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Junot Díaz Comes To Hartford Public Library On Friday

Carole Goldberg

October 18, 2009

The first thing that grabs you is the profane, hilarious, insistent voice.

It whirls off the page, spinning English, Dominican Spanish and what its author calls "Nerdish" into a breathtaking, laugh-making, heartbreaking rant, a unique experience read by the eye yet heard by the ear.

You might think it's the author effortlessly channeling the natural music of his mind, but Junot Díaz says emphatically that's not so.

Díaz — whose Pulitzer Prize-winning 2007 novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," is the focus of the 2009 One Book For Greater Hartford community-reading project — says refining that voice, first heard in his 1996 story collection "Drown," takes serious concentration.

"This language is a complete artifact, consciously constructed. I labored over it," he says in a telephone conversation. The narrator's voice in his novel about a Dominican family doomed by a "fukú," a devastating curse on their love lives, may read smoothly, but it took 11 years of hard work and revisions to complete the book.

He likens it to something Frank Sinatra once said: "If they can see us sweating, we aren't working hard enough."

He chose not to translate the Spanish or Nerdish in the story, he says, assuming his readers would ask others to help them understand. "The book is there to get people to reach out," he says.

Díaz, who splits his time between New York City and Boston, where he is a professor of creative writing at MIT, will be in Hartford on Friday night to talk about and read from his book and answer questions at a free event at the Hartford Public Library that will wrap up the One Book project. He's looking forward to it.

"I'm very private when I'm an author. You lock yourself up alone for many years. The best part about book events is I'm there with my tribe, people who like to read. I just want to interact with book lovers and my readers," he says.

"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is a tale of a first generation Dominican-American shaped by the dynamics of family, nation, diaspora, masculinity and superstition," says Matt Poland, chief operating officer of the Hartford Public Library, the main sponsor of the One Book project.

"The library selected this book because it has a message of endurance that should resonate with our community in a long-lasting, wondrous way. We hope Junot Díaz will share his experience as a Dominican-American and what life in America means to him."

Díaz' book combines the story of the de Leon family with larger issues, including the immigrant experience, the brutality of the American-supported Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic and ways U.S. and Dominican history intersect. Footnotes that explicate the effect of the dictatorship on the country offer a contrapuntal voice that enriches and expands the family story.

It was reading that set Díaz on his path to literary achievement. At age 6, he arrived in Parlin, N.J. from the Dominican Republic with his family, led by a father who was a stern disciplinarian — "a Little League dictator," Díaz has called him — a forklift operator who fought with his sons to toughen them.

But the boy soon discovered the public library, where he became a fanatical reader, especially of sci-fi tales, from X-Men comics to works by Lovecraft, Tolkien and other fantasy and horror masters. He went on to attend Rutgers University, working his way through by delivering pool tables and other muscle jobs, then earned a master's degree from Cornell. In addition to the Pulitzer, he won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction for "Oscar Wao," and has many other literary honors.

His experience with immigrant life, fanboy obsessions, academic intelligence and Dominican culture are reflected in the book. Through his narrator, Yunior — a smart young Dominican who becomes a teacher, yet is also a player as unfaithful as he is attractive — he introduces us to Oscar, the novel's sad, brave and unforgettable hero.

Once a darling little boy with a eye for the girls, Oscar grows obese, awkward and shy as a teen. A budding sci-fi writer with no social skills, reviled by girls and boys alike, he is a reluctant virgin in a culture that celebrates vigorous masculinity. Oscar writes and writes, eats and diets and eats more and longs and lusts to no avail. He is cursed, as were his mother and grandmother, by a fukú, and Díaz gives us the complex family history.

In doing so, he presents fascinating female characters: Oscar's sister Lola; his mother, Beli; her foster mother, known as La Inca; and Beli's natural mother, Socorro. All strong women; all unlucky, to put it mildly, with men.

"These are gals who, when they fall in love, they fall incredibly hard," he says.

For him as the author, the curse that links the generations "is a wonderful way to organize lives and explain random history. It's an argument with history."

Immigration, another key aspect of the story, is hard to generalize about, he says, and he has seen "winners and losers. Certainly some are amazing, but some collapse.

"Leaving your culture, language, comfort, home and history to go to a place that's hostile, that makes for more improvisational and creative people, but not always."

He adds that fear and hatred of immigrants, often fueled by political leaders, has been "a fixture of American civic society for a very long time. America has had a mean streak a mile long. It's like a terrible, terrible deranging fever that the country can't get rid of."

Given that Oscar is so appealing, did Díaz ever consider giving him a happier fate?

No, he says, pointing out that the book's title came before he created the story. "'Brief' is a big part of the book," he says, adding he thinks of Oscar as "a complicated friend."

The title, by the way, came from a discussion Díaz had in Mexico City with a friend who gave a Dominican inflection to the name of writer Oscar Wilde, making his last name sound like "Wao." It's also a play on the title of a famous Hemingway story: "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber."

Teaching writing at MIT, Díaz says, "makes me incredibly happy."

"Young people keep you energized, curious, hopeful and compassionate," he says.

He points out that MIT has the highest percentage among "the select schools" of students who are the first in their family to attend college.

"Such a remarkable thing," he says. "It's a serious, high-level science, engineering and computer school, and at any such school you will have some nerds, but the majority of students are like students anywhere."

The book took Díaz a decade to write, but he says he felt no pressure from his publisher, Penguin/Riverhead Books. "No one cared about the time [spent] on 'Oscar,'" he says. "This is not Dan Brown. No publisher's bottom line is going to go up from this book.

"For me, the pressure came from within."

"Literary fame is not real fame," he says. "I just want to get back to writing. But I'm very grateful that the book has allowed me to go so many places. It's a magic carpet. Remarkable."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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