Parlin childhood set stage for Diaz’s acclaimed works

Best-selling author to visit Barnes & Noble in E.B. on Sunday


When Junot Diaz arrived in the Parlin section of Old Bridge from the Dominican Republic in 1974 at age 6, he noticed profound differences from his country of birth.

LILY OEI Old Bridge native Junot Diaz will make an appearance in East Brunswick next week as part of his national tour to promote his novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." LILY OEI Old Bridge native Junot Diaz will make an appearance in East Brunswick next week as part of his national tour to promote his novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Later in his life, these differences, and his experiences, would become indispensable tools for his celebrated writing.

“I always told my friends it was like jumping into a time machine,” Diaz said. “My father didn’t know much about the U.S., but he did know how much better the schools were.”

Perhaps Diaz is a testament to the quality of the schools he attended – Madison Park, Carl Sandburg Middle School and Cedar Ridge High School. The New York Times best-selling author may have gotten a superior education out of his family’s move to New Jersey, but the benefits did not come without some costs.

“Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the country,” Diaz said. “The New Jersey that I moved into was still in its infancy. It was not diverse at all. My family and the people that we lived with were real pioneers. People were really not tolerant.”

In his first novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” released yesterday, the book’s namesake encounters extreme intolerance growing up in New Jersey. His alienation is not so much because of his Dominican background, but more because of his status as a “ghetto nerd,” unpopular both with members of the opposite sex as well as those of his own.

“I wanted someone who would be opposite of anything that I had experienced,” Diaz said.

Oscar trudges through the misery of his youth, finding solace only in his fantasy and science-fiction novels, role playing games, and writing. Although he is shunned mercilessly by females, his allconsuming infatuations are a recurrent source of angst.

While some might argue that many aspects of Oscar’s life resemble those of his creator, including the early love of science fiction, Diaz said the only real connection the book has to his own life deals with the role of a sort of celestial mongoose, which his mother told him stories about.

Though his knowledge of New Jersey and the Dominican Republic proved useful for his first book, “Drown,” an awardwinning collection of stories published in 1996, the characters in his new novel are purely fictional.

“In some ways, my life built the set, but the characters were completely their own people,” Diaz said.

The character Diaz said he relates to the most is Yunior, the book’s street-slang slinging main narrator, whose identity is not revealed until the reader is well enmeshed in the story.

Unlike Oscar, on the surface, Yunior fits neatly into what Diaz defines as the stereotypical Dominican male – macho, with the qualities of a playboy. Upon closer examination, however, the somewhat mysterious character proves to be deeper.

“He defies easy formulas,” Diaz said. “In my mind, Yunior was always smarter than Oscar … In some ways, I think Yunior is kind of a litmus test for the reader.”

According to Diaz, readers who do not see past Yunior’s rough exterior are missing the point. Through the vast wealth of knowledge the narrator imparts, including history about the Dominican Republic that ties in with the central characters’ lives, audiences can get a better glimpse into Yunior’s true character.

“Yunior hides himself from the whole world,” Diaz said. “Look what happens to Oscar when he’s honest about who he is. The two characters are very linked.”

Oscar, chastised for not being what others of his nationality consider Dominican enough, was brought to life by Diaz partially to shatter some of the stereotypes about Dominicans.

“[I wanted] to explore how married we all are to our, quote-unquote, positive stereotypes,” Diaz said. “All of us … have an idea of what is a standard model. In my mind, [Oscar] is the most Dominican of Dominicans, but no one in his community seems to believe that.”

Though Oscar’s uniqueness often proves to be his social downfall, he remains true to himself to the end. That makes him something of a hero, especially considering the pressure on all youths to assimilate and be accepted.

“I lived in a community made up of people that were just like me,” Diaz said. “When I stepped out, I was like, ‘damn.’ You would be amazed at how resilient young people are. That’s what childhood is, conforming, even though if you had your druthers you wouldn’t have done it.”

As readers observe Oscar and his family’s misfortunes, the fuku, a Dominican curse some believe befell them, looms large as the cause.

“In some ways, it depends on whose side of the story you’re taking,” Diaz said. “For some people, its really real, and for some characters, it’s nonsense.”

The “Trujillo Era” in Dominican history also plays a large role in the book, as it did in the real lives of those who lived through it, and after it, Diaz said. The 31- year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo created a culture of fear and paranoia, as secret police loomed large and a bad word uttered about the tyrannical leader could prove deadly.

“All of the adults have been traumatized by living under this demon,” Diaz said. “I think the generation who grew up with him is still terrorized. He died before I was born, and yet his shadow fell over all of us.”

The dark shadow of the dictator’s bloody reign even helped shape Diaz’s novel. Written using the voices of more than one narrator, the story unfolds by allowing the reader to see from several different characters’ points of view.

“Part of it was that it was a book about a dictator who only wanted one voice,” Diaz said.

According to Diaz, it was difficult to create more than one likable narrator to whom readers could relate. Another challenge for the writer was to capture the female characters in a believable way, as Oscar’s sister narrates the book for a chapter, and his mother’s story plays a major role.

Perhaps some of the insight Diaz gained into the female psyche was gleaned during his undergraduate years at Rutgers University, also Oscar’s alma mater.

“Douglass [College] saved my life,” Diaz said. “I had never been exposed to Douglass women – these really brilliant, very active, super hard-working women … I had never encountered anything like that.”

After leaving New Jersey to earn his master’s degree at Cornell University, Diaz went on to garner numerous awards and fellowships for his writing. The New Yorker magazine, in which his fiction has been published, named him one of the top 20 writers of the 21st century. He now lives between New York and Boston, and teaches creative writing as a tenured professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“I wanted to be a history teacher in college,” Diaz said. “I took a creative writing class, and that sort of changed my life.”

If he had to boil his advice to beginning writers down to one chunk of wisdom, Diaz essentially would tell them to stick with it.

“Writing is a process, and like most processes, failures are a normal part of it,” Diaz said. “Writing is a voyage of discovery. It’s the opposite of a voyage of approval. If you’re on a voyage of approval, mistakes become sins, they become abnormalities, they become lesions. When you’re on a voyage of discovery, mistakes are often opportunities.”

Although Diaz has come a long way from the home of his youth at Route 9 and Ernston Road, he still returns to his old stomping ground from time to time. He visited his best friend, Brian, in Old Bridge just the other day, and he will visit fans at the East Brunswick Barnes & Noble, located at the Brunswick Square Mall on Route 18, at 2 p.m. Sunday as part of his nationwide book tour.