He’s reading Watchmen in a tough neighborhood in Jersey. He’s surviving high school with role-playing quests and the mental disciplines of Dune. He’s writing elvish on the white board in his Rutgers dorm and a space odyssey in the Caribbean town where his mother was raised.
It’s not easy loving stories of the future — not for the young man at the center of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao — but in the present it gives him ground to stand on.
Junot Diaz won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for the novel, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
“We are all, all of us, time travelers,” he said by phone from Cambridge, where he serves Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We have a time machine built into our heads, always at the ready and charged to deliver us into our past.”
Diaz has won international acclaim for his fiction and nonfiction, including the short story collection This Is How You Lose Her, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist. He serves as as fiction editor at the Boston Review, and he has newly released his first children’s book, Islandborn. And he will read from his work on Monday at Williams College.
It’s a rare chance to hear him, said Paul Park, senior lecturer in English at Williams. He knows Diaz through the science fiction community; Park has written more than 16 novels and story collections, including the World Fantasy Award finalist A Princess of Roumania.
He sees Diaz’ writing as a convergence of science fiction / fantasy and literature — among contemporary classics like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.
Some writers divide fiction and genre writing, Park said, as many writing workshops emphasize writing what you know and foster a particular kind of realism. But black American literature has a long tradition of imagined futures, re-imagined pasts, myth and magic, as Diaz reverences in Octavia Butler.
Diaz’ involvement with science fiction is deep and genuine, Park said, and in Oscar Wao, the places where fantasy and history meet are tough and powerful.
The novel shifts between voices and between times. It crosses three generations, as a violent dictatorship devastates the Dominican Republic and Oscar’s family. Diaz gives history in their eyes, and expands on it in footnotes and genre references. He describes the 30 years from 1930 to 1961 in terms out of J.R.R. Tolkien, casting dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina as a dark lord — Sauron laying waste to Barad Dûr.
As the novel unfolds, fantasy moves beyond Oscar’s youthful passion for comic books and takes form in mythic figures who bless or curse and in the landscape of the cane fields, where people are taken out of the world they know to live or die.
The force of Trujillo’s destruction becomes concrete as family Oscar never had a chance to know are terrorized, jailed, killed or enslaved. Oscar’s mother comes to the U.S. as a young woman alone, working two jobs in cold winters while his older sister runs track and tries to look after him. As they struggle for stability, assurance and a place to feel loved and whole, where they have come from indelibly shapes where they are going.
Trujillo’s total control still has an impact on the island, Diaz said, more than 50 years after the dictator died.
“It will influence that country in ways even those of us who have studied these influences can’t describe,” he said. “Racial prejudices, attitudes toward Haitian people and people with darker skin, complete disregard for civic society, those are still the devil’s politics in the Dominican Republic. The corrupt impunity of politicians is an operating system underwritten and incorporated in this regime, wide and deep.”
He turns to fantasy and science fiction to understand experiences broadly, as they shape lives, countries and global currents.
“Take a look at ways science fiction brings climate change into focus,” he said. “… as a mode, as a tradition, it reflects powerfully the fantasies and anxieties of any given period and helps us to see and confront what we might otherwise disavow — questions about racial politics, gender order. A book like the Handmaid’s Tale brings into sharp relief problems in our current society we’re not always comfortable facing.”
In Oscar, he faces an ideal masculinity and all of its adjuncts — sports, the military, competition, fighting — “These things shape us, our boys and our men.”
In the U.S. where Oscar comes of age, he sees the endless deaths of people of color in a country where Diaz feels many people around him are more committed to keeping tyrannies alive than to understanding and improving society.
He responds to this dark time with an idea of radical hope, as he writes in a key essay in book that share that name. He can have a clear, blunt view of the present and yet imagine a different time ahead.
“Nothing is helped by assuming our futures are dark and doomed,” he said.
Science fiction is a literature of the future. And the futures people can imagine say as much about the people imagining them — the past they recall and the change they move toward. He comes from a community who were enslaved a short time ago, he said, and today they are shaped by those struggles to liberate themselves.
“It is not in my grammar,” he said, “to imagine that we who have more than than my ancestors did can’t accomplish similar feats.”