Author and PNI Advisory Editor Tiphanie Yanique conducted the following interview in August, 2007—just after the initial release of Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.


TIPHANIE YANIQUE: Okay, Junot. I just finished The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Man, is Yunior familiar. He’s your main narrator in this novel, but is he the same Yunior from your first book Drown? If so, why did you return to him and how might he, all grown up, be connected to his younger self?

JUNOT DÍAZ: Same Yunior. I wanted to tell the story of this love-cursed Dominican boy and, at first, I tried to tell it directly, with Oscar as the narrator, but it wasn’t working. I seem to be better at indirection, and so I turned to Yunior and saved the novel from oblivion. He started talking and suddenly I had not only the narrator but this complicated relationship between the teller of the tale and the subject of the tale. The image I had was of Vyasa and Ganesha: one dictating the story, the other one writing. A great image because the book’s “god” is the one doing the scribbling and the lowly monk is the one dictating, and that’s not what you normally see in literature.

To try to approach the final part of your question, Yunior continues to be a mystery to me and I hope, in a small way, to readers. He’s clearly hyper-educated and yet he goes out of his way to hide his education and his intelligence. He’s deeply empathic (how else could he reach into these hearts) and yet he’s a boy from his background: he’s spiked through with a lot of cruelty, a lot of hardness, and when he talks he’s honest to himself in ways that he otherwise can’t be. Important things have happened to Yunior that he alludes to in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and yet he never really addresses them. One day I might actually write more directly about his heartbreaks: the death of his brother, the actual years of his immigration, the loss of his father. But, for now, he won’t speak to me about his deep wounds, not yet.

YANIQUE: There’s another reason Yunior is familiar to me. He reminded me of a lot of negroes I used to live with and go with back in St. Thomas. He talks dirty about sex. He cheats on his women. I wanted to reach in and tell him to go to therapy already. I’m wondering, though, about how you anticipate what a reader might call his misogynistic way of talking about sex. This was complicated for me. As a project girl I thought he was kind of sexy—I mean that’s how I expect a lover to talk to me—but, as a feminist, I wondered what other women would think. (Man, being a feminist and a project girl can be confusing as hell. I suppose it’s worse for the men I date.)

AZ: Yunior needs therapy? I mean, shit, every person of color in this country needs therapy . . . Yunior’s flawed, there’s no question, but something tells me that no amount of therapy would “fix” what’s the “matter” with Yunior because what’s the “matter” with Yunior is deeper than the individual.

Also, I don’t think that Yunior is supposed to be likeable. That’s high school shit—Yunior’s supposed to be complicated, contradictory, flawed. You know, human?

I expect certain readers to encounter Yunior and just shut the book. Alas, Yunior’s not here to comfort or console. He’s an average dude in the world I come from—no worse, no better. But some people just don’t want encounter or deal with these type of voices, these points of views. That’s the problem with our contemporary sense of tolerance: it only tolerates itself. If one is reading literature because one wants to be safe, to make “friends,” because one wants to encounter a world that corresponds to our myths about the world, then I’m not the writer who can help you. I’m about something else, and Yunior, for the moment, in all his harshness and misogyny, is the key to this project.

I keep reminding people that representing something is not the same as endorsing it. It’s not. Just because Yunior talks junk about women doesn’t mean that the book or the writer of the book agrees. (Or to put it a better way, grad students will absolve me!) Yunior’s views of the world, women included, continually doom and isolate him. And that’s not a small thing in these discussions.

YANIQUE: You were my teacher at Voices of the Nations (aka Voices, aka VONA). You were an incredible teacher, so let me ask you something craft-related. Yunior isn’t exactly an endearing narrator, as you’ve mentioned above. But I think many readers will be willing to listen to him even if they feel he’s cruel or an ass. How do you achieve this? The assholey yet engaging narrator, I mean.

AZ: To repeat, likeable is not an interest of mine. And it really is a reductive and tautological question. Yunior is likeable to people that like that sort of cat; he’s unlikeable to people that don’t like that sort of cat. Where can we take the discussion from there? Whether a narrator is “popular” doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not she’s trenchant, compelling, and true (which is what I am interested in). Think about the great narrators in literature: Ellison’s invisible man, Holden Caulfield, to name two. Not exactly endearing straight off the bat, and yet their stories, more than their personalities, is what holds us, what keeps bringing us back to the page. We lose sight of literature when we lose sight of that.

YANIQUE: You’re a structure mikifiki. And I’m seeing Patrick Chamoiseau all over this. I’m reminded of Jose Donoso, Borges, Claudia Rankine and other structure mamas and papas. I love it—the spiraling in and out of narrators, the frickin’ foot notes. Who were your influences in architecting this structure? Why did you go this route?

AZ: Nobody cares about this shit, let me tell you, but I’m a structure obsessive. Sometimes stories just shoot out plain, but I’m always trying to figure out some way to warp and braid them in interesting ways: a) because I think the rhizomatic complexity is beautiful; b) because my brain does not work at all in a linear fashion; and c) because I want to prove a point. That is, you don’t have to be writing like Heidegger to experiment with structures.

But how else to keep myself interested? Lately I’ve been working with this deceptively easy-to-read voice and I try to juxtapose it with a complicated narrative structure—one underpinning the other.

And you’ve got me dead to rights, T. I’m obsessed with Chamoiseau. His novels have been an inspiration for many a year, and he’s the one who inspired and guided me to use footnotes. He’s without peer as a novelist and it breaks my heart how many young writers of color don’t know his work. I know so many young writers of color who’ll bend over backwards to read all the in whiteboys and whitegirls (whom will never read their work in turn), while the people who actually would have their back in the literary world, they don’t know enough about. Understand, that’s not everybody- look at you, you got your Chamoiseau down cold-but they’re enough folks who don’t to be distressing.

I read so many interviews and articles by the in whiteboys and whitegirls, and what’s telling is how they almost never credit any people of color as influencing them as writers. When they list the writers they like to read, you would think there were no people of color in the world. As a friend of mine once said, “thems don’t mind poaching our techniques, but they sure don’t want to acknowledge or give credit.”

YANIQUE: Sure enough. So to backtrack to Yunior—who is a cat who loves to read and has read writers of color himself-how does Yunior, the narrator, know all that History? Are the footnotes you as the writer or are they Yunior? At first I thought you-some sweet po-mo- but then this changed. He doesn’t seem like the kind of dude that spent hella time in the history section, and—others have asked me about this—when would Yunior have the time to with all that girling? Plus, he’s an English major who’s into sci-fi. But you on the other hand, you majored in history as an undergrad . . .

AZ: This is the danger, conflating Yunior and me. Yunior is the guy who spent all his time doing this research, learning all this, and who knows this shit. Yunior, you see, is brilliant the way a lot of brothers are brilliant. He’s a lot smarter than me. He can be because I have years to polish him up. Me . . . I have to be smart in the now, with no go-backs or editing. Very hard. But people don’t want to see that. They get lost in Yunior’s language, in his harshness. They confuse surface for character. And they have trouble accepting a dude like him as smart.

Believe me, I know how Yunior feels. To understand Yunior means you need to be ready and able to accept all his conflicting exploding parts. This book makes it quite clear that he’s as capable of erudition as any of the po-mo whiteboys. He just dances better and doesn’t look ridiculous on a beach in the third world.

And, T, where I come from, the biggest players in the world were always the college educated brothers! As Morrison put it (sort of), “nothing worse than a nigger with keys.” There’s always time to chase ass and read and do papers. That’s easy. What’s hard is to chase ass and have a full-time job. I’ve done both. Compared to working in a steel mill or delivering pool tables, college was a piece of cake.

YANIQUE: I have to ask this, by request. Are Yunior and Oscar (the sexy Dominicano and the Ghetto Nerd) two halves of you? A very groupie question, I know. I’ll rephrase it to sound more professional: Do you feel you identify with the characters of Yunior and Oscar?

AZ: Well, I wonder why you’re not including Lola and Belicia and Abelard, the other sides of our pentagon, in this equation? They’re all parts of me—no one less, no one more—because, really, how could I parse out the percentage of my connection to each one of these crazies? If you want to know the truth, the character I feel closest to is the alien mongoose, since he was with me the longest. (He saved my mother’s life.) Next comes Lola because she was someone I loved and because all I wanted to do when I was a kid was runaway. Sure, Yunior and Oscar are in some ways warring halves of a whole, but the book is structured that way. Lola versus Belicia, Belicia versus La Inca, Abelard versus Trujillo, Oscar versus Yunior, la familia versus the No Face Man, witnessing versus silence, community versus el fukú . . . eternally linked in the halls of battle, as the narrator would say. I think that Yunior/Oscar allow me to explore the topic that I’m always interested in: masculinity. And, sure, they dramatize important parts of my self, but so does Lola and, my god, I only exist because I was raised (and survived being raised) by a Belicia. And that’s no mean feat.

YANIQUE: Speaking of sexy Santos and Dominicanos, I hear you can dance some salsa to break hearts. Is this rumor true?

AZ: I have never broken anyone’s heart. I have never danced salsa. Everything I say is true.


JUNOT AZ is the author of Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Recipient of the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, he teaches writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and serves as fiction editor at the Boston Review.

TIPHANIE YANIQUE is the winner of a Pushcart Prize, the Kore Press fiction prize, the Boston Review Fiction Prize, a Fulbright Scholarship in creative writing, and the Academy of American Poets Prize. She has been a fellow in creative writing at Rice University and at the Teachers & Writers Collaborative. She is a professor of creative writing and Caribbean literature at Drew University, the Director of Writing and Curriculum at the Caribbean Writers Program, and an assistant editor with Narrative Magazine.