REVENGE OF THE GHETTO NERD
THE WONDROUS LIFE OF PULITZER WINNER JUNOT DIAZ
The Ghetto nerd came to America at age 6 with his impoverished Dominican family, like so many others before them, yearning to taste the “American Dream.” The Ghetto nerd suffered the brutal jabs and blows of the “American reality” as his family faced one epic tragedy after another. The Ghetto nerd immersed himself in literature, inhaling popular culture like air, snorting fantasy and science fiction like cerebral cocaine, and drowning himself in the wondrous, exaggerated worlds of comic books. The Ghetto nerd hustled, like so many hustlers, by working an assortment of odd jobs to pay college tuition and later earn an MFA graduate degree from Cornell.
In 1996, the Ghetto nerd published his first work, a collection of short stories Drown, to ecstatic acclaim heralding him as the one of the great, young fiction writers of the new century by The New Yorker. After a 12-year hiatus, the Ghetto Nerd returns as the winner of 2008’s Pulitzer for Best Fiction Novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, an exciting and fresh work that literally explodes with ideas, simultaneously destroying cherished yet simplistic myths of “The American Dream,” while creating a unique vision of understanding the tragic, hopeful, forgotten, yet all too common, multicultural and multigenerational experience of an “American” family.
A month before winning the Pulitzer, I sat with Junot Diaz, the Ghetto Nerd himself, for a revealing and candid discussion about the devastating “curse” and emotional scars of a tyrannical dictatorship – in this case that of Dominican Republic’s horrific General Trujillo – on an immigrant, American family; the mainstream “whitewashing” of “brown” experiences; the power of popular culture and comics books to express one’s personal narrative; the arrogance of “Whiteness”; and the emergence of a multicultural voice reflecting an ethnic, “All American” America
ALI: The novel begins with a quote by Derek Walcott: “I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me, and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.” Is this statement a microcosm of the multicultural identity of a modern and past America? Has America and American literature always been this way you think?
DIAZ: Part of me was thinking more in a sense that that there is no national definition; in other words, all national definitions have to contend with the specificity of the individual. That’s what I find in some ways to be so intriguing. The identities that we cleave to or create for ourselves are often simplifying myths more than anything else. I guess part of it is that, clearly, there’s no greater or perhaps more alluring simplifying myth than the myth of America with the capital “A.” Which says it is a sort of un-nuanced “good.” But, there’s another line to that opening quote which is the same way a national definition has to struggle to incorporate the individual, it’s also possible for an individual to become a national identity.
If you think about the book, the book argues that a freakish individual, in the case of the Dominican Republican dictator Trujillo, a very specific individual, became a national character. I think the quote is not just a note of celebration, but it also sounds as a warning “fetish-ising” the individual, which is exactly what the cult of Trujillo did – it “fetishised” one individual.
ALI: Let’s talk about the fuku, the curse, or as one of the characters later refers to it as “the fuck you” – “the Curse and Doom of the New World,” a plague, a curse, an endless foreboding tragedy that links a family from the mother country to the new country. Can you briefly explain it?
DIAZ: There’s another argument in the book for what the fuku is. Folkloric-ly in the Dominican Republic, there’s this belief that there’s this huge quantity of bad luck that has been generated in or around of what we call the conquest of the New World. The project of the New World, which created this sort of bad luck radiation, that went across the planet. And that so much of the evil and the problems we have in what we call the “contemporary world” were produced and sort of exacerbated by this malevolent, historical radiation. Some folk are actually quite adept at manipulating this bad luck energy, and other folks don’t even believe it exists. It was an interesting way, at a narrative level, to think about the power of history, and the longevity of consequences.
ALI: The novel, like the language, the cultural references, the ethnicities and histories of the character, reminded me of a collage – a volatile and combustible mash up – a mix tape of real, unreal, past, present, hilarity, and tragedy and so forth. As immigrants or progeny of immigrants, can we divorce our past and our roots in America? Should the young generations say, as they often do, “That was them, that’s not me. I’m not Dominican, I’m American!” You and the fuku seem to suggest otherwise, no?
DIAZ: This gets back to our initial conversation about the myth we tell ourselves. I think there is nothing more damning than a myth that denies all antecedents that basically says that “that was then and I’m sort of new creature.” Then again, there’s nothing more damning than a myth which denies that there are a new set of experiences and a new set of challenges that young people have to face. I would say my book would make an argument for a personal vision of an individual’s relationship to history.
We are simultaneously autonomous as history but equally enslaved by it. It’s these two quite opposite states that make it so difficult to have conversations about this. You know, when you’re like hanging out at the mall and you’re just trying to buy a pair of earplugs for your iPod, it’s real hard to make an argument for a larger, historical movement. But that very activity if viewed from a different perspective and from a much longer range, certainly makes you realize how much of a product of history you are. And I do think if the book was arguing anything is that most of us are like Oscar [The morbidly overweight, tragically geeky, alienated protagonist of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao] and his family in that we don’t believe that history has any hold on us, and yet it’s quite clear we are the children of history.
ALI: Let’s talk comics shall we.
DIAZ: Let’s do it.
ALI: There is another opening quotation to the novel, a Fantastic Four comic reference: “Of what importance are brief, nameless lives…to Galactus, the eater of worlds.” Throughout the novel, you invoke celestial figures, near Gods of the comic and fantasy universe with omniscient awareness and limitless capacity for tyranny. There’s Darksied and his all-enveloping Omega Beams, The Watchmen’s near deity Dr. Manhattan, Fantastic Four’s Galactus. The oppressive nature of Frank Millar’s despotic The Dark Knight Returns, Tolkein’s Mordor and so forth. So, how does the comic narrative relate to the concept of tyranny and oppression as experienced by Oscar, his family, and immigrants?
DIAZ: I think part of what’s happening is that I’m using prepackaged metaphors to communicate. I think it’s difficult for your average, contemporary reader to really grasp what a Trujillo meant, because there’s no analogous experience for most people. They wouldn’t know what it would mean to be on an island or culture where one individual would have such supreme power. But, when you evoke sort of science fiction, comic book genre, then Trujillo is sort of like Sauron [The tyrannical antagonist from Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy.]. Suddenly, there’s this already prepackaged metaphor that allows people to somewhat understand the extremity of the figure you are talking about.
I think the genres are very interested in tyrannies and control and power and the consequences of all these things in ways traditional literature isn’t. You can go and randomly pick up and read a comic book and that comic would have more to do with dictatorship and the loss of human freedoms than your standard novel on the bookshelf. In one way it was sort of deploying these preoccupations of power, dictatorships, comic book genres to clarify and to explain the world I was trying to bring to life, i.e. the Dominican Republic. Simultaneously, I was also trying to make these metaphors in some ways was a “browning” of these incredibly “White” metaphors. My sort of talking about a third world Sauron and an immigrant Fantastic Four, it sort of emphasizes, at least I thought it brought into stark relief how much our popular narrative, like comic books and science fiction, rely on thinly veiled troupes of racialized and cultured “others.”
ALI: Like the X-men for example.
DIAZ: Yeah, I mean X-men doesn’t exist without the deeper preoccupation of race and otherness in the Americas. The same thing as the contact with the alien species, the first contact narrative in science fiction, it’s just in some ways a newly updated version of the Columbus exchange, or the Europeans encountering the New World.
ALI: Can we continue with comics? Let’s talk about the brave new worlds comics and fantasy open up for Oscar. In a sense, it reminded me of Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, where the harsh brutal blows of reality overtake and confront Oscar and his family, yet the magic and creativity exists side by side with the fisticuffs of this reality. Yet, we see and feel tragedy. Is fantasy then just an escape for the weak and the idle? Is Oscar ever able to use his fantasy to truly escape in the real world, or is it merely a vehicle for delusional fancy and temporary escapes from the real world? Does Oscar the Billy Batson ever become Oscar the Captain Marvel?
DIAZ: The thing about life is that life is, if you think about it, the eye of the beholder. How your life turns out or how your life has been has everything to do with how you “narrative-ize” it – whether you are a hero or a villain in life. Or, someone could create a narrative where you’re the villain or hero of life. I think what’s important is that on one level our narrative is how we wrestle with this thing we call life. I think it’s less a kind of Pan’s Labyrinth or [Terry Gilliam’s 1985 horror fantasy] Brazil type thing where the child or the person is doing this Walter Mitty-esque escapes because reality is so cruel.
I think in some ways it’s arguing that without access to other narrative strategies, other than realism, we have a very inaccurate picture of the world. The world doesn’t make sense if it is only being interpreted through the eyes of realism. Oscar certainly uses his comic books and science fiction as a form of escape, but there’s another way he uses it which is a way to understand a world which is extraordinarily complex and making sense sort of a life which is not easy to make sense of.
In some ways Oscar is on to something because how do you make sense of being a child of the third world? How do you make sense of being an immigrant? How do you make sense of being a child survivor of some historical calamity that you have no access to? The way he does it is through this wild, out of control genre narrative. I think those narratives are incredibly useful for making sense of the world. I wouldn’t say Junior, the novel’s narrator, uses genre to escape, he is quite the opposite; he is kind of a hardcore realist in my eyes. But, you see even he ends up having to use comic books and science fiction to make sense of this incredible life that he has experienced.
ALI: I want to bridge that concept of “understanding” in the sense that Oscar “might be on to something” and link it with this observation I made, and I want your thoughts on it. It seems the comic book images you use talk a lot about destruction and creation. Galactus is the destroyer of worlds; Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World is, thereafter, the oppression of many Chicanos and Latin Americans. In Akira, you see the destruction of Neo-Tokyo and the birth of a new world at the end. In Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, the character Dr. Manhattan creates new life forms on a new planet after Adrian Veidt blows up New York City. We even have Oscar’s final journey to The Dominican Republic and, some can say, his rebirth. At the end of Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan answers Adrian, “In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”
So, the fuku, the pain, the curse, the tragedy, is it just a Hebraic cycle? Can’t it be broken? Like the Matrix is it destined to repeat? Is it a cyclical pattern of birth and death? Or, like Oscar, can all we hope for is to appreciate and understand the beauty before the inevitable?
DIAZ: It’s a very good point and well observed. This book and what knits all those narratives together is the concept of the apocalyptic. And by that we don’t necessarily mean just the massive destruction. The apocalyptic always meant the end of one world and the revelation of another. I think in some ways there is something extraordinarily cyclical about the way that life is so apocalyptic which leads to an idea that maybe this is the mechanism of the world.
Worlds are constantly ending and other ones are beginning. We have never thankfully experienced one without the other. I mean perhaps the final point of all history is when a world ends and there is another one in the wings waiting. I do think however to me what is extremely interesting about sort of what ends up happening is that very much like the apocalypse of the Bible, the final chapter revelations, what ends up happening is often the New World that is created has all of the flaws and all of the sins of the Old one. If you look at Oscar’s family, his family is assembled on a cycle of apocalypses. They’re a group of survivors, but it seems each generation who flee Eden, the Angel of the Sword, they bring with them seeds of their eventual destruction.
And the narrative dream of course of Junior, the narrative dream of the novel, is that there will be a generation where instead of carrying into the New World all the problems, all the sins, all the mistakes, we will literally be able to stop, break this cycle, and the dream is that there will be a daughter who will see all the information, hear the stories and instead of running away and spreading the disease which is the fuku further, they will confront it and make a new relationship to history, and new relationship to our past and to our present.
ALI: Did Oscar feel too deeply? Was that the reason for his demise? Why did he have to suffer for his enlightenment?
DIAZ: To have the whole picture is quite a difficult thing. Most of us make decisions based on the information at hand, which almost always is imperfect and incomplete. Oscar did the best he could given his dreams and desires with the information he had, and in some ways, Oscar made it impossible for the remaining survivors to deny the fact that there might be this curse. I think that’s interesting because he’s not a character who believed in the possibility of the curse throughout. He’s a character who knows so little about the Dominican history and who so uninterested in the history of the New World, yet in some way his suffering made it kind of impossible for anyone else to deny the very thing he spent most of his life denying.
ALI: Let’s talk about Whiteness.
DIAZ: Sure, what about it?
ALI: How do you respond to critics, mostly White, who think your themes, plot and dialogue is only for ethnic audiences and might be difficult to cross over with “mainstream audiences”. I say this because rarely to never does “Whiteness” ask “ethnic” people whether or not mainstream culture is accessible to “us.” Furthermore, there’s this “whitewashing” of brown literature – the movie versions of Allende’s House of The Spirits starring Meryl Streep and all White actresses. This book seems to be kind of flipping off these old guard, Euro centric police people who say the Western Canon must all be White and English.
DIAZ: I think it’s so interesting what you’re saying. One of the things about White supremacy is that it is never satisfied with what it has gained. What fascinates me is, for example, take the narrative of A Beautiful Mind, the book about that Princeton professor, yeah? Talk about a rarified world, talk about an extremely White world in which this character was living in and moving in. But, when it came time to make the Hollywood picture, that world still was not “White enough.” I mean he was married to a woman from Costa Rica. And, they were like, “You know what? Screw that! We’re going to make that character White!”
This happens again, and again, and again. What’s fascinating to me is that it’s as if when Whiteness gets a chance to rewrite the story it will even re-write a predominantly White story even Whiter! The perfect example is Ursula Leguin’s Earth Sea Trilogy, a story where all the characters were all kind of brown. And Hollywood came out and said, “Hmmph, it’s not enough that it was written by a White person, we have to make it Whiter than White.”
I think as a writer of color, as an artist of color, especially one who identifies himself or herself as such, and thinks there is nothing limiting or ghetto-izing of calling oneself a writer of color, simply stating that doesn’t absolve me from universality, in fact I think it brings me closer to it. The universal is found in the specific. Writers of color, we often have to wrestle with an enormous amount of ridiculousness. I’m often asked as a writer how do I think my race, culture, ethnicity influenced my writing, and none of my White peers get asked that. I think my Dominican-ness has less impact on my writing than White privilege has on, say, Rick Moody or Jonathan Francis.
White privilege is an enormous bonus to White writers, yet they are never asked to interrogate it. It’s sort of a standard thing. It’s like the subway stops in New York. This is the literary equivalent of the subway stops, where Black and Latino men are always being stopped and frisked, and White men are not. I think this is just the literary subway frisk, and till we get a better world, the only thing we can do is to point it out and constantly when given a chance to turn the tables. I always love driving White writers crazy by asking them, “So, how do you think your Whiteness influenced your writing or your success?”
ALI: How do they respond?
DIAZ: Well, you know, they always respond the same way. They’re astonished! Because, they never have to be asked that.
ALI: They never have to defend it, criticize it, or confront it actually.
DIAZ: That’s the whole thing about power. In that, power is invisible to itself.
ALI: I want to flip that. You have two descriptions in your book. Let me read them: “Jack Pujols’ the schools handsomest – (Whitest)- boy.” Then you have this one, “That’s the kind of culture I belong to: people took their child’s black complexion as an ill omen.” That last quote can transcend ethnic boundaries, that’s me speaking as a South Asian and Muslim. Now, we see Obama, Hillary, and the whole conflict of Latino/ Black voting divide. Why the blinders for colored folk? Why the need to define oneself by oppressing another – separating the darker part of ourselves figuratively and literally? “See, we’re not Black, we’re not the ‘other,’ please accept us White man!” Even though to “Whiteness,” we’re all the same.
DIAZ: I think the issue is incredibly complicated. I think that there’s a lot that’s going on. It’s not easy for individuals or communities to deal with sort of the “White supremacist” racialization of the world. Making accommodations with it, trying to find a place sort of jostling for privilege while trying to avoid the kind of pitfalls of victimization, I mean all these things twist people into ontological pretzels: our attempts to define ourselves in some healthy, meaningful way while simultaneously resisting. The very communities that talk about Obama or how you hear “Latinos don’t support Obama.” I go, “Hmmn? I wonder if they’re looking at it in a nuanced way.” Because my friends do [support Obama], but I haven’t heard of any of their parents running out to support him. I think these things are really complicated, but what is really important and really useful is that the horrifying maple of White supremacy that all cultures are sort of dancing around – I think that drives a lot of us crazy and causes a lot of us to define ourselves in ways that are not productive.
ALI: In “Love and Consequences,” a critically acclaimed but fraudulent memoir published recently, Margaret B. Jones lied about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, and running drugs for the Bloods. Talk to me about this: White writers faking “Ghetto lifestyles” and writing about stuff they don’t know, and the mainstream publishers who love to publish them and make money off it. As one who has come from a “ghetto” and knows that world, how does that make you feel, and how can you stop the exploitation?
DIAZ: I mean you can’t. Look, the media, reading audiences, publishers, editors, agents and writers are all complicit in trying to sell what I would call “narratives of consolation.” There is nothing more consoling to people than this little narrative [In a slow, condescending voice] “The ghetto is tough and full of evil, bad gangsters, and good kids are fucked up by this experience. But, every now and then, a very good kid passes through this experience and emerges at the end a whole and healed person.”
That’s such a ridiculous narrative at every level. It allows us to simultaneously experience the titillation of the underclass “other,” while relieving us of the fact that like 90% of the people who live as the underclass stay as the underclass. When you read a book by a survivor, either as a fiction or memoir, it immediately brings survivor bias. You know this person is going to make it. So, even if you spend 200-300 pages in a made up, fictional ghetto hell, you know there is light at the end of the tunnel. And it doesn’t work that way. The world is not a redemptive, Oprah Winfrey narrative. The world is too complicated. I think that in some ways these are sort of that fake memoirs, where everybody wants to truck in sort of these simplified myths of our country. Whether they are the racial myths, or urban myths, or even those myths that “In the end, even if things are really tough but if you’re just good and stick to your values, you’ll make it. Where America is a country where you can pull yourself up.”
All these things combine in the reasons why these memoirs are extremely popular. I think there’s a lot going on there. I think it’s really fucking sad, man. I mean it’s really, really sad. No matter how many of us write this complicated vision of America that is no longer just simply “Boyz in the Hood” – in the end America really just wants their “Boyz in the Hood.” They want their really simple, fucking shit.
I think there’s a lot of money to be made. There’s a lot of money to be made selling Americans drugs. Whether it’s the real kind of drugs destroying communities, or it’s the much more subtle and insidious drug of “bogus narratives of comfort.” There’s always going to be money in that. There’s always going to be people who will be willing to fucking sell their soul to turn their buck on it.
ALI: Let’s talk about self-loathing and the need for assimilation. Oscar never fits in – both with his own community and due to his Ghetto Nerd tendencies and intellectualism, which flies in the face of machismo culture. And he never fits in with mainstream, because, well, he’s not White. How is this reflective of not only your experience as an American writer but also part of the larger immigrant, Dominican experience?
DIAZ: These are not parables. I don’t think there’s an equal sign where Oscar being fat equals a Dominican sort of writer. I think there are credible ironies in that even in communities that are ostracized by a larger, mainstream community there are people within these very communities who are ostracized for what seems to be completely arbitrary reasons. In Oscar’s case, he’s really nerdy and that’s enough to get him blacklisted from the world of Dominican-ness. I think part of what I was interested in as a writer was sort of exploring the internal tyranny of a community.
I mean, I think you can write about how bad White people are till the cows come home, but to me that is nowhere near as interesting as the ways that people who are tyrannized from the outside who are even more insanely tyrannical when they go home and close their doors. I think that’s why Oscar is such an interesting character for me. In some ways, he really, really, really wants to fit in. Yet, there’s nothing he can do to convince anybody to let him join their club. It’s fascinating. What happens to a person when nobody lets you fit in?
ALI: The TV shows Heroes took the idea of your new novel, which in part is about the supernatural destruction of New York City, which they in part took from Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Watchmen. So, are you still gonna’ do it: the psychic terrorist kills NYC plot?
DIAZ: We’ll see. I want to, but it has to work on its own terms. The thought of a superpower individual destroying a city is so old and has been so long in the back of our minds, that I’m not surprised it hasn’t been done ten, twenty or thirty times. But, hopefully, if I can do this, I’ll bring something new to it, which is something you always hope for.
ALI: Is it going to take 10 years again this time?
DIAZ: (Laughs) No answer. Don’t even know.
Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” (www.domesticcrusaders.com) is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at https://goatmilk.wordpress.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org