He won the Pulitzer for fiction last year and the critics are besotted. He jumps the wall between nerdy and cool, and his sister told him his book would never make Oprah’s list because it includes anal sex and too much swearing. So why, asks TOM FITZSIMONS at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, doesn’t Junot Díaz truly satisfy?

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I CAN’T get my head around Junot Díaz.
Whether up on stage before big audiences, or sitting in a hotel lobby for an interview, the guy is the same great bafflement.
It’s because I want to like him, I think. Not only is his Pulitzer Prize-winning new book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, this teeming, inventive, loud, sad thing, but the man himself is totally cool at first glance. He speaks in a thick New Jersey accent, lathering his sentences with street talk: “like, guys, come on!” He swears like a trooper and jokes about the hotel bar staff (“It is hilarious that they waited to turn the music on till we sat down. They thought they would encourage us into drinking!” And he’s smart, he’s unpredictable, he’s political and he’s a nerd.
So why the confusion? Because despite all this, Junot Díaz, at least Junot Díaz in Auckland at the end of God-knows-how-many interviews, is also sometimes awkward and guarded. On stage with the Listener’s Guy Somerset, he hijacks his hour-long session by calling for questions from the floor maybe halfway through. Other times he almost retreats into a foetal position, as one friend describes it. He keeps asking when his sessions and interviews will end. He sometimes answers questions dismissively, like they aren’t worthy of him.
His identity, he says, is drawn from all over the place. Asked about his mix of street and cerebral speak, he replies:
“I grew up having to wear so many masks. I had to wear the mask that I would wear with white folks when we went out and worked in the larger America. I had to wear the mask when I was hanging out with my friends in the neighbourhood, who for the most part didn’t speak any Spanish. Then I had to wear the mask of home, how we speak to our parents. And then you had to wear the masks of your total inner weirdness, the shit that you almost never get the chance to show anyone, which is why we’re so lonely all the time, because there’s so much that makes us so particular and we don’t know how to communicate it.
“What ends up happening is that the older you get, the more you’re just like ‘Okay, if I don’t figure out a way for all of these things to live simultaneously, I’m going to go insane’.”
So he knows all this wise stuff, and he’s a complete charmer – even giving the girl I’m with with a kiss on the cheek – but why does it feel like I can’t just like the guy?

GO ON and read Oscar Wao, please, because it’s deserving of the hype. In short, eponymous nerd hero (with hot older sister and angry, damaged Mom) chases after an endless stream of (often unaware) potential lovers – all the way back to his ancestral home, the Dominican Republic, where he finally meets a real one, but also a painful death. But there’s more, too, starting with rich veins of nerd-lore: Oscar greeting his buddies as “mellon”, Lord of the Rings talk for friend; the dungeon and dragon-ing; the narrator weaving the Watchmen graphic novel series deeply into the plot. And there’s more, too, more about the Dominican Republic: the oscillating fortunes of generations of Oscar’s family; the fuku (curse) that’s supposed to plague them; the long shadow of Rafael Trujillo, real-life dictator of the DR who sucked.
Sometimes the two merge, as when, in long discursive footnotes, Trujillo’s top henchmen are variously dubbed “Nazgul” and “ringwraiths”.
But actually, Díaz is pretty clear about what he wants you to prioritise. Though the brevity of Oscar’s life is all tied up in politics (he falls for the girlfriend of a DR cop – bad move), the wondrousness is all in miniature, he says.
“I think the book asks you right from the beginning: will you take what is nameless, what is unimportant, what is marginal, as central? Or will you embrace the other way which is to think of the authoritative as being stuff that's historical, stuff that's factual, stuff that's real?
“And I do think there are two entirely different books. And someone who really asks themselves how does the Watchmen, how does Doom, how do those stories, if we use those stories as lenses, what does that reveal about the book?
In fact, he says, he always knows an interviewer has misread the book when they ask him “too much about Trujillo”.
Thankfully, I’ve spent most of the interview rambling about how great I think nerds are, so I figure I’m safe there. We talk about the difference between nerds and geeks (in his upbringing, Díaz says, anyone with a book counted as either) and how nerds can be cruel and unkind to their own.
But though ostensibly marginalised, nerd culture is actually a crucial part of the American story, he says.
“The United States has an obsession with genre in ways that very few other places do … If you think of some of the uniquely American things like jazz – comic books, role-playing games, I mean, fuck, who else came up with this crap? …
“I don’t think you have to dig deep in American culture to see how much of a normative part of the everyday vernacular it is. For God’s sake, fucking Ronald Reagan organised most of his political ideology around science fiction movies. That’s fucking weird, dude.”
The theme doesn’t end there. In a sometimes cogent, sometimes bewildering little burst, Díaz says much of what we really value is hidden from common sight.
“The things that are most important for us are marginal. You know, we love fucking. You know that, you’re young. We love fucking. Especially fucking people we love. And yet that’s like the most marginal thing in the world.”
I ask if he means this just as a topic of conversation.
“Certainly, but in terms of just everything in the culture. I mean, show someone a picture of you fucking someone you love and see how quickly you have friends, yeah?
The real stories of postcolonial societies are in the margins too, he says, drawing a line between the sidelined position of indigenous people and sidelined art forms.
“To understand race relationships, you can read history all you want, but you’d be better off in America reading some of the genre stories, looking at some of the fantasy novels. I think these lenses are important … without them, America will elude you. Realistic fiction fails to describe the New World experience.”
Well, he pulls it off. The book is both of the street and the ivory tower, of the jock (narrator) and the nerd (Oscar), third world and first, big-scale and very small. Oscar is this crazy, fat, horny, geeky bastard, but he is wondrous and his embarrassing, unstoppable love is a thing to behold.

ON STAGE, pressed for why it took him 11 years to come up with Oscar after a similarly-acclaimed short story collection, Díaz says he had to grow. I’d like to know what this means.
“Sure,” he says. “Limitations in humanity, not limitations in skill.”
Is the corollary that the book is a more human product, something that holds lessons?
“I don’t know about that,” he says. “I think books can, within them, contain lessons, but that’s not their teleological intention. Books are just this very bizarre complexity; it’s a complex art practice that’s been passed down. And any time you think you can corral this art practice into one thing, it does exactly its opposite.”
So why did he have to grow?
“Well, think about it,” he says, with the kind of gentle superiority that starts off some of his answers.
“What is your own emotional understanding of the condition of the women in your life – whether it’s your mother, or your aunt, or your sister, or the people you’ve dated? Usually as guys, our sense of that is extraordinarily limited.
“The reason is because we’re blinded by our privilege and by our general sense that we can get along in this world without really understanding in any way the lives of women. And to write a book that has women at the centre of it, you know you can deploy all your narrative tricks to get at the heart, but they’ll fail if you haven’t made the necessary step to become more human to actually understand these lives through sympathy, through connection, through vulnerability.”
In other words, he says, being a writer means implicating yourself in the fact that “you were more than happy to be a limited motherfucker”.
Another challenge for the author is to find their own inner weirdness, he says. Partly because Díaz has had some serious recognition, he reckons writers who don’t get discovered get a chance to become kookier – for the better.
“I just think simply because of the conditions of late modern capital, it means that writers are no longer just this bizarre subset. We're now a part of double-digit profit, you know, which places a new set of demands on the artists … It means that those who are uniquely bizarre are even more precious.”
Even weirdness for its own sake has its place, he says.
“It’s hard in the present to understand what the future needs. The idea is to keep the ark as full as possible, so when it arrives in the future, if the future needs a duck, we have a duck. We might think a duck is a worthless piece of shit, but the idea is to keep the duck around because you never know when, 500 years from now, the duck is the thing that we need most of all.”

SO WHAT does Junot Díaz need? More time to write, maybe. He says his years of teaching creative writing at MIT have been fulfilling, but he feels like he’s given back enough. More money, maybe. On stage, with a touch of sophistry perhaps, he divides his book earnings by the 11 years it took to write and tells everyone it’s hardly a fair wage. Less shit from his friends back home, maybe, who say he doesn’t speak “niggerish” enough and curses only for effect – not that he gives a shit. But maybe most of all, what Junot Díaz needs is a little less attention. It seems to alternately touch off the shyness in him and the slightly haughty part too. I liked him best when he forgot about all that, when he cracked a joke because he – not the audience – thought it was funny, when he was unselfconsciously the charmer, when he let out that “inner weirdness”, all those ducks in the ark, and when he enjoyed himself, simply and for real. That’s when he seemed cool, yeah?



AKLDWRIT