Junot Díaz is a literary hurricane who unexpectedly blew onto the publishing landscape and took it well, by storm.
Díaz's collection of short stories, "Drown," was a sensation when it was published in 1996. It was followed in 2007 by the novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A landslide of other awards and honors followed, including Díaz being named by The New Yorker magazine as one of the 20 top writers of the 21st century. Just last week, he was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant.
Díaz's new book of connected short stories, "This Is How You Lose Her" (Riverhead, $26.95, 224 pages), was eagerly anticipated by the nation's A-list book critics for five years. It was released Sept. 11. They've read it, they love it, they call it "searing" and "electrifying." Newsweek wrote, "Talent this big will always make noise."
In the book, Díaz continues his favorite theme the immigrant experience. The narrator, Yunior, is a Dominican immigrant living in New Jersey (just like his creator). The stories follow him from his turbulent teen years to a regretful middle age, with much drama, humor, womanizing and insight along the way.
Díaz was born on New Year's Eve 1968 in a village near Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. When he was 6, his mother, grandmother and four siblings moved to New Jersey to join his father, who was employed there and had been sending money back home.
These days, Díaz teaches creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. Yes, he became a success, he allows, but has told interviewers, "My life tells the story of enormous poverty and difficulty. I've seen the United States from the bottom up."
Tellingly, the author has noted that "community activism and human rights are my first identity, my first passions." He is involved in fundraising and teaching for a number of groups, including Campo Santo, the resident theater company of Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco.
I caught up with Díaz by phone at his New York City apartment. He also maintains an apartment in Cambridge.
Your works center on the Dominican immigrant experience in New Jersey, but aren't you really writing in a more encompassing arena?
Books gain their power from their specificity. The only thing that makes art universal is its particularity. It doesn't work the other way. You don't write very general stuff and suddenly it becomes universal. Writing very narrowly about Dominicans in New Jersey and boys behaving badly translates to all walks of life.
What is the role of the artist?
Artists are there to confront silences in our societies and to start conversations about those silences.
You and Yunior moved from poverty to success, embodying the American dream. What key lesson came out of that?
Perseverance and hard work are the bedrock for any life. But what you're going to need the most is courage, because life isn't easy. Even if everything's going your way, eventually something is going to happen to you or the people you love. It takes a lot of courage to face loss, adversity, growing older, illness and certainly that which comes to all of us - death.
That's a cheerful thought.
One must be honest. I don't think it's negative that we're going to die. Life is sweeter when you're honest about how short it is.
You describe yourself as "a Dominican kid from New Jersey." Given your accomplishments, that seems minimalist.
The fires that forge us tend to be the ones that remain with us through life. I find that my first 20 years in Santo Domingo and New Jersey created not only a map that guided my life, but also so much about who and what I am.
Yunior's heart is still in the Dominican Republic, but what about yours?
I think I have two chambers in Jersey and two chambers in Santo Domingo.
There's a lot of cooking and eating in "Lose Her." Do you miss Dominican cuisine?
My godson's father owns two Dominican restaurants in Boston, so I'm taken care of.
You've called Yunior your "productive alter ego."
He doesn't live in my head all the time, but he does allow me to write about issues. Yunior is spectacular for exploring certain kinds of masculinity, for instance. He deceives himself, yet he is fantastically honest.
As someone in the humanities, do you worry about their future?
Our society is markedly anti-arts. The arts which bring out the best in people have become less available. Look at the way we gut the arts programs in public schools. Look at how we shut down libraries, and threaten our cultural organizations and museums.
Not only the artists should be preoccupied with this, but anyone who lives in this society should be worried. Without the arts, there is no healthy civic society.
What is the difference between the novel and the short story forms, both of which you have written?
When you start a novel, you can feel the weight of it. No matter what happens in the book, when you get to the last page you will not be evicted from that world. Real life gives you no such promises. It doesn't say, "Oh, I'm not going to snatch you away before the book is over." So reading a novel is a form of consolation.
Short stories are far truer to the way we live life. In a short story, you get to the 12th or 13th page and it's done. The finality of that is familiar to us. In one way, the short story allows me to mirror how cruel life can be.
Life may be cruel, but the notion of hope permeates "Lose Her."
No piece of art doesn't have some element of hope. In the end, (the artist) created something nobody asked for and hopes to God that someone out there in the universe will be moved by it. Even if hope was not on my mind when I was writing ("Lose Her"), certainly hope is the very tissue of which this book is made.
What about love?
You wouldn't write a book about losing love if you didn't think keeping it was important, though most of us get into love without any preparation. A person like Yunior really has to wake up before he can find it in himself to actually be in love.
At the close of the last story, you write, "Sometimes a start is all we ever get."
A lot of us dream of conclusions, we want to achieve X, Y and Z without the understanding that like the book sort of argues sometimes we never get to see the end of that journey. But we do have to appreciate that we got a chance to start it.
You're besieged by interviews. Is there any question you've wanted to answer that nobody has asked?
I love a question a friend asked me the other day, which was like, "Why do you like the New York Mets, when they're always losing?" The only answer I could give him was, "Because they're my team."