At Home in Global America: Junot Diaz, Part I

They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fuku americanus, or more colloquially, fuku — generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and Doom of the New World…

No matter what it’s name or provenance, it is believed that the arrival of the Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fuku on the world, and we’ve all been in the shit ever since. Santo Domingo might be fuku’s Kilometer Zero, its port of entry, but we are all of us its children, whether we know it or not.

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

For people who feed on fiction for tastes of truth in our time, Junot Diaz is a treasure.

Junot DiazA double-visioned outsider in two languages, two cultures and two countries, he begins to look like the anointed prince of a generation of young immigrants writing “global” fiction inside the US. Could Juno Diaz be our Joseph Conrad?

The roaring liftoff of his first novel,The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao may even be an omen. Are we prepared to hear upstart fictionists tell us, as Junot Diaz does, at the outset: “Santo Domingo was Iraq before Iraq was Iraq.” Diaz’s young Dominican narrator decries the erasure of public memory: “You didn’t know we were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the U.S. occupied Iraq either.”

Underlying what reviewers are calling a comic novel, these are the tough themes: the interplay of political and sexual brutality, the suppression of national and family histories, and an inter-generational repetition compulsion around ancient cruelties that are suffered and re-suffered if not exactly remembered.

Junot Diaz makes you wonder, among other things: where were the eminent post-imperial writers (in the class of Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondatje, Zadie Smith) as the U.S. staggered backward into our own neo-imperial misadventure? Might somebody have warned us?

In the next few weeks, we’re reading and interviewing also Ha Jin, the Chinese exile who has just published his first “American” novel, and the novelist and memoirist Edwidge Danticat, who speaks for Haiti and Brooklyn much as Junot Diaz voices Dominican lives from the New Jersey corridor to Santo Domingo, and often back, and back again.

The premise, of course, is that fiction writers may tell us a lot more than we learned from Congressional struggles with immigration reform about the new diasporas and hybrid identities; what seems a permanent floating migration culture; such things as Junot Diaz calls “a peculiarly Jersey malaise — the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres.”

Michiko Kakutani’s celebration in the New York Times noted the “madcap, magpie voice” of Diaz’s “funny, street-smart” narrator, in the “comic portrait of a second-generation Dominican geek,” the eponymous Oscar Wao. But as she, too, noted, the story and the history behind it are harrowing.

My conversation with Juno Diaz began with the American reader’s shock of non-recognition in his Dominican Republic, Siamese-twinned with Haiti on the eastern portion of Hispaniola, Europe’s original prize sugar colony. We Red Sox and Mets fans know next to nothing of the homeland of Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, and it feels a little scandalous. We call the D. R. the “Republic of Baseball” and know it as Rush Limbaugh’s Viagra-charged Fantasy Island. But the social history and the present poverty? The Hitlerian dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo from 1930 to 1961? The official massacre of many thousands of Haitians in 1937?

Junot Diaz says that the kids wearing MLB caps in Santo Domingo today might have as hard a time profiling Trujillo as I did. “We seem to be built to forget,” Diaz says. We seem to insist on “illusions of purity… coherence… goodness… of the pure present without the shadow of history.” But when we cannot summon our history, neither can we imagine consequences of the present. “This book’s central preoccupation is: consequences.”

Click to listen to Part I of the conversation with Junot Diaz( MB MP3)

Continue the conversation with Junot Diaz in Part II and Part III. Thank you, Junot. We are up for Edwidge Danticat at Brown University next Tuesday. Help me out, Open Sorcerers, with angles and questions, please.

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