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So, Junot Diaz, How Does It Feel to Be a Literary Sensation?

October 31, 1996|MERI NANA-AMA DANQUAH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the age of 7 when Junot Diaz immigrated to America, he resisted speaking English because he did not like it. Twenty years later, with "Drown" (Riverhead, 1996), his collection of short stories, he has become the first Dominican American male to publish fiction in the very language he initially refused to utter.

Already, he is being touted as a literary sensation. Newsweek selected him as one of its noteworthy young "New Faces of 1996." USA Today highlighted his career in an article entitled "Best Bet for Stardom." Despite all the accolades, Diaz attributes his success to luck, being in the right place at the right time.

"A lot of this seems haphazard, and I feel like a lot of it was," he explained recently in Los Angeles. "There are times when I think, 'Ooh, the ancestors. They were guiding.' But sometimes we get really lucky--I mean really, really lucky--and you have to acknowledge that. Everybody's got ancestors but then there's bad luck and good luck. I had some chances, you know."

If anything, being apprehensive about so-called opportunities is one lesson that Diaz has learned from his past. His work is still very much marked by the silences of his childhood. The third of five children, Diaz was born in Santo Domingo to a working-class family. His father left for America when Junot was 4. Three years later, the elder Diaz returned to retrieve his family. They moved to a low-income neighborhood in Parlin, a small New Jersey town near an active landfill. There, the Diaz family joined a burgeoning population of immigrants.

"I think coming to the United States was like a real shock because we went from a world where I was talking a lot to a world where nobody really wanted to hear you talk, especially if you were talking Spanish. A lot of my writing is like the kid I used to be. It's so hard for me to grasp him anymore because he was so different."

The reunion of his family, like the promise of a better life in America, was as short-lived as that child he can no longer remember. His parents divorced five or six years after Diaz came to this country. By the time he entered high school, he was well-versed in the politics of poverty and assimilation. At the predominantly white, upper-class school to which he was bused, he found himself facing "the biggest wave of self-hatred."

"When we are adolescents we manufacture a distinct form of misery and when you add to it that you find yourself unattractive or that you think your skin's too dark. . . . A lot of it is class self-hatred," he admits. "You're very uncomfortable with where you live and the sort of things you don't know about, like the fact that you never eat at restaurants, ever."

He captures this in "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie," a mini-manual of tips on interracial dating:

Clear the government cheese from the refrigerator. . . . Take down any embarrassing photos of your family in the campo, especially the one with the half-naked kids dragging a goat on a rope leash. The kids are your cousins and by now they're old enough to understand why you're doing this. Hide the pictures of yourself with an Afro. . . . Run a hand through your hair like the whiteboys do even though the only thing that runs easily through your hair is Africa.

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In a way, it was this self-hatred, and the feelings of isolation it produced, that led Diaz to writing. He discovered that nobody bothered him in school so long as he remained quiet and wrote. So that's what he did. He wrote letters to a friend in Panama and to his hospitalized bother who, like many people who lived near that landfill, was struck with leukemia. It wasn't until Diaz went to college, though, that he realized he had a voice.

After Diaz graduated from high school, his mother gave him an ultimatum that basically broke down to "either go to college or you're out on the street."

"I was a hard kid and all," he recalls, "but in the end I didn't want to be on the street. That's just nuts and those people who've been on it know it." He enrolled at Kean, a small private college in New Jersey, and later transferred to Rutgers, where he majored in history.

During college, he supported himself by delivering pool tables, washing dishes, working in gas stations and steel mills, among other things. After his first short story won several competitions, his professors advised him to consider getting a Master of Fine Arts in writing. Heeding the advice, he applied to several writing programs. Cornell was the only one that accepted him.

"I got rejected from some of the most busted, wack places in the world. It showed me how arbitrary [life] is. It wasn't about my talent. Somebody woke up one morning and said, 'OK. I like this story.' Had their car broken down, it wouldn't have been the same and I realized . . . that I was on borrowed time."

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