DATE May 2, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Junot Diaz talks about his book "The Brief Wondrous
Life of Oscar Wao," the Dominican Republic, his family, and the
nature of language for children and immigrants
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of Broadcasting & Cable magazine and
tvworthwatching.com sitting in for Terry Gross.
Junot Diaz, who teaches writing at MIT, has a new reasons for his students to
pay close attention. Last month, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for
fiction for his best-selling novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."
Diaz describes Oscar, the main character in his novel, as, quote, "a ghetto
nerd at the end of the world," unquote. Oscar is a Dominican-American kid who
doesn't fit into the macho culture that surrounds him. He's overweight, and
he's a hard-core science fiction and fantasy man who fears he will remain a
virgin for the rest of his life.
The novel follows several generations of the Dominican family living under
dictatorship on the island and emigrating to the US. Junot Diaz emigrated
with his family from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey when he was six.
Terry spoke with him last year when the novel was published.
TERRY GROSS, host:
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 your 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 at
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 this 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. 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 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 till 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 was all these stories about Trujillo and all these stories about the
dictatorship, but that there was an absolute silence about the dictatorship,
that 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 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, where 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
happens 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 a
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. I mean, 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 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 this 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. 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
GROSS: One of the things I love about your writing is that 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
that 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, when you have all
these experiences, when 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: And 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 is that a lot of times we forget that 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
skip 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, 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 would 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 you go 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. The fuku...
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.
Mr. DIAZ: 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 until the book was published.
GROSS: 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's of
African descent, I mean, I'm what they would call mulatto back on the island.
But I had siblings who were phenotypically black. So you hated black people,
we fit into that little 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 with the energy that 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, 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, 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: 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. But what was great was that, you know, I'm living in
a family that, you know, had this military dad, 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 those things.
GROSS: So, I mean, obviously your grandmother must have influences your
interest in storytelling. But what about your father's military discipline
side, do you think there was part of that that was helpful to you as a writer
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 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, of 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're like, 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 that 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 or from the old country, from 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
know, you could think one way about them, but our practice was real, real in
line with them.
GROSS: What were some of the jobs that you held?
Mr. DIAZ: Whoof, 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 from exhaustion. So it was like, you
know, this is the kind of stuff you do. But I delivered pool tables for over
10 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: Wow. Were you writing during all of those jobs?
Mr. DIAZ: Well, no, I mean, I was reading. More than anything, I think
that's what's--when I think about the book and 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 an incredible diversity of books, of text, of voices. And they live
comfortably with it, 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 on 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 books?
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, this is 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. I mean, 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 the 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.
BIANCULLI: Junot Diaz speaking to Terry Gross in 2007. His best-selling
novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," recently won the Pulitzer Prize
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Review: Ed Ward on the new Hip-O-Select release of Chuck Berry's
complete 1950s recordings, "Johnny B. Goode"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Chuck Berry is a figure who is central to the whole meaning of rock 'n' roll,
but what do we really know about what made him so important? With the release
of Berry's entire recorded output from the 1950s in a four-disc set from
Hip-O-Select, Ed Ward takes a close look at Berry's early career.
(Soundbite of "Johnny B. Goode")
Mr. CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Deep down in Louisiana 'cross the New Orleans...
Mr. ED WARD: Say the words "rock 'n' roll," and the notes we just heard seem
to play in a lot of heads automatically. They were played on January 6th,
1958, by a 33-year-old black man who was a licensed cosmetician as well as a
convicted car thief. He was two-and-a-half years into a career of one of the
top popular musicians in the United States, and had already written a body of
songs which defined the teenage American experience: "You Can't Touch Me,"
"Roll Over, Beethoven," "Too Much Monkey Business," "School Day," "Rock and
Roll Music," "Sweet Little 16" and "Reelin' and Rockin'."
Despite his age and experience, his songs resonated with people half his age,
and sold significantly better to white audiences. The closer you look at
Chuck Berry, the odder he seems. He recorded for Chicago blues label Chess,
to which he'd been brought by none other than Muddy Waters, hardly someone you
would go to if you were looking for a white teenage market. The one thing
Muddy Waters understood was guitar playing; and as competitive as he was, he
probably realized immediately that not only was this guy good, but he didn't
represent a threat to Muddy's command of Chicago blues. Which isn't to say
that Chuck wasn't a demon when it came to slide guitar playing.
(Soundbite of "Deep Feeling")
Mr. WARD: "Deep Feeling" is, as far as I know, the only recording we have of
Chuck Berry playing a Hawaiian steel guitar instead of his trademark Gibson
ES-350T, and it's breathtaking. Nor is it particularly obscure; it was the
B-side of "School Day (Ring Ring Goes the Bell)," so there were plenty of
copies sold. Chess was apparently in awe of Berry's guitar playing, so much
so that they recorded loads of instrumentals, possibly with the aim of using
them as B-sides. Many of them remained unreleased for years.
One thing that struck me about the early Chuck Berry recordings was how
conservative they were. He recorded a lot of straight urban blues, as if he
wanted a safety net if this whole teenage thing didn't work out.
(Soundbite of "I've Changed")
Mr. BERRY: (Singing) I have changed
I'm nothing like I used to be
I have changed, darling
Nothing like I used to be
When I cared so much for you
Was love blind, and I couldn't see
(End of soundbite)
Mr. WARD: That could just as easily be Johnny Moore's Three Blazers from
1953, the sound still popular in black cocktail lounges when Berry recorded
"I've Changed" in December 1955.
But from the sound of things, the teenage thing was working out.
(Soundbite of "Roll Over Beethoven (Live)")
(Soundbite of cheering, clapping)
Unidentified Man: Take back your life with "Roll Over Beethoven"!
Mr. BERRY: (Singing) Well, I'm a write a little letter
Gonna mail it to my local deejay
It's a rockin' rhythm record
I want my jockey to play
Roll over, Beethoven, I gotta hear it again today
Well, temperature risin',
Jukebox blowing a fuse
Well, my heart a beatin' rhythm
And my soul keeps singin' the blues
Roll over, Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news
(End of soundbite)
Mr. WARD: In fact--and maybe it's just listening to this from today's
perspective--the obsession with teenagers--teenage girls, in particular--is a
little unnerving coming from a guy in his 30s.
(Soundbite of "Little Queenie")
Mr. BERRY: (Singing) I got lumps in my throat
When I saw her coming down the aisle
I got the wiggles in my knees
When she looked at me and sweetly smiled
There she is again standing over by the record machine
Lookin' like a model on the cover of a magazine
She's too cute to be a minute over 17
Meanwhile, I's thinking...
She's in the mood, no need 'n' break it
I got a chance, I ought to take it
If she'll dance, then we can make it
Come on, Queenie, let's shake it
Go, go, go...
(End of soundbite)
Mr. WARD: But as we're constantly reminded, those were more innocent days,
and it was likely that near everyone missed any hint of impropriety in lyrics
like these. And it was the lyrics--literate, funny, tricky and enunciated
very clearly--that endeared Chuck Berry to a lot of his audience.
(Soundbite of "Back in the U.S.A.")
Mr. BERRY: (Singing) Well, oh, well, oh, well,
I feel so good today
Unidentified Backup Singers: (Singing in unison) Uh-huh, oh, yeah
Mr. BERRY: (Singing) We just touched ground on an international runway
Singers: (Singing) Uh-huh, oh, yeah
Mr. BERRY: (Singing) Jet propelled back home from overseas to the USA
Singers: (Singing) Oh, yeah, oh, yeah
Mr. BERRY: (Singing) New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearn for you
Singers: (Singing) Uh-huh, huh
Mr. BERRY: (Singing) Detroit, Chicago...
(End of soundbite)
Mr. WARD: This patriotic number, with backup singers including Etta James
and a young Marvin Gaye, is still one of Berry's best lyrics, recorded early
in 1959. He probably didn't see what was coming next. Later that year, he
was arrested for violating the Mann Act, transporting a minor across state
lines for immoral purposes. What exactly happened has never been cleared up,
although the charge was almost certainly exaggerated. He was eventually found
guilty, and the man who'd helped define American teenage culture, rewritten
the rules of the electric guitar and written songs which are still played
today almost as he wrote them, was sentenced to 20 months prison in early
BIANCULLI: Ed Ward lives in Berlin. Chuck Berry, "Johnny B. Goode: His
Complete '50s Chess Recordings," is on Hip-O-Select.
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Review: David Edelstein on "Iron Man" the movie
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
The much-anticipated movie based on the Marvel comic superhero "Iron Man"
opens today. Robert Downey Jr. stars, along with Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence
Howard and Jeff Bridges. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: Watching "Iron Man," it occurred to me that every age
gets not the superhero it deserves, but the superhero who'll ease its
anxieties, picking up on bad vibes and transforming them into something that
lets us sleep better. In the '30s, Superman was a Midwest farmboy who came to
Metropolis with the power to clean up crime and continually rescue a nervy
woman reporter. This, in the first decade of mass Heartland-to-city migration
and headstrong female role models.
After the surge of urban crime in the '70s, Batman went from a camp figure to
a brutal urban vigilante. Now the Marvel comic "Iron Man" is reborn on-screen
as a rousing liberal fantasy, in which America redeems itself for its alleged
history of war profiteering. The hero, Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey
Jr., is a billionaire playboy, an inventor and an arms manufacturer. Here,
he's confronted by Leslie Bibb as a Vanity Fair reporter.
(Soundbite of "Iron Man")
Ms. LESLIE BIBB: (As Christine Everhart) Mr. Stark, Christine Everhart,
Vanity Fair magazine. Can I ask you a couple of questions?
Mr. JON FAVREAU: (As Hogan) She's cute.
Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY Jr.: (As Tony Stark) She's all right?
Ms. BIBB: (As Christine Everhart) Hi.
Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) Yeah.
Ms. BIBB: (As Christine Everhart) It's OK?
Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) OK, go.
Ms. BIBB: (As Christine Everhart) You've been called the Da Vinci of our
time. What do you say to that?
Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) Absolutely ridiculous. I don't paint.
Ms. BIBB: (As Christine Everhart) And what do you say to your other
nickname, "the merchant of death"?
Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) That's not bad. Let me guess. Berkeley?
Ms. BIBB: (As Christine Everhart) Brown, actually.
Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) Well, "Ms. Brown," it's an imperfect world, but
it's the only one we've got. I guarantee you, the day weapons are no longer
needed to keep the peace, I'll start making bricks and beams for baby
Ms. BIBB: (As Christine Everhart) You rehearse that much?
Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) Every night in front of a mirror before bedtime.
Ms. BIBB: (As Christine Everhart) I can see that.
Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) I'd like to show you firsthand.
(End of soundbite)
Mr. EDELSTEIN: The next shot is Stark in the sack with her. But things
don't go smoothly after that. Stark gets to Afghanistan to demonstrate an
ingenious guided missile, then his convoy is blown up by an IED. You'd think
you were watching an up-to-the-minute Mideast military thriller, and a
depressing one. Kidnapped, Stark wakes up in a cave, where a kindly Afghan
civilian, played by Shaun Toub, has implanted a magnet in his chest to keep
shrapnel from drifting to his heart. The insurgents who took him command
Stark to make a missile like the one he just sold to the Americans. But
crafty Stark takes their materials and builds a different sort of weapon.
The Iron Man superhero he becomes has little in the way of expression, but his
eye slots and the circular magnet in his chest have an unearthly glow, and his
coloring is warm: gold trimmed with red, like a sunset. The director, Jon
Favreau, often cuts to Downey's head inside the helmet, somewhat buffering the
fact that the Iron Man is computer-generated. His first liftoff and crash owe
a lot to Brad Bird's "The Iron Giant," although Favreau would probably say
it's an homage.
After he escapes, Stark is reborn in another way. Out of his suit, he shocks
the press--and his number two, Obadiah Stane, played by Jeff Bridges with a
little beard and bald dome, making his bid for William Hurt's hold on the
ex-leading man hambone character actor market.
(Soundbite of "Iron Man")
Mr. JEFF BRIDGES: (As Obadiah Stane) Tony, we're a weapons manufacturer.
Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) Oby, I just, I don't want a body count to be our
Mr. BRIDGES: (As Obadiah Stane) That's--that's what we do. We're iron
mongers. We make weapons.
Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) That's it. It's my name on the side of the
Mr. BRIDGES: (As Obadiah Stane) And what we do keeps the world from falling
Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) Not based on what I saw. We're not doing a good
enough job. We're can to do better. We're going to do something else.
Mr. BRIDGES: (As Obadiah Stane) Like what? You want us to make baby
(End of soundbite)
Mr. EDELSTEIN: It isn't long before "Iron Man" jets back to rescue innocent
Afghan men, women and kids from marauding warlords, using his might and money
and American ingenuity to undo his damage.
This is a very shapely piece of myth-making, crisply made and well cast.
Downey demonstrates his character's do-gooder conversion by looking as if he's
been yanked out of a hedonistic dream; his self-love dries up. But he's still
a hoot as he tests out his powers--painfully--and amazes his friends and foes.
His loyal assistant, Pepper Potts, isn't much of a part, but Gwyneth Paltrow
looks flabbergastingly pretty, and zings barbs with aplomb.
I had a great time at "Iron Man," but I wonder about the complacency it
encourages, the idea that one extraordinary capitalist can undercut the
military industrial complex. I know it's a popcorn movie, but at a time when
America is viewed around the world as arrogant, will the picture be seen as
another in that long line of Hollywood superhero movies aimed at making
Americans feel better about themselves? Will it be taken as proof we're
living in a comic book, or an impregnable golden shell?
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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