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Junot Diaz On 'Becoming American'

MIT professor Junot Diaz, a Dominican-American author and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his novel <em>The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,</em> attends a ceremony in Santo Domingo on May 1.
Ricardo Hernandez / AFP/Getty Images
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AFP/Getty Images
MIT professor Junot Diaz, a Dominican-American author and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, attends a ceremony in Santo Domingo on May 1.

During this week of Thanksgiving — the most American of holidays — NPR is spending time thinking about what it means to become an American. The answers come from three noted authors — Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri and Joseph O'Neill — who've written about newcomers to the United States.

Junot Diaz was an immigrant himself. He arrived in this country from the Dominican Republic at the age of 6. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, centers on an outcast, science fiction-obsessed kid who comes from a family of Dominican immigrants.

"I know that being brought to central New Jersey was both this remarkable opportunity — I discovered things about myself I never would have discovered, I think, had I not been torn away from my moorings — but also was a real, real challenge," Diaz tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

Feeling like an outsider at a young age made Diaz become a "fanatic" for his home country.

"I don't think that I ever would have thought so fondly of Santo Domingo had I stayed there my whole life," he says.

One way he adjusted to his new surroundings was through reading. "The solitude of being an immigrant, the solitude of having to learn a language in a culture from scratch, the need for some sort of explanation, the need for answers, the need for something that would somehow shelter me lead me to books," Diaz says.

Books about car engines, oil paintings and historical figures "became the map with which I navigated this new world," he says.

And as he grew up, Diaz says he came to see the United States as a composite of "multiple Americas": ones that were racist and xenophobic, coupled with Americas where anything is possible — where a kid can "come from a nonbookish culture and be transformed."

On Tuesday, NPR talks with author Jhumpa Lahiri about her struggles with her own identity.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.