Junot Diaz is relieved.
It has taken him 11 years to produce the follow-up novel to “Drown,” his collection of short stories about growing up Dominican-American that was published to critical success in 1996. His new novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” follows the loves and losses (mostly losses) of a Dominican-American family back on the island and in New Jersey.
Throughout the book, Diaz points out that the family may be living under a curse, “a high-level fuku” that has doomed them to eternal unhappiness. But that curse may describe Diaz’s temporary loss for words, the writer’s block that paralyzed him sporadically over the years.
He managed to unlock his writer’s block, and he seems at ease during an interview, although his leg pumps up and down like a car piston as he talks about his new novel and life after “Drown.”
“I am, like, really relieved, you know,” says Diaz, 38, sitting at one of his hangouts, Central Kitchen in Cambridge. He wears black-frame glasses, a buzz cut, and white guayabera. He takes a deep breath as he begins to discuss the long bumpy journey that his new novel dragged him on. “It was such a long process that I felt like what I am more than anything is [expletive] relieved, bro… I wouldn’t say that I’m excited,” says Diaz, a creative writing professor at MIT who splits his time between apartments in Harvard Square and Harlem. He speaks in a raw, high-energy, streetwise Spanglish. He peppers his words with profanities, as do the characters in his stories.
His new tale follows Oscar de Leon, a pudgy “ghetto nerd” who uses science-fiction novels, “Star Trek” dolls, and writing to escape his failures at finding love. “Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber. … Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to,” Diaz writes. But he also writes about Oscar’s oppressive mother, Belicia, and his firecracker rebellious sister Lola, as they move back and forth between gritty Paterson, N.J., and their native Dominican Republic.
“I wanted to stay with Oscar the whole time, but that’s not what the book required of me. It refused,” says Diaz, who named the title character after the Spanish pronunciation of Oscar Wilde. “It’s impossible to understand Oscar without understanding his whole family.”
Although Oscar and his family live in the same house, none of the characters seem to know what goes on in one another’s lives. That code of silence propels the novel, and it’s something that Diaz himself experienced growing up in two cultures.
“My mother had absolutely no concept of what my world had of [being] a young kid in mostly Puerto Rican and black Central New Jersey. I had no concept of what her life was like growing up in Santo Domingo and living through the revolution,” says Diaz, his eyes animated as he chats breathlessly. “For me, it was important to have the book riddled with silences, holes, and gaps. The fundamental byproduct of trauma is silence. Immigration put a gag on so many families.”
Diaz is a child of immigration. He was born in Santo Domingo and emigrated to working-class New Jersey at age 6 during what has been called the Dominican diaspora, the wave of Dominicans who came to the United States after the death of dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1961. As Diaz settled into his new country, alienation enveloped him. Teachers pronounced his name “You Not.” (His first name, which is Haitian, is pronounced the same as the capital of Alaska.) Classmates hurled racial slurs and taunted him for his accent, geekiness, and love of books. He found an escape by reading science fiction and horror books, including those of Stephen King.
By the time he entered Rutgers University, Diaz turned his love of reading into a passion for writing. One important influence was the novels by Toni Morrison. “I had never met a writer who wrote so perfectly and delves so deep,” Diaz says. “She reaches into the core of those silences.”
Diaz used his voice to uncork his own silences about being bicultural, drawing from his own experiences but told through different characters. The main character in his stories, Yunior, happens to be Diaz’s family nickname. He admits that Yunior is a cooler and smarter version of him. He would write when he came home from running a copy machine in New York.
In 1996, Riverhead Books signed Diaz to a six-figure contract for two books, the first of which was “Drown.” Diaz exploded as a literary wonder. He had short stories published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Newsweek named him a new face of 1996. The New Yorker included him in its list of 20 writers to watch for in the 21st century.
As his publisher and fans awaited his follow-up, Diaz was struck with a bad case of writer’s block. The dreaded “fuku”?
Diaz dismisses the notion that he, like his characters, was cursed. The reason it took him so long to write the new novel was that he couldn’t finish a science fiction novel he began. That book, which he still hasn’t finished, describes a terrorist attack in New York City. (Diaz began the book before 9/11 and says the NBC show “Heroes” reminds him of his story.)
“I was driving myself crazy [writing the second book],” says Diaz, whose first book helped him land a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1999, followed by the Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Fund Writers’ Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, and others. In between, he’s been teaching at MIT for the past four years and contributed each summer to Voices, a summer mentoring program at the University of San Francisco for young minority writers. “It was just a hard book. It’s so much easier to help my kids than to do my own work. In that way, I was avoiding my own work.”
So how did he triumph over his writer’s block? For one thing, he set aside the sci-fi book that wasn’t coming together. Beyond that, it was a matter of persistence and hard work.
“I just bullied myself through it. I just kept throwing myself out into the wilderness of the word,” Diaz says. “I would write 200 pages, get [expletive] depressed and crazy, sit around for two months, and then come back and write another 200 pages. It was endless. Sometimes they don’t come easy.”
Diaz mines familiar themes in the new book: Dominican-American history, New Jersey upbringing, infidelity, science fiction, strong-willed women, the elusive search for lasting love. (Has he found his own? He has. He’s engaged to be married.)
Now that “Oscar Wao” is in bookstores, Diaz is trying his hand again at the apocalyptic science fiction novel that he has yet to finish.
“I learned so much by [expletive] up so thoroughly in writing of the [‘Oscar Wao’] book,” Diaz says. “I would have never learned any of this. I feel this book has turned me into the strongest writer I have ever been. It was my 11 years in the desert. Whether I can do anything with that, that’s for the future to decide.”