Talking with Junot Diaz

When Dominican-American author Junot Diaz's first short story collection, "Drown," was published in 1996, it was met with widespread acclaim, and the young author was heralded as the next big thing on the literary scene. But it took Diaz, 39, more than a decade to publish his follow-up. When his debut novel, "The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," was finally published last September, the naysayers were immediately silenced—a judgment confirmed again Monday when it was announced that Diaz had won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction (last month he won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction as well). The novel, which has been optioned by Miramax Films, is a sharp tour de force in which Diaz creates his own language to explore some familiar themes: the immigrant experience, family dynamics and sex. Recently (pretty much halfway between winning his two awards) Diaz spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jesse Ellison about his difficult relationship with notoriety, the difficulty of getting out of an 11-year hole and why the Dominican experience is universal. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: I hear that you have a conflicted relationship with fame.
Junot Diaz: Yeah, I do a very good job at seeming comfortable with the little attention that writers get. But that's just a cover. I am a person who dreads any kind of public exposure and any kind of public event. I spend all day, if I have to do a reading, preparing.

Has it gotten any easier?
It's gotten worse actually. I'm sure I'm one of those undiagnosed people with social anxiety.

So are awards bittersweet?
Well, everybody likes to win. But what's really awe-inspiring is being in that company for five weeks. Who can dream of that? My whole life, I would never in my wildest dreams imagine that a book of mine would share the stage with all those writers.

You had your editor accept the award for you.
Yeah, they showed up. They had way more faith than me. I told them not to go. For real, they were pissed because I was like, "We're not going to win. Don't worry about it." The fact that they showed up was a bone of contention. I honestly think the people in my life have more faith in me than I do.

So 10 years ago you were the hot young writer. There was a lot of expectation placed on you. Was that a burden?
Someone said this to me and I love it: "Being a hot young short-story writer is like being a hot young up-and-coming pastry chef." Who really knows or cares in the real world? I think most of the pressure that was on was because of me. I drive myself crazy very well, thank you. Even if the first book had had no success, I would have driven myself crazy with the second one. But no, it didn't help people saying, "Hey, it's taken a long time for your book, do you think you can't write novels?" And every time I did a Q&A at a reading, there was always someone who was like, "So do you think you suck or what?"

What would you say to that?
I'm like, "God, I don't know!" You want to say, "No, no I don't." But you can't tell them until the book is done. So, of course, you're like, "Damn, I hope not!"

Did it ever get you down? Did you feel like, screw it?
Oh, yeah. Talk to my fiancée. No, I think it was an incredibly difficult struggle. I tell a lot of young people I work with that nothing should be more inspirational than my dumb ass. It took me 11 years to struggle through one dumb book, and every day you just want to give up. But you don't find out you're an artist because you do something really well. You find out you're an artist because when you fail you have something within you—strength or belief or just craziness—that picks you back up again. Most of the artists I know will never, fortunately for them, have to face an 11-year hole. Fighting your way out of an 11-year hole is a lot tougher than it might seem. And I think had it not been for, like, that stupid Caribbean immigrant stubbornness that my mom bred into me, my God, I would have actually stayed down.

Where did the idea for the novel come from?
I was in Mexico City, and I was living there, really depressed, trying to figure out how to write something that made any sense, and one of my Mexican friends had picked up a copy of "The Importance of Being Earnest" off his bookshelf and he started talking about how important Oscar Wilde was in his life. And in Spanish it's hard to pronounce "Wilde" without it coming out sounding like "Wao." And I just loved that. I had this incredible vision of this whole family: this fat kid, can't get laid, loves "Star Trek;" his super-athletic, burning-with-rage-towards-her-mother-but-incredibly-forward-looking sister, and then this really [messed]-up mom. They just jumped into my head.

And this is a book where you're borrowing from so many books. It's a book about other books. If it wasn't for the small pleasures, the confidence that you draw from other writers, the courage that you find in other writers' work, it would be hard to continue through these labors.

Do you get frustrated by always being identified as a "Dominican" writer or a "Latino" writer, and never just as a straight-up "writer"?
No, because there's no such thing as a straight-up writer. I think when people say a straight-up writer, what they really mean is a white writer. In other words, historically there has never been this concept of a nonracialized, nongendered writer. The fact that the word "writer" has to be modified so often is because everybody knows that when people speak of writers, we tend to mean, on an unconscious level, white males. And I don't think that being a white writer and being a Dominican writer says anything about your talent with the material that you write about. That's the important difference. People assume that if you put a tag on it, that immediately assumes that you're a different kind of writer. But that's not the case. Just because those of us that write in English in the United States are American writers, that doesn't mean that we really have much in common.

I think that the reason I don't mind being labeled or labeling myself is because I think the entire universe can be found in the Dominican experience. I don't see the Dominican Republic as a limitation. People seem to think that coming from a tiny island with this really bizarre history in the Dominican Republic is somehow limiting. But in my mind, I think that the same way a small, cold, gray, drizzly island nation in the North Atlantic could imagine itself the center of the universe, I see no difference why a Dominican who comes from this tiny little place and time can't also imagine himself the center of the universe.

Is there something particular about the history or culture of the Dominican Republic that makes you say that?
I could make tons of arguments. All of us, to misquote Whitman, we all contain multitudes. I think more specifically, we all contain universes. It doesn't matter who you are. You could be some guy who writes code in Mumbai for a major corporation or you could be a truck driver in Cincinnati. But in the end, none of that means that the whole universe isn't contained inside you.

But more specifically, the Caribbean generally and the island of Hispaniola specifically is the linchpin, the pivot point where the old world swung into the new world. If you want the transformation point, if you want the ground zero where the Old World died and the New World began, it's there. I mean, nothing is more quintessentially American—in the entire span of that description—than the Caribbean and more specifically the Dominican Republic. If you want to be incredibly grandiose, the entire world, we're all the children of what happened in the Caribbean, whether we know it or not. I mean, the extermination of indigenous people, the conquest of the New World, slavery and in some ways the rise of this form of capitalism that we all live under. I mean really the modern world was given rise by what began in the Caribbean.

The book begins with a Derek Walcott poem that ends with the line "… either I'm nobody or I'm a nation." Why did you choose that?
The concept of a "nation" is definitely problematized in a place like the Caribbean. This myth that nations exist, they have to work overtime in the Caribbean, where you have so many elements, so many mixtures, so much hybridity. But I think more importantly, a nation that erases individuals is no nation. And an individual who believes they're completely disconnected from everyone else is equally absurd. In my mind, I thought that Walcott hit it all. I found it very poignant. I just thought, God, it's true.

Immigration is a hot political topic right now. You immigrated to the United States with your family when you were just 6 years old. Do you have any thoughts on the issue?
I thought it was interesting that when I won the National Book Critics Circle Award, they described my novel's main character as a Dominican immigrant, which is just astounding. Oscar was no immigrant; he was born and raised in the United States. I just think in general it's funny how you'll get ascribed immigration status. Whether I'm an immigrant or not, people are going to assume I'm an immigrant anyway. It's the same with poor Oscar. I just think look, c'mon, I'm no expert in it. I'm hoping that white writers are being asked about immigration questions, too. Even though myself, I'm an immigrant, I'm only part of the problem. White writers should be asked about immigration as much as Latino writers. Because they're part of the same problem. I don't understand why I'm the one always being asked at the passport door to step aside. I see everyone else smuggling [stuff] in, but they're always saying, "you."

With that caveat aside, we're in the fifth year of the most expensive war in human history. We're devouring an entire generation of our young people, both directly in the war or with the long-term consequences, and yet the country wants to get obsessed with immigration. Like this is the exact right time to have this conversation? I wonder if we're not trying to distract ourselves. You know, I love that image from "Moby Dick," because we're like the ship. We're the Pequod. We're this nation on this ship, and we're on this insane quest being directed by a madman. But what's really interesting is that Captain Ahab wasn't taking his foreign workers and making them walk the plank. He understood the value of diversity through his dream. We're even crazier than Ahab. We're chasing this white whale called terrorism, but our captain is saying, "You know what, I don't think some of us really belong here. They should walk the plank." I never thought there would be a day where the United States would be crazier than its metaphor, the Pequod. But we're there. We're there. Ahab is now a moderate.