Meghan O'Rourke, Slate's literary editor and the author of Halflife, a collection of poetry, interviewed Junot Díaz, author of the recently released novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
O'Rourke's preface and the opening exchange from the interview:
Junot Díaz's fiction is propelled by its attention to the energetic hybridity of American life. His debut, Drown, a collection of stories, dealt with questions of identity and belonging in the lives of his narrators, many of whom were young Dominicans living in New York or New Jersey. At first glance, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, his long-awaited first novel, appears to be a classic bildungsroman: the story of a charming Dominican-American boy who grows up to be an overweight, lonely nerd more intimate with The Lord of the Rings than with the social rings in his high school. But early on, the reader realizes that The Brief Wondrous Life is equally a story about the depredations of dictatorship and a powerful examination of the nature of authority. The novel is strangely fragmented. What initially appears to be a linear story shatters into accounts of Oscar's family's history, as it was shaped over time by the reign of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, a dictatorial leader of the Dominican Republic for more than three decades. We come to understand that the form of the book itself resists the singularity of perspective that is often used to establish authority. Last week, Díaz and I corresponded by e-mail about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and about writing fiction.
Slate: What drew you to the character of Oscar, a fat, nerdy kid from New Jersey?
Díaz: It's hard to remember precisely. Been 11 years since I started the book. I know I wanted to challenge the type of protagonist that many of the young male Latino writers I knew were writing. But I also wanted to screw with traditional Dominican masculinity, write about one of its weirder out-riders. And then there was just the fact of Oscar, this kid who I could not get out of my head, whom I felt strongly attached to because he was such a devoted reader and because he had this imagination that no one had any use for, but which gave him so much enjoyment and sense of purpose.
Oscar was the end point (for me) of a larger, almost invisible historical movement — he's the child of a dictatorship and of the apocalypse that is the New World. I was also trying to show how Oscar is utterly unaware of this history and yet also dominated by it.
Read the entire interview.