The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Questions for Junot Díaz.
Slate: Oscar Wao, like Drown before it, is characterized by a kind of hybrid dialect of English and Spanish—what critic Michiko Kakutani called "a streetwise brand of Spanglish" when she reviewed the book in the New York Times. Did you always make use of this hybrid style, or was this style a discovery along the way?
Díaz: Since I can remember, English was present in my Spanish. And clearly Spanish was always present in my English. It may have taken me a while to systemize this at the level of narrative. But the technique, the mixture, has always been within me. An accident of immigrant history, but one that I've pursued relentlessly and rigorously.
Slate:What about the fact that in certain stretches of Oscar Wao, readers who don't speak Spanish won't be able to understand? Do you expect them to pick up a dictionary? Or is the specific sense less important than the sensation of the language?
Díaz: I've almost never read an adult book where I didn't have to pick up a dictionary. I guess I participate more in my readings and expect the same out of my readership. I want people to research, to ask each other, to question. But also I want there to be an element of incomprehension. What's language without incomprehension? What's art? And at a keeping-it-real level: Isn't it about time that folks started getting used to the fact that the United States comprises large Spanish-speaking segments?
Slate:And did you get any push back from your publisher, I wonder?
Díaz: My publishers were just happy to get anything after 11 years. And my editor understood my project. Otherwise the final months would have been hell.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.