in a strict military ethic. I find this hard to square with the casual, cool author who insists that I try some of these clams.

“I don’t talk about it much,” says Diaz, though its influence endures. His three brothers all signed up; his sister married an army guy and spent the 1980s on a tank base in Germany. If Diaz had not been admitted to college, he too would have joined up. “I guess I’m a casual personality with very formal old world structures,” he says.

Diaz’s mother is addressed as señora in her house — “think about it: my lady”. He makes his MIT students address each other by name. During our lunch, I am addressed as “brother” or “sir”. And after we order a couple of coffees in lieu of dessert, he asks if it is OK if he goes to the bathroom. I say yes.

Refreshed, we continue on the theme. “In our family there was never any celebration of achievement, ever,” he says. “I remember when I won the Pulitzer, I had no party or celebration.” Eventually, his friends intervened. “They said, ‘Come and have a drink with us.’ That’s when I finally realised how much it still has a hold on me.”

So has success liberated him? “I have that deep-seated fear of catastrophe that a lot of immigrants have,” he replies. In the 11 years between “Drown” and “Oscar Wao”, his after-tax income from book sales was just $50,000 (Dh183,500) in total. Things have improved but he continues to teach at MIT. He likes the students, who he says are better for not wanting to be novelists, unlike those in other creative writing classes. “If you think learning salsa is your future, you’re going to be pretty insufferable in salsa classes.”

Plus, MIT provides for his medical insurance; the genius grant is “great penny” ($100,000 per year for five years) but his back is bad. Diaz estimates that the Pulitzer was good for an additional 400,000 copies of his books but the problem is that he is “the slowest writer I know”.

Three books in two decades is, it’s true, hardly the output of Agatha Christie. Does it bother him that he hasn’t written more?

“We’re committed to the idea that a book has to live in the present ... but the reality, that’s hard for us to recognise, is that a book has to live in the future.”

There is only a 50/50 chance, he estimates by way of example, that a physical bookstore will now have anything by Norman Mailer. “Someone living in the 1970s would never have thought that was possible.” The fickleness of the present gives the author some comfort, however: “Chances are, I will be lucky if even one of my books survives in the future.”

There have been rumours that Diaz’s next book will be set in the future. He is an admirer of fantasy, science fiction and comic books; Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” is the one book he says he wishes he had written. “Oscar Wao” takes its deep structure from the “Fantastic Four” comic book, a trick inspired by Rick Moody’s novel “The Ice Storm”.

It is also full of what the title character calls “genre references”. “Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light sabre,” Diaz writes of the titular Oscar, for whom women “were the beginning and end, the Alpha and the Omega, the DC and the Marvel”.

Diaz says the market for books has played an important role in “shifting marginal forms [of fiction] towards the centre. “A lot of writers have realised they can pad their bottom line by writing a story about a werewolf.” Nevertheless, such fiction has not been fully embraced by mainstream critics: “There is still a strong concept that not-realistic ‘escapism’ is not serious and that it is juvenile.”

Indeed, “escapist” forms of literature can be profound. “Genres are good to think about what remains outside the purview, outside the analysis of our respectable, realistic discourses.” Incorporating these other forms of writing also seems to serve a political purpose, in a similar way to his amalgamation of Spanish, English and slang.

“There’s also a sense that there are conversations [in genre fiction] that the larger society would rather not have.”

At this point, says Diaz, he would be happy if his next novel “was just A Novel”. Coffee downed, we get set to leave. I try again to ask whether this bewildering mix of streetwise and scholarliness will give sci-fi a go. “I wouldn’t mind something that challenges me formalistically and genre-listically; there are conversations I want to be part of. But not all of us can play cricket.”

–Financial Times

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