Junot Díaz has a story in this week’s New Yorker called “The Pura Principle,” which he discussed via e-mail with Cressida Leyshon, a fiction editor at the magazine. Here are some excerpts from their exchange. You can find links to the story and the full interview below.
In “The Pura Principle,” the narrator, Yunior, watches as his older brother Rafa contends with both leukemia and a tricky new girlfriend named Pura. Yunior and Rafa were, of course, central characters in many of the stories in “Drown,” your first book, which was published in 1996. Why did you return to their relationship?
“Drown” was always a hybrid book. It’s connected stories—partially a story collection but partially a novel. I always wanted the reader to decide which genre they thought the book belonged to more—story, novel, neither, both. In “Drown,” Rafa disappears midway through, and that’s because the character was always supposed to be diagnosed with cancer. But at the time I was composing “Drown,” I couldn’t seem to write that story. Too hard for me—way too hard. So in the end there was a hole in “Drown,” a narrative caesura. I’ve been trying to bridge that gap ever since, first with the story “Nilda,” which you guys published, and now with “The Pura Principal.”
In 2007, you published your first novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” about an introverted, overweight “ghettonerd” and his quest for love. One of the (many) interesting aspects of the novel is the fact that we don’t know who’s telling Oscar’s story for quite a while. Eventually we learn that the narrator is Oscar’s former college roommate and his sister’s ex-boyfriend, Yunior de las Casa, the Yunior of “Drown.” Did you always know that you wanted to tell Oscar’s story in this way?
Absolutely. When I first conceived the novel, in Mexico City, the pattern was the history of four family members told by the lover of one and the frenemy of another. Yunior’s narration was essential to some of the novel’s deeper, hidden themes. It’s one of the book’s mysteries that each reader must try to resolve for herself: why is Yunior telling this story? Is it as an act of contrition, to explain or exonerate himself, or is it something far less charitable? There are many possibilities, and depending on your answer the book takes on a different resonance. The novel contains a guide to help a reader crack the Yunior narration enigma, but you have to know a little bit about the comic book series “The Fantastic Four.” Each of the family members is explicitly linked to one of the Four—Oscar is the Thing, Abelard is Mr. Fantastic, Belicia is the Invisible Woman, and Lola is the Human Torch—something I stole from Rick Moody’s incomparable novel “The Ice Storm.” So if the Family is the Fantastic Four, which character in the comic’s mythology is Yunior linked to? We know he takes on the role of the Watcher throughout, but that’s one of his masks. There is someone else. The clues are in the novel, and once you find them it will help you decide whether Yunior’s motives for telling the tale are positive, negative, mixed.
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Do you think you could have written “The Pura Principle” back in the nineties, when you were working on the stories that were collected in “Drown”? Would it have been a different story if you had?
I don’t think I could have tackled “The Pura Principle”until now. It takes me about twenty years to come to term with any difficult period in my life, to get enough of a grasp on it to fictionalize it. I’m still trying to figure out how to write about cancer and my family’s experience with it. If I had been able to write “The Pura Principle”back in those days, I’m positive it would have had no humor in it. Which means the story would have been false.
You’re spending a couple of weeks in China at the moment. Is this the first time you’ve visited the country? In your fiction, the Dominican Republic and central New Jersey can sometimes seem like characters themselves. Could you write about another place in the same way? Could you imagine Yunior in China, for example?
First time in China and, my god, does it shatter all attempts to describe. Like trying to put a goat halter on a colossus. As for my beloved two homes—New Jersey and Santo Domingo—it’s only lately that I’ve been leaving them in my work. I lived in Mexico City for a year back in 1999, and these past few months I’ve been trying to write something about that stupendous city. So it looks like I’ve got a ten-year lag between living in a place and writing about it. In ten years, I might try to write something about China. Really in all my life I’ve never seen anything like it. I could imagine myself writing about some New Jersey Dominican guy, doing the English-teaching expat thing in Shanghai. Maybe. I’m sure it would be really, really bad, too.
For the complete interview go to http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2010/03/this-week-in-fiction-talking-with-junot-diaz.html#ixzz0iNx4YvK6
You can access his story, “The Pura Principle,” at http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2010/03/22/100322fi_fiction_diaz?currentPage=all