‘You want to talk about a perfect storm,” says Junot Díaz, holding a Presidente beer and nervously bouncing his leg under a table in a quasi-gentrified East Harlem bar called Camaradas. “This was a perfect storm of insecurity and madness and pressure and you name it.” Díaz, pushing 40 but looking 30, is talking about the eleven years it took him to follow up on his best-selling, six-figure-advanced, award-winning book of short stories, Drown—by most accounts the first great work of Dominican-American fiction. “Every now and then you catch one, bro, and I caught a fucking bad one.”
At long last, thanks to his gentle agent, his hard-nosed editor, Sean McDonald (who also edited—and survived—James Frey), a good therapist, and “sheer ornery stubbornness,” his first novel, which fulfills his two-book contract, is done—and in many ways it’s even better than Drown.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the sad story of an overweight immigrant nerd who, in the most macho of cultures, can’t ever seem to get laid. But from the first paragraph, which describes an actual native belief in the fukú, or “the Curse and Doom of the New World,” the story broadens to encompass the (sometimes hilarious) tragedies of a Dominican-American family and their ravaged island.
Díaz grew up what he calls a “ghetto nerd,” and he speaks with the same combination of erudition, sci-fi references, and Latino gangsta-speak that moves his narratives (ten-dollar words mingle jazzily with the four-letter variety). He was bused into a mostly white high school from a neighborhood in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, that sat across from a garbage dump. “I always had this fucking reverse Batman thing going on,” he says. “When I became my masked identity I was this incredible little nerd, but in the real world I had to be this tough kid from the neighborhood.” No one could touch Díaz’s four-eyed friends without risking a beatdown.
He still feels the pull of two worlds. It may even have contributed to his writer’s block. “I had this romantic belief that once I was published, all we were going to do was sit around and talk about the books we loved,” he says. “But what ended up happening was this whole apparatus—talking about who got which advance, sniping at writers. I’m already the worst writer I know, if you divide productivity into ability.”
It was too much, too soon: “I’m not sure we would have had Song of Solomon if they treated Tar Baby the way Song gets treated,” he says, referring to Toni Morrison’s career. “I think you have to become a kind of writer once you have ‘the eye’ on you.”
For the longest time, Díaz was also working on a science-fiction novel set in a fictional Caribbean island. He plans to finish that book, too. Because in the end, writing for him is well worth the torture: “When I talk to people I’m such a dumbass,” he says. “When I enter that higher-order space that’s required to write, I’m a better human. For whatever my writing is, wherever it’s ranked, it definitely is the one place that I get to be beautiful.”