Junot Diaz gets my vote

#47. At the risk of cementing my status as one of the seven dwarves I am venturing back into an argument I started a few weeks ago.

Then I was called “grumpy” for expressing the view that while South African writing is flourishing and more novels are being published than ever before I can’t help feeling disappointed in its “un-Africaness”, it’s seeming dislocation from place and time, its lack of experimentation with form.To see my original post go here.

Now after reading this year’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz I am even more convinced that South African writing has lost some of the plot.  I say this in a week of spectacular public drama – the firing and resignation of Thabo Mbeki and of most of his Cabinet, the accession to power of a new President, Kgalema Motlanthe, the shock resignation of Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa yesterday, and the sense that the wheel is  turning and there are two sides to every political story and a few million “ordinary” lives caught between them. 

Back to Junot Diaz whose book I reviewed in Sunday Times Lifestyle this week. In 1996 he was selected by Newsweek as one the “10 New Faces” of the year — the only writer on their list. His debut collection of short stories, Drown, focusing on the lives of people from the Dominican Republic transplanted to New Jersey and dealing with the effects of fractured family life and exile, was a bestseller.

Great things were predicted for the author. More than 11 years later Junot Diaz has produced the novel his fans have been waiting for and critics have been breathless in their praise. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao made it onto bestseller lists and scooped the most prestigious literary accolade. It is all deserved. Picking up on and extending the themes of his short stories, Diaz’s book is at once the life story of Oscar Wao, a kid who hits his peak far too early, gets really fat, becomes obsessed with comics and is desperate for love and in need of saving; and an ode to the crazy place that is the Dominican Republic.

The country’s history of dictatorships and political violence hangs over the lives of its citizens like an ancient curse – in this case, called the Fuku. Diaz represents this seam of history throughout the book in the form of footnotes, as an actual sub-text that is interwoven into the lives of protagonists, sometimes as a subtle influence, at other times having the effect of a sledgehammer.

His humor is dark, and injected with pathos. His writing is refreshing and smart.  Diaz plays with languages, weaving Spanish into the writing as if it was part of English – removing its foreignness in the way that an exile would bend a new language and culture to their purpose, conveying their identity as being shaped by the collision of two histories.

The novel charts a new path for writing about the contemporary condition of displacement, of belonging and not belonging, and illuminates how the politics that shape a country dent the lives of those who live in it.

You can call it “Africaness” or “Dominican Republicaness”, but these are the qualities I miss in the writing about this place.

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