Díaz speaks about first novel
Published: Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Updated: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 07:10
Writer Junot Díaz yesterday read excerpts from his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao," and delivered a talk that sprawled across the topics of writing, Latino history, translation and gender issues.
Speaking to an engaged crowd in Pearson Hall, Díaz described his debut novel as "a love story ... about an individual, a family and a country." "Oscar Wao" (2007) tells the story of a young Dominican-American man growing up in New Jersey.
Díaz, 39, said he drew upon the Fantastic Four and "Dune," the famed science fiction novel, when writing his book.
He was inspired by "Dune" because the messianic status of the protagonist in this classic work rests in his ability to channel the histories of both his maternal and paternal ancestors. To Díaz, that is something every individual should be able to do. "A human being is someone who can integrate both the male and female histories of their lives. You only become human when both your gender histories are on the table," he said.
Díaz also gave four of the main characters in the novel characteristics that correspond to the Fantastic Four. He said that because one of the main characters, Yunior, does not relate to anyone in the comic series turned Hollywood hit, the book has yet another level of meaning.
These elements came together with others in Díaz's attempt to target a broad audience and speak directly to the reader with "Oscar Wao."
"Audience is fundamental, and I think about it a lot," he said. "You got to remember that the audience is a very dynamic part of being a writer."
He noted that in a structural sense, the novel is extremely complicated. "I had a sense that I wanted to write a book that only progresses by digging deeper into the past," he said.
Díaz said that it took 11 years for him to write the book, explaining that art cannot be scheduled. "Guys, the weirdest thing about writing a piece of art is that you cannot pencil that s--t the f--k in," he said jokingly. "It resists us. I picked a book that wanted to resist me every step of the f--king way."
Another reason for the protracted process was that "the book needed compassion," something Díaz feels he did not have enough of. "It's like when you date someone and you aren't human enough for them," he said. "What keeps us from creating is that we haven't become the person to create that art."
Díaz noted that his "typical, typical, working, poor, immigrant background" forced him to learn how to work. "I work like a f--king beast," he said. "I went to Cornell grad school and worked three jobs."
He said that this aspect of his personality can conflict with his artistic side since it forces him to hurry things. "If I don't work, I can't afford medical insurance [or] pay my mother's rent. I've got other concerns other than my own," he said. "But as an artist, you want nothing more than time to work on your art."
But Díaz also concluded that there are limits to the amount of art one can produce. He asked the audience members whether they really wanted their favorite authors to write a new book each year. "Do we even have that many readers? I think we should limit authors to one book a decade," he said.
Although students were eager to ask him questions, after his talk Díaz told the Daily, "Young people don't need any words from me." According to Díaz, "Adults spend all their time giving f--king advice [to young people]. I have some advice for adults: to spend more time with young people."
Ruben Salinas-Stern, director of the Latino Center, which co-sponsored the event, said Díaz is a great role model for all students, but especially for Latino males and for "folks who have had to deal with being the smart ones in their community." He also noted that not many Latinos have had the honor of winning the Pulitzer, which Díaz earned this year.
Salinas-Stern said Díaz's book is "wonderful." The author "really speaks to experiences [about] identity and masculinity, be it the immigrant experience [or] moving from a poor, working-class background to the university," he said. According to Salinas-Stern, "If you're Latino at Tufts, it's difficult to find professors, courses or books that focus on your experience."
The event had a number of sponsors, including the Department of American Studies, the Arts, Sciences and Engineering Diversity Fund, the Latino Studies Minor, the Africana Center, the Women's Center, the Association of Latin American Students and the Latino Men's Group. It was part of the Latino Center's Latino Heritage Month programming.