Junot Diaz sat recently for a brief interview in preparation for a reading at Connecticut College. He answered five questions:
1 Reviews of “Oscar” frequently compared it to Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers and so on. Much of your novel, though, is set in the Dominican Republic and immersed in Latin culture – and I didn’t see many allusions to the Latin American literary tradition from the critics. Does Latin American fiction resonate in a big way with you?
A. It does. But also Caribbean literature. Writers such as Juan Bosch and Aime Cesair and Patrick Chamoiseau and George Lamming and clearly Derek Walcott were fundamental. It’s nice to be compared to the local boys you mentioned, but really I’m not sure how accurate those comparisons are. Strange how no African-American or Asian-American or U.S. Latino writers were mentioned, and I feel like I have more consonance with these traditions than with the above-mentioned whiteboys. Those comparisons seems to deny all my real roots and also the kind of project I’m working on, which is so far removed from anything that the Chabons and the Eggers of the world are working on.
2 Oscar’s world is massively impacted by his sister, Lola, and his mother, Beli – and their characterizations are remarkable portraits of women. Was it hard to write from their perspective?
A. You can’t understand a person like Oscar without understanding the women in his life. The explanation as to what’s wrong with Oscar (at the level of love – in other words why he has trouble getting girls) can be found by examining his sister and mother’s experiences.
And you better believe it took a lot of work to get those two women right. A lot of rewriting.
3 “Oscar” is so intricately plotted and works on so many levels that I have to feel you worked from a significant outline. How much leeway do the characters have to influence the direction of the novel as you write?
A. Alas, there was a serious design which the process often altered but that helped guide me all the times that I got lost – a design flexible enough for improvisation but organized enough to impart a complex structure on the whole proceeding. (It’s ) part of the reason the damn book took so long.
4 From the rhythms and poetry of “Oscar,” music seems to influence you in a big way. If it’s true, what would be on the “Oscar” mix-CD? And, in a more stylistic context, how much has music influenced your sense of dialogue and the street and even setting and geography?
A. There would be a lot of (merengue singer) Omega and (Basil Poledouris’) soundtrack to the film “Conan the Barbarian.” And really, how can one write an African Diasporic Caribbean novel without music filtered into nearly every word? Music rode shotgun on this novel. Everything from Lord Quas to Bonga.
5 Don’t be modest: how much of an increase in enrollment have you seen in your classes since “Oscar” blasted off?
A. Not very. At MIT it’s all about your schedule. If your class fits in to an open period for a lot of students, you get swamped. If it doesn’t, your class is quite small. But ever since the novel I get a lot of students coming in from Harvard and Wellesley, which didn’t happen so much before.
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