With thousands of miles separating the Philippines and the Dominican Republic, it’s easy for the uninformed and the uninterested to think that no connection exists between the two countries. But as Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz points out, the two countries have much more in common than one would think – and he got that impression just a day into his week-long stay in the country, as Ronal S. Lim reports.
“I went on Carlos Celdran’s Intramuros Tour. It felt like we were talking about another chapter of Dominican history. Fundamentally traumatic, fundamentally terrible. It speaks of how difficult it’s been for us to survive this far,” he observes.
Diaz was in town for the second Manila International Literary Festival, alongside fellow Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones. Aside from talking about what it’s like to be a writer of minority background in the United States, Diaz also interacted with Filipino fans and signed books at Powerbooks in Glorietta 4, Makati.
Dubbed “The Great Philippine Book Cafe”, the second Manila International Literary Festival is a threeday celebration of the Philippine Book Development Month organized by the National Book Development Board and co-presented by National Book Store.
THE HYPERLEXIC KID
While his participation in the second Manila International Literary Festival was his first time in the country, Diaz reveals that he’s been mingling with Filipinos since he was a child.
Uprooted from his hometown of Santo Domingo at the age of six, Diaz and his family would move to New Jersey, where he would grow up in a neighborhood composed of a mix of Latin-Americans, African-Americans, and Filipinos.
He says that the move to New Jersey was a difficult one, as he went into the country totally unprepared and without knowing a word of English. Feeling totally disconnected from his new home, Diaz found himself becoming a “hyper-lexic kid”, reading anything and everything he could get his hands on trying to understand what the United States is.
“It was a lot more complicated than you think, especially if you didn’t have years of preparation watching TV.
There was no TV in Santo Domingo. I never saw the United States before I arrived,” he recalls. “Books were an answer, they were a source of inspiration, a source of safety, and a source of comfort. I loved that in books I felt safe and I felt confident.”
It was from this love of reading that Diaz says his writing would spring forth.
“What really sort of pulled me into being a writer was the fact that I am a tireless reader. I would have eventually found my way to writing, simply because I loved to read so much. It’s books, books, my endless love of books that I blame most for this writing,” he says.
After finishing high school, he would go on to nurture this love of reading and writing by pursuing an English degree at Rutgers University, where he would get such inspirations such as Nobel Prize winner for literature Toni Morrison. But as fruitful as that time was for him, it was also a very challenging one, as he had to work odd jobs during his stay at Rutgers to pay for his college education.
Some of the jobs he had included delivering pool tables, washing dishes, pumping gas, and working at a steel mill. Through it all, Diaz says he held on to his desire to write.
“That’s like the inner mystery. Do you have enough love, do you have enough perseverance, and it turns out that I don’t have enough love or perseverance for anything but writing.
I kept going,” he says. “I look at parents who work two or three jobs for their kids. They never run out of love. Some do, they run off, right? They leave the kids. My dad ran off, but my mom didn’t. And the question is am I gonna be my father or am I gonna be my mother when it comes to the thing I love most? And I guess I found out I’m like my mother.”
After Rutgers, Diaz would enroll in Cornell, where he would write most of his stories. By 1996, a year after acquiring his degree, he would come out with “Drown”, a collection of short stories that was welcomed with a lot of critical acclaim.
BREAKING INTO THE GLOBAL SCENE
But it would only be in 2007 that Diaz would explode unto the international scene, as his debut novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, among a raft of other awards that included the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Novel of 2007, and was selected by Time and New York Magazine as the best novel of 2007.
However, Diaz says that coming up with that prize-winning work came at a price.
“It wasn’t just another book, it was my novel, but by the end of it I was like, ‘F**k. You.’ I never wanted to see that book again. For me, it was like the girlfriend that burned my house down, took all my money, who stole my child, and I never saw them again. I hated this book. I just hated it!” he says with a laugh.
Seeing the book go on to garner so many accolades was something that he did not expect.
“I was surprised that anybody read it! I gotta tell you, I was shellshocked. After finishing that book, I was crazy. It was very, very gratifying that the book was received by the readership as warmly as it did,” he says.
EXOTICIZING HIS ROOTS
Just like a lot of Filipinos writing about the Philippines while in a country that is not their own, Diaz says that the possibility of exoticizing the Dominican Republic in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” was something that he grappled with while writing the book.
“If the Dominican Republic becomes a caricature, if it becomes an exotic projection of my libidinal fascination for a return to purity, that’s
not literature,” he says. “My thing as a writer is can I make the Dominican Republic new even for people who live back in Santo Domingo. And I gotta tell you that there are some Dominicans, not all, back home who go, ‘Holy s**t, has this kid ever left?’”
This problem of representation, exoticizing, and recognizing the voice of the writers of the diaspora – be they from the Philippines or the Dominican Republic – is something that we now have to grapple with, says Diaz.
“I think this is a conversation we need to have. You are likely to get writers from the diaspora exoticizing as you are writers back home trying to silence the diaspora, trying to maintain themselves as the center of the conversation,” he says. “Both sides of the divide can learn form each other, because there are writers who exoticize, but there are writers who don’t. If it wasn’t for Dominican writers back home, I wouldn’t write as well about the Dominican Republic.”
Diaz says he plans to go back to the country as soon as possible, and says that he only sees a bright future for the state of the country’s literary tradition.
“I still think that there are a hundred million voices here whose work is going to be indispensable literature. The same is true for those in the diaspora,” he declares. “This is an enormously rich important, symbolic, and human country. You can see it everywhere. There are so much young people.”
For the original report go to http://www.mb.com.ph/articles/341834/junots-journeys