Chasing the Whale: A Profile of Junot Díaz

Frank Bures

Junot Díaz was not quite prepared for so much love from the world. There was nothing in his background to prepare him for it. His father left the Dominican Republic for the United States before he can even remember, and his mother worked at a chocolate factory to support him, his two brothers, and his two sisters, all the while living in a house with no plumbing. After his father sent for them, when Díaz was six, the family lived in a poor, Dominican part of New Jersey. Their apartment wasn't far from a landfill, and when young Junot wasn't hidden away somewhere reading science fiction, he would stand at the edge of the neighborhood and watch the garbage burn.

"I wasn't reading ‘literature' until I got to college," Díaz says. "I didn't grow up in that kind of place. There were no reading lists. I would just walk into a library, find what looked good, and read it."

Díaz read everything in his crappy old school library, and in his senior year he decided he was going to be the Dominican Stephen King. "I'm the only person I know who cut school to sit home and write." Instead of suffering through American history and economics, he sat home and wrote an "incredibly garbage Stephen Kingesque horror novel."

But that was just for fun. Díaz's father had been a forklift driver. His mother cleaned houses and worked on assembly lines. Díaz himself worked summers in a steel mill, and the rest of the year delivering pool tables. It didn't even occur to him that writing could be a career until he got to Rutgers, where he took some creative writing classes and met other people who said they wanted to be writers. He thought: "Wait a minute, that's what I want to do!"

Díaz studied history, which he planned to teach to high school students. But since he needed a few years of loan deferment, and didn't want to go to grad school for history right away, he applied to the MFA program in creative writing at Cornell University, figuring he'd teach during the day and write at night.

At Cornell, he started to work on Drown. His first published story, "Ysrael," which eventually became the first story in the book, appeared in the now-defunct Story magazine, where it attracted the attention of agent Nicole Aragi, with whom he eventually signed. Díaz moved back to New York City after he graduated, and kept on writing while he worked at his temp job.

Then, one day at work, he got a call from Aragi saying his collection of stories had been sold to Riverhead. Not long after that, he kissed the photocopier good-bye and was on his way.

The success of Drown changed everything for Díaz. In a piece he wrote at the time for the Guardian about his life after publication, he said, "The phone rings all the time now. I used to come home from lunch to maybe one message, but now it's more like ten, eleven, or twelve. And everybody expects you to call them back."

Díaz quit going to bookstores. He had started absently looking for himself in magazines, then would get embarrassed and slap them closed. For once in his life, he had money, quite a lot of it, actually: six figures for a two-book deal. But he felt guilty about it; he couldn't enjoy the success. A month after Drown came out, a reporter for the Boston Globe asked when his second book would be finished. Díaz seemed baffled.

"I have no idea," he said. "I go to my office every day, and I sit there. I look at the wall. I don't write anything. It's like a block. I think it's the stress of going from like a copy boy to being on this big literary tour."

He summed it up best in the Guardian. "A year ago writing was something I did," he wrote. "Now it's who I am."

Down in Mexico City, Díaz sat at his desk to work on his Akira novel, a gothic opus inspired by the cult-classic anime film Akira about Neo-Tokyo circa 2019, after World War III. Díaz set his own story in New York City but wanted to channel something that he'd always felt as a kid growing up in the 1970s and '80s.

"I was one of those children who persistently dreamed about a nuclear blast," he says. "I was always haunted by the radial map of New York with the concentric rings of destruction. Where I lived was always the third ring."

It was a constant shadow that hung over Reagan's America.

"There was so much of it in the air," Díaz says, "in the culture, in the writing, in the movies. You couldn't watch the news. There was the doomsday clock. The comic books were filled with it. I swam in an apocalyptic ocean, and I wanted to write a book about growing up in that period and make it real in some way."

So Díaz kept writing, desperate to make this novel work. Already he'd spent years on it, and there in Mexico City, he would just sit at his desk because he was terrified that he would miss an idea as it passed through his mind.

Maybe that was for the best. Maybe that's not as crazy as it sounds. Because he finally started to write about the nerdy, brilliant, lovable, loveless immigrant teen called Oscar Wao, a character who would be with him for a long time.

After a few months of work in Mexico City, Díaz had a story in hand: "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," which would run in the New Yorker in the final week of the year 2000. After finishing the story, Díaz had gone back to the Akira novel, but it still wasn't going well.

"I know I put a lot of pressure on myself," Díaz reflects. "I know I have a very difficult relationship to writing. I know all these things. But at the same time, despite all the difficulties, sometimes writing comes and sometimes it doesn't."

Then, one day, a strange thing happened. Fact outdid fiction. The Twin Towers burned and crumbled to the ground, and along with them the world he'd envisioned for the novel he'd been slaving over.

"The reality of 9/11," Díaz says now, "or surreality of 9/11, was devouring my invented reality. It wasn't that the city was destroyed; it was the consequences, which I misread. I actually thought it would send the country's efforts not outward, but inward. Instead of launching an opportunistic pogrom against Iraq, I thought it would launch an opportunistic pogrom against internal enemies and the country would begin to eat itself."

When that didn't happen, Díaz had to completely rethink his novel. But at the same time, he couldn't let go of the lovesick ghetto nerd who had disappeared from the world after his short life on newsstands.

"That story just infected me in the brain," Díaz says. "It just kept going after I wrote it. Even after it was published. In my mind, it just kept saying, ‘Stay with this, stay with this, stay with this.'"

Over the next few years—leaving Mexico, returning to Syracuse, then in 2003 joining the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he still teaches today—Díaz stayed with it. He worked on both books, side by side. He had high hopes for the Akira novel, but in the end it was Oscar's story that won out.

"The best way to look at it," he says, "is that for one year, my Oscar book didn't generate anything, and the Akira book didn't generate anything. Then the second year, Oscar generated fourteen pages and the Akira one didn't generate any. The third year, Oscar generated sixty pages, and the Akira one didn't generate any. And in the end it's like one of those slow wrestling matches—just by the raw accumulation of pages, the other book got slain."

Drown had taken him only two years to write, but The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was not so easily tamed. It took him 308 or 309 pages until the second chapter "even had an idea of itself." The rest were no better.

"They kept being incredibly problematic, one after another," he says. "I don't want to sound too grandiose, but I must have thrown away forty or fifty versions of each of those shitty chapters. The last five pages…I wrote at least ninety to a hundred pages before the last five pages developed. This shit was a pain in the ass to the very end."

Yet through sheer force of will, seven years after starting it, Díaz finished his second book, his first novel: the story of Oscar, the lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd whose life is divided into English and Spanish and Elvish. The novel tells not only his story, but that of his sister, Lola, his mother, Belicia, the sometime narrator Yunior, and an entire family tainted by a curse, a fukú, which began when Columbus washed ashore on Hispañola and which may or may not have determined Oscar's fate long ago.

As the book recounts Oscar's brief and wondrous life, it shifts effortlessly back and forth between locations and narrators. The language is alive, and the effect is of a whole made up of equal parts love, tragedy, and humor.

"The amount of despair it took me to finish that damn thing is so ironic," says Díaz, "because that book is about anything but despair. In some ways, there is so much joy in that book, that it belies the difficulties of construction.

"That book almost killed me."

And so now it will likely start again for Junot Díaz, the way it did in 1996—the phone calls, the interviews, the accolades. Only this time he knows what to expect. Eleven years later, the second book of a two-book deal finished, he is ready. And more important, the story of Oscar Wao has finally been told.

"This book really punctured a hole through my head," says Díaz. "It's so bizarre. I was telling a friend it's as if the book has disappeared from my mind. And the same thing has not happened with anything else I have written. I don't feel the book in me. There seems to be a gap, like there was a miniature seizure and the book was erased from my brain. Something happened, bro. I'm just sitting around looking at my hands wondering what the fuck happened."

And so it is that art sometimes takes on a life of its own in a way that even the artist doesn't quite understand. When that happens, the only thing to do is be grateful and move on, and Díaz is doing just that as he sits back down to work on his other project, the one he's been writing and not writing for so many years, trying to channel the feeling, circa 1980, that the world could end at any moment.

"It's always been my dream book," he says. "But the worst things are dream books. They all turn into Moby Dick. Not Moby-Dick the book, Moby Dick the whale. And the things you weren't looking for, and weren't expecting, tend to be the most full of humanity."

Frank Bures has written for Esquire, Tin House, World Hum, and other publications. His profile of Nathan Englander appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.