JUNOT DIAZ reads Saturday (October 25), 8 pm, at the Lakeside Terrace. And is interviewed alongside RAWI HAGE Sunday (October 26), 2 pm, at Fleck Dance Theatre.
Junot Diaz teaches creative writing at MIT.
Who knew MIT even has classes in anything other than quantum physics and Boolean logic? But that weird juxtaposition suits Diaz, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel, a Spanglish-filled bit of geek-lit-cum-immigrant-epic called The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao.
Boiled down, the book's premise sounds like a raunchy teen comedy: awkward Dominican sci-fi freak growing up in New Jersey tries desperately to lose his virginity while coping with an overprotective mother and wild-child sister.
"I have big old love for all my nerdy peers, man," Diaz says on the phone from Boston, though I'm not sure if he's referring to comic book and Dungeons & Dragons nerds like Oscar Wao or the Mensa nerds on campus. Maybe both.
"Fanboy culture might be consumed by an incredibly diverse community, but the people who control the networks of communication tend not to recognize fanboys as at all important."
When it comes to literature, that is. Hollywood has long understood the dollar value of catering to geekdom, so it's no surprise that Miramax bought the movie rights to Oscar Wao.
"I sold the damn thing because I wanted the money," Diaz says bluntly, admitting that he has no interest in writing the script, since it's "not my bag. I wish them the best of luck, although Hollywood's not known for quality control."
Now, if names like Galactus and Gary Gygax get you reaching instinctively for your 20-sided die like some fanboy phantom limb, Oscar Wao is for you. Just don't expect it to be like another Pulitzer-winning piece of comics-loving geek lit.
"I love The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay, but it uses fanboyness as its subject while its entire operating system was literary fiction," says Diaz. "If you changed the subject from comic books to architects, you wouldn't notice the difference.
"I'm making a fanboy, not fanboy culture, the subject of my book," he continues. "Fanboy codes, language, references - that epistomology of fanboyness is the engine to tell a story about a crazy Dominican family."
While Diaz maintains that the book is in no way autobiographical ("Oscar and I share a Dominican heritage, a youth spent in Jersey and a love of science fiction - that's about it," he says), one thing Diaz can relate to is the book's thematic device of the fukú, a family curse.
"It's the opposite side of America's sense that it's the blessed country," he explains. "Here you have a country where an entire city can be wiped off the map by the weather, a country full of racism and turmoil and poverty. So when a politician says it's God's country, it doesn't feel like that unless you're rich. The fukú is the Dominican version of America's central preoccupation: if it's possible we're blessed as a people, could we also not be cursed?"
So far, Oscar Wao has been a blessing. It won the Pulitzer, although Diaz only found out from a friend who called after being asked by a reporter for a reaction. "I would have expected a phone call [myself]," he says. "Maybe I gotta be better-looking."
While he compares the Pulitzer to "an enormous, ravenous plant that must be tended to for a few months, with interviews and appearances," it's not like Oscar Wao was on Oprah's Book Club.
"Then my life would really have changed," he says. "I would be able to afford to buy a house."