I have been a fan of Junot Díaz ever since I picked up a copy of his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Díaz’s writing is crisp and funny, his characters full of life and easy to love. This is How You Lose Her is the a perfect read for Valentine’s Day, for the loved up and lonesome alike.
It was a huge honour for KYD to able to interview Díaz when he was in town for the Melbourne Writers Festival in August last year. To undertake the daunting task of interviewing Díaz we recruited writer, translator, Spanish teacher and KYD contributor Sam Rutter. It’s an insightful and engrossing interview and I’m thrilled to share this extract with you.
KYD: You’ve mentioned in the past that, broadly speaking, there are two types of writers: those who write for other writers, and those who write for readers, and that you’re much more concerned with the community of readers. Is that something you still stand by?
JD: I’d tweak that response to say that it’s not so much a conscious choice – it’s not like you pick Team Edward or Team Jacob – but that it’s astonishing how one can feel that there is a space in a book for a reader. It should be a generous space, versus a sense I feel in other books where there isn’t a space for a diversity of readerships. When I think of a writers’ book, it’s a book where the writer refuses to cede any control to the reader. I’m familiar with those books, they’re very common and there’s nothing wrong with them, but there are other books where I feel the writer cedes much more control, and I have way more fun with those books.
KYD: From your debut Drown, you might say there was a while between drinks before your next book.
JD: Oh my god, it was more than a while between drinks, it’s like if someone breaks up with their girlfriend and doesn’t see anyone at all for another ten years. I’m just fucking slow, I’m just fucking lazy, it sucks.
KYD: Can you talk me through that process – I understand you got a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation and you went down to Mexico to work on a novel that eventually became The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao?
JD: I went to Mexico City because it’s the Paris of Latin America. My best friend Franciso Goldman (the writer) was there, he is a totally Falstaffian character of gale-like appetites and he was a fantastic person to spend a year abroad with. I went down there and I was trying to write an apocalyptic science fiction novel which was a disaster, it sucked. I was listening to Portishead a lot, because I’d lost all my CDs in the move and that’s all I had. So I was listening to Portishead and going progressively fucking insane. And I had a long distance relationship that I was incredibly faithful to, so I was weirdly isolated in that way too, it’s the stupidest thing you can do when you go abroad. What finally happened was that I had this fucking thunderstroke of a moment when I was miserable and desperate at a party, and someone put into my mind the idea of mispronouncing Oscar Wilde’s name and as soon as I heard this person say ‘Oscar Wao’ suddenly this entire family and this nerd kid and the Trujillato all just came storming into my brain. It’s the only time that I’ve ever had a miracle.
KYD: Oscar Wao is a fantastic book – it was highly anticipated and very well received. Could you tell me about the hybrid nature of it: there’s a coming of age story for the nerdy Oscar, there’s the Latin American tradition of the dictator novel with the Trujillato, there are footnotes which break into the main narrative as well, all narrated by the character Yunior. How did you put it all together?
JD: It was like that image of Dr Osterman, from Watchmen, blowing himself up in a nuclear physics experiment out in Los Alamos and then through the sheer force of will piecing himself together. But while piecing together what’s left, the bits that get left out so fundamentally transform him that he’s not even human any more. That was the whole ethos of putting this book together. I was going to write about a person who was trying to summon the pieces of a world that he could never fully put together, and when he assembles this book, what’s produced is something very strange. In my mind Yunior’s attempt to piece this world together required footnotes, history, everything I could possibly come across. But in the end it was always understood that he would never succeed, that it would always fail. Part of this for me was the great relief of understanding that I was going to write a failed novel. It allowed me to play in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to had I been trying to write a real novel.
KYD: Would you say that your love for comics and apocalypse films forms a big part of your writing toolbox?
JD: I don’t feel like I have any other choice. Other people were reading Proust, other people grew up reading Gibbons and others still reading the Greeks. For me the seedbed of my narrative universe was the apocalyptic lunacy of popular culture in the seventies and eighties. It formed my vocabulary for telling stories, it’s part of the way I understand the universe and communicate this understanding to other people.
KYD: Place is important too: you write about New Jersey, but it’s certainly not the New Jersey where the Sopranos come from.
JD: My New Jersey is the absolute lame-ass elsewhere. It is the most unremarkable shadow of a place like NYC. It’s the edge of the edge. I always say I grew up somewhere between a city and the city. There was something about that working-poor post-industrial banality that just spoke to me, it made me as a kid. I dreamed so desperately of being somewhere at the centre of the action only to realise that what I had in this nowhere-place was really quite rare. I never realised that most people didn’t grow up with Uruguayan exiles and Colombian immigrants and Koreans. It was crazy to have access to all that in this tiny fucking place and still be able to step out and see the towers of New York City. Everything was so close yet so profoundly far away.
KYD: When you write about the Dominican Republic in your latest collection, This Is How You Lose Her, there seems to be more of a mental distance than a physical distance – characters are able to call home or step on a plane. On the map it’s not so far but it’s a world away at the same time.
JD: These characters, these immigrants, they don’t even have the right narrative to describe how fluently bicultural they are. They’re conversant in both cultures but there’s no space for them to understand that as a good thing. Neither the USA or the Dominican Republic values that kind of bicultural fluency and so they have to wrestle with how to fit in in a country where you only get one choice at the buffet, but you’ve already got both on your plate. The two countries imagine that there is a distance, but these people are proof positive that these places are closer than they care to admit.