Q. How has your life changed since the publication of Drown a decade ago? Was the sudden acclaim energizing or disorienting?
We’re talking eleven years (to be exact), so of course one’s life is bound to change plenty. But Drown acted like an accelerant, it put things into overdrive. To be honest, in real terms, the publication of my first book really didn’t produce much acclaim. I was known among the story-writing nerds and the MFA types and the New Yorker crowd (whoever they are) and in certain sectors of the Dominican community, but that was about it. Still, even that little bit of “fame” was a lot for an anonymous immigrant kid from central Jersey who’d worked his way through school. As for its real effects: I sure wasn’t ready for that kind of attention (by which I mean any kind), so after the book was published I found myself withdrawing deeper into my core of friends (most from childhood), into my students, into my work. I was (and am) super-self-conscious, but Drown made me even more so. Don’t know why. But my God: I’ve seen the world because of my writing, and met the most extraordinary people. Drown has given me a contemplative life and allowed me to support the causes I am most passionate about, and help other writers and shine light on a minute fraction of the New Jersey Dominican experience. It’s been a source of joy in spite of my discomforts, and that’s the way of most good things, I suppose.
Q. Why do you think people responded so strongly to that story collection, and still remember and talk about it?
Man, even my publisher calls my first book a short-story collection! Okay, for the record: Since its inception, Drown was neither a novel nor a story collection, but something a little more hybrid, a little more creolized. Which was why we didn’t put “Stories” or “A Novel” on the cover. We wanted folks to decide what it was, as long as they didn’t foreclose that it could also be something else, ?entiendes? Okay, enough about my categorical anxieties…
Regarding your question: I’ve been really fortunate. Drown is one of those little-known books that stays in print because a sector of folks just seems to like it. (Could I say anything more immodest? Just watch!) To an extent it’s been popular with teachers, with students, with lit heads, with readers, all kind of folks, really. Young writers like it because it’s structurally instructive and also because its emotional honesty seems like something worth aiming for, surpassing. In Drown, I wanted—in a fictional way—to bear witness to the experience of one family in the Dominican Diaspora, one American family, in every meaning of the word, and when you try superhard, as an artist, as a historian, as a storyteller, as a human being, to bear witness, when you throw your heart into that effort, people (if you’re in the right place at the right time) tend to respond. Okay, maybe it’s all luck. Still, I’m happy that Drown continues to move people. It makes all the years of silence and solitude worth it.
Q. Why did you wait eleven years to publish a second book, which is also your first novel? Were you concerned about living up to the critical and popular success of Drown?
I wish I could have written four, five books in the span of those years. Just couldn’t do it. Didn’t help that the novel I was trying to write at the start of that period was about the destruction of New York City by a psychic terrorist (my very own Third World Akira)… a novel that 9/11 ended real fast. Had to rethink the whole thing, was too busy experiencing the transformations in-country to write about them in an interesting way. I still have parts of that novel on my desk, and it’s wild, watching Heroes, to see how common our apocalyptic nightmares are (New York City gets killed by a superhuman in that story too), and also how compelling. But it was more than just being sideswiped by history. Other stuff. Being scared, for sure. I can put the pressure on myself like nobody’s business. Years of depression didn’t help (if you’d grown up in my family you would have been depressed too). My own struggle against myself. Here’s another theory, which the writer David Mura told me: You have to become the person you need to be in order to write your book. I guess it just took me ten or so years to become that person.
Q. What new emotional and literary challenges have you taken on with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao?
This is a novel that was born after the death of my Black Akira novel. I’d gotten a Guggenheim (thank you, John Simon!) around 2000 and spent a year living in Mexico City. Trying to write, trying to clear my head, trying to improve my Spanish. I lived next door to my friend and the greatest writer alive, Francisco Goldman, and we had all these adventures, spent many a night getting into trouble in the big bad Distrito Federal. Anyway, one time after a night of partying I picked up a copy of The Importance of Being Earnest, and I said Oscar Wilde’s name in Dominican and it came out “Oscar Wao.” A quick joke, but the name stayed with me, and next thing you know, I had this vision of a poor, doomed ghetto nerd, the kind of ghetto nerd I would have been had I not been discovered by girls the first year out of high school. I remember dashing the first part out in a couple of weeks. I thought it was a story, nothing more. But Oscar wouldn’t stop hanging out in my head, and I realized that I wanted to write an entire novel about a Dominican kid who doesn’t get the girls, who can’t dance, who is the opposite of all the stereotypes that we inside the Dominican community have about “our men.” I wanted to write about this nerdy romantic kid who’s haunted by history and girls, who’s good only at fantasy and science fiction, and yet who (tragically, hilariously) belongs to a community and to a larger culture that ain’t too hot on men-of-color nerds or their interests.
But the real challenge was in trying to create a voice, a narrative, that would allow me to talk about Zardoz and the dictatorship of Trujillo and ’80s urban hip-hop and Broca and the Diaspora Dominicana and E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen and Latin Paterson and Unus the Untouchable simultaneously. Maybe for you that wouldn’t be nada, but for me it was a challenge and a half. I wanted a narrative that could be top-level hilarious and top-level heartbreaking. I wanted a narrative that could be hip about the present yet also render the past not as something dead or shackled inside sepia tones but as something dynamic, with all its confusions, excitements, disappointments, and energies intact.
And (finally) there was this very brainy interest I had in these weird (and in my opinion reductive) arguments in Latin American letters between the forces of Macondo and McOndo. The short version is that Force McOndo claims that the “New Latin America” cannot be usefully described by the traditional magic realist literatures of the Boom (Force Macondo). Only something as contemporary and MTV-ish as McOndo can do that. One movement seeking to displace another. And me, I’m thinking, like a Caribbean, why can’t we have ‘em both simultaneously? So this book was an attempt to put Macondo and McOndo on the same page, in the same sentence, sort of to prove that you can’t write the American experience, our American experience, by banning one set of passports in the process of privileging another. When I’m in the DR or Colombia or Havana, I go to both salsa and dance clubs. I have one Cuban friend who’s into