For an author held in high regard by virtually every serious literary establishment on the planet, talking with Junot Díaz is amazingly fun. Over the course of an interview to promote his appearance at Duke’s Richard White Lecture Hall Wednesday, Feb. 18, our conversation touched on everything from Mel Gibson’s plans to do a film of the British TV series Edge of Darkness (“Like Nimrod, the hunter of men, Gibson hunts and kills all my childhood memories”) to the zombie video game Left 4 Dead (“Men are from zombies, women are from vampires”) to the comic books and science fiction references that populate his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Perhaps that’s the secret to his work’s appeal. Díaz depicts a world that’s a melting pot of not just national, but popular, cultures, where the real-life Dominican tyrant Rafael Leónidas Trujillo exists on the same mythological level of evil as The Lord of the Rings’ Sauron or DC Comics’ Darkseid.
Díaz has been on a world tour to promote Oscar Wao; when we spoke, he’d just returned from Paris, where he didn’t get to see much of the city. “The prize stuff has kept me in circulation among literary circuits, and there are a lot of literary circuits,” says Díaz, who adds that all the traveling has, ironically, kept him away from writing.
“There’ll be a new Pulitzer [winner] in a few months, so I’ll get to get off the track, and someone else gets to run around for a while.”
Wao has been released around the world (“It’s doing well for a literary book, though it’s not Dan Brown numbers”), and Díaz expects his reading and discussion at Duke to encompass many of the same topics he’s encountered elsewhere. “There’s always a talk about the process. And, of course, I focus a lot on what it means to produce art, and why this stuff mattersmy approach is predicated on my own rhythm, that there is no standard. If it takes you nine years to write a novel, it takes nine years. As an artist, you’ve got to be true to your own rhythms and standards.”
Another topic Díaz anticipates discussing is the peculiar lingo of Oscar Wao, where “the fanboy ‘nerdish’ is working with this completely incongruous black/ Dominican/ immigrant argot.” Though Wao has a “nerdish” reference on almost every page, Díaz says some readers have proven more resistant to the use of un-translated Spanish throughout the book.
“What’s interesting is that the nerdish stuff is considered, by many people, utterly puerile and something that can be dismissed,” Díaz says. “But your average civilian reader won’t get worked up over itthey’ll go, ‘This stuff is meaningless anyway.’ They’re much more likely to get worked up over the Spanish, like it’s there to bedevil them, to thwart them. But the Spanish doesn’t do nearly as much work carrying the story as the nerdish.”
Still, Díaz, who’s written about the likes of the Japanese comic series Monster for Time magazine and the video game Grand Theft Auto IV for The Wall Street Journal, feels that audiences are becoming less dismissive of the literary potential in media beyond books and film. “There’s clearly a population to whom this stuff is normative,” Díaz says. “There’s no question that comic books and video games are legitimate storytelling mediums. There’s new spaces and new opportunities for all things nerdish, but I would not say there’s not a lot of resistance.”
Of course, he doesn’t look for depth in everything: “There’s some shit you love because it’s deep in narrative, and some shit you love because it’s goddamn fun.”
Junot Díaz appears at Duke Wednesday, Feb. 18, at 6 p.m. Visit latino.aas.duke.edu for more information.