Readers' Review: "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" By Junot Diaz

MS. DIANE REHM

11:06:56
Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. He was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey so Junot Diaz first novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is set in both worlds. Diaz has said he wanted to show how his character, Oscar, a second generation American, was utterly unaware of his history and yet dominated by it.

MS. DIANE REHM

11:07:25
The book won Diaz a Pulitzer Prize in 2008. Here for this month's Readers' Review, Dinaw Mengestu. He's author of "How to Read the Air." Lisa Page, former president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and Silvio Torres-Saillant, professor of English at Syracuse University. I hope you'll join the conversation. Call us on 800-433-8850, give us your comments by email to drshow@wamu.org, follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you and welcome.

MS. LISA PAGE

11:08:09
Good morning.

MR. DINAW MENGESTU

11:08:09
Good morning.

MR. SILVIO TORRES-SAILLANT

11:08:09
Good morning.

REHM

11:08:09
Good to have you all here. Silvio, I know you teach this book and you say that the story resonates with students of all backgrounds. Why?

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:08:25
I was very surprised to find out when I first taught the book, especially since, I began teaching the book at times when the majority of my students were not Hispanic, were not Latino, were not even a minority, you know, students and yet it resonates. It seems to me that it resonates first of all because it speaks very eloquently to a young reader and also because I believe the book for all of its zany situations and structures, it is very much, I believe, based on its, a sort of, it has a very rounded in the tradition of the great books as it were.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:09:13
There's much that has to do with the battle of, the history of the battle of the books going all the way back to the 18th century. I mean, there's much in the story that is about books. There are many references also to science fiction, to genre literature.

REHM

11:09:31
Yes.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:09:32
Stuff that young people are identified tremendously with. When I first was invited to review the book when it first came out, I felt that I had to decline because I was not sufficiently familiar with a large body of science fiction, of fantasy literature that the book draws upon and that, you know, superficially if I didn't consider that important source for the text.

REHM

11:10:02
It's so interesting because what I get from the book is a youthful view of the world that perhaps I would not have found anywhere else. What about you, Lisa Page? You teach creative writing at George Washington University. How did this book resonate with you?

PAGE

11:10:33
I so adore this book, Diane.

REHM

11:10:36
You do?

PAGE

11:10:37
I just found it an amazing page turner, I was laughing out loud. I got angry, it educated me. I knew something about Junot but I had no idea the extent of the atrocities in the Dominican Republic. And then my own child who is a young man turned me on to many of the references around the Fantastic Four comic books with this particular book, video games, Dungeons and Dragons, I knew through my son anyway but it was wonderful to read because I had him sort of filling in for me the parts that I hadn't been familiar with.

REHM

11:11:16
I see, I see. Dinaw, how would you describe this plot?

MENGESTU

11:11:24
In many ways it actually is a kind of traditional plot where you have, you begin with Oscar as a young child and you actually sort of watch him grow up and mature until finally he reaches a sort of culmination of a young man falling in love. And to maybe also touch on what some of the others were saying, part of what I think is so incredible about this novel is that it flattens out all of these cultural values and experiences.

MENGESTU

11:11:45
So suddenly all of these things high and low culture, fantasy literature, sci-fi literature, references to Proust, they're all placed on a very equal plane and that's something that I think young readers and young writers especially admire because they feel like all of these things have the same value, the same weight and they can then transfer their own experiences onto the novel because they realize these things do have literary value, they are actually a significant as a poem by Derek Walcott which introduces the novel.

REHM

11:12:12
And that poem that introduces the novel, would you read that for us, Dinaw?

MENGESTU

11:12:27
"Christ have mercy on all sleeping things. From that dog rotting down Wrightson Road to when I was a dog on these streets. If loving these islands must be my load out of corruption my soul takes wings. But they had started to poison my soul with their big house, big car, big time bohbohl, coolie, nigger, Syrian and French Creole, so I leave it for them and their carnival.

MENGESTU

11:12:50
I taking a sea bath, I gone down the road. I know these islands from Monos to Nassau, a rusty head sailor with sea-green eyes that they nickname Shabine, the patois for any red nigger, and I, Shabine, saw when these slums of empire was paradise. I'm just a red nigger who love the sea, I had a sound colonial education, I have Dutch, nigger and English in me, and either I'm nobody or I'm a nation."

REHM

11:13:16
I want you all to comment on the language, not only in that poem, but throughout the book and that language seems to confront us immediately in that poem, Dinaw.

MENGESTU

11:13:34
Yes, it's, I mean and I think with Walcott who's a poet, who's known for being extremely erudite, you know, Walcott's able to place very, very classical references inside of his poems and in this particular case you do have this sort of, you know, classical imaginary colliding at the same time with the sort of very basic pattern.

MENGESTU

11:13:52
You could actually see the language morphing over the body of the poem as it begins to sort of drop its Jesus, it begins to sort of change its grammar and then becomes a more and more intimate experience, I think, as it does so as it evolves from this sort of high, the higher more traditional formal language of the beginning of the poem to where it ends up at the very end.

REHM

11:14:09
Lisa, how did you react to the language?

PAGE

11:14:14
I enjoyed every minute of it and I know it's quite profane at points but to me this was very realistic. It's street language, it's the language of people of color in this country or anyway some members of people of color in this country. It's refreshing, it was upsetting at times, insulting at times but very vivid.

REHM

11:14:42
Can you read for us from the first chapter, Silvio?

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:14:48
Yes. "The Golden Age. Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody's always going on about--he wasn't no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock. And except for one period early in his life, dude never had much luck with the females, how very un-Dominican of him.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:15:11
He was seven then. In those blessed days of youth, Oscar was something of a Casanova. One of those preschool loverboys who was always trying to kiss the girls, always coming up behind them during a merengue and giving them the pelvic pump, the first nigger to learn the perrito and the one who danced it any chance he got.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:15:32
Because in those days he was still a 'normal' Dominican boy raised in a 'typical' Dominican family, his nascent pimp-liness was encouraged by blood and friends alike. During parties--and there were many parties in those long-ago seventies days, before Washington Heights was Washington Heights, before the Bergenline became a straight shot of Spanish for almost 100 blocks--some drunk relative inevitably pushed Oscar onto some little girl and then everyone would howl as boy and girl approximated the hip-motism of the adults.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:16:10
You should have seen him, his mother sighed in her Last Days. He was our little Porfirio Rubirosa. All the other boys his age avoided the girls like they were a bad case of Captain Trips. Not Oscar. The little guy loved himself the females, had "girlfriends" galore. He was a stout kid, heading straight to fat, but his mother kept him nice in haircuts and clothes, and before the proportions of his head changed he'd had these lovely flashing eyes and these cute-ass cheeks, visible in all his pictures.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:16:43
The girls--his sister Lola's friends, his mother's friends, even their neighbor, Mari Colón, a thirty-something postal employee who wore red on her lips and walked like she had a bell for an ass--all purportedly fell for him. Ese muchacho está bueno. Did it hurt that he was earnest and clearly attention-deprived? Not at all.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:17:06
In the DR during the summer visits to his family digs in Baní he was the worst, would stand in front of Nena Inca's house and call out to passing women--Tú eres guapa. Tú eres guapa--until a Seventh-day Adventist complained to his grandmother and she shut down the hit parade lickety-split. Muchacho del Diablo This was not a cabaret."

REHM

11:17:31
Silvio Torres-Saillant, he's professor of English at Syracuse University. He founded the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, that's an inter-disciplinary research unit located in the City College of New York. And, of course, he was reading from our January "Readers' Review" "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz.

REHM

11:18:06
Tell us who Oscar Wao is, Lisa.

PAGE

11:18:11
Oscar is a very overweight young man. He starts out, obviously, at seven in the beginning of the book. He is the daughter of Balí (sp?) the sister of Lola. He's growing up in Patterson, NJ. His father is missing in action and you never ever hear a thing about who that father was and he has quite the life.

REHM

11:18:36
Lisa Page, former president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. She teaches writing at George Washington University. Short break here, we'll take your calls when we come back.

REHM

11:20:05
And if you've just joined us for January's Readers' Review, we've turned to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz. Here in the studio to discuss the book, to take your calls, your email, Lisa Page of George Washington University. She's also the former person of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. Silvio Torres-Saillant, professor of English at Syracuse University. He teaches this novel. And Dinaw Mengestu, author of "How to Read the Air" and "The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bares." Mengestu is a 2012 MacArthur "genius" grant recipient.

REHM

11:21:07
I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Here is an email from Laura who says, "I absolutely loved reading this book. I had graduated from college and wanted to continue to explore literature so I picked it up at my local library without any real knowledge about the book. I had to read it with my computer on my lap pulled up to the website www.annotatedoscarwao.com so I could look up the pop culture sci-fi, Spanish and Dominican Republic history references that cropped up every three words." You really get a big picture here, don't you, Dinaw?

MENGESTU

11:22:07
You do, and that seems to be part of the intent of the novel. And even though it has all these sometimes seemingly esoteric references, it's also not meant to exclude any readers, which I think is very important. But I think part of what's so inviting about Yunior voice as the narrator of the novel, he may switch into Spanish, he may make references to the fantastic four or the watcher's series that most people may not know about. But at the same time he doesn't invite you also to sort of join in on this journey with him.

MENGESTU

11:22:35
There's a sense in which you, as the reader, are not obligated to try to figure out where all these references are, but that somehow you're welcoming -- you're being welcomed into this landscape, into this world and that you're there to sort of figure out how these pieces all fit together, the high, the cultural, the pop references. And there's enough space in the novel, I think, for readers to sometimes be a little bit lost, and yet at the same time feel deeply connected to the narrative.

REHM

11:22:58
Who is Yunior?

MENGESTU

11:23:00
Yunior is complicated because he stretches across many of -- all Junot's work actually. He's in "Drown," he's in "Oscar Wao" and he's also in the last book. And in some ways I think he does operate as an almost alter ego for Junot Diaz, the writer. Yunior in this case is the sort of controlling narrative figure. He is the watcher. He is the dominant narrative voice who's able to sort of slip in and out of myth, out of Oscar's life. And also at the same time he's Oscar's friend. He's Oscar's sister's sometimes boyfriend when he's a decent enough man to be. And he's almost a foil for Oscar in some ways. He's the one who Oscar most closely resembles, and yet at the same time is drastically also opposed to.

REHM

11:23:44
So why does Oscar go to the Dominican Republic?

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:23:51
Well, first he's originally brought to the Dominican Republic. The second time he goes he surprises his mom by volunteering his interest in going. And that's where things change but at that point where he is -- where he actually decides that it might be a good idea for him to go, Lola his sister is very surprised because he has been way apathetic to the ancestral homeland. But he's looking for -- he feels much at a loss for meaning, at a loss for a sense of a way out of his very difficult condition, which is dramatized in the fact that this young man loves the girls and can't score one throughout an incessant series of efforts that he makes.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:24:52
And so I actually think that it's part of what also appeals to readers, the fact that here you have this young man with a very peculiar problem. Shouldn't sexual discovery -- shouldn't the sexual experience be something that is natural that is crucial to a person's growing up? Isn't that how one passes from being a child to another stage of life, right? And this person has -- is very knowledgeable, has bookish knowledge. He has a tremendous command of language. I mean, he speaks...

REHM

11:25:34
And that very commanded language sometimes puts people off...

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:25:40
That's right.

REHM

11:25:41
...instead of behaving sort of in an ordinary fashion. He comes up with these extraordinary references that very few people understand, Lisa.

PAGE

11:25:54
Yes. And also he loves writing. He, in the end, is working hard to become a writer. But that has to do with all the isolation that he's had to put up with throughout his entire life as an extremely overweight unusual young man. The other Dominicans say, you're not Dominican. What, you're a virgin? You don't have women? You're -- what are you?

REHM

11:26:17
You're nothing. You're nothing.

PAGE

11:26:18
He's an outcast.

REHM

11:26:20
He's an outcast. I want to be sure to let listeners know that in this book -- and you've already heard some references -- there is some very -- as you said, Lisa -- very profaned language that can shock people at first. And perhaps even prohibit them from getting through the novel.

MENGESTU

11:26:51
I mean, there is. There's a lot of profanity but it's not profane, you know. It's never vulgar by any means. And if anything, Junot's doing an incredible job of actually being able to sort of mimic speech when writing. And there's this incredibly seductive quality to that where the narrator's voice is able to kind of capture lyrical cadence that people will often have when they're speaking in different communities and in the Dominican community, minority communities and being able to actually translate that into written prose and capture that lyrical spoken quality with a very beautiful pro style. It's quite distinct and quite powerful.

REHM

11:27:30
You know, we've -- I think it was you, Lisa, who said it was a coming-of-age story. And for me that coming-of-age story was "Catcher in the Rye." Do people compare, contrast this book to that one, Silvio?

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:27:51
Well, certainly if -- I think even if they don't do it consciously they compare it, right. I mean, why, as you said before -- I mean, there are readers actually finding ways of getting the references so they can continue. But what is it that drives the interest in continuing to read the text and to get it? It seems to me that you have here a combination of -- I would say that the language is risqué. I mean, it is profane language here.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:28:26
You know, this language that would make me blush, you know, as difficult as that would seem. But it's also balanced by a deployment of various different linguistic registers at the same time. I mean, you have both a narrator and Oscar using words like pulchritude, right? At one point when Oscar -- Lola is encouraging, you know, Oscar to make a pass, he says, I do not act so precipitously.

REHM

11:29:04
Um-hum. Exactly.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:29:06
You know, so that may come shortly after you have seen a quite vulgar four-letter word.

REHM

11:29:13
Yes.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:29:14
And I believe that that is part of the challenge of this book. That's why it cannot be dismissed as vulgar, because the vulgarity is combined with erudite language, without pain language. Ultimately, I think it's a text about language.

REHM

11:29:32
I want to understand the curse that somehow provides an umbrella over this entire coming of age, Lisa.

PAGE

11:29:45
Well, it's actually a theme throughout the novel, this notion of a curse. And it's called foocoo (sp?) and also the zafa (sp?), which clears the curse. Or there's several foocoos and there's several zafas. But the beginning -- and there's an awful lot of magical realism frankly in this novel as well -- is about the curse on the Dominican Republic, the curse on Africans, the curse on North America and how it plays itself out. And then there's a curse on Oscar's family. And that curse has come down the generations. His mother had terrible things happen to her.

PAGE

11:30:23
It's a theme and it also ties up with the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. At one point Junot Diaz even says that John F. Kennedy died and was cursed because he ordered the assassination of Trujillo.

REHM

11:30:43
How much of that curse do you think is important to the thread of the entire novel, Dinaw?

MENGESTU

11:30:54
I think as you said, it does sort of operate as a kind of overarching sort of shadow that moves throughout the novel. And I think it operates at the same time with the sort of comic book character elements of this. Oscar himself is often described as being a mutant. He refers to his physicality as being mutant, like he refers to Oscar's mutant heart, and that behind that though there's also another sentiment that those mutant's are also powerful, like they have the secret in power.

MENGESTU

11:31:20
And that's also there to show, like, you know, what's on the outside of Oscar, this sort of grotesqueness of his also masks Oscar's super power, which in this case I think is his capacity for love, this incredible generous heart, this sort of engagement with language. And that's his real super power and that is, I think, the gift that he ends up giving to all the characters in the novel who have a chance to know him, the thing that resides after all the brutality that comes with the foocoo. That's Oscar's sort of power that actually can't be destroyed by foocoo that actually overrides that sort of narrative of death and tragedy.

REHM

11:31:49
Is Oscar's weight part of that foocoo?

MENGESTU

11:31:53
I think it would be part of that foocoo. I mean, it's part of that sort of, you know, that mythic curse that gets transcended that passes down to generation to generation. And that, you know, again creates this deformity. But that deformity belies the sort of magic that's underneath -- devise underneath it.

REHM

11:32:08
How grossly overweight do you imagine Oscar to be?

MENGESTU

11:32:15
I think to some guy -- I probably never spent that much time trying to actually physically imagine Oscar, I think because I -- he becomes grotesque to the point that, you know, even when he slims down and loses 20 pounds at one point you have the sense that he's still going to be quite obese.

REHM

11:32:30
Quite obese.

MENGESTU

11:32:30
And that there's not that much in his face as when he's young is full of acne that he's more hideous than basically everyone else around him and all of his friends.

REHM

11:32:37
And is it his appearance or is it the combination of what's happening here, the acne, the weight, the vocabulary that make him so unattractive to women?

MENGESTU

11:32:55
Yes, exactly. I think those are the things that not only make him unattractive to women but that also puts him in a very different place in society where he is outside of everything else. He's outside of the norm, he's outside of his friendships, he's outside of most people's love.

REHM

11:33:08
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm going to go to the phones, 800-433-8850. Let's go first to Alexandria, Va. Autumn, you're on the air.

AUTUMN

11:33:27
Hi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.

REHM

11:33:28
Surely.

AUTUMN

11:33:29
I was wondering, I read a quote recently that was attributed to Junot Diaz that said something to the effect of -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- that you can write a book that has whole chapters in elvish and no one bats an eye, but if you put in three sentences in Spanish, everyone thinks the Latinos are taking over. So I was just wondering if the panel could comment on maybe some of the racism that Junot Diaz's works bring up in general.

REHM

11:33:55
How interesting. Silvio.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:33:57
Well, my response would be that I was very surprised when I realized that my students, the majority of whom were not Spanish speaking had no command of Spanish, could not actually understand the Spanish in the text, were still filing with the same degree of enthusiasm and sometimes even not realizing that they had skipped words that they did not understand. There was something driving them.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:34:27
And I believe that that Junot is very much an American writer who has pretty much stepped into the core of its relation in the United States. And I think what happens now in this era of American literature is that we are moving towards a moment when it'll become more and more frequent that you have a major American writer, Anglo form to the core, but who was born elsewhere perhaps and who did not speak English as a first language originally. And that is becoming -- that is something perhaps unheard of and imagined by generations before.

PAGE

11:35:15
But the caller was talking about racism as well, and the racism that Diaz is dealing with here and, I mean, there's several examples of it. There's the mother doesn't want any Puerto Ricans in her house. Belli (sp?) is a dark-skinned girl and she's blacker than black. She's...

REHM

11:35:34
Blacker than black.

PAGE

11:35:35
All this whole color consciousness. So there's several degrees. Talking about how white people act versus how Dominicans act. It's throughout the text.

REHM

11:35:46
Dinaw.

MENGESTU

11:35:48
(unintelligible) you know, Junot's definitely, I think, trying to disrupt our traditional culture hierarchies. And he's not -- you know, you can, you know, think he's right. If you can have a passage entirely in French in a novel, no one's going to sort of think that will actually seem like an erudite, very sort of estheticized thing to do. And at the same time, if you put in a few words of Spanish or Creole or Patwa, it seems as if you're deliberately trying to distract or throw off the reader.

MENGESTU

11:36:10
And I think Junot's arguing that there's no cultural dominancy anymore, that these things, these sort of Spanish language forms exist to the same, you know, value as anything more traditionally literary, German, French, that we can think of. And he's bouncing those things out and he's not, I don't think so much it's a question of racism so much as it's a reordering of our values.

REHM

11:36:32
So he's teaching us about ourselves as we are evolving.

MENGESTU

11:36:37
And he's making space for us as well in our literature. I think he's actually kind of pushing the borders of what we think of as being conventionally American literature and what we think of as being conventionally American dialogue passages and language. And he's moving those things forward to a degree that to think vital for our language and vital for our culture.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:36:55
Yes, and I would see actually a parallel, which I believe is sustained throughout the text between the shifting from, you know, a Anglo form narrative line that includes words in Spanish. I would see that as parallel to shifting between other linguistic registers. When you have demonic language, right, street language, curse language followed by, you know, learned conversation.

REHM

11:37:27
Silvio Torres-Saillant, professor of English at Syracuse University. We're talking about the "Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." Do join us.

REHM

11:40:02
And for our January Readers' Review, we've invited three people here to talk about the book "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz. Lisa Page is here, also Silvio Torres-Saillant and Dinaw Mengestu. We are wondering -- I am wondering and I know, Lisa, you'd like to talk about women in this book.

PAGE

11:40:38
Yes. This book is about Oscar de Leon and about Yunior, but it's also about women, and it's particularly about Oscar's sister and his mother, Beli and Lola, and what they go through, as well as Beli's adopted mother, La Inca, who takes her in after she's tortured as a young girl. And these women are so vivid. They are as vivid as Oscar. They're as vivid as Yunior.

REHM

11:41:10
Absolutely.

PAGE

11:41:12
They have conflicts. They're affected in terrible ways by the politics of Trujillo, the politics of New Jersey, of being a woman in the 1970s and '80s. They go through as much as Oscar does. And I think it's a huge strength of the novel. There has been some criticism too in the way that they are physically described. Junot Diaz has come under attack. He's been looked at as sexist for his descriptions in some cases, and argues around these in his new book "This Is How You Lose Her." He develops that idea as he goes forward.

REHM

11:42:00
You know, I think we should remind people that in addition to the Pulitzer, he was also awarded the PEN/Malamud Award.

PAGE

11:42:10
Yes, the PEN/Malamud is an award that PEN/Faulkner presents through the Malamud family for the best short stories. And Junot Diaz won it for his first collection "Drown."

REHM

11:42:22
Talk about how he portrays women, Silvio.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:42:29
He portrays women in ways that I believe no other writer -- no other male writer would dare to do. So he spends a great deal of time on breasts, on hips, on legs. You know, he doesn't do the way, you know, classical writers did, which was, you know, you do the description, the abstract, you know, what men would -- what men would do like go to war in Troy for the sake of Helen. You know, that was a description of the beauty. But he actually gets to anatomy. And that is very risky today. He is not unaware of how risky that is, especially in times when everyone needs to be concerned about at least the appearance of gender -- of being concerned about gender equality.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:43:28
And I believe the way he gets away with that, what might otherwise be seen as insensitive, is by actually being excessive in everything else. And I think there is a consistent -- I mean, the overweight, the obesity of Oscar is excessive. Trujillo is excessive. Trujillo is the dictating-ist dictator who ever dictated. All right. Everything is excessive and also there's an element of the fantastical to magical, like the importance of the mongoose. And I believe what happens is he puts us outside of a straight forward (unintelligible) reality which enables us to then perhaps find metaphorical ways of accepting what might otherwise be seen as insensitivity.

REHM

11:44:22
Dinaw.

MENGESTU

11:44:23
Well, the thing is, but I also think that what he's doing is actually really looking at the way the culture treats women. And that's why for me it's actually -- is very much grounded in the sort of phenomenon of gender relations that exist both inside the Dominican Republic, inside of Latino communities in America, inside of immigrant communities, minority communities, America as a whole. And there is a way in which I think you can't -- if it's problematic in the novel, it's because it's problematic in our societies and in our cultures. And the fact that it's problematic in the novel isn't because of Junot's sexism. It's because it's problematic in these cultures, in these societies.

MENGESTU

11:44:59
And what he does is creates characters who reflect those problems, who reflects those cultural values. And if anything, you know, there's this beautiful line when Lola says, sometimes I think we don't really love our children. And I feel like that actually echoes over to the sort of treatment of women oftentimes throughout the novel that these cultural values are -- sometimes they're excessive without a doubt, and sometimes they're also incredible. It's not just purely a sort of either or, but the problematic issues around how women are seen as these body images, as these body parts. I don't know if he could've done it in any other way and still kept his fidelity to the culture that he's writing about and to the people that he's writing about.

REHM

11:45:35
All right.

MENGESTU

11:45:35
To try to whitewash it wouldn't make sense.

REHM

11:45:36
Let's go to Annapolis, Md. Good morning, Peter.

PETER

11:45:41
Good morning. Thanks for taking my call. I wanted to speak to the issue of racism as it was discussed earlier. I don't think the -- if there is a bias against Spanish speaking in this country, I don't think it's so much a racist issue, as it is a cultural issue that goes back to the founding of the country. England fought a number of wars against the Spanish. Spanish succeeded in maintaining their position in Mexico and South America and Latin America. And the English took over North America, or the rest of North America.

PETER

11:46:29
And I think the bias here is for English based on our cultural origins. I hope that's not naïve to think that. But we don't see the same -- when you have French speaking people that come into the United States or when they came into the United States from Canada, you don't see the same biases there. You don't see the same discussions about that so much.

REHM

11:46:55
All right. Dinaw.

MENGESTU

11:46:57
Well, I mean, I would agree with you to some point that you're right, in Junot's work I don't think that it's a question of the language being racist. I think it's a question of him asking us to reconsider our cultural values to make room for other cultures to exist inside of our literature and in our country. And him asking to do that through language isn't because America is just only purely racist. I think he's saying, look, there's more complexity here than just a white dominant Anglophone culture. There's actually a Latino culture, African cultures that exist, and that's part of what makes America great.

REHM

11:47:26
You know Junot Diaz personally. Tell us about him.

MENGESTU

11:47:31
Well, I think everyone here has met him. I think others have probably spent more time with him. And he's an incredibly warm, generous. And he speaks almost as eloquently as his characters. He's able to sort of invite you in very quickly, very warmly.

REHM

11:47:48
He lived in your home?

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:47:50
That is correct. Yes. At one point we coincided at Syracuse University. He was in his last year at Syracuse when I began, before he went on to join the faculty of MIT. And so for that time I came to Syracuse. I came first without the family and so I had space. And of course we were friends from before, from New York City. I was happy to discover when he first -- when his first book came out that my name shows up in the acknowledgments. And I was simply -- you know, so we had been sort of in conversation for less than a year when the book came out in '96.

REHM

11:48:38
I'm fascinated that he went to MIT. Can you talk about that?

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:48:45
Well, MIT, in the words of a character from "The Godfather," made him an offer that he could not refuse.

REHM

11:48:57
But we don't think of writers going to MIT as opposed to going to Harvard or Yale or one of those places.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:49:09
At the same time in places like MIT where the prevalence -- the primary focus is on the sciences...

REHM

11:49:17
Right.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:49:18
...people interested in doing humanistic and/or artistic work can enjoy the freedom of being left alone to do their thing. And, I mean, I've heard Chelmsky (sp?) say that this place was ideal for him because, you know, the scientists are not worried by the political views that he expresses.

REHM

11:49:43
Lovely. All right. Here's a great email. "As a high school history teacher, I love having a novel to recommend to my students that honestly represents America's role in supporting dictators in the 20th century. It's also refreshing to see Columbus portrayed as a villain. And PS, it's my dream to play in a game of Dungeons and Dragons led by Diaz." Dinaw.

MENGESTU

11:50:24
Yeah, I think one of the things that I love most about the novel is its ability to sort of bring in this very complicated political history of the Dominican Republic. And part of what's interesting is how Junot does it through footnotes. There's in one chapter a lot of the sort of main characters of Dominican who have perpetuated a lot of the violence in the Dominican Republic. They come in as these series of footnotes at the very bottom of the page. And that's a very interesting structural choice.

REHM

11:50:47
Why does he do it through footnotes as opposed to forcing you to read it within the novel?

MENGESTU

11:50:58
I think, I mean, symbolically having it -- seeing it as a footnote also kind of represents the way we often think of the Dominican Republic's history anyway, as a footnote, drawn cultural history. At the same time by doing it on the novel textually I think actually it ends up drawing your attention to the footnote and almost asks to compete for your attention, right, so you're competing between wanting to know about this history you haven't known about and then actually what's going on with inside of the text. And you have to actually be able to juggle both in order to understand who these characters are and where they've come from.

REHM

11:51:25
I found myself both loving the novel, reading for the narrative, but also finding it one of the most challenging novels I've read in the last ten years. How do your students react?

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:51:45
They -- my impression has been that they do not realize how difficult the text is until after they finish it. Yes, it is...

REHM

11:51:58
That's interesting.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:51:59
Yeah, it's like they are sort of -- they are drawn to the text. They're enthralled in the story itself...

REHM

11:52:07
In the story.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:52:07
...with all of its complications.

REHM

11:52:09
Yeah.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:52:10
Then it is my job then to sort of lead them by the hand to go back and experience the complications and the things, what they could have had a -- you know, the various points at which they may have misread, or gotten the point wrong, or not paying enough attention to something that was crucial. You know, the combination of a footnote and...

REHM

11:52:33
And the translations.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:52:35
And the translations.

REHM

11:52:37
So at what age would you recommend this novel, Dinaw?

MENGESTU

11:52:45
I'm very bad at knowing those things. I would -- you know, I would think a very sort of mature high school student would be able to work their way through the novel.

REHM

11:52:53
Would you agree, Lisa?

PAGE

11:52:55
Yes. We sent them to a D.C. high school when "Drown" came out actually. So, yes, high school.

REHM

11:53:01
And how did he react with those high school students?

PAGE

11:53:04
He was fabulous. He was profane. The students adored him. The teacher was very upset.

REHM

11:53:11
Really?

PAGE

11:53:14
That's what happened.

REHM

11:53:15
I mean, he's just that way.

PAGE

11:53:17
That's right.

REHM

11:53:19
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Athens, Ga. Good morning, Joe.

JOE

11:53:28
Hey, I was just going to comment on -- by far I think it's true that, you know, you can represent, you know, have sexist or, you know, be accused of that and defend it and everything. It is interesting -- I don't know how much they know about his personal life. But we talk about George Clooney, we talk about Leonardo DiCaprio and people like that, but even Junot has quite a reputation in his college, you know, the seminars he gives, writing things, the people on the committee and stuff.

JOE

11:53:58
I've known two young women who alone have also, you know, had very short, one night or less, you know, or rather relationships, very short relationships, who also don't have high opinions of him. And if you look online, there's a lot of -- you know, there's a lot of stuff said about his, you know, things he gives and talks he does and his treatment of women, how he'll, you know...

REHM

11:54:21
That's very interesting.

PAGE

11:54:23
Well, that's the new collection of short stories "This Is How You Lose Her." He actually addresses some of the issues around being a womanizer, and the notion of feminism, and the price that a womanizer pays in terms of intimacy.

REHM

11:54:40
Dinaw.

MENGESTU

11:54:41
I think that he definitely does it in "This Is How You Lose Her," that there is a sort of cause for that. And too, you know, what happens in Junot's life outside of his work.

REHM

11:54:50
Personal life.

MENGESTU

11:54:50
It is to me completely irrelevant, you know.

PAGE

11:54:52
I agree.

MENGESTU

11:54:53
And also I'm not there to substantiate it. It's not really my concern. I think what's more important is that in his novels they do represent I think the sort of most complex range of emotions around women, and that they deal with the fact that both women are sort of, you know, treated poorly by many different cultural institutions and that men oftentimes are quite sort of awful in these situations, and that they suffer for that as well.

REHM

11:55:15
Silvio.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:55:16
Yes. Well, even at the -- in "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" the closing chapter is a chapter about his own failure to keep Lola whom he loves deeply. So in a sense he turns out to be as tragic a character, the narrator, Yunior, as tragic a character as Oscar is.

REHM

11:55:39
Well, the whole group.

PAGE

11:55:42
Diaz actually did an interview talking about in his first collection of short stories, Yunior is sexually abused himself, and how sexual abuse can lead to different kinds of sexual acting outs. And so that's just another piece of the complexity of this character. To me it's much more interesting what he does in the text than what he does in his personal life.

REHM

11:56:08
And the book we've been talking about "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz. He did win the Pulitzer Prize for this novel in 2008. Thank you all so much for being here.

PAGE

11:56:27
Thank you.

TORRES-SAILLANT

11:56:28
Thank you.

REHM

11:56:29
Dinaw Mengestu, he's author of "How to Read the Air" and "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears." He is a 2012 MacArthur "genius" grant recipient. Lisa Page, former president of PEN/Faulkner. She teaches writing at George Washington University. And Silvio Torres-Saillant, professor of English at Syracuse University. For our February Readers' Review, we'll move on here and talk about E.L. Doctorow's historic novel about Union General Sherman's path of destruction through the deep south near the end of the Civil War and, of course, the title is "March." I hope you'll join the discussion Wednesday, February 27. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.

Our address has changed!

The Diane Rehm Show is produced by member-supported WAMU 88.5 in Washington DC.