Feeling like an outsider inspires work of Junot Diaz

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As a small boy in Santo Domingo, Junot Diaz lived with his mother and grandparents in a home with a leaky roof, no regular electricity and no running water.

His life changed forever in 1974. In just four hours, at the age of 6, he flew to the U.S., landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport, saw New York City at midnight and rode along the New Jersey Turnpike in the dead of winter, a season he had never even seen.

That experience of bridging an enormous chasm was so shocking and disorienting that it was like time travel. So it's not surprising that as a young man, he became interested in science fiction or that being an outsider is a theme that runs through his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."

The 40-year-old author appears tonight as part of the Drue Heinz Lectures at 7:30 in Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall.

Junot Diaz
  • Where: Drue Heinz Lectures at Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland.
  • When: 7:30 tonight.
  • Tickets: $10-$25. 412-622-8866.

Diaz, who grew up in a working-class New Jersey neighborhood, attended Rutgers, earned his master's at Cornell and teaches creative writing at M.I.T. in Cambridge, Mass.

Asked why his family left the Dominican Republic, he replied:

"What would it take for someone to leave their language, their culture, their family, their place, their history, to come somewhere to be discriminated against, unappreciated and to have to, in many ways, begin completely anew? The reasons one leaves almost pale in comparison to the challenges one faces when one arrives."

The main character in his novel, Oscar Wao, is a smart, nerdy adolescent from New Jersey.

"My sense of being an immigrant is different from Oscar's unease in the world. If you're an outsider in one context, you certainly understand what it might feel like being an outsider in another context."

The book uses English and Spanish, the language of intellectuals, science fiction references and "a tremendous amount of what we traditionally call black English," Diaz said.

While the author engaged in what he calls "code switching across three or four registers," his main goal was to "bring to life the linguistic reality of the narrator."

"Plenty of readers don't notice the Spanish ... but they'll notice the nerdish references. Some people will get hung up on the black English. It's an attempt to get at what I would think is the linguistic diversity of the narrator, who is both a participant and a product of them."

Among the immigrant literature that's influenced him, Diaz cites Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Woman Warrior," Edward Rivera's "Family Installments: Memories of Growing up Hispanic," and Abraham Cahan's "The Rise of David Levinsky," which was published in 1917.

"It's just a beast of a book. It's one of the earliest, in some ways, great immigrant novels."

Immigration remains a hypersensitive issue in the U.S., Diaz said, for a variety of reasons.

"In a country that fundamentally cannot exist without the unrecognized and devalued labor of illegal immigrants, this is clearly going to be an issue that raises a lot of questions and raises a lot of blood pressure."

Immigration has to square itself "in a country that was stolen away from its original, indigenous inhabitants. Nothing quite gets at the contradiction of what it means to be in America like quote unquote 'the immigrant question.' "

The topic also troubles the national imagination.

"There's an unwillingness to relinquish the myth we have of ourselves as all powerful," he said. "How do you claim to be the greatest country on Earth when women, usually of Latina descent, destroy their health and lives to provide the goods and services that make this so-called great country possible?"

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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