On the occasion of Calabash literary festival in Jamaica on May 2009, I had the chance to catch up with Junot Díaz and ask him a few questions about The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. On a warm Saturday afternoon, within the idyllic setting provided by Jake’s Resort in Treasure Beach, on the unspoiled south coast of Jamaica, I watch the inconspicuous figure of Junot Díaz, calmly strolling outside the large tent that hosts a conversation between Paul Holdengräber and Pico Iyer. In the crowd, among other luminaries, sits Edwidge Danticat with her family. This is not just another weekend in Jamaica – this is Calabash.
Discretely, I whisper ‘Junot’, and a wry look in his eyes acknowledges the salute and says wait a sec, not just now. A few questions have been crowding my mind since a book-signing session the previous night, where he acted so gregariously. There he answered one of them, as my partner brought up to him a complaint about the implausibility of a character such as Ybón, the Dominican hooker, who appears to be Oscar’s only chance of salvation. ‘We could speak about this character for hours’, he said, before going on to explain that his intention had been to highlight the reality of prostitution in the Dominican Republic, where locals and tourists alike seek in prostitutes the solution to their problems, finding nothing more than further trouble. But Oscar cannot be saved by Ybón, because he is not in love with Ybón, he explains. He just uses her – and every other girl in the text – to make up for the lack of attention, of sex, of affection in his life.
Back to Saturday afternoon, Junot has done his bit of posing for the cameras, signing books, chit-chatting around, but he still bustles up and down between the tent and the bookshop. This is my opportunity, I know – but I also know that I won’t have much time. I pick out the single-most salient aspect of the novel and bring it up with him. ‘You know, I am so surprised about the amount of emails and correspondence and attention I have received about this’. His Spanish is good – it’s colloquial, fluent and authentic. Yet, it’s obviously learned. I don’t know why I should have expected otherwise, but I did. I expected a Dominican accent as thick and natural as my Venezuelan. This adds a further level to my question about his use of Spanglish – a level I’m not yet ready to conceptualize, but a level nonetheless. ‘Some of them quite aggressive, too. So many people seem to be angry because I don’t give them a translation, I’m just stunned.’ I dig deeper into the wound: was that deliberate? Did you intend to create a sense of alienation in a specific kind of reader? ‘No!’, he let’s out spontaneously, ‘I just wanted them to go to a friend and get some help.
By now, time is running out. I know I won’t get the chance to bring up another aspect, so I take the opportunity to thank him for his time, his willingness to talk, and ask him whether I could send him a follow-up email with a short interview. Junot agrees. Junot replies (within hours of me sending the email). In his answers he makes a clear distinction between the demiurge and the critic. But it is, rather, his overall attitude that makes the most lasting impression. He has proven to me that you can be talented and nice, graceful and successful, all at once. For that, thanks, Junot.
Structurally, the use of notes in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is noteworthy. Initially the feeling is that you wish to familiarize the reader with the history of the Dominican Republic. However, this role expands substantially as we delve further into the text. What was your inspiration to include footnotes within a work of fiction, and what role do you intend them to perform when you include them in your work?
The footnotes are nothing new. From Nabakov to my most immediate inspiration, Patrick Chamoiseau, they’ve been a literary feature for quite a while. Simply put: the footnotes were there to start a conversation about authority and erudition, about Official Narrative versus Nonsense Narratives. After all history is considered an Official Legitimate Narrative and Science Fiction is not and yet the scifi in this novel will give you a better understanding of the novel than any of its official historical interventions.
At Calabash we spoke briefly about what is communicated in your work without explicit mention in the text. A substantial portion of the underlying commentary palpable in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is certainly the alienated condition of Dominican-Americans living in New Jersey, with a two-pronged attack on both their own attitude – as evidenced in their relationship with Puerto Ricans, for instance – and the American society at large, which has allowed, and perhaps even provoked, such condition. There are at least two elements in the novel that, to a certain extent, recreate the alienation of the main characters of the story on the common reader. These are the use of Spanglish and the use of metaphors, images and other resources from genre. Regarding the first element, you told me at Calabash that it had not been your intention to alienate any type of reader, but rather to prompt the Anglophone reader to seek assistance from a Spanish speaker. Is this a way to add a social role to your literature – your contribution in bridging the gap between Latin immigrants and the “establishment”, as it were? If so, does the second element play a similar role: an effort to incorporate the sci-fi geek into the mainstream? Or is this, rather, an effort to highlight the often-overlooked merits of genre?
The question is far longer than my answer. I dont think alienation was on my mind at all while organizing this book. That doesn’t mean its not a legitimate axis of analysis; it’s just I have nothing to say about it. And I’m not sure I was trying to bridge anything with this book other than to show that in one Dominican person, in one Dominican familiy, in one Dominican universe–everything is present. English Spanish, Hindi, Japanese, hiphop, nerd etc.
A generic question, linked to the different narrative voices present in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Beyond the traditional shift in narrators, the novel attains a distinctive tone through an independent narrator, located somewhere outside the story, who is neither Yunior nor Junot (to whom the footnotes can be attributed). This narrator speaks directly to the reader (“Here at last is her smile: burn it into your memory”) and the characters (“Oh, Beli; not so rashly, not so rashly”), is fluid, unpredictable and altogether richer than the traditional narrator. In your view, what is the role of this Post-modern (to call it something) narrator in contemporary literature?
I dont think so. Yunior is Yunior. He came about as a singularity though now he may have the force of an aesthetic argument but that’s not how he started.
While (political, social, etc) violence is present throughout the tale, it would be unfair to say that the predominant discourse of the novel is violent (even bearing in mind the ending). What is the role of violence both within the family saga and in terms of the individual development of each of the protagonists in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao?
That’s like asking what is the role of people in the New World? Manifold and terrible and with deep historical roots is the only answer I can manage. Less as an answer to your question and more as a description of my vision of violence in the new world.
ABRIDGED VERSION PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF THE DAILY HERALD, SINT MAARTEN ON JUNE 27, 2009.
A SPANISH VERSION OF THIS INTERVIEW WAS PUBLISHED BY LETRALIA IN AUGUST 2009.