DATE October 18, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Junot Diaz talks about his new book, "The Brief
Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," the Dominican Republic, his family,
and the nature of language for children and immigrants
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
`A ghetto nerd at the end of the world'--that's how Junot Diaz describes the
main character in his new best-selling novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao." Oscar is a Dominican-American kid who doesn't fit into the macho
culture that surrounds him. He's overweight, a hard-core science fiction and
fantasy man who fears he will remain a virgin for the rest of his life.
Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani described it as,
quote, "so original it can only be described as Maria Vargas Llosa meets `Star
Trek' meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West. It unfolds from a comic
portrait of a second generation Dominican geek into a harrowing meditation on
public and private history and the burdens of familial history," unquote. The
novel follows several generations of the Dominican family living under
dictatorship on the island and then emigrating to the US.
Junot Diaz emigrated with his family from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey
when he was six. He's now a professor of writing at MIT.
Junot Diaz, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a reading from your
novel. I'm going to ask you to introduce it for us.
Mr. JUNOT DIAZ: Oh, OK, thank you. I just--this is the character named
Junior, who's this big muscle-building knucklehead describing his college
roommate, Oscar, who's this really big nerd who is trying, you know, to find
someone to fall in love with, and so this is him talking about poor Oscar and
his girl troubles.
GROSS: Wait, I'm going to stop you for one second. I think I should mention
that there's going to be references in this reading to names that people won't
necessarily know. And every time you hear a name you don't necessarily know,
can we assume it's from a science fiction book or a video game?
Mr. DIAZ: Yeah, or something from the Dominican Republic. Sometimes you
GROSS: Right. OK. OK. OK. Why don't you do the reading.
Mr. DIAZ: Thank you.
(Reading) "Did I try to help him with his girl situation, share some of my
playerly wisdom? Of course I did. Problem was, when it came to the mujeres
my roommate was like no one on the planet. Dude weighed 307 pounds, for
Christ's sake, talked like a "Star Trek" computer. The real irony was that
you never met a kid who wanted a girl so bad. I mean, I thought I was into
females, but no one, and I mean no one, was into them the way Oscar was. To
him they were the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, the DC and
the Marvel. Holmes had it bad, couldn't so much as see a cute girl without
breaking into shakes, developed crushes out of nothing, must have had at least
two dozen high level ones that first semester alone.
Not that any of these every came to anything. How could they? Oscar's idea
of G was to talk about role playing games. How crazy is that? My favorite
was the day on the E bus when he informed some hot morena, `If you were in my
game I would give you an 18 charisma.'
"I tried to give him advice, I really did. Nothing too complicated like `stop
hollering at strange girls on the streets, and don't bring up The Beyonder any
more than necessary.' But did he listen? Of course not. Trying to talk sense
to Oscar about girls was like trying to throw rocks at Unus the Untouchable.
Dude was impenetrable. He'd hear me out and then shrug. But my favorite
conversation that semester? `Junior?' `What?' `Are you awake?' `Oscar, if
this is about "Star Trek."' `It's not about "Star Trek."' He coughed. `I've
heard from a reliable source that no Dominican male has ever died a virgin.
You, who have experience in these matters, do you think this is true?' I sat
up. Dude was peering at me in the dark, dead serious. `Oscar, it's against
the laws of nature for a Dominican man to die without having sex at least
once.' `That,' he sighed, `is what worries me.'"
GROSS: That's Junot Diaz reading from his new novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life
of Oscar Wao." That was a great reading. Thank you for doing that. Oscar is
really like the opposite of the stereotype of the macho Dominican man. Do you
relate to him? Do you have that level of nerdiness within you?
Mr. DIAZ: You know, it's funny because one of the things about being an
adolescent, which I kind of drew upon a lot when writing this book, is that
you always feel like you're the biggest freak in the world. And so I was
nerdy, certainly, to a certain age. Never as crazy as Oscar, but what
mattered most was the entire time I was growing up I always felt like, man,
there's never been anyone like me and there'll never be anyone like me again.
And that's probably a good thing.
GROSS: This isn't the kind of question I usually ask people I've just met,
but were you as worried as Oscar that you'd never lose your virginity?
Mr. DIAZ: No. I think my problem was I was terrified that I was going to
get someone pregnant like the rest of my neighborhood.
Mr. DIAZ: I mean, it seems like everybody I knew--my sister got pregnant
when she was a teenager. A lot of my friends had kids. And so my big terror
was that like I would get somebody pregnant in high school and that would be
the end of all things.
GROSS: Did you?
Mr. DIAZ: No, no, no. I'm telling you, the terror shaped my behavior.
GROSS: So you were--you took precautions?
Mr. DIAZ: Yeah, yeah. That's a mild way of putting it. Yeah.
GROSS: So what was the kind of man you thought you were supposed to be? What
kind of young man did you think you were supposed to be?
Mr. DIAZ: Well, I mean, you know, part of what interested me about Oscar was
like his character of this kind of Dominican nerd living in New Jersey, he was
the far extreme. You know, we have characters like him, all our communities,
and it's more crazy when the community is kind of poor, kind of immigrant,
people like him really stick out, but he's still there. And when I grew up, I
grew up with a military dad, he was in the military in the Dominican Republic,
seriously into that kind of discipline. I mean, the old man used to check our
shoelaces before we left the house to see that they were like tied correctly.
And he was really into boxing and really into fighting. And he was the kind
of dude who really believed that if boys didn't fight all the time that, you
know, someone was going to take advantage of them or something was going to
happen to them. So he always had me and my brothers and the neighboring kids
fight all the time. It was like "Fight Club" without, you know, the cute
boys. We were just like smacking each other around. Yeah.
And so I would go to school, you know, I would go to school, this was in the
day when, you know, there was no--people didn't care. You could show up to
school with two black eyes and a busted lip, and your teachers would be just
like, `Hm, please turn to page three.' So the kind of boy I was, or that I was
told to be, you were kind of just like half-gladiator, half-dude who, you
know, was supposed to have as many girls as possible and work until your heart
exploded, have no fear, you know. It was such a weird thing because you're a
little kid, of course, and doing all this stuff, and the whole time you're
thinking, `Why don't I feel like this is normal?'
GROSS: What about the part of you that liked to read books and was interested
Mr. DIAZ: Well, I mean, that also came out in some ways. And the one thing
my old man is he always had a--he had a shelf of books in the basement. And
they were all these books about history, about the Dominican Republic, about
politics. And I think, you know, in some ways he modeled some bizarre
masculine behavior. But he also modeled that reading could be masculine. And
that saved me like a lot of bizarre contradictions because I just really got
into reading from a young age. You know, I was a kid who had difficulty
speaking English when I first emigrated. But in my head, when I read a book,
I spoke English perfectly. No one could correct my Spanish. And I think that
I retreated to books as a way, you know, to be like masterful in a language
that was really difficult for me for many years.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Junot Diaz. And his new novel
is called "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."
In your novel you write a lot about Trujillo, who was the dictator in the
Dominican Republic from about 1930 to his assassination in 1961. And the
mother in the book, Oscar's mother, grew up in the Dominican Republic. And
she was a, you know, a beautiful woman when she was young. And you write in
the book how it was understood if Trujillo saw a beautiful woman he would have
her as his own. And so fathers would lock up their daughters to prevent that
from happening, unless they wanted it to happen, which her father did not.
Mr. DIAZ: Yeah, that was more disturbing. Yeah. Like lots of fathers in
that historical period happily gave up their daughters to curry favor from the
GROSS: Mm-hmm. How did you hear stories about this? Was this research or
stories handed down by family?
Mr. DIAZ: It was a lot of both. I mean, one of the things about, like, what
does the Dominican Republic matter to the United States? More specifically,
what does what happened to somebody in Santa Domingo matter to a kid who was
born and raised in the US? I mean, in some ways those are the kind of
questions the narrative is trying to, like, wrestle with. And for me that was
the question, even when I was growing up, I left Santa Domingo young, grew up
in the US. I was far more worried about if I knew all the Michael Jackson
lyrics than listening to my folks' stories about what happened in Santa
Domingo. And yet the shadow of the past has a way of, like, casting its power
over our present, even when we deny it.
And I think that what ended up happening to me was I became not aware of that
there were all these stories about Trujillo and all these stories about the
dictatorship, but that there was an absolute silence about the dictatorship.
And no one was actually speaking in any clear way about those 31 years. And,
you know, it's sort of like you look at a history book and find 40 pages
missing right in the middle. I felt like when I grew up I was like, hm, this
is strange. Both my parents and all their brothers and sisters grew up in
this fearsome dictatorship, and yet none of them have spoken about it.
GROSS: When you started asking them about it, which I assume you eventually
did, what kind of stories did they tell you?
Mr. DIAZ: Well, you know, you go through a whole number of levels of
evasions. You know, they're just like, `Oh, that's old stuff. Oh, nothing
happened. I had nothing to do with this, you know.' But eventually if you
keep going and you're persistent, you begin to get the outlines of what
happened when a country is isolated from the rest of the world and is
controlled by a single madman. And it was like a nightmare.
I mean, I was talking to someone the other day about a story, a very common
story that I heard from family members about, you know, like so much of the
island was informants that worked for the secret police and how one man was
walking down the street eating an orange and he threw the peel on the ground.
At this time the Dominican Republic was one of the cleanest countries in the
world. And the secret police arrested the guy who threw the orange peel on
the ground and the three nearest people to him because they should have
apprehended him. And all of them were whisked off to jail.
GROSS: Was anyone in your family ever, you know, beaten by Trujillo's men or
put in jail?
Mr. DIAZ: Oh, man. That's the kind of question that would have probably
stopped the entire questioning if I pushed too hard. It always felt like
there were people in my family who were involved in every piece of that
history. But in weirder ways. My father was actually in the military police
of the dictatorship, in the post-dictatorship, and that was another bizarre
thing where, instead of being, in some ways, having a family member who was
the victim of it, my father was part of that kind of structure and brought the
regime home in ways that I think--in ways that I think that were, as we say in
Spanish...(Spanish spoken)....that were really--it was really powerful. I
mean, that regime of the Trujillato we lived in our house. And we always joke
around that in my family had this dictatorship of our home.
GROSS: What are some of the ways that he brought it home?
Mr. DIAZ: Well, I mean, I just think about lining up all your kids and
examining their shoelaces is a perfect example of the Trujillato. I mean, in
this period, this is like people would get assassinated. But first, before
they were assassinated, Trujillo and his minions would critique their clothing
and their dress styles in the newspaper and the next day he would kill them.
And so there was a, you know, there was this huge sartorial obsessions. And
then again, my father's constant belief that at any moment something
catastrophic would come, you know, the country that was always kept on edge,
GROSS: Was it upsetting for you to find out that your father was in the
military of the bad guy?
Mr. DIAZ: Well, I mean, the best way to answer that is almost the entire
island was complicit in the dictatorship. Some of us were more complicit than
others. And so, you know, it was one of those things where, you know, my
father was in the military. But, you know, you walked around my neighborhood
and people would always say, you know, the thing about your father was that
your father like never pulled his gun, never hurt anybody. Which, you know,
you couldn't say about everyone else there.
And at the same time I had a mother who was wounded during the US invasion of
the Dominican Republic in 1965. So you have people in the family who fit it
in different places in this kind of a historical moment. So, you know, you
had a father who was in some ways was pro-dictator kind of guy. You had a
mother who was wounded by the US invasion. And as a kid, what do you do with
all that history?
GROSS: How was she wounded?
Mr. DIAZ: Oh, well, you know, the city, the main city was bombed. Santa
Domingo was bombed repeatedly by American and pro-American forces. So caught
up in one of those bombings.
GROSS: How badly hurt was she?
Mr. DIAZ: You know, just wounded. You know, hospital for a few weeks.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. When did your parents decide to move to the US, to New
Jersey, more precisely?
Mr. DIAZ: When everybody realized that the country was going to enter a very
dark period after the US invasion. It was called the 12 years.
They--everybody began to leave because there were sort of death squads and all
sorts of fun stuff. And, you know, my parents, my father, even though he was
part of the regime, the military regime, he was like, `There's no future here.
This country's just going to eat itself.' So, you know, he jumped out as soon
as he could.
GROSS: My guest is Junot Diaz. His new novel is called "The Brief Wondrous
Life of Oscar Wao." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Junot Diaz, the author of the new novel "The Brief
Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." The main character is a Dominican-American kid
who Diaz describes as a ghetto nerd.
One of the things I love about your writing is you combine so many different,
you know, like styles of speaking in it. There's, you know, Dominican and
like teen African-American slang, science fiction, you know, and just like,
you know, fine, elegant writing. But it's also colloquial, you know, borrowed
from different cultures. And I guess, I'm wondering did you grow up feeling
fluent in all those different cultures?
Mr. DIAZ: Yeah. You know what it is? I think that most of us--I know I
was--I was exposed to dozens of idioms, dozens of vernaculars. And I think we
just choose to deploy some at any given time. So, you know, at home out in my
neighborhood we grew up with a very black Puerto Rican English. Then we had
to go to an overwhelmingly, you know, mainstream school. In my house we spoke
a very formal Dominican Spanish. But when we were hanging out with other
people who spoke Spanish, it was really colloquial. Then we had all the pop
culture stuff that knitted us together as a generation. Then we had the
language that we just used among our little group.
And what I thought was interesting for me when I was writing this book was
that, you know, it's so hard in some ways to pull a self together when you
have all these disparate threads running through your lives, and you have all
these experiences and you're always asked to choose one or two voices and
that's it because too many would be too many, you know. In this book it's
like the one place I felt that all the voices that I had running through my
head could have a home and could, like, speak at once and speak together.
GROSS: I have to say as a reader, like, there's certain words in it I don't
get. Like I don't know who The Beyonder is. I assume that's a science
fiction reference. But, you know...
Mr. DIAZ: Yeah, Marvel Comics.
GROSS: Yeah. OK. But--OK. But I didn't know that. But I figured that's
fine because I get it anyways. I know it's from his kind of like comic book
or science fiction world. And there was a few like, you know, Spanish
Dominican words that I didn't get, but I kind of got it. And it worked for
Mr. DIAZ: Well, you know, part of the thing that really interested me about
the reading experience was that a lot of times we forget what a large portion
of what we're reading we don't understand. And most of the time we just skip
over it because it's sort of implicit. We don't understand a word, we'll just
kip over it and keep going. But, you know, that's like a basic part of
communication, you know, unintelligibility. And so if you're an immigrant,
you're so used to not being able to understand large chunks of any
conversation, large chunks of the linguistic and cultural codes.
And part of what I was trying to get at when writing this book is that, you
know, I wanted everybody at one moment to kind of feel like an immigrant in
this book, that there'd be one language chain that you might not get. And
that it was OK. Like, it might provoke a new, like, a reaction to want to
know. And that's good because it'll make people look and read other books and
start a conversation. But life, and the experience that most of us have in
the world is that we tend to live in a world where a good portion of what we
hear, see and experience is unintelligible to us. And that to me feels more
real than if everything was transparent for every reader.
GROSS: There's a lot of bad luck in this book, and the narrator thinks that
Oscar and his family have been living under a curse, and the curse is known as
the FUKU curse. Now, I wasn't sure whether this is supposed to be a reference
to the English expletive that is awfully close to FUKU.
Mr. DIAZ: No, not at all.
GROSS: Or whether it's actually--yeah, whether it's actually like a Spanish
Mr. DIAZ: No, no. It's a real word. In Santa Domingo, it's like one of
these Nigerian words that we got thanks to four or 500 years of slavery. It's
called fuku and it means like kind of bad luck, like afflicted bad luck. It's
a real word.
GROSS: Did you expect that other people like me might be confused by that and
not sure whether like it was a reference at all to an `F you' kind of curse.
Mr. DIAZ: You know, it's funny because it's only after the book was
published and some people--I realized that, in my mind that word has been in
my mind long before I spoke English.
Mr. DIAZ: So that has priority over the sort of, the analogue it has in
English, you know.
Mr. DIAZ: And so it's weird, I never thought of it till, and I'm not
kidding, in an explicit way till the book was published.
GROSS: Junot Diaz is the author of the new novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Junot Diaz, author of
the new best-selling novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." The main
character is a Dominican-American kid who Diaz describes as a ghetto nerd.
The character's parents, as Diaz' parents, lived in the Dominican Republic
under a dictatorship. Diaz emigrated with his family to New Jersey when he
was six. When we left off he was telling us about the stories his grandmother
used to tell him when he was a child.
I think that most Americans know less about Dominican history and Dominicans
than they do say about Puerto Rican history or Mexican history or, you
know--do you know what I mean? So I'm wondering, there are so many
stereotypes that Mexicans and Puerto Ricans have to put up with. Do people
even know enough about Dominicans to have stereotypes of Dominicans? Were
there stereotypes of Dominicans when you were growing up?
Mr. DIAZ: Oh, no. I mean, I think the first thing is that it assumes that
bigotry, you know, differentiates too much. I mean, the funniest thing about
being a Latino is that no one actually gets your national origin correct.
Being Latino guaranteed that I was going to be Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican.
Mr. DIAZ: Whoever you hated, I was at that time.
GROSS: How convenient.
Mr. DIAZ: And the fact that--yeah, yeah. And the fact that my family is of
African descent, I mean, I'm what they would call mulatto back on the island.
But I had siblings who were typically black. So you hated black people, we
fit into that category, too. You know, that's what happens when you come from
a place like Santa Domingo.
GROSS: After you came to the United States when you were six, was it hard to
Mr. DIAZ: Oh, yeah. No. I mean, part of, I think, what comes with the
energy of this writing or at least the energy I was trying to bring to the
story was that kind of realization that, you know, that the languages that I
acquired, you know, it was kind of an interesting process and an interesting
struggle. One of the things that happens is I know that the very learning of
English for me as a young person, the sort of difficulties I had, also gave me
this enormous appreciation, you know, this enormous sense that, you know,
language, for many people it's a common place. But for other people it's a
hard fought, you know, a hard fought game. And for me it was like a real
happy triumph to learn a second set of languages and, yeah, man, that was like
the wildest little joy when I finally heard myself speaking English and I
sounded like everybody else around me. As a kid, it's hard to underestimate
what that feels like.
GROSS: Was there a period when you were in school when you didn't understand
what the teacher was saying because your English wasn't good enough yet?
Mr. DIAZ: Oh, yeah. No. I mean, jeez, you know, one of the things about
learning a new language it's just an extended childhood, and, you know, when
you're a kid and you don't know what the hell the adults are saying. When
you're really young, most people don't have that memory. But what happens
when you don't know a language that the rest of the world is talking? You
either have--you have to have an enormous imagination and you have to have
tremendous patience because it's a process to learn a language. And you have
to have a lot of strength. I think that people underestimate how much
strength it takes kids to pick up a new language in a world where no one
understands them. And you see most people just say, `Ah, these kids, they'll
pick it up real quick. Oh, you were just six or seven, it must have been
easy.' I still see kids all the time, and I think we don't give them enough
credit. You know, it takes a lot of courage for these young people to pick up
a new language.
GROSS: It must be almost frightening when you're in school and you know
you're going to be judged and, you know, evaluated based on your ability to
comprehend and repeat back what the teacher's telling you. If you can't even
understand the language the teacher's speaking, then you're going to be
Mr. DIAZ: Well, yeah, but that's the experience of almost all children, you
know, in some way or the other. I think that immigrants, of course, it's just
more explicit when you have to learn a whole language. It's completely--it's
a new world, it's kind of a new experience. But, you know, you always have
these little neighbors who'll run over and help you, teach you words. You
have teachers will stop and they'll give you a new word. You know, you'll
hear something on TV or a commercial on the street and, you know, that slow
accumulation is this wonderful thing because one day you wake up and all the
little drops have combined into an ocean, you know, and it's a remarkable
GROSS: You know, as you were describing earlier there's a curse that may or
may not be responsible for all of the bad luck in the book's main family. And
I was wondering if you grew up believing in curses or superstitions at all?
Mr. DIAZ: Oh, no. I was a real empirical kid. You know, it's like I had a
real tough brother and a real tough sister and they didn't believe anything
that couldn't bite them. What was great was that, you know, I'm living in a
family that, you know, had this military dad and everything was real
precision, everything was your word, you know, everything was exact, on time.
And, you know, I had a grandmother who would turn around and tell me the
wildest stories about, you know, these folkloric stories, belief in curses,
belief in monsters, the belief in dreams and ancestors. And I felt like, you
know, you have these twin traditions running through your head in one
household. And even if I didn't believe the stories about my ancestors or
about, you know, curses, I was ceaselessly delighted. They just--I loved
GROSS: My guest is Junot Diaz. His new novel is called "The Brief Wondrous
Life of Oscar Wao." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Junot Diaz. His new novel is called "The Brief Wondrous
Life of Oscar Wao." He emigrated with his family to the US from the Dominican
Republic when he was six. When we left off we were talking about stories his
grandmother told him when he was a child.
So, I mean, obviously your grandmother must have influences your interest in
storytelling. But what about your father, who's military discipline side, do
you think there was part of that that was helpful to you as a writer as well?
Mr. DIAZ: Well, you know, I think that, again, one of the weird things about
being an immigrant is that you come to the country to work. You know, you
didn't leave the country behind so you could just lamp and, you know, watch
TV. One of the things that happened with all my siblings was that all of us
like worked like dogs. I mean, from as soon as we could carry something, from
as soon as we could lie to someone about our age, we all had jobs. And I
think, you know, my dad's discipline certainly was helpful, but the
conditioning of being an immigrant and knowing that your mom is out there
cleaning toilets for a living a full day and then coming home and still
holding a family together. You know, you have that kind of survival guilt.
You know, your parents did everything for you and the least you can do is work
and try to support that effort. And more than anything, I think what I do
well as a writer, part of it is underpinned by that immigrant desire to work,
to work really hard, to kind of honor your parents' sacrifices for coming out
to a strange country, in many ways giving up their entire lives. You know,
and it's that honoring really drove me.
GROSS: Was there a part of your life when you were rebelling and not honoring
and thought of them as being old-fashioned, from the old country, for not kind
of getting what America was about, from not knowing either the slang or the
music or the references?
Mr. DIAZ: Oh, yeah. No. We always thought our parents were dumb asses.
But, you know, just like immigrants, that didn't mean we stopped working. It
was crazy. We could have bad mouthed our parents and been like, `Huh, these
guys, they don't know nothing.' And yet, boy oh boy, we'd all still go to our
jobs every damn day, deliver our 200 newspapers before dawn. You know, go to
our second jobs at night. So, yeah, no, it was interesting. Because you
could think one way about them, but our practice was real, real in line with
GROSS: What were some of the jobs that you held?
Mr. DIAZ: Woof, man. My favorite series of jobs was the one year when I was
a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant for dinner. I pumped gas early in the
morning and during the day I worked in a steel mill. I did these three jobs
for a while till I just collapsed in exhaustion. So it was like, you know,
this is the kind of stuff you do. I delivered pool tables for over ten years.
That was wild. That was a great experience because it just gave you access to
a whole world, to a whole range of people, you know.
GROSS: Well, were you writing during all of those jobs?
Mr. DIAZ: Well, no, I was reading. More than anything, I think that's
what's--when I think about the book, when I think about this novel
specifically, I'm so interested in sort of the reactions that I'm getting from
folks that I just meet at bookstores or folks that I met in the street, or
just people that come up to me and talk to me. You know, if it happens once a
month you're kind of excited, you know. And one of the things for me is that
this is a book that's about a love of reading. And it's a book that speaks to
people who love reading. And more than being a writer, I feel like I've
always been a reader. For me, I write because I love to read so much.
What's so fascinating is readers think of books quite differently than, say,
critics or, say, academics. I mean, you look at most reader's bookshelves,
they have incredible diversity of books, of text, of voices. And they live
comfortably with it. And, you know, and that's part of what I was trying to
do in this book is see if I could get all these different highs and lows and
middles, and could they fit together in a book the way that all those
different books in my youth fit together on a bookshelf. And I wasn't sitting
here dividing, `these are the great hundred books and these are the junk.'
That's not the way I read.
GROSS: So is it thrilling for you to not only be a writer, a published
writer, but to be getting like such great reviews, having read all your life
and thought about language so much. I mean, did you expect that you'd
actually be able to pull it off?
Mr. DIAZ: I think, you know, my sense is always, what's the next project? I
mean, I think most of us--I don't know. I mean, I guess, maybe I grew up in a
different world. But most of the people I grew up with, we could never
believe that we could do what we ended up doing. You know, it's like
immigrants--I mean, if my mother could have--my mother could never have
imagined how she would start at a farm in Santa Domingo and end up in a house
right across the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey, with these children
who are all like professionals in some ways, you know. And I never thought
that--to be completely honest, I never thought that I would have the career I
have now. I mean, it's such a huge blessing.
But there's a part of me in the end that knows that any kind of accolades and
any kind of praise, that's just provisional. If you're serious about this
tradition, if you're serious about participating in writing and in reading,
you know that what you're really about is that you're trying to build a
relationship with a reader, with a reader that you'll never meet and you'll
never see. And you want that relationship. You want a book to last on a
shelf longer than the fireworks of people saying, `Oh, you've done well, son.
You did well.' I mean, really great art has to last. And you never know if
you've done really good art because there's plenty of people who were praised
in their days that we don't read any more at all.
GROSS: I'm assuming the answer to this will probably be yes, but I'll ask it
anyways. Did your parents' English get good enough so that they could
actually read your book?
Mr. DIAZ: Oh, no, not at all. My mother only speaks Spanish. She doesn't
read English at all. She thinks what I do is--she finds my work to be--she's
like, `Man, you're just crazy. You were a smart one, we wanted you to be a
doctor.' So, you know...
GROSS: Is it frustrating that they can't share in your books? They can't,
you know, your mother can't read them?
Mr. DIAZ: Well, no. She'll read them when the get translated into Spanish.
But, I mean, I think that it's--so many of us do stuff that's--our professions
are so incredibly specialized. I mean, I teach at MIT.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Mr. DIAZ: My students, the average human being couldn't even begin to talk
to my students about what their professional interests are.
Mr. DIAZ: You know, I've got kids who do a high energy physics.
Mr. DIAZ: You ever try to talk to a high energy physicist about what they're
doing? I mean, I feel like I can't even begin to understand a second word
that comes out of their mouth. My mom at least says, `Well, I've got my son's
book. I can put it on my shelf and show it to relatives,' you know.
GROSS: Right. Absolutely.
Mr. DIAZ: So, I mean, sure, you know, I mean everybody wants to be perfectly
transparent and wants everybody, you know, your parents to know everything
about you. But reality is it's a new world of specializations area. It's
like you're lucky if people can even remember your job title.
GROSS: Junot Diaz, it's really been great talking with you. Thank you so
Mr. DIAZ: No, thank you so much.
GROSS: Junot Diaz is the author of the new novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of
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Review: John Powers reviews Norman Mailer's book "The Armies of
TERRY GROSS, host:
This October marks the 40th anniversary of the march on the Pentagon, a
demonstration against the war in Vietnam that was chronicled and mythologized
in Norman Mailer's book "The Armies of the Night. It was published a year
after the march and won a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Mailer
is now 84 and is in the hospital recovering from lung surgery.
Our book critic Maureen Corrigan is a great admirer of "The Armies of the
Night," so much so that she's organized an anniversary conference on the march
and the book it inspired. The conference will be held tomorrow at Georgetown
University, where she teaches.
When our critic at large John Powers heard about the conference, he re-read
the book and has these thoughts.
JOHN POWERS reporting:
If you only know the '60s from old news footage, you might think of there were
demonstrations going on every single minute: civil rights marches, free
speech rallies...(unintelligible)...protesting the war in Vietnam. This
wasn't true, of course. But it's also true that some of that era's protests
still endure in our national mythology. One of them is the march on the
Pentagon that took place exactly 40 years ago on October 21st, two years into
the Vietnam War. After a ritual burning of draft cards, 50,000 marchers made
their way from Washington to the steps of the Pentagon. It was designed as a
peaceful and high-spirited protest. Abbie Hoffman said they'd make the
Pentagon levitate. And for the most part, it was.
But along the way protesters taunted and threw fish at the soldiers guarding
the Pentagon. Innocent protesters got clubbed, many of them women. And by
the end, 683 people had been arrested and 50 injured. It would be wrong to
call this march a turning point in the war. Troop levels in Vietnam actually
went up to over half a million the next year. But it did announce a huge
change in how Americans thought about the war. It galvanized the opposition.
And the march did something else. It inspired a great book: Norman Mailer's
"The Armies of the Night," subtitled "History as a Novel, the Novel as
History." It gives us this event as seen through the eyes of a brilliant
writer with an unparalleled feel for his historical moment. His synapses were
exploding like fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Writing in third person, Mailer portrays himself as a comically vainglorious
novelist. He gets arrested for rushing the Pentagon, is tossed into a paddy
wagon with a Nazi and spends the night in jail, missing much of the action.
Along the way he riffs wonderfully on everything from the idiocy of US policy
in Asia to the tediousness of parties thrown by liberals. Well aware that he
witnessed only a small part of actually what happened at the Pentagon, Mailer
also offers a historical reconstruction of what went on in his absence.
"The Armies of the Night" is written with such an enjoyable brio that it's
sometimes easy to forget that Mailer, like the other demonstrators, was dead
serious in opposing the war. But this becomes clear if you watch Dick
Fontaine's 1968 documentary "Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up?"
Here, for instance, Mailer has just been released from jail and uses the steps
of the Virginia courthouse as his pulpit.
(Soundbite of "Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up?")
Unidentified Man: If you were sure the exact same thing would happen to you
that happened today, would you do this again?
Mr. NORMAN MAILER: Yeah, I'd have to. It isn't. And listen, it
isn't...(unintelligible)...because it's agreeable or disagreeable. I felt
like the time had come where one had to go to jail as a--take a token sentence
as a symbol of one's opposition. Now, what I'm really concerned
about...(unintelligible)...this war doesn't end in the next year or two, I
think they're going to be a few of us have to take longer sentences. I
think--and I'm not making any predictions, I just have a feeling in my
bones--the ante is going to go up. Demonstrations are going to get stronger,
the resistance to the war is going to get larger, and the people prosecuting
the war are going to become more intense, from my point of view, hateful in
their prosecution of it.
I think I'll end with a sermon, if I might. While I'm not a Christian, I
happen to be married to one. And at times I think the loveliest thing about
my dear wife is her unspoken love for Jesus Christ. The closest I've ever
come to Jesus is through knowing her. And they are burning the body and the
blood of Christ in Vietnam, dear fellow Americans. This war in Vietnam will
destroy the foundation of the republic, which is its love and trust in Jesus
(End of soundbite)
POWERS: Listening to these prophetic words, one is reminded that there was a
time in this country when writers were thought, rightly or wrongly, to possess
a certain authority. Novelists were on "The Tonight Show" for crying out
loud. The march on the Pentagon was enhanced by boasting such literary lions
as Mailer, poet Robert Lowell and critic Dwight Macdonald. It gave the
occasion a certain gravitas and it helped attract the media. These days,
who'd even notice if Jonathan Franzen, Rita Dove, and John Leonard were
fronting a peace march? Where's George Clooney? Where's Leo?
But the greater change lies in how Americans viewed political life. Back in
1967 the Vietnam War was still supported by well over half the country and the
media hadn't yet turned on it. Still, tens of thousands marched on the
Pentagon because politics was seen as a personal way of fighting for the soul
of the country. People believed it was possible to re-shape society by taking
to the streets in a display of moral and political unity that would be covered
by all three of the TV networks.
These days Americans have lost faith in the power of such displays, or simply
can't be bothered. Last spring veterans did another march on the Pentagon.
Only 10,000 people showed up, and the event disappeared without a trace.
This, in a country where opposing the war is by far the majority opinion and
anti-war Americans are positively obsessed by what's happening in Iraq. But
the style of protest today is different. Instead of taking to the streets,
most people expend their political energies at home reading blogs, firing off
e-mails, cursing Fox News or Keith Olbermann and sending donations to favored
causes. Though I'd never say that this new digital politics is all wrong, I
will make one small prediction. No figure as great as Norman Mailer will ever
write a book about it.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and is our critic at large. This
is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Milo Miles reviews "The Roots of Chicha/Psychedelic
Cumbias from Peru"
TERRY GROSS, host:
In the 1960s and '70s rock 'n' roll was a worldwide phenomenon in ways that
Western pop audiences never knew. Even today regional styles from that era
are still coming to light. Critic Milo Miles reviews the new anthology of a
previously obscure rock style, psychedelic chicha from Peru.
(Soundbite of music)
MILO MILES reporting:
Electric guitars and rock 'n' roll have become such background fixtures in
American culture, it's hard to imagine they were once the shock of the new.
Forty and more years ago that amplified racket was not just forbidden sexy,
but hip, modern, urban, the now.
It's even harder to grasp just how much this same effect was felt in Africa,
Asia and South America. Specifically, no one knew at the same time Simon and
Garfunkel were introducing to America audiences to Peruvian folk with El
Condor Pasa, so-called Chicha bands were introducing Peruvian audiences to
garage rock 'n' roll. A superb vintage collection of these vintage sides has
now been released as "The Roots of Chicha/Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru."
(Soundbite of music)
MILES: Like rock, chicha began as low rent party music in bars that catered
to scruffy fans with rising incomes. In this case, the Peruvian oil boom of
the late 1960s. Also like rock, chicha was a mad mix of styles, actually more
of the dance style cumbia from Columbia than big beat from America.
But rock fans today will immediately relate to the killer guitar hooks and the
plainspoken `let's go!' quality of the vocals.
(Soundbite of music)
MILES: But these hearty, rough-and-ready vocals don't convey much in the way
of emotion that gets past the language barrier. It's a shame there's no lyric
translations in the package. The liner notes say that a frequent theme is the
clash of all the new social mores, the traditional ways of the country vs.
the fluid ways of the city. But you can hear what the newfangled amps and
electric guitars always declared: `Now is our time. This day belongs to us.'
Just consider the saucy version of Beethoven's "Fur Elise."
(Soundbite of "Fur Elise")
MILES: Fans everywhere got the same message: Roll over, Beethoven, and tell
Tchaikovsky the news.
GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed "The Roots of Chicha" on the
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show by going to our Web site,
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.